Exploring an Essential Question with Fiction
Recently, I was asked to create a list of titles for a ninth-grade novel unit in which the essential question that the class would address is the following: “How do the decisions and actions of characters (people) reveal their personalities and impact others?” What a rich series of conversations could take place surrounding this question. What great fodder for persuasive and/or argument essays. What a wonderful source for reflection on how characters in great books mirror people in real life!
I had a lot of fun finding teen-appropriate novels that fit the bill–with well-developed characters who find themselves in situations in which their responses reveal their character and their actions have important consequences. Here are a few newer highlights from the list:
In Borderline by Allan Stratton, Sami Sabiri is viciously bullied by a classmate on a daily basis. Wanting to avoid trouble at school and at home, Sami tries to ignore it the best he can. He’s mostly interested in his friendship with old pals Andy and Marty, while not making waves in his parents’ strict household. But when Sami does some digging and finds out that his father has lied about a business trip–and the family’s whole world explodes amongst terrorist accusations–he must decide whether to risk his life to save his father. Sami’s decision and actions aren’t the only ones to examine in this fast-paced novel, in which the undercurrents of racism and bigotry beg questions about society’s blanket treatment of certain groups, whether religious, ethnic, racial or otherwise. (ISBN 9780061451133. Gr 7-10.)
In Every You, Every Me by David Levithan, Ariel is close friends with Evan but is also Jack’s girlfriend. When she disappears, Evan begins to find photographs in the woods, seemingly left for him to encounter, that depict earlier times with Ariel. Evan and Jack begin to investigate, wondering what happened to the Ariel they both loved and wanting to know who is the source of the photos. The images are interspersed with the novel’s text, much of which is Evan’s train of thought as he tells the story. Questions about Ariel’s relationships with both boys, her disappearance, and the motives of the photo “stalker” leave readers with much to discuss about human nature. (ISBN 9780375854514. Gr 9-12.)
The List by Siobhan Vivian is a realistic novel about Mount Washington High, where tradition produces a well-publicized list of the ugliest and prettiest girls in each grade, copied and plastered hundreds of times across the billboards, walls, and lockers of the school on the Monday morning of Homecoming Week. Who would do this? Why? And how does it affect a girl labeled the ugliest or prettiest? To the junior girl labeled the ugliest, who after seeing the list marched through school with the word UGLY printed across her forehead, “the list is so powerful, its judgment so absolute, and yet no one wants to deal with it.” The consequences of this so-called tradition are surprising, devastating, and empowering, and not for the reasons you might initially think. (ISBN 9780545169172. Gr 9-12.)
Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork tells the story about the summer before Marcelo’s senior year in high school. After he’s attended a school for students with special needs for 11 years, Marcelo, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, learns that his father wants him to move to a traditional public school for his final year. Resistant, Marcelo accepts the compromise offered by his father: he’ll spend the summer working in the mailroom at his father’s law firm–working in the “real” world. This is just his first important decision. Working at the law firm, Marcelo learns a lot about people’s behavior in the “real” world as he struggles to make the most important decisions of his life. (ISBN 9780545056908. Gr 9-12.)
Using novels in units of inquiry is a great way to engage students in higher-level critical thinking about big questions. To engage them even further, you could include some nonfiction titles on the same theme–in this case, titles like I Did It Without Thinking: True Stories about Impulsive Decisions that Changed Lives by Bob Hugel, Is It Still Cheating if I Don’t Get Caught? by Bruce Weinstein, and The Teen Brain Book: Who and What Are You? by Dale Carlson.
For the full list of high-school fiction titles for this essential question, click here: Decisions and Actions Book List.