4 Quick Questions to Determine if a Book is “AP-Worthy”

Before you read this, it’s important to know something: this is not a post about the canon. Or, maybe it is. What I mean is, this is not a discussion of books being “AP-worthy” because they’re in the literary canon. Frankly, I’m sick of the canon and all it represents. I’m not going to advocate reading books just because they are part of an elite and nebulous club of mostly-white authors. Conversely, this is the first in a six week blog post series about inclusivity in AP English Literature. This week’s focus: pairing your students with engaging books that will work for AP learners. Let’s begin…

What do we mean when we say AP-worthy?

Most AP English Literature teachers are avid readers. As we read, we are constantly asking ourselves, “Is this a book I want to share with my students?” If we really like it, it becomes, “Is this a book I want to teach in class?” But the real question we’re always asking is, “Is this AP-worthy?”

Determining a book’s “worthiness” of being in an AP English Literature class is a messy, convoluted process. The teacher must consider the book’s:

  • Rigor/Complexity – This one is easy. I love a Mary Higgins Clark book now and then, but I know my girl’s not complex.
  • Length – Sadly, we’re racing against a clock. Invisible Man is a fantastic book to teach, but it takes approximately 5-6 weeks to study it as a class. That’s a big consideration.
  • Intended Audience – By this I mean we want books written for an adult reader but with issues that students can relate to as well.
  • Relevant social issues – I think this is the number one reason that 19th century literature is fading away. It’s hard to get my students to empathize with poor Elizabeth Bennet who’s being pressured to find a husband. That’s not a very relatable issue today.
  • Readability – Another reason that the classics are losing traction is that the Lexile level of those books is very high, while our students’ median reading level is gradually declining. You want to challenge your students, but you also want them to be able to understand it without you.
  • Controversial content – These rules vary by school or district. Many AP Lit teachers are free to choose their content without question, but many others must answer to administrators, school boards, or parents frequently.
  • Appropriateness – By this I don’t mean questionable content, but psychological content or potential for triggers. For example, I wouldn’t recommend Sapphire’s Push to just anyone, especially if I learned the intended reader had a history of sexual trauma.

…and that’s just a start. Personally, I feel like I have a fairly strong reading habit. I read fast, and I try to get through 20-25 new books a year. But in comparison to the books that are used on the AP Lit exam, or even worse, the books that are discussed on the AP Lit Facebook pages, I can never keep up.

It took a long time to learn this lesson, but I’m learning that there will be no way to read all the books. I read what I can when I can, and I pray that heaven has a library. But that’s not the point of this blog post.

4 Quick Questions: Is this book AP-worthy?

I believe you can determine if a book has a place in your AP Lit classroom or the hands of your students by asking 4 quick questions. If you can answer “yes” to all four questions, I believe the book is “AP worthy.” You can even teach it if you’re able to find the time and materials, but if not, you can allow it into your independent reading library.

Disclaimer 1: These are not published rules or endorsed by College Board. They are the questions I ask myself before I teach or endorse a book as being “AP-worthy,” learned from 15 years of teaching experience in AP English Literature.

Disclaimer 2: I do not have prerequisites or entrance exams in my AP Lit class, and I thoroughly believe that any willing student belongs in my AP Lit class. If they’re willing to work hard and listen to feedback, I would love to teach them. Because my class is focused on inclusiveness, I sometimes get students who are reluctant readers, English language learners, or that read far below grade level. I use these 4 quick questions to decide if a high-interest, “non-classic” book will work for them in particular.

Question #1 – Is it written for an adult audience?

Before you attack me, I am not saying that young adult books cannot be used in an AP Lit classroom. In fact, The Hate U Give is rapidly becoming a staple in AP Lit classes, which is wonderful! But the difference between The Hate U Give and Diary of a Wimpy Kid is that THUG can be enjoyed by young adults and adults, while Wimpy Kid is really meant just for kids. (Believe it or not, I had a smart aleck ask me to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid just last year, so that is why I’m using it as an example).

