Where to Start
Unlike most other AP courses, which are guided by chronology or a textbook, AP English Literature has so many options for where to start and which way to go, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. After all, there are hundreds of great books out there that you could assign your students for summer reading and throughout the year.
I'm going to suggest a failsafe strategy for coming up with an effective AP English summer reading list. It will require you to assign one piece of literary criticism and one or two texts with literary merit, whether they're canonical or contemporary. Lastly, I'll give you suggestions for how to bridge the criticism and literature successfully. If you follow this guide, you'll be starting off on the right foot, and your students will be on their way to earning 4's and 5's on their AP exams next May.
Introduction to Literary Criticism
Many of your students will have limited to no background in literary criticism, but it would behoove them to start thinking like a literary critic as soon as possible. For this reason, I strongly suggest assigning either of Thomas C. Foster’s accessible introductions to the topic: How to Read Literature Like a Professor or How to Read Novels Like a Professor. Both texts provide approachable advice for reading and understanding great literature, so you can’t go wrong with either. If, of course, you plan on assigning a piece of literature that isn’t a novel (say, Shakespeare’s King Lear, for example), you should obviously pick the former, but otherwise it’s just up to your personal preference.
Both How to Read books are broken into thematic chapters, in which Foster applies an idea to a plethora of texts as examples. In How to Read Literature, Foster starts out analyzing “quests.” He makes the claim that just about every trip in literature is really a quest through which the character (the knight, if you will) discovers self-knowledge. In the equally interesting opening chapter of How to Read Novels, Foster shows the reader just how important opening lines, pages, and chapters are to a novel, by identifying the eighteen literary elements they reveal about the book. This is exactly the kind of thinking you want to expose your AP students to, so that–eventually–it will become second nature for them.
Having students read these books in tagent with a classic or contemporary text may also be a strategy you can use. They can then use the How to Read skills they’ve learned on the text. This can be turned into a written summer assignment.
Delving into the Canon
AP Literature is primarily concerned with the classics, so it would be a good idea to expose your students to this caliber of text before they even enter your classroom. That way they'll know what to expect in regard to your course's difficulty and they'll already have one piece of great literature to discuss on day one.
My classics recommendations for AP summer reading, on the other hand, are more accessible and still bursting with literary merit. Consider one or two of these to be read in conjunction with one of Foster's criticism books:
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
- Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
- Anything by Dickens
There are plenty of other excellent choices; these are just a starting-off point. When evaluating your choice, though, consider the book's accessibility in addition to its literary merit. If you fully expect the majority of your students to hate it, it's probably not the best choice.
Embracing Contemporary Literature
While it’s true that AP Literature is primarily concerned with the classics, they aren’t its only concern. In fact, they’ve referenced plenty of pieces of contemporary fiction on their exams, including The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, American Pastoral by Philip Roth, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, among others.
There are many benefits to including a piece of quality contemporary literature on your AP English summer reading list. Firstly, your students might really appreciate it. The decline of reading is well documented, and even your brightest students probably aren’t doing it enough for pleasure. Their course loads and extra curricular activities take up a huge amount of their time. I hope you’ll agree that we don’t want them to leave high school thinking that their only choices in literature are dense classics (however impressive they might be) and frivolous pop fiction, like Twilight. You have the opportunity to expose them to another category of great books: the contemporaries. There are certainly plenty of excellent novels written every year; introduce your students to one of them.
Another benefit of including a contemporary piece on your summer reading list is that it will force your students to do their own analysis. Unfortunately, due the abundance of study aids available online and in print, some students don’t even read the books assigned to them. Instead they read summaries and analysis on sites like SparkNotes. If you pick a newer novel, you may be able to take away their crutch, and they’ll have to do their own thinking. Keep in mind, though, that if this is a big concern of yours, you should check to see if SparkNotes already covers the work you’re considering assigning. Also, if SparkNotes does cover the book, read the SparkNotes version before you grade the assignment (or create an assignment) and bring your classes discussion and focus to the aspects of the text that were not covered. This will teach your students that they cannot just read SparkNotes early on. The Handmaid’s Tale and All the Pretty Horses fall into this category.
Here are a few other AP-worthy contemporary texts that you might consider:
- The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
- The Known World by Edward P. Jones
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
Once you've selected your titles, you want to build a bridge from the literary criticism to the literature itself. You can make this part of the summer project or give out the assignment when students enter your class in the fall, but it's important that you require them to apply their new understanding of criticism to the text(s) that they read.
I suggest that the writing assignment be pretty short–let's say one to two pages–for your sanity and your students'. In their essay(s)–one if you only assigned one book in addition to Foster's, two if you assigned another–they should apply one of Foster's ideas to their reading. If you assigned a classic and a contemporary piece (or two classics), I suggest requiring that they have to use a different chapter from How to Read for each essay. For example, they might choose to use the chapter "Nice to Eat With You: Acts of Communion" to help dissect a scene in Jane Eyre and "…More Than It's Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence" to analyze a scene in The Known World (both chapters from How to Read Literature). Or maybe they'll use "Pickup Lines and Open(ing) Seductions or Why Novels Have First Pages" to discuss Dickens's famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities and "Never Trust a Narrator with a Speaking Part" to evaluate the reliability of the narrators in The Elegance of the Hedgehog (both chapters in How to Read Novels). Doing this exercise early on will give you invaluable insight into your students' strengths and weaknesses in both analysis and writing, and give them a bit of practice with the kind of thinking and writing they'll be doing for the rest of the year.
Now that you've got the ball rolling with an effective summer reading assignment, you're off to a successful year. Best of luck!