Contemporary British Fiction Choices for High School seniors
Note: This is part two of my recommendations for independent reading in the British Literature classroom. If you are interested in my first list, which also relates my tale of woe, endlessly searching the internet for age appropriate and engaging British literature for my senior students, you can find it here. My third post can be found here.
My hope is that this list series will be a resource to other teachers as I share the books that I assign for independent reading to my seniors. I have personally read each and every one of these and find them to be age appropriate and engaging for the typical high school 12th grader.
Please note that these are the options I give for independent reading projects, so most of the books are contemporary. I teach classics as well, but that is for a different blog post!
This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link.
Choice #1: An Immersive Historical Fiction Novel
Summary: 1840, England. Evangeline, a governess to a wealthy family, has been accused of theft. She also happens to be pregnant by the handsome son of said family. She is thrown in Newgate Prison and eventually shipped to Australia for hard labor.
On the ship, Evangeline meets Hazel, who has been sentenced for stealing a spoon. Hazel is a skilled midwife and the two women begin to rely on one another.
1840, Australia. Mathinna, an eight year old Aboriginal girl, is sent to live with an English family so that they can see if they can ‘tame a savage’.
Check out the author’s website here.
The Exiles: A Story With Multiple Narrators
The Exiles is one of the best books that I read in 2021. I am obsessed with it and recommend it to everyone who talks to me. I bought three copies for people at Christmas. Clearly, I LOVE THIS BOOK.
There is so much here: the unjust criminal justice system in 19th century England, the corrupt class system, the brutal takeover of Australia by the English, and the horrors of prisons at the time.
My students who chose this as their independent read loved this book. However, it is a book for students who love a well told tale. It takes focus to keep track of each narrator (triple narration). I would not recommend this for struggling readers.
Fingers crossed this beauty is quickly turned into a film!
Purchase a copy here!
Check out the official book trailer below:
Choice #2: A Companion Novel to A Beloved Epic
Summary: Definitely not contemporary, but I have students who really enjoy this short book which is told from the perspective of Grendel, the monster in the Epic of Beowulf.
In this version, Grendel is questioning why he exists at all when no one else in the world is like him. He is curious about humans and it is not until they treat him cruelly that he turns on them, becoming the monster we knew him to be.
Grendel: A Monster With a Heart
Grendel is a nihilist. He believes life for him has no meaning. He is completely alone and isolated – even his own mother can’t communicate with him. Grendel is a thinker, a philosopher in some ways, and I have students who really connect with him in this companion text.
Also, this was summer reading for our British Literature classes for many years, and it was super interesting to hear the students’ take on Beowulf when they read Grendel first. They tended to sympathize with Grendel, even though in the epic he is portrayed as simply a cursed, bloodthirsty monster.
We took it off our list because it was not the right book for the entire class, but it is an excellent independent option for those kids that will “get it”.
Check out this New York Times article discussing Grendel from 1971!
Purchase your copy of Grendel here!
Choice #3: A True Pandemic Story from 350 Years Ago
Summary: Year of Wonders is based on the true story of the village of Eyam, a tiny town in England that quarantined itself for one year during the 1660s plague. Anna is our protagonist and narrator, and we follow her life through this brutal time. Brooks takes many liberties with the characters in her tale, but the basic facts of the pandemic in this town are factual.
Year of Wonders was also adapted for the stage. Check out this video from Shakespeare’s Globe where the actors visit Eyam.
Year of Wonders: A Story Our Students Can Now Relate To
Let me just say that my co-teacher and I were so happy we were NOT reading this book in March 2020!
Serendipitously, we had made a change to our curriculum that year and chose to include Year of Wonders as independent reading instead of a whole class read. However, I think this is now a perfect book for a British literature curriculum. My students usually enjoyed this book anyway, but unfortunately now we can actually all relate.
Watch this news story here, relating Eyam to Covid 19:
Anna Frith has lived through unspeakable tragedy before the story begins, and we follow her throughout the town’s quarantine. As the housekeeper for the village’s young minister and his wife, she is in the perfect position to see the reality of what is happening around her. In her struggle to survive, Anna shows us what is truly important in life.
This is really a great story. I read this book when it was first released in 2001 and have read it many times since. I still love so much about this book, specifically Anna, the village, and the bravery that the townspeople showed during that tragic time. Definitely consider adding this novel to your list!
Purchase your copy of Year of Wonders here!
If you are looking for some professional development hours, consider this free Coursera course: Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction. Geraldine Brooks is a guest author for this self-paced class and discusses writing Year of Wonders. I found it fascinating.
I also highly recommend another of Geraldine Brooks’ novels, March, a companion to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. March is the story of Mr. March fighting in the Civil War and will certainly engage the students who loved the original book or the recent movie.
Choice #4: A Coming of Age Journey of Self Discovery
Summary: Kambili and her brother Jaja live a privileged life in Enugu, Nigeria. They have a large house protected by armed guards, and attend the best private school, but their private lives are anything but happy. That is, until they visit their Aunty in Nsukka and everything changes when they see the world in a different way.
Check out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s website here.
Purple Hibiscus: Themes of Finding Independence and Discovering Priorities
This is a beautiful story by Adichie. So many English teachers show Adichie’s TED Talk on ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ because of her real and raw perspective. She has a way of captivating her audience with her stories while sending a powerful message at the same time.
This is seen here in Purple Hibiscus. It is an easier read for our struggling and/or reluctant readers, but hits on topics that are important to our students – coming of age, personal freedom, social justice.
As a side note, I have also successfully taught this novel as a whole class read to sophomore students.
Purchase your copy of Purple Hibiscus here!
Adichie’s other novels, Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun, are also highly recommended by teachers I trust, but I have not yet read them myself.
Choice #5: A Weird and Fantastical Adventure
Summary: The unnamed narrator attends a funeral for a family member in his hometown, and later finds himself driving to the farmhouse of his childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock. In doing so, he recounts his experiences as a seven year old boy when he sits at the edge of the pond, or “Lettie’s ocean.” Events from his childhood begin to come back to him at that moment.
Check out Neil Gaiman’s website here.
The Ocean At The End of The Lane: Students Enjoy This Break from Reality
This is an odd little story, full of magic and monsters. Many of my students choose it because of its shorter length and its author, which is fine with me. Kids love Neil Gaiman. Many of them have read or watched Coraline and American Gods, and are excited to see this choice on the list. The magical component is a nice break from the sometimes depressing novels and plays we read in Brit Lit. This is a definite fan favorite!
Purchase your copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane here!
This book has been adapted for the stage! Check out the trailer below.
I hope this list has been helpful! Be sure to check out my other two posts with more independent reading choices for the British Literature curriculum here and here!
Check out the lesson planning template that I use for creating and organizing my lessons here!