A few years ago I was asked to write a biweekly newspaper column introducing books (fiction and non-fiction) to senior secondary school students in Hong Kong to read as part of their HKDSE English studies. I started with the recommended texts, but soon found that most of the selected books were uninspiring. Sometimes the were too young and the stories too childish, sometimes the vocabulary was too difficult and sometimes the text had been dumbed down until it was something like a Reader’s Digest version of a Wikipedia entry. There were much more interesting books out there.
Part 1 of this series (Books for Teens) focuses on books that have a strong visual element to them. Instead of forcing readers to slog through large passages of text, the books use images to bring the story to life and provide inspiration for thought. Do you have any books you would like to recommend?
The second part of the series—12 Good Novels for Young Adults and Teens—introduces more conventional novels in different genres like fantasy, adventure, suspense, and family drama.
Books with Activities
if you are the kind of person who likes to do things and doesn’t want to get bogged down in page after page of text, you can try the books in this section.
Book 01: 101 Things You Need To Know and Some You Don’t
If you are interested in doing things like searching for bad smells, making secret codes or sending messages in a bottle, try one of Richard Horne and Tracey Turners’ 101 Things books: ‘101 Things You Need To Know’, ‘101 Things To Do Before You Are Old and Boring’ and ‘101 Things you Wish you had Invented’. In each book, a topic is presented on one page and the facing page is an activity page for you to fill out. You can keep track of the new things you have learned and the new things you have done. For more information, visit: www.101thingstodo.co.uk/101k/Home.htm
Book 02: The Cube – Keep the Secret
A former student of mine, Jolin, recently suggested we play a game. She asked me a series of questions—to describe an animal, another animal, a cup (and how much water it contained) and a doorway. After I gave her my answers, she interpreted them, with each of the objects I described representing a different aspect of my life. Later that day, while shopping for books, I came across The Cube by Annie Gottlieb and Slobodan D. Pesic, This book presents a similar psychological game, but one which is more complex and more open to interpretation.
In the beginning or the book, you are asked to imagine a landscape and then a series of objects within this landscape, the first object being a cube. The nature and appearance of each object is entirely up to you, but you are asked to describe each object in detail—its size and colour, where it is the picture and what it is made from. Once you have formed the picture in your mind, you are invited to read on and discover how to interpret your landscape.
Reading the book can benefit you in different ways. As one reviewer commented on the Amazon website: “This is a book that enables you close your eyes and imagine. That alone is worth the price of admission.” In addition, as you learn to interpret your landscape, you can learn a lot of new words related to colours, materials, shapes, spatial relationships and even breeds of horses. And in the section on analysis you will learn things like the difference between fact and flattery and how a single characteristic like ‘hardness’ can be both an advantage (‘strength’) and limitation (‘lack of flexibility’)
The main benefit, however, is that the book takes you on a journey of self-discovery. There are no definite and correct interpretations for the different elements in your landscape; instead, the authors make suggestions about what each aspect of your description might mean. They guide and encourage you to reflect deeply on what the elements in the picture mean to you. And what if you don’t like the interpretation? You can’t just change the picture, but you can use it to think about how you might change the things you don’t like about your environment or about yourself.
Many of us of busy with our work and studies. Even in relaxation, we are busy—logging on, downloading, blogging, chatting, browsing, shopping. This book encourages us to:
Just for a moment.
“Who am I?”
New Ways of Storytelling
The three books introduced below tell their stories in extraordinary ways. In the first, you read the mysterious letters and postcards two strangers send to one another, in the second, illustrations are used in place of text rather than to support it, and in the third, the story is told through diary entries, e-mails, IM messages, lyrics and other kinds of texts.
Book 03: Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence
One day, Griffin Moss, a London artist who designs postcards, receives a mysterious letter from a stranger. It says:
It’s good to get in touch with you at last. Could I have one of your fish postcards? I think you were right—the wine glass has more impact than the cup.
Griffin is bewildered. Sabine has written about one of his designs—a goldfish and a broken glass—and is referring to a rough draft that he has never shown anyone. In Sabine’s next letter, she explains that though she lives half way around the world from Griffin, she has the power to see in her mind everything that he draws.
