The Best Novels

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34 thoughts on “The Best Novels”

  1. Intermediate: Problemas en Paraíso (has violent aspects, but grabs interest)

    Very few of my students read anything willingly in any language. I introduce characters for some books using pictures from Spanish telenovela stars (includes teenagers) put onto powerpoint. These are used to re-cap from time to time: what happened to Carlos yesterday? …. They really do come to think that the pics are the characters. These students are not use to doing that in their heads when they read in English.

    This especially worked for Piratas, because the pics were from a telenovela with that theme and it made it more real for them. Since novela stars tend to be attractive, this interests the guys and the girls in the class. Essentially it turns some books into graphic novels, which captures and holds the interest.

    1. Ardythe – where do you get the pics – who are the telenovela stars? (up here in Maine we don’t have any Spanish TV, so no telenovelas — will have to google for them!) 🙂

  2. C`mon guys! I would love to hear from more people about which books work best! I am looking to teach my first novels this year and want to pick winners!

  3. Beginning: Pobre Ana and El nuevo Houdini

    So… I have not taught many novels yet, this being my second year doing TPRS. I have found that I have a hard time getting the interest up with Pobre Ana, but I do think it builds confidence when the kids are able to understand nearly everything on the page. Last year I was doing Friday as novel day, but it seemed to drag on. I finally just had them read on their own with very little discussion to finish it.

    I did like Houdini more than Pobre Ana. Last year I did Pobre Ana about the beginning of October and Houdini the second semester. I was only doing Spanish 1 at the time. I am not sure what I’ll do this year.

  4. Spanish II: Mi propio auto.

    Tons of PQA:
    What is popularity?
    Do you drive? What is your dream car? Would you be embarrassed to drive a minivan to school?
    What is it to be rich?
    What is it to be poor?
    What makes one happy?
    What is a luxury and what is a necessity?
    What makes a culture?
    What is a civilization?
    What are stereotypes of Americans? What are stereotypes of El Salvadorians?
    What does it mean to work?
    Do Americans take education for granted? How does our system compare to El Salvador?

    *I just realized that every post I have tried to do from school this semester doesn’t work. I think the school blocked me from posting to our forum. Then I get pissed off and I don’t retype what I write.

  5. I like Isabela with my 6th grade.
    Have read Piratas and Houdini with 7th-8th grade.
    Looking for a advanced book for my intermediate/advanced adult class. Thinking of Hija del Sastre, Vida y muerte con la mara salvatrucha, or la guerra sucia… Any thoughts on these?

  6. I really really really need something compelling for French 2. Does anyone know of anything that is not Houdini, Pirates, Le Vol des Oiseaux??? I hesitate on Nuits Mysterieuses without having read it because the Spanish version flopped last year. I know, different group, but it gives me cold feet. Maybe I will read it and change my mind. I can’t use any of the other books because of multiple disasters last year.

    But I am a bit desperate at the moment. I need something for this group to read!

    1. Didn’t Drew put a vote in for My Own Car? I too am looking under rocks for a book to follow Houdini with at level 2. I’ll ask Diana also. For me the book must be slightly below their level, to give them confidence. I am glad I held off on reading last year with this current level 2 group. They read Houdini very well. We do a chapter of that book a day easily. The order of those classes is:

      1. They read silently for ten minutes.
      2. We translate out loud together with auditory spin off discussions and a few grammar points (“Class, what does ent mean? That’s right, it means they”). That takes around 20 minutes.
      3. Quiz writtem by a super star during the SSR to start class – 5 min. (10 yes/no easy questions)
      4. Dictee – they love this – for the remaining ten minutes of class.

      Anyone feeling the October pressure, do that. Seriously, it’s so easy. Why get all bent out of shape over stories when you can do R and D. (The only problem is level one classes need to hear lots of stories before they can read, but this plan works well at levels two and above.)

  7. They read Houdini very well. We do a chapter of that book a day easily.

    Ben, I’m not well acquainted with Houdini, so I need a clarification. Are you covering five chapters per week in this book, or by “per day” did you mean “per Friday”? Thanks!

