“There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom”
By Louis Sachar (1987). Age 9-12.
Despite the less than brilliant title this is the best children’s book in the last 40 years, in my opinion. With far more heart and humour than his better-known later work “Holes”, this novel charts the progress of Bradley Chalkers, victim of negligent parenting and teaching, who turns his life around with the help of an inspirational school counsellor. Brilliant to read aloud due to a wide cast of Bradley’s stuffed animals (his only friends at the start of the novel) and other intensely realised characters, this is one to share with your child at the end of primary or, in second language, at early secondary. A classic.
“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”
By Yuval Noah Harari (2015). Age 15-adult.
This is the best-written work of non-fiction I have ever read. We travelled with this book last summer and the whole family descended into discord as we fought to get our hands on it. Harari’s anecdotal brilliance and amazing capacity to synthesise huge swathes of history in a single paragraph, or even sentence, make this history of our species more entertaining than most fiction.
One example: he puts the case that the creation of farming and urban settlement was perhaps humanity’s greatest disaster and that we were better off as hunters and gatherers, and after you’ve finished the section you are half sure he’s right. Unless you are a full-time geographer-sociologist-linguist-archeologist-demographer-epidemiologist, Harari will open up all sorts of new ways of seeing the history of our species. How can one man master so many disciplines and then write so well?
By Jonathan Franzen (2001)
Franzen’s third and best novel still hasn’t been recognised for what it still is after 16 years: the best English-language novel of the new millennium. It’s not a jolly tale by any means (although much of it is very funny) but he has come closer than anyone I know to nailing down the truth of our world from the mid-50s to the turn of the millennium. It has the breadth of a nineteenth-century realist novel ― “Middlemarch” or “Anna Karenina”, say ― family dynamics, the wild excesses of nineties capitalism in Eastern Europe, dementia, post-structuralist literary theory, drugs, asset-stripping, and that’s just a fraction of what the novel contains.
It’s extraordinary how one novelist can know so much (Franzen is like Harari in the multiplicity of his interests and his ability to synthesise intelligently) about so many areas of modern life. He also has, for my money, the finest prose style around, often breathtakingly beautiful. The first paragraph of the novel is a miniature masterpiece in its own right. Franzen’s two subsequent novels, “Freedom” and “Purity” were both huge disappointments, for me at least. The real juice is here, in his masterpiece, “The Corrections”.
James Leader is an English teacher at the European School Luxembourg. Originally from Canterbury in the UK, he came to Luxembourg with his wife in 2000 after spending four years teaching in the US. Author of four books, his latest novel “The Venus Zone” was awarded first prize in Luxembourg’s 2016 national literary competition.