So begins the mystery of ‘Griffin & Sabine’. This is the first book in a trilogy written and illustrated by Nick Bantock. The story continues with Sabine’s Notebook and The Golden Mean. Each book contains only the letters and postcards that Griffin and Sabine send to each other. The cards are beautifully drawn (Sabine is also an artist), and the letters are held within envelopes that are glued to the pages of the book. This unusual format for a book can give you the voyeuristic feeling that you really are reading someone’s private correspondence.
As the two artists continue to get to know each through their cards and letters, Griffin finds that he is falling in love with Sabine. Rather than bringing him happiness, however, these feelings lead to despair. His begins to hate the boring routine of his daily life. And when he thinks of Sabine, who lives on a small island in the South Pacific, about as far away from London as is possible, he is overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness.
How can I miss you this badly when we’ve never met?
Sabine invites Griffin to join her, but that would mean giving up everything he has, including the business he has set up. When he asks for a photograph of Sabine, she replies that it “would not be possible” and sends him a painted portrait instead. This makes Griffin question whether Sabine is a real person. Has he simply been creating fake letters with fake postmarks and then leaving them in his own mailbox? Is the entire relationship simply a figment of one man’s warped imagination or are Griffin and Sabine two real people who magically share a special bond?
Book 04: The Invention of Hugo Cabret (a novel by Brian Selznick)
It’s the 1930s. A twelve-year-old orphan named Hugo Cabret lives by himself in a train station, secretly taking care of the duties of his missing uncle—maintaining the station’s clocks. He spends his spare time trying to restore a strange mechanical man—an automaton—that his late father had been working on. One day, while he is trying to steal parts for the automaton, he is caught by the bad-tempered owner of a toy shop. The owner’s niece, Isabelle, helps Hugo out and together they discover that her uncle has a mysterious past.
Hugo’s story is presented in a creative and unusual way, combining passages of texts, beautiful pencil drawings, old photographs and stills from silent movies. According to the author, the book is “not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.” In one part of the story, for example, a passage of text describes Hugo returning to his secret room. He is discovered by the railway station’s security chief and tries to escape. The chase is then shown using a series of drawings. As you turn the pages, the drawings imitate camera techniques such as pans, zooms and tracking shots, thus creating a film-like feel. The pictures don’t illustrate the text (like they do in a typical children’s storybook); instead they momentarily take over from the words to move the story forward.
On one level, the book is a mystery. What happened to Hugo’s uncle and father, what was the automaton created to do and why is Isabelle’s uncle so interested in getting his hands on it? On another level, the book is about the power of imagination. The automaton, for example, has a surprising, almost magical ability, but it is just a machine; the real magic is in the imagination of the machine’s inventor. At one point in the story, Isabelle and Hugo need to open a locked door.
“Hugo watched as she fiddled with the pin inside the lock until it clicked and the door opened.
“How did you learn to do that?” asked Hugo.
“Books,” answered Isabelle.
There is a double meaning in her answer. Reading can give you practical information, but more importantly, it can also unlock and open doors—the doors to your imagination.
An Interview with the Author
Did you know?
- Automatons were popular in Ancient China, Edo-period Japan and in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries: www.karakuri.info/
- In 2011, the book was made into a feature film directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Chloe Moretz, Jude Law, Ben Kingley and Sacha Baron Cohen: www.imdb.com/title/tt0970179/
- The silent films shown in the book were by a real-filmmaker—Georges Méliès. He created many of the special effects that are used in movies today.
Video about Georges Méliès
Book 05: Boy Meets Girl
‘Boy Meets Girl’ is a novel by Meg Cabot (author of The Princess Diaries) about a young woman, Kate Mackenzie, making a new start in life. She has broken up with her boyfriend and started a new job working in the human resources department of a magazine.
She faces the problems any young woman might encounter. How do you get rid of a bothersome ex-boyfriend? How can you find the right career—one that is meaningful and enjoyable? What do you do if your boss asks you to break the rules? How can you get that cute guy to notice you?
Interestingly, the story is told through different kinds of texts—letters, e-mails, song lyrics, telephone voicemail messages, diary entries and transcripts of instant messaging (IM) conversations and business meetings. You can even read menus, song lyrics, recipes, washroom signs and security reports. This unusual way of telling a story means that you aren’t reading about what happens; rather you are reading about how Kate and the other characters are reacting to what has just happened to them.
