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The Knowledge Schools Trust

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Books we read (or wish we read) aged 16

These are strange times for Year 11 pupils. Confined to your homes, and with GCSE exams cancelled, you may be wondering what to do with your time. However, as many a wise person has observed, within every crisis lies great opportunity. And the opportunity lying within this crisis is the time to read some great works of literature.

To that end, your teachers have recommended books that they read, or wish they had read, at 16. These are all books we have loved, and hope you will love too. To read more about each book, simply click on the title and you will be able to read a short review. Happy reading! 

Non-Fiction

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2004). Mrs Fonseka- McFarlane says…

It does cover almost everything (scientific) and does it with great fun and energy: particles to fossils and everything in between. A good read if you want to understand the sometimes-quirky ways scientists come to their findings.

Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams (2011). Mr Hatton says…

This phenomenal bestseller is packed with fascinating stories and unexpected information about the building blocks of our universe: elements. Everything in the universe is made of them, including you. Like you, the elements have personalities, attitudes, talents, shortcomings, stories rich with meaning. Here you'll meet iron that rains from the heavens and noble gases that light the way to vice. Periodic Tales is a voyage of wonder and discovery, showing that their stories are our stories, and their lives are inextricable from our own. It is science writing at its best.

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall (2015). Mr Hind says…

How did the USA become a superpower? Why do people go to war? And why are some countries rich while others are so poor? The answers to these questions and many more in this eye-opening book, which uses maps to explain how geography has shaped the history of our world. Discover how the choices of world leaders are swayed by mountains, rivers and seas - and why geography means that history is always repeating itself. Prisoners of Geography looks at the past, present and future to offer an essential guide to one of the major determining factors in world history.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Mrs Symons says…

Sapiens is a fascinating exploration of the entire history of mankind, plotting Homo Sapiens evolution from one of a group of higher apes species sitting in the middle of the food chain, to a single world dominating master and destroyer of the planet. Sapiens explores our journey to the modern world through a series of revolutions, cognitive, agricultural, industrial and currently scientific. I wish this book had been around when I was a teenager as it explains so many aspects of mankind's entire history so simply and is thoroughly enlightening and easy to read.

The Electric War by Mike Winchell (2019). Mr Norrey says…

In the mid-to-late-nineteenth century, a burgeoning science called electricity promised to shine new light on a rousing nation. Inventive and ambitious minds were hard at work. Soon that spark was fanned, and a fiery war was under way to be the first to light—and run—the world with electricity. There would be no ties in this race—only a winner and a loser. The prize: a nationwide monopoly in electric current. Brimming with action, suspense, and rich historical information, this is the rousing account of one of the world’s defining scientific competitions.

The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan (2015). Mr King says…

A fascinating re-telling of world history, highlighting the importance of Central Asia, China and India. Frankopan explains why empires rose and fell, how ideas and goods flowed around the world, and how the East is once again rising to dominate global politics, business and culture. The book made me think again about how the history I knew best – often that of Britain and the West – fitted into a global context. It also explains why Central Asia remains a political hot spot in the 21st Century.

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford (2005). Mrs Murphy says... 

The Undercover Economist is for anyone who's wondered why the gap between rich and poor nations is so great, or how to outwit Starbucks. This book offers the hidden story behind these and other questions, as economist Tim Harford ranges from Africa, Asia, Europe, and of course the United States to reveal how supermarkets, airlines, and coffee chains - to name just a few - are vacuuming money from our wallets. Harford explains how everyday events are intricate games of negotiations, contests of strength, and battles of wits. Written with a light touch and sly wit. An interesting and revealing read, particularly if you are considering studying Economics at A-level.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang (1991). Ms Thomix says…

This is an epic tale of bravery and survival told through three generations of Chinese women in the writer’s family. This compelling book describes the extraordinary lives and experiences of the three women during the time of Mao and the Communist Cultural Revolution; her grandmother - a warlord’s concubine, her mother – a young communist idealist and Chang herself. This biography transports the reader to a previously closed period and is a stunning insight into the personal experience of this family and the millions of others at this key moment in history. 

Memoir

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977). Mr Mansel Lewis says…

As a teenager, Patrick Leigh Fermor was expelled from school for holding hands with the baker’s daughter. So, he walked across Europe in a two-year journey that started when Hitler came to power in 1933. This is the first chronicle of his journey, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. A soft read in times of hard solitude. He chooses words that deepen the argument of why life is full of beauty. I have read the book three times whilst travelling solo around the world. The author’s companionship will take you through inter-war Europe as he serves up a true feast of all things exhilarating.

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959). Mr Peal says…

One of the most loved memoirs in the English language, Lee’s vivid account of growing up in the vanishing world of rural England during the 1920s has sold over 6 million copies worldwide. Lee documents his poor but loving family life as his single mother tries to keep watch over her wild, sprawling family. If you enjoy this book (which you will) you can then read Lee’s follow up memoirs As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) and A Moment of War (1991) chronicling Lee’s life as a wandering musician in Spain, and his record fighting in the Spanish Civil War. 

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933). Mr Critchley says... 

A herculean feat of investigative journalism or a genuine work of poverty-stricken autobiography? You will have to make up your own mind. I found this book fascinating and easy to read in my early twenties. It will serve you well if you ever have to wash pots to pay the bills. Could also provide you with some solace if you are ever forced to spend a long time feeling bored and trapped by circumstances beyond your control...