To determine if the book passes this test, ask yourself if the book presents adult problems in an approachable way for young readers, or kid problems that adults don’t really face. Here are some that come to mind:

4 Quick Questions to Determine if a Book is "AP-Worthy"
4 Quick Questions: Some young adult books, like The Hate U Give, are still excellent for literary analysis because of their adult conflicts.

Adult Problems for Younger Readers

  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Kid Problems for Young Readers

  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery
  • One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus
  • Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  • Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

This one may be the hardest to determine, so follow your gut. I also don’t usually allow a student to read a book that is significantly below their reading level. If I know they can handle more complex material, I push them to do so.

Question #2 – Is it a Stand-Alone Novel?

This one breaks a lot of hearts, but I don’t consider works that are a part of a series to be AP-worthy. And it is not because they are not good enough, or rigorous enough, or readable. If you know me personally you know that I have a great many Harry Potter decorations in my office, so I’ve got nothing but love for many works in a series. Here’s why I don’t allow them: it becomes impossible to analyze a topic thoroughly when it’s a work in a series.

Example:

4 Quick Questions to Determine if a Book is "AP-Worthy"
4 Quick Questions: The “Snape” example
proves why works in a series don’t work
well for Q3 essays.

In 2016, I scored for Q3 (the open question) on the AP Lit exam. That year’s prompt was about a character who deceives others and it was a joy to grade. I got one essay that discussed Severus Snape and my heart did a little cartwheel. I mean come on, analyzing Severus Snape as a character who deceives? And analyzing the effect of this deception? I could have read a whole book on that topic…and that was the problem with it. To analyze Snape’s deception would have taken a whole book to do it properly! Consider, it took J.K. Rowling 7 books to fully lay out that character. How can one student do the question justice in only 40 minutes?

Therefore, I always veto works in a series.* When students fight me, I explain the Snape example and they understand. It’s not the depth that’s the problem with works in a series, it’s the width. There’s simply too much material to cover in a short time frame.

*I thought of one exception! There are some novels that originate a series that comes later, but can be studied as a standalone work. One that comes to mind is Fredrik Backman’s Bear Town. I’d allow a student to analyze Bear Town in an essay, but not its sequel Us Against You, because it relies on plot and character information from both novels to work.

Question #3 – Does it Pass the 2009 Test?

This needs some explanation. I’m not sure what was going on with the College Board in 2009, but the open questions it produced that year were broad. And I mean, laughably broad. Here was the 2009 open question:

A symbol is an object, action, or event that represents something or that creates a range of associations beyond itself. In literary works a symbol can express an idea, clarify meaning, or enlarge literal meaning. Select a novel or play and, focusing on one symbol, write an essay analyzing how that symbol functions in the work and what it reveals about the characters or themes of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.

Basically, students had to analyze a symbol. When you think about it, almost every book has a symbol, or at least one that you could argue. (This doesn’t have to be a BIG SYMBOL, like Gatsby’s green light or Paul D’s red tobacco tin heart. User-argued symbols count!) The purpose behind this test is to look for rigor. If a symbol is not evident in a book at all, it may not be rigorous enough to teach complexity to AP Lit students.

Question #4 – Does it Pass the other 2009 Test?

If you thought the 2009 question was too simple, it gets worse. Check out the Form B question for the same year:

Many works of literature deal with political or social issues. Choose a novel or play that focuses on a political or social issue. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the author uses literary elements to explore this issue and explain how the issue contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole. Do not merely summarize the plot.

Oh, brother.

In other words, the 2009 Form B question asks, does the book focus on relevant political or social issues? Notice that I threw the word “relevant” in there, since I also firmly believe that some books that were “classics” need to be relieved because their “cultural context” has drastically changed (I’m looking at you, Huck Finn). This question is used to determine if the student will learn anything relevant about their life and society during the reading. If a book with a symbol has rigor, then a book with a strong political or social issue has relevance.