The use of different kinds of writing and speaking by the characters in the story can tell you a lot about each character’s personality.
- Kate: Kate has a good heart, but she doesn’t have strong communication skills. When she should speak out, she remains silent. When she should remain silent, she speaks out.
- Amy & Stuart: Kate’s boss is Amy, who is dating Stuart, a powerful but unlikable lawyer. Amy and Stuart are ambitious and insincere. When writing to each other they are sickeningly romantic but when writing to their subordinates they are aggressive and rude.
- Dale: Kate’s ex-boyfriend is a selfish rock musician who is always begging Kate to return to him, but in his songs, letters and messages, the topic always ends up being about himself—how much HE misses her, how much HE needs her and how much HE still needs HIS OWN freedom.
- Arthur: Stuart’s father is away on holiday after having a heart attack. Throughout the story, his family wants him to come back and solve everyone’s problems. He simply ignores them and turns off his phone so that they can learn how to solve the problems on their own. No communication is sometimes the best communication.
With the lovely illustrations, these four books may look like children’s books, but the first is written more for young adults, while the next two deal with serious themes that allow the books to be appreciated by all ages. Even the last one, which is aimed at younger readers, is an enjoyable light read.
Book 06: The Sound of Colors
Jimmy Liao (幾米) is a renowned Taiwanese artist and writer whose books are now becoming available in English translations. His work can best be described as picture books for teens and adults. Though his illustrations are vibrantly colourful and full of whimsy, the stories deal with mature themes such as alienation, destiny and the power of imagination.
The Sound of Colors is about how a young woman copes with becoming blind. Though she has lost her sight, she uses her imagination to create vivid and lively scenes in her mind. She feels lonely and isolated, but she still keeps alive her hope of finding love.
“She’ll lead me to the place
where all the colors are.
“She’ll bring me back to the light that I lost,
still glowing here, in my heart.”
I first read the Sound of Colors after I started having serious problems with my eyesight, so it struck a personal chord; I often wondered how I would cope with blindness, how I would interact with the world. The themes of the story also apply to anyone who develops a physical or mental disability. Life becomes different and is often more difficult and is certainly not what we would have wanted, but it still goes on.
On yet another level, the young woman’s story can also apply to anyone who has lost someone or something precious. If we lose someone we love, how do we handle our bittersweet memories of a person we can no longer be with or something we no longer have? If we lose faith or hope and are left blind in the darkness, what can we do to feel whole again?
Book 07: The Best Christmas Present in the World
‘The Best Christmas Present in the World’ is a touching short story by Michael Morpurgo. With its short text and beautiful illustrations by Michael Foreman, it looks like a children’s book. The serious themes and elegant writing style, however, are more suitable for young teens.
The story begins when the narrator discovers an old letter while tidying up. He opens it.
“I knew as I did it that it was wrong of me to open the box, but curiosity got the better of my scruples. It usually does.”
He reads about a strange event that happened during World War I (1914-1918) and sets out to return the letter to its elderly owner.
Just when you think you understand the meaning of the title, the writer introduces a twist that reveals another ‘best present’. The ending is both heartbreaking and uplifting.
The book is particularly good for second language learners. It is short and relatively easy to read, but every page contains at least one challenging word or phrase (like “got the better of my scruples”) that can help them improve their English skills.
The Christmas Truce: The letter in the story describes a real event—The Christmas Truce of 1914 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_truce). For years, two of the main combatants in WWI, Britain and Germany, were involved in a brutal kind of fighting known as trench warfare. Life as a soldier in the trenches was brutal. The trenches were often filled with mud. Disease and death were everywhere.On Christmas Eve on 1914, near the town of Ypres, the German soldiers started decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols. When the British soldiers recognised the tune of one of the songs—Stille Nacht (Silent Night)—they responded with carols of their own. Before long, all fighting stopped. Soldiers from the two sides visited each other and exchanged gifts such as whiskey and chocolate. Both sides collected their dead from the no man’s land between the trenches and held a funeral service together. The two sides even played a football match on the battlefield.
The commanders of both armies were unhappy. Their soldiers were supposed to be fighting to the death, not trying to score goals. They soon ordered the soldiers back to their trenches to begin fighting once again. The real-life story of the Christmas Truce shows what can happen if we recognise the common bonds we share with all people. When soldiers can lay down their weapons and embrace the enemy, even if it is just for one brief moment, there is hope that one day war will fade into distant memory and peace will reign around the world.