  8. We have moved up the pace to one chapter a day. It is the result of massive amounts of stories and readings from those stories all through level 1 last year. They can read because they have heard so much interesting comprehensible input in the form of stories before we launched this reading initiative a week ago. Just like the way small kids learn to read. I asked Krashen about it and he said that he only did the research and it was up to “you guys” – I think is what he said – to decide how to apply his research. I told him for me it meant using the first 125 hours of my instruction (year one) for auditory comprehensible input with very little focus on novels until the next year. It is playing out really well. Houdini is below their level, so giving them great confidence, three of the kids are now reading a level 2/3 Blaine novel because they finished Houdini, we do dictées on passages from the book, they get high grades on the quizzes the Quiz Writer writes during the first ten minutes of class SSR, and it is a nice very easy/relaxed experience for us all. We just enjoy the routine so much and class flies by. I will return to stories, but these kids are so good at them, and they need to learn to read and write better, that this is a good thing to be doing right now. Their confidence is way up, and, when that is the case, my stress levels are way down. I have been going to work for the first time in my life, really, in a totally relaxed way. The simplicity piece in this sequence is just there. I wrote in an earlier comment here tonite that the sequence is:

    1. They read silently for ten minutes.
    2. We translate out loud together with auditory spin off discussions and a few grammar points (“Class, what does ent mean? That’s right, it means they”). That takes around 20 minutes.
    3. Quiz writtem by a super star during the SSR to start class – 5 min. (10 yes/no easy questions)
    4. Dictée – they love this – for the remaining ten minutes of class.

  9. I am reading Esperanza with my level 2’s and 3’s right now (I know it’s easy for the level 3’s, but I just got the class set and I want them to read it. I’ll let you all know how it goes after we’re done. but right now, I love it. The plot is personal to me, given the Guatemalan population around here and the Postville raid a few years back that brought us closer together. Also, it will be a great segwey (sp?) to our migration unit we do.

    1. Finished Esperanza with levels 2 and 3, then watched El Norte (shorter version), then watched the first 20 minutes of Voice of a Mountain, then later watched La Misma Luna, all over a three week period (block classes). Great sequencing and learning about reasons people migrate and what it entails. And some good comprehension questions online for La Misma Luna. Next time I watch this, which I will do, I will print out some mug shots of the main characters and use them to talk about the characters before/during/after watching the film.

      1. Where did you get the “shorter version” of El Norte? I have never heard of it. I need to purchase a new one bc the only one I have is VHS and the school dumped all of the old-school VHS players. Is it available online? I didn’t see it on Netflix but I didn’t look anywhere else.

        Did you do all the films with both groups? Just curious. Did you do “movie talk” or something similar during the film viewing? Sorry for all the questions but I really want to explore immigration with my students in a more structured (and finite) way than I have in the past, and I got the Esperanza readers too. I was thinking of using one of those films but hadn’t thought of using both. I tend to branch off too much and then we end up in the same “unit” (if I can even call it that) for 4-5 weeks. Yikes!

        Separate subject but not really–ever seen the movie “Sugar?” It is about Dominican baseball players and MLB and farm leagues, etc. Lots of the same immigration issues but with the baseball twist. Great film!

        1. Sugar is great!!!!! (may be some scenes that need editing..trying to remember…drinking maybe? I haven’t seen it in a year or two..) I’m using it later in the year with Felipe Alou!! The “shortened” version of El Norte was available via Teachers’ Discovery at one point….

          with love,

        2. I did not watch El Norte or the segment from Voice of a Mountain with my level 3’s, because they had already seen them and had the immigration unit. I did read Esperanza with them and we watched La Misma Luna, simply because those were both new to me this year and I thought they would enjoy them and learn from them, which they did.

          Jen, I basically make up my mind that we’ll take off one week of CI (even though they’re getting input via the films and discussion of them) for the immigration unit. That way I can have a serious discussion with them about the subject in English, for a couple days, talking about the citizenship process and test, and the HUGE history lesson that Voice of a Mountain affords (it’s mostly in Spanish with English subtitles). Another good film that I’m thinking about buying is Harvest of Empire, released just this year, based on the book by Juan Gonzalez of the same title.

          My logic is not necessarily correct on this, but I kind of try to separate the real immigration discussion/lessons from the rest of our class, so that our normal CI routines and rules are not confused when we start speaking in English.

          I do want to learn more about “movie talk” and I still need to go read/watch that link that was posted a couple weeks ago. I think it will make films like El Norte and La Misma Luna more CI-justified. I usually just rush right through them with a little discussion before and after, but not as much as I would like.

  10. Thanks for the link Laurie, I’ll check that out soon.

    Re La Misma Luna, I just did a Google search for the title and “activities” or “questions” or something tlike that, and got a really nice list of over 30 questions, comprehension questions (but it’s the first half of the movie only).

