LIT UP by David Denby


One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives.
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Teenagers encounter great books and dedicated teachers.

New Yorker staffer Denby (Do the Movies Have a Future?, 2012, etc.) believes ardently that reading affords pleasure, “an opening to a wider life,” and enhanced “understanding of other people and oneself.” He wondered, though, whether reading will survive for children inundated with increasing technology. Will they stop texting and read a book? How, he asks, “does the appetite for serious reading get created?” The author decided to investigate by sitting in on a 10th-grade English class at Beacon, a magnet school in Manhattan. After a year of attending classes and reading all the assigned material, he expanded his project by visiting two other public high schools: the inner-city James Hillhouse High School in New Haven and the suburban Mamaroneck High School in Westchester. Beacon, though, and in particular the class taught by energetic, 30-year-old Sean Leon, is Denby’s central focus. Admission to Beacon is competitive, based on grades, a portfolio of schoolwork, and an interview. With students motivated to excel and teachers free to shape their own curriculum, it’s hardly surprising that Denby came away impressed—and he ably conveys his enthusiasm to readers. In the two other schools as well, though, the author found that by teaching “aggressively and flexibly, with humor and dramatic power,” teachers can generate students’ passion for reading. He sees students taught to read actively: responding to readings through journals, annotations, marked-up copies of texts—all of which the teacher reads, comments on, and sometimes grades. At Mamaroneck, a “get-them-reading strategy” requires students to keep a yearlong journal of independent reading, including romance fiction and graphic novels. At Hillhouse, where many students struggle, Denby witnessed a fiery conversation about To Kill a Mockingbird deftly handled by an encouraging, but tough, teacher.

An upbeat portrait of fine teachers and the students they inspire.

Pub Date: Feb. 2nd, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9585-2
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2015


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