Here’s What High Schoolers Thought of Lit Hub’s Climate Change Reading List
What Do They Actually Want to Read?
I want to do my part to preserve human life on earth, but what I really want is for my high school students to read more independently. The students at my school are already the nicest kids in the entire Los Angeles Unified School District, recognized as such by the experts: substitute teachers who never, ever want to leave. The sheer pleasantness of our students may have something to do with the fact that our school is an arts school, where performing theater or dance or making visual art or music for part of the day seems to soothe the adolescent beast. Still, what even these talented and endearing youngsters generally will not do is read much outside of class.
This is due to multiple interrelated factors, mainly coming down to the fact that kids hate reading assigned books. Telling anyone they have to do anything is going to crush a lot of the joy out of it. My kids chronicled that joy-crushing process during the first week of school, when I assigned them—you bet I’m part of the problem!—to write about their development as readers and writers, using as models Richard Ford’s “Reading” and Tajja Isen’s “Tiny White People Took Over My Brain.”
Oh, how happy reading kids once were: the joy Ivory in eighth period felt as a four-year-old, encountering a bunch of letters and realizing they spelled the word color. How thrilled Jason in third period felt to experience writing as superpower, akin to shooting lasers out of his eyes, simply by scrawling out his made-up adventures together with the Wimpy Kid from Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Yet somewhere around the middle of middle school, for most of them, the thrill was gone. “I read so many difficult and frustrating books,” wrote Portia, “that I never found myself at home wanting to read for my own ‘pleasure.’”
When young people put pleasure in quotes, you know they’re both bright and alienated.
Still, for virtually all of my students, the memory at least of having once enjoyed reading is still there. Given that these dire times demand drastic measures, I thought we might try the mad experiment of reviving the pleasure of reading by giving students more choice about what we read this year. Not total freedom; honestly, these guys just haven’t heard of enough good books to make informed choices. Instead, the experiment was to see how they respond to Lit Hub’s climate change library of 365 books, along with Kim Marie Walker’s addendum to that list adding more black authors and discussing the intersection of race and environmental justice.
The idea of reading about climate change came partly from wanting to do something to avert global catastrophe, but mostly from my own pettiness and petulance. At the end of last year, a few students reported on my end-of-the-year survey that they thought the class hadn’t been challenging enough. Harrumph, said I to myself. You want challenge? Let’s read about climate change.
Thus, in the second week of school, I introduced the topic with the podcast “It’s Time to Talk about Climate Change” from KCRW’s “To the Point,” hosted by the sagacious Warren Ulney. His guest was LA Times science writer Julia Rosen, and practically everyone in class took diligent notes as she discussed her recent story about a survey from the Yale Program on Climate Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change. This survey found that although 69 percent of Americans believe climate change is real, only 37 percent talk about it “occasionally” or “often.” The researchers dubbed this gap “climate silence,” which is a problem because people who never talk about climate change tend to believe it is much more open to question than it actually is.
Simply talking about climate change makes people more aware of the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and man-made. This awareness, in turn, makes people more reflective on their own individual carbon footprint. As Kara said after listening to the podcast, “It makes you feel that talking about climate change could actually help.”
Teen talk is an abundant and renewable natural resource. To emphasize the ways that teenagers are transforming talk about climate change into power, we also watched and discussed the trailer for an episode of The Weekly from The New York Times about the youth-led Sunrise Movement. The opening scene—which showed California Senator Dianne Feinstein harshing out climate-change activist elementary school kids—riled my charges up. “We’re impatient,” said Noemi. “We want change now.”
My students really want humanity to survive; I really want them to read more. We compromised by exploring the Lit Hub climate lists. When I gave the assignment—to respond in a short essay to the list in general, and recommend one or two titles—they took up the challenge.
Jacinda wondered, “How is it that for all these years, when we have had such books and authors who were well aware of climate change, do we just start to face it now?” We talked about the history of oil companies who suppressed the findings of scientists they hired to explore the risks of auto emissions. I dreamt of Jacinda reading Daniel Yergin’s epic on the oil industry, The Prize, and just a few weeks later, she borrowed it.I tallied every single title they said they’d want to read, and the outcome is incontestable. They want to read two titles in particular, and in general, everything else.
There is also sadness. That’s what Casandra reported feeling when she read the Lit Hub list: “Just reading a simple summary about each book made me sad. They touched me in a way that made me regret doing anything to ever hurt the planet.” It’s good to have tenderness in the mix, along with the usual and still-important stuff about comprehension and grammar. Tenderness and sadness and regret and caring: those are some things that might inspire more reading outside of class. I’m so curious now to see how Casandra applies this tenderness to our reading in class.