    Sugar! Sounds great. I read Felipe Alou and I think that a lot of students would connect with that story. I liked reading it. I learned a lot. Like with Rebeldes de Tejas. Really taught me some important history, with a good storyline. Funny, I really enjoy doing this thing (reading) that I ask my students to do, even the same “simple” material. I never had that feeling when I was teaching from the textbook. Never.

  11. I’m with you Jim! My Spanish has improved so much more since I have been reading even these simple novels!!! I, too, love the history within them, as I am also certified to teach SS. I wish I was creative enough to write a book! I know the “facts” but don’t know how to make a story out of them!! 🙁 Someday…..

    I have a great packet on La Misma Luna — I found it somewhere on the net — when I find it I will send it to you. I show it every year to the second half of Spanish 1, but I never seem to have the “time” then to do all the activities sheets!

    Laurie: I *LOVE* your website!! You are a GENIUS!!!!

  12. I’m in my first year of TPRS and have high school Spanish levels 1 and 2. We just finished Las Aventuras de Isabela in 1 and El Viaje de Su Vida in 1 and are now beginning Pobre Ana in 1 and Pobre Ana Bailo Tango en 2. I’d like to do a better job with this second round.

    In the comments, I think I hear two approaches. One: Read the novel straight through, every day, with questions and discussions following each daily reading, and finish within a couple of weeks. Two: Read the novel only a couple of days each week, doing other CI/story asking the remaining days, and finish the novel within maybe a month. For the first novels I used the second approach but it seemed a little scattered. In my own reading at home, I would never pick up a novel just a couple of days a week.

    I also wonder about the translation. Whole group translation line-by-line with a pointer? Reading the whole segment aloud in L1 after ten minutes of SSR with chapter summaries and a focus on vocabulary and grammar points? No translation at all but lots of PQA?

    I’d greatly appreciate any advice on this, or guidance to another place on the site where it’s already been addressed. Thanks so much to all the contributors and to Ben for hosting!

  13. Dana there is a Reading Novels category on this page.

    Personally, when I am doing stories, as described in another recent post here, the kids read the novel as SSR for the first ten minutes of class on Monday through Thursday, which then take this form:

    Monday PQA
    Tuesday story
    W/Th reading and discussion of the class-created story

    [Monday and Tuesday may overlap. I may shorten the PQA if the words don’t lend themselves to lively PQA and start the story on Monday and end it Tuesday. Of course, at the end of the day on Tuesday, I have to end the story with about 20 min. left in class to talk about the artist’s work, give the quiz, and maybe do some work with dictee. Then I take what the Story Writer has given me and create the reading for W/Th. Note that the end of the day on Thursday is a good time for a ten min. freewrite. It fits well there bc they have just been reading for two days.]

    Then, on Friday, we discuss the chapters in the novel that the kids read that week during SSR to start each class. We translate a few sentences, no more than a paragraph, and then discuss it, occasionally throwing in a grammar point*.

    When I don’t have that particular kind of energy needed for a week of storytelling work, I like to just go to the Susan Gross continuous reading of the novel for the entire week. I follow the same Friday pattern described above but we do it each day of the week – silent reading for ten minutes, translation and discussion of content and grammar.

    It’s like a cycle where they read in silence, we chorally translate it in chunks of a few sentences (up to a paragraph), discuss that, and roll through the novel that way. I employ my Quiz Writer in the same way as I do in stories and often give ten point scantron quizzes daily, but not always processing them into the gradebook since I am a lazy person.

    [I use jGR in reading classes as well. In stories, I watch them to see their levels of engagement. In reading, I stroll the aisles and listen to them when we do the choral translation work together. So in stories I grade them on what I SEE them doing and in reading I grade them on what I HEAR them saying (no sounds from them as we chorally translate is a zero on jGR) as well as what I see when we read and discuss the text.]

    *We NEVER use grammar terms to do this. I go no further than saying, “Class, look at the nt on the end of that verb. What does it mean? That’s right, it means they. Class, look at the ant on the end of that verb. What does it mean? That’s right, it means ing in English. Good.” And then we move on.

