Stories for Listeners Who Aren’t Sure They Want to Hear More Stories

By Nancy Renwick Clendenon, Midlothian
Originally published in the January-February 2013 VaHomeschoolers Voice

Since my children were very young, reading aloud to them has been an integral part of our homeschooling day. Unfortunately, as my oldest two boys have become teens, they have become less receptive to this way of ending our day. Maybe it feels goofy and childish. Even more unfortunately—stab this English major and avid reader and book collector in the heart!—one of them is not currently reading much, if any, fiction on his own.

Until now we have not used a specific literature curriculum, because reading and discussions were our primary way of learning. I’ll admit, I’m having a hard time going quietly into that good night. One way I have found to create compromise in this area—I just can’t let go of sharing quality literature and quality time!—is to change the way that we read. I’ve been seeking out high-interest, high-quality works that usually elicit a, “Huh, that was really not bad.”

One of the most satisfying ways to share literature I love with teens at the nadir of their reading interest has been to bring down the scale, choosing works that are by nature very succinct.

Going Short

Short stories can be the backbone of a family reading program. I love a good, meaty Newbery Winner, but we should not forget that wee cousin of the novel, the short story. Watership Down and The Hobbit and Bud, Not Buddy are fabulous read-alouds, but they ask something of you. They want your patience, your dedication, and probably some consecutive and near-consecutive nights. We reached a point where a lot of books we started were not getting finished, or where older kids with lots of other things on their minds were losing interest or simply did not want to be listening with their younger siblings.

While all children have different preferences, favorite genres, and different attitudes toward reading and what constitutes enjoyable reading, I have found certain authors and literary periods to be especially accessible and engaging, especially to boys. They also make delightful and unsettling bedtime reads, and require a minimum of time commitment, because they can be finished in a single sitting. Here some of our current favorites:

Nathanial Hawthorne

If you have not dusted off a volume of Hawthorne lately, you are missing out! Most of us probably remember The Scarlet Letter , which is a great choice as a full-length classic novel for a young high-schooler. It’s sometimes a little less appealing, though, for the guys. But Hawthorne has so many eerie, twisted,  challenging, science- and supernatural-obsessed stories that are much shorter, and that you could easily read aloud to a captive audience. “Rappacini’s Daughter” is a freaky, fascinating story that can stimulate great discussions about recurring themes and motifs—plants, beauty, poison. So many anthologies and story collections contain just one story by each author, but much of the richness comes out when you read several stories by that author and see how his or her themes are developed over time and how they play out in various forms.

Hawthorne does not disappoint. “Wakefield” is such an odd story, and yet it really gets you thinking about what would happen if you just stepped out of your life. It also prompts you to explore the fascination of imagining what might have motivated someone’s strange behavior that you read about in a newspaper or tabloid. “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “The Birthmark,” and “Young Goodman Brown” all deal with the dark side of human nature and have a psychological component that many middle-schoolers will find appealing. His stories also open opportunities to talk about literary movements like Romanticism and Gothic style, which can spark interesting discussions about how current popular trends—zombie or vampire books and that sort of thing—are nothing new.

They also conjure ways in which media often reflects social and psychological concerns of the time. It is interesting to see how an idea—say, the uneasiness created by an explosion of scientific discovery and theories, or the hope and anxiety surrounding the intersection of the rational with the spiritual, supernatural, or philosophical—is explored by many different artists or writers, either simultaneously or in succession.

Edgar Allen Poe

Hawthorne’s stories will feel fairly comfortable to many teens who already have some familiarity with authors like Edgar Allen Poe. Poe is an obvious go-to for high-interest, short-attention-span literature. Again, I have found it helpful to go beyond just reading a story or two—“The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Fall of the House of Usher”—and try to take in as much as we can of an anthology. The beauty of the anthology is that it doesn’t ask for long-term commitment any more than the short story itself does—read a story here, read a story there—but cumulatively, you can get a real feel for what is important to Poe, his stylistic mannerisms, and the range of his genres. We’re all pretty familiar with Poe as creepy, but he also is the father of the detective story, and his early prototypes of this genre can be a great study in the development of something we take for granted today.