So, what should that reading be? My students have spoken. I tallied every single title they said they’d want to read, and the outcome is incontestable. They want to read two titles in particular, and in general, everything else.
Their number one request is… The Jungle. Name-recognition played a big role here (of the title, not the author—one kid dubbed him “Uptown” Sinclair). Kids have heard about The Jungle in history classes; they know it’s responsible for getting consumer protection legislation passed over 100 years ago. Already this means they know more about The Jungle than almost any other book without wizards. Teaching experts tell us: start with what they know!
“It talks about how human rights and animal rights are similar,” wrote Hannah, who is curious to learn about how violation of those rights leads to “damaging our planet.” I’m curious to see how the kids at our Title 1 (read, high poverty) school respond to Upton Sinclair’s depiction of working in a slaughterhouse and living in a tenement. It’s my kids’ parents who tend to work two or three jobs, and their families who get priced out when neighborhoods gentrify.
I also have a personal goal for The Jungle. The last time I tried to read it with a class, I bailed when the family breadwinner, man-mountain turned slaughterhouse worker Jurgis, thus far impervious to the hellish conditions, finally hurts his leg on the job. Even though I myself read The Jungle in high school, I couldn’t bear to recall the consequences of his workplace injury. This time—with my students’ support—I hope to become a more courageous reader.
The second book they asked to read, or re-read, is The Lorax. Wanting to read the easiest thing possible played a big role here, but not the only role. Students really do like to use what they know, and they know The Lorax is a parable of climate change. “The Lorax also shows a very real important factor to climate change which is that humans are filled with greed,” wrote Yessenia. Students were eager to talk about the connection between human psychology and the environment, and I look forward to continuing that conversation. I really wish that even one of them had made the connection between the clear-cutting of the Truffula trees in The Lorax to the burning of the Amazon rainforest, but no one did. It makes you wonder what they actually know, and what they need to learn, which fortunately is exactly what a teacher should be wondering at the start of the school year.
Connecting with the Dr. Seuss-loving little kids who still live inside these charismatic almost-adults is powerful pedagogy. So I will gladly read The Lorax out loud and also show them the pictures. They’re ready for a more sophisticated response. “I find the patterns and rhythmic writing to be super cool and unique,” Kadence wrote. “They remind me of when I was a kid and they bring back fun and exciting, yet also some sad memories. I find that enduring, to remember the past but in a sense of letting it go.” She knows that in reading about climate change, we will be doing a lot of remembering the environmental past. And letting it go.
As Eleanor put it, “Many of the books seemed to be about the glory in nature we will soon be missing.” Eleanor is an especially bright kid who doesn’t especially want to read either The Lorax or The Jungle. She is intrigued by what the Lit Hub list called the “wild and saintly” voice of Annie Dillard. She’d also like to explore The Lost Daughter by Mary Williams, who she trusts must have a lot to say as the daughter of a Black Panther who was raised by Jane Fonda and hiked the Appalachian Trail. This leads us to the third most popular book from the lists: all of them.
The 28 kids in Period 8, for example, recommended a total of 35 different titles. Those kids want to read On the Origin of Species, Under the Sea Wind, The Cooking Gene, Animal Liberation and 31 other books. To me, this suggests a nascent literary diversity, a healthy change from the monotony of reading the same overly familiar books over and over and over again, often from one grade to another. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, 1984: they really are all great. I love and have taught them all. And: the forced reading of these and other perennial titles reminds me a lot, in the context of climate change, of factory-farming; in particular, it reminds me of Michael Pollan’s revolting descriptions of force-feeding corn to cows in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Today’s teens need creativity as a matter of survival in addressing climate change. That creativity will not prosper with a strict literary diet of the same old, same old.
The question I’m left with is, how are we actually going to read all of these books about climate change? To get us started, I have bought a ton of these books for the classroom. Extravagant spending on classroom supplies is simply what teachers do. But me just buying all the books is not sustainable, and given my newly awakened consciousness around consumption, I might have to rethink my book-buying habit. Now that is what I call an inconvenient truth. It may turn out that teaching my students to become more independent readers will involve motivating them to get their own books. It would certainly be a hopeful sign.
Meanwhile, DonorsChoose will, blessedly, get us some classroom sets, and there are lots of grants out there for classroom libraries. The even bigger challenge, as it is so often with books, is not getting them, but reading and discussing and acting on them. Coordinating all of this diverse reading on climate change into academic progress—having the students actually learn what they need to know—that’s the biggest challenge. Which is, after all, what we wanted. Let’s go!