Review by Haili Hughes

Senior lecturer, University of Sunderland and Director of education, IRIS Connect

21 Apr 2024, 5:00


Reading Lessons: The books we read at school, the conversations they spark and why they matter

By Carol Atherton


Fig Tree




4 Apr 2024

Over the past ten years, there has been an explosion of teachers writing books, shedding light on how they use research in their own classrooms or sharing great ideas for strategies. I have read hundreds of these and come away with practical tips and tricks I could implement in my classroom. What Reading Lessons gave me, however, is much richer.

Carol Atherton has penned a glorious exploration of one of the most important things in my life: books. She has also woven a rich tapestry about English teaching, which not only made me proud to have served in the classroom for over fifteen years, but made me long to return.

I read Reading Lessons on a long flight to the US to speak at a conference. As a nervous flyer, I was looking for something to take my mind off the bumps and whirrs of the plane engine. Luckily, this beautiful book had me hooked from the start – a sort of paean to books and how they help to open up a window to the world for readers.

It took me back to my own childhood, where books were sparse and reading books like A Secret Garden or Little Women transported me away from my council house, with no central heating. Atherton’s descriptions of the books in her classroom stock cupboard were so vivid that I could almost hear the scraping of the chairs in my own classroom. It brought me almost to tears.

This book is personal. Each chapter focuses on a book which has made an impact on the author, and an issue which lies within its pages. Literature shapes lives and Reading Lessons highlights how books influence our beliefs. Atherton skilfully brings to life the books she teaches through recalling her classroom interactions and approaches, but she also weaves in contextual discussions and reveals her own personal struggles, all of which bring the texts she is writing about to life.

Atherton has a stunning way of using books to make connections between the present and the past, demonstrating their unique role in binding us all generationally as well as the universality and relevance of literature’s themes through the ages.

It isn’t all sepia-tinted nostalgia. The book doesn’t shy away from complexity

Yet it isn’t all sepia-tinted nostalgia. The book doesn’t shy away from the debates and complexity of English teaching and, quite rightly, there are discussions about race in Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird which acknowledge that English teachers have a profound responsibility to get their text choices right.

Perhaps what affected me most about this book was how similar the author’s life has been to mine. We grew up in the same area, both felt like misfits and wanted to escape and then later in life, both suffered with infertility.

As mentioned in Reading Lessons, in The History Boys, Hector talks about coming across something in a book which you had thought special or peculiar to you and the feeling, on seeing these things put down by somebody you’d never met, as being almost like their ‘hand has come out and taken yours’. This is how this book made me feel, as if I was seeing myself reflected in its pages.

I have been out of the classroom for three years now and Reading Lessons evoked memories of the amazing students I met and the real differences we make as teachers. Books can’t change the world alone, but those who they inspire can and that is why English teachers really matter. They are future makers, who help to inspire students to make a difference to the world. What a wonderful teacher Atherton must be; her passion, commitment, and her love for the books she teaches are writ large on every page.

This is not just a book for English teachers, or even just for teachers. It is an ode to the incomparable power of literature. Anyone who ever read a book – in class or anywhere else – and was profoundly changed by the experience will relish it. As such, it is one of the few education books which should break through to the mainstream.

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