Book 08: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo, is the touching story of a toy—a beautiful rabbit doll named Edward Tulane. The novel, with its simple text and beautiful illustrations, looks like a children’s book, but it can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.
Edward is able to think, but unlike the living toys in the film Toy Story, he is only able to move in his dreams. At the beginning of the story, he is a proud and selfish doll. His favorite season is winter because it gets dark earlier in the evening and he is therefore able to spend more time admiring his own reflection in the window.
He is owned by a young girl called Abilene, who loves him very much and treats him like a member of her family. Edward, in contrast, just loves himself. He only pays attention to others when someone handles him too roughly. He can’t stand being treated disrespectfully. While Abilene’s family is traveling on an ocean liner to England, Edward is accidentally dropped into the water and sinks to the bottom of the sea. During the long months he spends alone on the ocean floor, he feels his first real emotions: fear and hopelessness.
After a violent storm, Edward is found by an elderly fisherman, who brings him home to his wife. Edward soon meets other people, including an old vagabond and a pair of abandoned children. He is back among people who care for him and he slowly learns what it means to love others. His journey, however, is not smooth. He is stolen, tied to a stick to scare away birds and buried in a rubbish dump. His heart is broken when he loses someone he loves; his head is broken when it is smashed apart by an angry restaurant owner. Now that Edward understands what love is, will he be able to survive long enough to experience it again?
The story is easy to read and can be finished in a couple of hours. Each page contains one or two challenging words, so you can still work on improving your vocabulary without having to pause often to look up the definition.
Book 09: The Spiderwick Chronicles Book One (The Field Guide)
‘The Field Guide’ (The Spiderwick Chronicles, Book 1) is the first of a five-part series of novels by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi. In this first volume, troubled nine-year-old Jared Grace, his animal-loving twin brother Simon and fencing-mad older sister Mallory move into a relative’s ramshackle house and
discover a new and strange world that exists alongside our own—the world of faeries.
Soon after the family arrives, things start to go wrong—something in the walls is making strange noises, Mallory wakes up one morning to find her hair tied to the bed and Simon discovers that his pet mice have been stolen and his tadpoles frozen inside ice cubes. After finding a book about faeries (The Field
Guide) while exploring a secret room, Jared suspects that a mischievous faerie known as a boggart is causing the problems. The children need to set aside their difference and try to find the creature and stop the attacks.
The book is suitable for very young teens or for older teens looking for something interesting with an easy-to-read text (e.g., and ESL or EFL learner) It is very short and the language is easy to understand. In addition, the book is filled with illustrations that can help you understand the text. If you are not sure what a “rusted ram’s head door knocker” is, you can just look at the illustration.
The whole story arc takes place over five short books. A film version, covering all four books, was released in 2008 (www.imdb.com/title/tt0416236/)
Books about Fashion & Art
If you are interested in street fashion, you may want to check out two new books: Style Deficit Disorder: Harajuku Street Fashion by Tiffany Godoy and Streetwear by Steven Vogel. Of the two books, ESL and EFL students would find Style Deficit Disorder, with its clearer and more formal style, easier to read. The book is written for readers who may not know a lot about Japanese culture so when special terms like Visual Kei are used, they are carefully explained. Streetwear, however, is written in an odd mix of American cultural references (“rockin’ the BMX”) and marketing expressions (“establish a product platform”).
Book 10: Style Deficit Disorder
Tiffany Godoy’s book looks at the four distinctive trends that came out of Tokyo’s famous Harajuku fashion district: Kawaii, Cyber, Goth-Loli and Ura-hara. Each trend is given its own chapter and explored from different points of view. The Goth-Loli chapter, for example, features an essay on the beliefs associated with the style, an introduction to specialist magazines like Kera, an interview with a Gothic Lolita and a cosplay photo-essay. It also features profiles of fashion house Baby the Stars Shine Bright, designer Naoto Hirooka and Visual Kei singer Mana. This wide-ranging coverage highlights an important feature of the Harajuku scene—fashion-conscious teens, magazine editors and photographers, designers, retailers and celebrities all influence, inspire and try to out-do each other. The resulting fashions are often outrageously flamboyant. As Godoy writes, ‘kids pushed themselves off Olympian heights of fashion excess. “What’s the world record for the number patterns you could possibly wear at once? How many badges can you attach to your leather jacket?”’
