Essential Reading: Favorites From Our School Days
The book that made the biggest impression on me at school was The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Written around 1596, it tells of the ruination of a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, brought about largely by his business dealings with a Christian merchant, Antonio. If you’re wondering why I mentioned their religion, it’s because religious stereotypes underlie this play, making it one of Shakespeare’s more controversial works. Despite that, the clever plot is laced with a healthy dose of intrigue and romance, as well as plucky female characters who won my then 16-year-old respect. Our English Lit teacher taught it by having us read aloud, and I remember being frustrated with some of my peers who I felt weren’t doing the magnificent prose justice. It was years later, in a Jewish Studies class, that I truly understood the anti-Semitic undertones of Shylock’s characterization, which somewhat scarred The Merchant’s beauty for me. As a product of his times, I can forgive the Bard to some degree for propagating the damaging stereotype, but sincerely hope that students studying this work in school or college today are given more background than I was. All in all, the greatest gift I got from The Merchant was the fact that its brilliant plot, prose, and strong female characters opened my eyes, ears, and heart to Shakespeare’s other works.
Colleen Kearney Rich, Fiction Editor, shares this timely tribute to a great writer: “The first author reading I ever attended was as a college freshman. Toni Morrison was the visiting writer, and my English composition class was reading Sula. The short novel was such a perfect introduction to Morrison. I fell in love with her and the story of female friendship. Sula Peace is such a badass and definitely a woman ahead of her time. Later as a graduate student, I chose to teach the novel and got to know it even better. I have read much of Morrison’s work, and Sula is still my favorite. And it has one of the best last lines in literature: ‘It was a fine cry–loud and long–but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.’ “
Christina Consolino, Senior Editor, reveals one of her school time favorites: “I don’t often reread books, but one that I’ve enjoyed too many times to count is a novel I first picked up in high school And Both Were Young by Madeleine L’Engle. Originally published in 1949, the book is one of L’Engle’s earliest works, and it’s my favorite of hers. Part romance, part coming of age, the story held my interest thanks to its flawed heroine, Philippa Hunter (aka Flip). After the death of Flip’s mother from an automobile accident the year prior, she is sent to a Swiss boarding school, where she must adjust to a new life, far different from the one she led before. And that’s hard for a girl who doesn’t feel like she fits in with anyone. But with the help of her beloved new art teacher, Percy, Flip eventually forges relationships with fellow students, her father’s girlfriend, and Paul, an intriguing boy she crashes into on page one! This book came along just when I needed it to. By reading about Flip’s and Paul’s journeys to self-discovery and confidence, I entertained the hope that I might also someday make progress on those same fronts.”
Viji Sridhar, Profiles and Reviews Editorial Assistant, reminds us of this British classic: “South-Indian summers are equivalent to an extended stay in the sauna, and as a kid, I would dive deep into the world of books to escape the stifling heat. I owe the English writer, Enid Blyton, for kick-starting my reading habit in elementary school. Her series, The Famous Five, provided the type of adventure that every kid dreams of. Situated in the picturesque English countryside, the books are based on three siblings (Julian the wise one, Dick the cheeky one and Anne the sweet one), their cousin (George, the tomboy and my favorite), and the cousin’s super-intelligent dog, Timmy. Each story begins with the cousins coming back home for the summer from their boarding school, only to be enveloped into a bizarre mystery that they alone can solve. Add in a mix of secret passages, a world-famous scientist prone to be kidnapped often (George’s father), unexpected tunnels and caves, the awesome island that George owns, shady smugglers, and everything else that would leave a ten-year-old wide-eyed and engrossed in a book for hours. I swore back then that I would one day, just like George, own an island of my own and have an awesome dog named Timmy. Owning an island would be a slight stretch, but I hope to fulfill the second wish one day.”
Which books from your school days have you since reread or plan to read with your kids? We’d love to hear in the comments or tweet us @LiteraryMama. You can also follow us on Instagram @Literary_Mama and Goodreads for more recommendations.