The tiny flaw in my system…

Now, one caveat I’ve realized that to answer all four of these questions, there’s a good chance you’ll need to have read it yourself. Obviously if the book just won the Pulitzer (hello, Nickel Boys!) you can allow it, but there may be other books that you’ve just never heard of. This presents a tough problem: do you deny a book simply because you haven’t had time to read it? I used to say yes, but now I say no. I either read it myself or I turn to my community of AP teachers on Facebook and get the answers to these questions. If I haven’t read it, someone there has, 100% of the time.

Let me sum up

There you have it, those are my 4 quick questions to determine a novel’s place in your classroom. To recap, here they are:

4 Quick Questions to Determine if a Book is "AP-Worthy"

Before I close, I want to throw in one final suggestion: try to let your students read what they want to read. So your student wants to use their independent reading time to read a short, contemporary text and you’d rather they read a gothic novel. Hey, guess what? They’re still reading. And please, if a student comes to you begging to read a book for class, be wary about shutting them down. Of course there are exceptions (I actually had someone ask about Fifty Shades of Gray once), but it’s still dangerous behavior. When a kid has passion for a book, please don’t kill it.

I’ve used this strategy to include some nonconventional texts in my AP Lit class over the years, some of which have gone on to be our most popular and meaningful works. They may not be referenced on the AP Lit exam, but they passed my test with flying colors and my students loved them. These include Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, Room by Emma Donoghue, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, and even Andy Weir’s The Martian.

What criteria do you consider when determining if a text is “AP-worthy?” What do you think of my “4 quick questions” strategy? Let me know in the comments! To learn more about independent reading my AP Lit classroom, check out this blog post, and to look for resources for your favorite novels and plays check out my TpT store.

From Bored to Brilliant: My Home Office Transformation

This photo was taken when I was about 11, reading The Baby-Sitter’s Club, as always.

Ever since I was a child, my parents used to call me “Belle.” Not only was Beauty and the Beast my favorite movie, but my head was often filled with stories and it was hard to get my nose out of a book. I also have always had a deep devotion to libraries. I think it was because my dad would never say no if I requested to go to the library, because it meant the books were free. Our library was only a mile up the road and I visited often. First I had to hitch rides with my dad, then later it turned into weekly visits on my bike. When I was fifteen I got a job there shelving books.

To this day, I have never lived more than one mile from a local library.

In the summer of 2017 my husband and I moved our family into the home of our dreams in Oakdale, MN. The house was full of light and lots of room for hosting our many family gatherings. There were many play spaces for our growing children and I immediately found a potential “play” space for myself.

I was only just getting started on TpT at the time and the idea of ever making a living off of its earnings was still a far-off dream, but I remember mentioning to my husband that our front room, which would be used as a formal living room (aka the least-used room in a house) would make a great office one day.

BEFORE: Our formal living room, August 2017

Fast forward about a year and I was starting to see steady success with TpT. I predicted that I would be hitting the first earnings milestone by the end of the year (which I did!), and to celebrate we took steps to convert the formal living room into my office. Even then my dream of a personal library was still a silent hope in the back of my mind.

Over Christmas, I approached my dad with the idea of putting a wall of shelves in my office. While he was wary of making bookshelves, I showed him some open shelving ideas that I had found online and he was immediately on board. I cleared out the room, sold or stored the last of the furniture, and prepared to transform the room.

One way that I saved some money was by helping my dad with the shelves. I am useless with a saw so the actual construction was all him, but I can paint at least. On New Years Day I joined my dad in his shed staining the shelves for a few hours. The next day, they were installed!

Pre-stained…
Stained and installed!

As soon as the shelves were up I unboxed all of the books I had been storing over the years, as well as moving the books out from our basement and our bedroom. As soon as I dumped them out I realized I had a problem: I did not own enough books. It felt like an impossibility, but I had purged many of them before we moved, and I was still a more frequent visitor of the library than the bookstore. I unearthed a few knickknacks and vases stored around the house to fill about four shelves, but I knew I would have to invest in a few more books if I wanted to fill all nine wall-sized bookshelves.