  14. Here is what our department did last year (accelerated courses on the quarter system, in other words students finish two years of Spanish in one calendar year):

    Spanish 1
    – Pobre Ana – kids lost interest in the plot, but good repetition
    Spanish 2
    – Esperanza – kids needed more background information to empathize with illegal immigration and Esperanza’s situation
    – El Nuevo Houdini – great read to circle preterite/imperfect, and a really good plot that caught my kid’s interest. Light-hearted story with lots of twists and turns.
    – Problemas en Paraíso – in my opinion, the plot had the highest amount of buy-in as students read. TONS of action, and the plot ties together well from beginning to end. We had students make murals representing each chapter as we read since there are many symbols in the novel
    Spanish 3
    – Vida y Muerte en la Mara Salvatrucha – short book with advanced structures, but lots of student buy-in with the plot. I was able to do some creative writing with students being “detectives” as they read
    Spanish 4
    – Esperanza – same situation, the students needed more context
    – Rebeldes de Tejas – decent plot, but a bit heavy with history. Didn’t see the plot buy-in reaction compared to other novels
    – La Guerra Sucia – advanced structures and buy-in, it reads almost as a mystery novel as readers are constantly on their toes trying to predict what will happen next.

    This year, in Spanish 3 we have been reading Felipe Alou Desde Los Valles Hasta Las Montañas. It’s a pretty easy read for the 3’s, and it contains many good concepts (important verbs, past tense, subjunctive). The plot ties in El Corte (massacre of Haitians during Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic), discrimination, and racism during the 50’s in the USA. We are able to analyze history and also discuss heavier topics since the novel facilitates it easily. For the second half of Spanish 3, I’m thinking of doing Rebeldes de Tejas. Then for Spanish 4, Mara Salvatrucha, La Hija del Sastre, and La Guerra Sucia. Hope this was helpful!

  15. I feel very strongly about this. Here is my criteria for a “good” Spanish novel for the CI classroom:

    1. keeps vocabulary level appropriate (there are too many level 2-3 books masquerading as level 1)
    2. A compelling story
    3. Significant cultural and/or cultural context
    4. Book format (including pictures and/or illustrations)

    I teach Spanish, and I am putting this out there for Spanish teachers. Sorry that many of these discussed are not available.

    The reading level is my own personal analysis and may or may not agree with the way it is marketed. *indicates I have used it in my level 1-2 classroom.
    + indicates I am planning to use it in the future.
    -indicates that I will not use it in the future.

    I have read and evaluated potentially every level 1-2 book suggested on this list and find that very few keep language sheltered to the point that satisfies me (and I am very surprised not you also, Ben, considering your emphasis on staying IN BOUNDS)
    I’m no expert on organization, but here is the list I would give. All criticism is intended in a constructive way to benefit the students of those teachers that would use the books in their classroom.
    1. (ultra-beginner) Agentes secretos y el mural de Picasso by Mira Canion.
    I have been thoroughly impressed by the language and the creative and culturally significant way in which it is used. Great pictures, and a very helpful teacher’s guide. Amazing, Mira!*+
    2. (ultra-beginner) Tumba by Mira Canion. This book really tries to get you in the mind of a Mexican teen dealing with the importance of family ties and the animism of the amerindian influence. Once again, much like Agentes, the language is introduced smoothly and intuitively. It connects the present to the past. AND it makes a great easy confidence building read for Spanish 2ers as you celebrate Day of the Dead. Great pictures, too. As of yet, no materials available aside from the book.*+
    3. (novice mid-high) Piratas del Caribe y el mapa secreto
    To dismiss a novel because it doesn’t have a plot that can be reduced to a simple sentence seems a bit harsh to me, Ben. It really is a swashbuckler, and swashbuckling involves a bit of complexity, and it would be worse for the wear without it. I found Piratas was amazing for teaching during 2nd semester of Spanish 1. It has an AMAZING book on tape, also. It has music, sound effects, a robust voice cast, and a B-movie flare that makes the goofy part of Spanish class shine. I couldn’t imagine passing it by.*+
    4. (Novice mid-high) Esperanza by Carol Gaab
    I like the way that it tells a true story in a compelling way, in the first person, and presents a point of view of immigration not often considered. Common core emphasizes the importance of nonfiction.+
    5.(Novice high) Robo en la noche by Kristy Placido
    I was greatly impressed by the way that cultural products and practiced were so well integrated into the story set in Costa Rica. Ecology related discussion facilitates curriculum connections.
    6. (Novice high) Felipe Alou desde los valles a las montañas
    Another great nonfiction that showcases baseball in the Caribbean and deals with racial discrimination.
    7. (Novice high) Noches misteriosas en Granada by Kristy Placido
    I enjoyed this read and felt like I understood the moorish area of Spain a bit better.
    8. (Novice high-intermediate low) Rival.
    This great little novel takes place in moorish Spain back in the age of the Reconquista. It respects both the muslims and christians, which is awesome. Most importantly, it focuses intensely on selected verb tenses. I also think it has the best love story told of any of the ones I’ve read. It seems like each one tries to a certain extent.+

    Those are the books I would love to try in the future, if I haven’t already.

