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Teaching the Novella

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English Teacher

Too often high school teachers serve up the same “classic” novels that have weighed down the literary canon for decades. You know the culprits: The Great Gatsby, A Tale of Two Cities, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Grapes of Wrath, to name a few. These are all great books; they deserve to be read. But it’s important, too, that teachers search outside the box.

I’ve found great success with novellas and short novels in two ways. The nightly reading required to get through a longer novel too often stretches it out into a month or more. My experience is that interest severely flags around two-and-a-half weeks—which is about the time it takes to get through a shorter form. The novella is often called “the bastard child” of literature. For publishers, they are impossible to sell because readers are confused by their length. But there are plenty of good ones out there.  Here are some suggestions:

  1. First Love by Ivan Turgenev (1860).  The protagonist, falling in love for the first time, is sixteen, so students can relate to him.
  2. Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe (1959). The headmaster of a reform school discovers that one of his charges has natural ability as a long distance runner. He enlists the lad to help the school win a competition—this rebellious petty criminal must decide whether he’ll work with or against the headmaster.
  3. The Assault by Dutch writer Harry Mulisch (1982) is the tale of a boy who is “arrested” by the Nazis because his parents are suspected of being collaborators (they are not). They are separated and the parents killed. The novel follows the protagonist’s coming to terms with this tragedy as he grows to manhood. The first section of the book is impossible to put down.
  4. The Train by Frenchman Georges Simenon (1958). Here’s another story of separation, but from an entirely different perspective. The protagonist and his family flee northern France as the Germans approach in 1940. He gets separated from his pregnant wife and young daughter and falls in love with a mysterious young woman. After a blissful two weeks, the protagonist must decide whether to try to locate his family.

A final word: Novellas are often a good way to fill in a gap at the end of a semester, when there’s not enough time to do a long novel or play. A good place to begin your search for novellas is Melville Press, which specializes in them.