Guy de Maupassant

My current favorite short story writer to share with older middle-schoolers is Guy de Maupassant, which continues the 19th century theme I seem to have going, but with a French flair. “The Necklace” is a good place to start, because the story is accessible and has a catchy, surprise ending. To me, this is the essence of what a great short story can accomplish—the economy allows the author to play on your expectations and emotions in a way that is different from what happens in a full-length novel, where there is time for development and resolution of various kinds before the whole narrative is over. The short story brings with it the implicit promise of an approaching ending, regardless of whether that ending truly provides what we might consider resolution. That is a whole other issue that opens interesting discussions—did it end the way you expected? Why or why not?

Another good Maupassant story to share is “The Horla,” a freaky, first person narrative of possible madness. This one offers such great material for discussing the concept of reliable narrators, the relationship of reader to narrator, and the development of the horror genre.

Overlooked Treasures

Although Robert Louis Stevenson is often thought of as an author of books that primarily appeal to children, like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, his short stories, such as “The Bottle Imp,” can also be appealing to teens, who may be surprised that he also delves fairly deep into the gothic/horror zone. “The Merry Men” tells of the Devil in an island setting. “The Body Snatcher” explores not only the familiar 19th Century motifs of exhuming bodies, eminent medical men trying to unravel the mysteries of science and the supernatural, and the prevalence of a dark side across social classes and intellectual levels, but it does so while employing the satisfying final plot twist.

G.K. Chesterton is another often overlooked author who can be a pleasant surprise and a quick family read. His Father Brown stories feature an unassuming yet very intuitive priest-turned-detective who figures in more than fifty stories with settings all around the world. The Father Brown stories allow opportunities to talk about whether an author should leave clues so the reader can solve a mystery along with the protagonist, or whether we can be satisfied watching his mind work by considering a crime and its perpetrator philosophically, rather than just by the physical evidence.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a story that withstands multiple readings and gains depth over time if your children read or hear it when they are a little younger and then hear it again a year or two later. Madness, medical doctors, gender issues, mental health, imprisonment, and late 19th Century feminism provide much to unpack or talk about in the context of both then and now. This is also a great story for exploring literary concepts like symbolism, motifs, themes, and perspective in a casual way.

Moving into adult literature and great authors with complex, challenging stories does not require a purchased curriculum and can become lovely family time, even with reluctant listeners, who may find themselves far less reluctant when they discover the Twilight Zone aspects of many “classic” writers.

Finding Good Read-Alouds

I look in more general collections for ideas, but I have found some of my children’s favorite stories in anthologies specifically aimed at middle-schoolers. I am using a literature curriculum for the first time this year with my oldest. It takes many of its selections from Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, edited by Harold Bloom. I have found his taste in stories much like my own, and his interest in including a great deal of 19th Century literature is not surprising. So it has been a win, because I feel at home with what we are reading, and he seems to have a finger on the pulse of what might be engaging to not-yet-adult readers without insulting their intelligence or failing to challenge them.

Classical Conversations also publishes a book of short stories as part of their Words Aptly Spoken series that has been very appealing. This is actually what first got me interested in using more short stories for both reading and for learning about literary analysis and essay writing. The manageable length allows students to practice skills in citing passages from a story in an essay and exploring a theme or analyzing characters without becoming overwhelmed by the length of a full novel. Short stories can be read multiple times! Though I don’t use the book as a “curriculum,” I did appreciate learning when a particular story might be good for discussing setting, character development, mood, or point of view.

Dover paperbacks are also a nice, cheap way to get multiple stories by a single author. And short stories are often available for free online—just search for the title.

I have only mentioned a few of the authors that my family has been into lately. I hate to leave out Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Mark Twain, O. Henry, and a host of others. I suppose we have just really been into the macabre, creepy kind of story lately! At a time when so many other things are competing for my children’s time and attention, the short story has come in and provided some moments of relaxation, as well as a reminder that many cool things are out there in older books that can rival any reality show, horror movie, or zombie book put out today.

About the Author

Nancy Renwick Clendenon has always loved 18th and 19th Century literature, and she has loved having children old enough to share some of her favorite books and authors with her now. She homeschools in Midlothian.

Originally published in the January-February 2013  VaHomeschoolers Voice.

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