    Here is my gripe-list, and a little bit about why:

    Pobre Ana.
    While I appreciated the believability and connection to high school life in Mexico, my qualms are that the formatting is a bit boring, some chapters are long-winded, some vocabulary is low frequency and seems like it could have been avoided. I do respect that, without it, we wouldn’t have the wealth of books we currently have. That being said, I had students that made me promise never to use it again. I’m sure that’s mainly on me, but it was hard to get as motivated for Ana as I was for Agentes or Piratas. *-

    Problemas en Paraiso
    This book’s vocab was misleadingly complex. I felt that a resort is fairly inauthentic for the setting, and the illustrations contributed very little to the book’s appeal.

    El Nuevo Houdini
    When I sat down to map out how I would teach all the vocab, I found it introduced too much too quick for use in my classroom. While the plot and setting sets itself up to be translated into so many languages, I feel that the other options out there are much more tailored for use in a Spanish classroom.

  16. Thanks for the reviews Joe. It is incredibly helpful.

    Speaking from my own (very limited experience) I taught Houdini and Esperanza last year in my Spanish B (like a 1B, 2nd year but 1st of TPRS) class. We did Houdini in January and then Esperanza in April. From my perspective Esperanza is much more interesting, culturally authentic, and compelling. It is non-fiction and I also liked that it is mainly in the 1st person, which was something that my students were not getting enough input on.

    However, my kids loved Houdini. It was completely relatable for my 13-15 year old suburban kids. They loved to make fun of how dumb Brandon was, and to imagine outlandish scenarios that the book didn’t even hint at – but all this was possible because it spoke to them. There was definitely some vocabulary that I didn’t prepare them for well enough ahead of time, but it really didn’t negatively impact the reading of the book because the buy-in was so great.

    The big knock on Houdini is that it doesn’t enrich the kids culturally at all because it is set in a “typical” suburban American setting and not in anywhere “authentic”. But can’t that also be a strength? I found that the kids bought in because everything that happend in the book could happen to my students or their friends. None of my students drove yet, but the desire to drive Dad’s T-bird resonated with them in a way that Esperanza’s desire to reunite her family didn’t.

    1. My second year students also really liked “Houdini.” It was great for doing essential sentences illustrations. I agree about the vocabulary, though. The first chapter was all review vocabulary, but a lot was thrown in quickly after that. I had them read it in the past tense; I liked that the book had both present and past tense included.

  17. Thank you for this list. This year I will either be teaching K-8 at a Catholic school and (public) HS Spanish 1, or K-8 (maybe) at a different Catholic school, and Spanish 3 and 4/AP at the public HS. I have never taught at a HS level and have ordered and read most of the books. I still need to see Mira Canion’s Agentes Secretos and Tumba. I have really never used a novel, but would love to as I really did enjoy many of these and also found my Spanish improving. As far as showing La Misma Luna with the classes, I have shown Which Way Home (a documentary that follows teenaged children on trains to get to the US) with an 8th grade class, and they loved it. They were so engaged, and it’s great because there is a facebook page, and you can see what happened after the movie was filmed. There is really nothing objectionable and it gives a new twist on immigration. The 14 and 17 year olds want to go to the US to get adopted. It’s a great discussion on why people want to come to the US and what would actually happen to these children if they made it. Would they get adopted why or why not? They main boy they follow is 14 and is very poor, but has a cell phone to call his mother to let her know his whereabouts. It shows coyotes taking a nine year old girl and a younger boy, but on facebook, the filmmakers do not know whatever became of them. It’s available on Netflix streaming if anyone has it.
    I know this is a little off topic, but I always hear about La Misma Luna being shown to support novels on immigration, and I just think this movie fits so much better. It’s mostly in Spanish as well. (My first comment, thank you so much for all help you have unknowningly given me : )


  18. I’m bringing this back up because I have money from my department to spend and was looking for good novels. French Level 1 or level 2 suggestions are appreciated. 🙂 Thanks!

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