Book 11: Street Wear
The fashions in Streetwear are much plainer: T-shirts, trainers, jeans, baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts. The influences are mainly skateboarding and hip-hop. The book focuses on designers and brand-names. The text is mainly in a question-and-answer format covering topics such as inspirations and influences, ideas about street fashion and tips on how to get started and how to achieve success.
Book 12: 50 Artists You Should Know
’50 Artists You Should Know’, by Thomas Koster (with contributions by Lars Roper), is a fantastic introduction to the world of Western art. The beautiful colour reproductions of masterpieces and concise and clearly written text will give you a good understanding of what made each of the artists great and how art has developed over the past 600 years.
Although there are only a few paragraphs written about each artist in this short book, Koster does a fine job of selecting the key information. He describes what the artists were like, how they lived, how they developed their skills, where they found inspiration, what special techniques or ideas they had and how they influenced other artists. Artistic techniques and styles and historical periods are briefly described in sidebars and in a glossary at the end, but the book focuses on individual artists and their work.
In the section on Vincent Van Gogh, for example, you can learn about this famous artist’s lack of success and low self-confidence. He was even sent back one year at the art school he attended because of his poor drawing skills. And as you read about his painting style and how he tried to capture the beauty, light and colour of the French countryside by using thick, powerful brushstrokes in earthy hues of yellow and orange, you can see these techniques for yourself in the paintings that accompany the text.
In 50 Artists You Should Know, the book’s tight focus on the artists and their paintings and sculptures makes it easy to read–perfect first step to learning about the great masterpieces of art from ‘The Birth of Venus’ to ‘A Bigger Splash’.
Books for Manga Lovers
These three books are based on popular Japanese manga. The first two are strictly text-based novels, but if you are already familiar with the characters through manga and anime, you may be better able to visualize the characters, settings and action. The third book in this section is a reference guide to the plot, themes and character of a popular manga.
Book 13: Fullmetal Alchemist: The Land of Sand
in this novel by Makoto Inoue, two brothers, Edward and Alphonse, try to use alchemy (a combination of magic and chemistry) to bring their dead mother back to life. The ritual goes wrong and Alphonse loses his entire body, leaving his soul trapped in a suit of armour.The Land of Sand is a well-written fantasy novel describing one stage in the brothers’ quest to find the Philosopher’s Stone, which they hope can restore Alphonse’s body. They travel to a run-down mining town where they discover that two other boys have stolen their identities and are working for an alchemist trying to manufacture such stones. Edward and Alphonse battle the brothers but also need to be wary of the real intentions of the alchemist.
Book 14: Naruto—Mission: Protect the Waterfall Village
When Naruto Uzumaki was a baby, the elders in his village trapped a fox demon within his body. As a young orphan, he was considered a monster and was shunned by everyone in the village. Now an adolescent, he dreams of becoming the greatest ninja in the village so that he can be accepted and respected. This novel y Masatoshi Kusakabedescribes one of the missions undertaken by Naruto’s squad of young ninja. The book could do with more description and less dialogue, but the story does come to life during passages of action. This is when Naruto’s never-say-die attitude, creativity and strong sense of loyalty come to the fore.
Book 15: Death Note 13: How to Read
This reference book by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata should be read after you have finished the 12-volume Death Note manga series. In this manga, abrilliant student, Light Yagami, comes across a supernatural notebook and learns that if he writes someone’s name in it, that person will die. Light decides to create a better society. He thinks that by using the notebook to kill criminals he can frighten everyone in the world so that no one would dare commit a crime. If Light really can create a better world, are his actions justifiable? L, the detective trying to stop him, certainly doesn’t think so. Death Note 13 is a reference book that gives background information on the series’ themes, characters, plot ideas and design elements. It gives interesting insights into the creative process—where the inspiration for story ideas came from and how the writer, artist and editor worked together.
The above book introductions and reviews were originally published in Ming Pao as part of a series of articles written to introduce senior secondary school students to novels and non-fiction books suitable for their School-based Assessment in English.
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