So over the past few months I’ve been picking up secondhand books from wherever I can get them: Facebook, secondhand stores, discards from the library, etc. I also started buying vintage books for my top shelves, which would be more decorative than functional because of the height.

I got my last book yesterday and I can finally announce that all shelves are filled! The furniture is moved back in and everything has been arranged with great care. Here is the final result!

After!
I scrapbook when I find the time, which is rarely. But I still needed storage for all of my supplies for the few times I year that I find the time. Most of it is stored in this antique sideboard I found at Mama’s Happy on Grand Ave. in St. Paul.
The search for the perfect reading chair went faster than I thought, as I fell in love with this wingback chair from Wayfair.com right away. The ottoman was much harder though, as I bought two (and returned two) before I found this one. I got the side table from an upcycling shop in Afton, MN for $20.
My kids spend about as much time in my office as I do, so I wanted to have a space for them. You’ll see the shelves around this desk are filed with children’s stories and art supplies. My son John is a budding artist and he feels proud to have a desk of his own next to mine. The desk is an old school desk that I bought from someone on Facebook for $20. It was filthy, but once we cleaned it up it looked great!
This little stool acts as a ladder to the upper shelves when I need it, but the rest of the time it perches in this corner. Above it are my four favorite poems that I typed up and had framed. They are “Oxygen” by Mary Oliver, “Digging” by Seamus Heaney, “Warning” by Jenny Joseph, and “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins.
I bought the Dumbledore quote from Etsy as a celebration of the shelves going in. The bottom art piece is a painting of Jem and Scout right before they are attacked on Halloween night. A student actually made this as an assignment a few years ago!
It took me a long time to figure out how to organize my books. I knew I couldn’t do it alphabetically and to do it by color seemed ridiculous to me. In the end, I chose by categories. My personal categories are: Harry Potter, Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, humor, non-fiction, fiction hardcover, vintage classics, vintage misc., mass-market paperbacks, children’s chapter books, children’s hardcovers, young adult, misc. books I have read, and misc. books I haven’t read yet. That all being said, the organizational strategy probably only makes sense to me, which is something I like 🙂
I read a lot of humor and comic memoirs, but it turns out most of them have been from the library. These are the few I own.
Top: Books I haven’t read yet
Below: Misc. books I have read, next to hardcover/illustrated fiction
I added personal touches wherever I could, including this precious note left for me by my son John.
The very first “grown-up” book I read was A Stranger is Watching by Mary Higgins Clark and I fell in love with her suspense novels. Her books are by far my biggest collection of a single author.
These vintage children’s books were from a shop on Etsy, $20 for a box of 10!
Someone was selling their collection of National Geographics so I bought them for my top shelves. I ended up getting rid of most of them, as I was worried their weight would crush the whole shelving system, but I saved the ones from the Great Depression and World War II, as well as a few of my favorite covers.
More vintage books from Etsy, these ones are classics.
Stephen King is my favorite author, but I tend to read him in library form. I’m working on finding more secondhand copies of his books. I still can’t believe I don’t own The Shining!
Of course I needed a Harry Potter section, and you can see by the spines of these books that they have been read and re-read several times. My friend Nicole gave me the precious frame on the left, and my friends Janette and Alan sent me the cute postcard from Diagon Alley when they visited Harry Potter World over Christmas break. My wand is stored there as well, if you can tell 😉
I found an old ink set tray from a vintage printing press online, and it was the perfect storage for my essential oils. I’m diffusing pretty much constantly in here 🙂
The lower shelves are filled with more children’s books. The hardcover Disney books were mine when I was growing up, and I just found out that my mom had saved them all these years! She generously donated them to the library. The shark bookend on top is from my friend Marquette in honor of my strange shark obsession.
I got this desk from Target to match the industrial style of my shelves and, despite Stephen King’s warnings, I placed it in the center of the room. I promise not to let it get to my head.

Thanks to everyone who donated books or contributed to the precious gifts that now adorn my shelves. This room is filled with light and positive, productive energy. I absolutely adore being in it and look forward to squeezing many more books onto the shelves.