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:
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.
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.
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:
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.