A List Of Contemporary Novels for Your AP English Literature Class
As an AP Literature teacher, I am always looking for novels that my students will want to read AND have the depth necessary to use for free-response question 3. Here are four modern novels that my students and I enjoy in AP Literature.
The literary works on this reading list have the literary merit that will satisfy the college board and give your students a wide range of themes to use on the AP Literature and Composition exam.
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The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
Enter Renee, the widowed concierge of a fancy apartment building in Paris. She is an autodidact, but hides her genius from everyone to behave in tandem with the expectations of a concierge. Also, enter Paloma, a depressed teenager who feels she fits nowhere and might as well not exist.
Renee and Paloma as juxtaposed dual narrators is quite the combination. My students debate who is the more likable character of the two. For me, it is Renee. Her isolation and need to hide her true intelligence from the world is tragic, and relatable to many of our students on some level. Others say Paloma with her explosive anger, hiding a desperate need to belong somewhere.
In class I heavily focus on the symbolism of Renee’s apartment and the structure of the building in general. Renee’s apartment looks innocuous from the outside, but deep in the back where almost no one else sees is a visual representation of everything that truly matters to her. The apartment building is a hierarchy, with lowest societal respect on the bottom and moving up the social ladder as we move up each floor.
This philosophical novel has been a hit with some of my students. I actually had a student write his college essay based on what he learned about himself from this story. Reading this book will be challenging for most senior students (but it is worth it). There is not much action, which can make it hard for some students to latch on to the plot, but your deep thinkers will thank you.
Check out this New York Times book review!
Purchase your copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog here.
Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood
If you follow my blog, you know that I highly recommend Atwood’s Alias Grace for AP. I wrote a full blog post about it, so I won’t go too much in detail here, but here is what you need to know. Grace Marks was a real person, and as a young woman was convicted of the brutal murders of her boss and his housekeeper in the 1800s.
Throughout her life, Marks always maintained that she did not remember what happened that day. Margaret Atwood took this famous story and added a new character, Dr. Simon Jordan, a fictional doctor whose job it is to talk to Grace and figure out whether or not she is lying, making her an unreliable narrator.
As an additional literary technique, Atwood also adds actual primary documents which add another layer to this intricately woven story.
My students have really enjoyed this novel. Atwood is known to them because of The Handmaid’s Tale, and like I say in my post dedicated to Alias Grace, this works for so many different Question 3 prompts and is a welcome reprieve for the essay readers who read about the same novels over and over again.
Purchase your copy of Alias Grace here.
Netflix made Alias Grace into a (pretty great!) miniseries. Check out the trailer below:
The Color Purple, Alice Walker
Okay, so ‘contemporary’ is a relative term! I am well aware that this epistolary novel was written forty years ago, but it is just SO GOOD. My students always say the same thing: they hated it for the first fifty pages, and then they could not put it down. I mean, how hard are we rooting for Celie to gain inner strength and live her life?! What a beautiful story of female community and finding our inner voice.
In my school, The Color Purple is a fan favorite for summer reading, and it is the first timed response essay that I have my students write for AP Lit. I start with the 2013 prompt focusing on a bildungsroman novel’s pivotal moment. I love using this as our jumping off point because it sets up such a teachable moment. The students do their best, but what happens more often than not is they summarize Celie’s journey and end their essays with the pivotal moment.
We later pick them apart and discuss how the focus of the prompt should be the focus of the essay. The students easily see it once it is pointed out to them, and their essays grow so much from that point forward.
I love, love, love this novel, and my students do, too. It is no wonder this beautiful story won the National Book Award in 1983.
Purchase your copy of The Color Purple here.
Check out the trailer of the much loved movie adaptation below:
The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
Again, if you have read my posts before, you may have witnessed my obsession with teaching The Thirteenth Tale. If not, welcome, and I apologize (sorry, not sorry) for my unbridled enthusiasm about this widely overlooked novel.
This multiple narrative spiral begins with Margaret, our first protagonist. A little lost in her life as a somewhat isolated biographer, Margaret receives an odd letter from the most famous British author of her time, Vida Winter, asking to meet in order for Margaret to write Vida’s biography. The only problem is that throughout her long, illustrious career, Vida has never once told a journalist the truth about her life. Vida, our second protagonist, tells Margaret her life story, but Margaret (and the reader) do not fully trust her.
This novel leads us into a unit on Gothicism. It is the perfect gothic tale with a decaying house, an isolated setting, and things never being quite what they seem. It also works perfectly for a unit on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Just trust me on this one, The Thirteenth Tale is more than worth your time. For way more information about teaching this novel than you may want to know, see my dedicated post to The Thirteenth Tale here.
Purchase your copy of The Thirteenth Tale here.
Years ago, the BBC made The Thirteenth Tale into a movie. I have not been able to access it in the U.S., and not for lack of trying! Here is the trailer:
I will be adding more AP posts in the future, but for now, these are my students’ favorite contemporary literary fiction choices. I would LOVE to talk more AP Lit and hear your recommendations, so please reach out!
Check out the lesson planning template that I use for creating and organizing my lessons here!