Going Solo by Roald Dahl (1986). Mr Budd says…

You may have grown up reading Roald Dahl’s surreal fiction, but his real life was just as fantastic and strange. Going Solo starts with Dahl, age 18, heading by boat to Tanzania to work for Shell Oil company. When war with Germany begins in 1939 Dahl is drafted into the RAF, and after learning to fly over the plains of Kenya is sent to face action in Egypt. The story of Dahl’s heroics in WWII is remarkable, and the characters that he meets are hilarious. Even more impressive is that when he finally returns home to England after 5 years away, he is just 23.

Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou (2009). Ms Courtney says…

You would be forgiven for thinking that Maya Angelou has lived a thousand lives when reading Letter to My Daughter. Maya beautifully tells us of lessons that she has learned in her colourful life, lessons of courage, bravery, kindness and lessons in faith. She encourages the reader to believe in themselves, to always be ready to learn and open to new experiences. As she writes, ‘If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.’ This book is part memoirs, part guidebook, part poetry. Completely Wonderful.

Night by Elie Wiesel (1960). Mr Thompson says…

‘Night’ is a memoir by the late Noble Peace prize winner Elie Wiesel telling the story of his imprisonment Auschwitz-Birkenau and liberation from Buchenwald. Written at a time when Holocaust memoirs were scarce, Wiesel tells a harrowing story of battling with his faith in humanity and God. A deeply moving moment is when Wiesel and fellow inmates are forced to watch a hanging of a Kapo. As the boy struggles between death and life, a man from behind screams out in anguish, “Where is God?” to which Wiesel responds, “He is there hanging there from the gallows.” This is a must read for anyone interested in History or Divinity.

Classic Fiction

Candide by Voltaire (1759). Mr MacKeith says…

Poor Candide! Raised to believe that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds’, it takes a lifetime of gross misfortune to shake his faith, including earthquakes, shipwrecks, an encounter with the Inquisition, a stint in the army and a trip to El Dorado. Candide wears its philosophy lightly but carries enduring lessons in every chapter about humanity at its best, and mostly, its worst. Few books leave quite so vivid and lasting an impression.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818). Ms Oxtoby says…

Obsessed with having the power to create life, Victor Frankenstein assembles a human being from body parts, but upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness and abandons it, leaving the creature to fend for itself. Tormented by loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator. This novel reminds us of all that man can be: powerful, virtuous, magnificent – but also vicious and base. It makes us think about what it means to be human and our responsibilities to others. I have never loved a book more.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847). Ms Hughes says…

Set in the late 18th century, Charlotte Bronte tells the story of the ‘plain’ Jane Eyre, a young governess who finds herself working at Thornfield Hall for the brooding Mr Rochester. They fall in love but Jane’s happiness is to be short-lived when she discovers that Mr Rochester has been keeping a terrifying secret from her. This classic novel contains one of the most well-known lines in literature but you’ll have to read it to find out what it is!

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). Mrs Wagner says… 

Probably the best book ever written. All is not what it seems – America unpicked. It’s short, brilliant and breath-taking.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926). Mr Watkins says...

Agatha Christie's is best known for her thrilling plots, unexpected twists and satisfying conclusions. These facets are certainly enough to make for a good read, but it is easy to pass by how quickly she manages to develop a fully rounded character. By halfway through you have a sense of these people; you care about them, feel like you have got inside what makes them tick. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is widely considered her masterpiece. Read it and then come to F37 the moment you get to the Sixth Form so that we can share the delicious shock of the reveal!

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol (1836). Mrs Clanchy says…

Major Kovalyov wakes up one morning in St Petersburg to find that his nose is missing. He is even more horrified to discover that it has taken on a life of its own in the guise of someone of superior rank to himself. This classic short story, following Kovalyov’s quest to be reunited with his nose, satirises bureaucracy and obsession with status. It is a social commentary by a Russian master of comic art.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890). Mrs Rutherford says…

Dorian Gray is a handsome, young Englishman whose innocence becomes rapidly corrupted by the decadent libertine, Sir Henry Wotton. Dorian makes a pact that he will remain youthful and beautiful while the face of his enchanted portrait becomes tainted with every sin he commits. This is Oscar Wilde’s only novel and the original uncensored version prompted outrage in Victorian England, with Wilde arguing that his novel was not meant to offend but ‘art for art’s sake.’

Contemporary Fiction (post-war)

1984 by George Orwell (1948). Mrs Frederick says…

You have read Animal Farm for your GCSEs, but that is just the warmup. 1984 is Orwell’s masterpiece. I read it just before 1984 (the year I turned 16!) and found it eerie then to see how certain aspects of the book mirrored some current events, but that’s nothing compared to parallels which could be drawn now.

Acide Sulfurique (or Sulphuric Acid) (2005) by Amélie Nothomb. Ms Rousvoal says... 

How far can reality TV go? Nothomb describes a new kind of show, using the Nazi concentration camp as a setting. We follow Pannonique in her quest for freedom and her refusal to give out her last piece of humanity.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1975). Ms Godsal says…

I absolutely adore this book and it is what first drew me into having a deep appreciation of Indian culture and its literature. The time is 1975 and the Indian government has just declared a State of Emergency, a period marked by huge political unrest and human rights violations. Four strangers including a widow, a young student and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village are thrust together. This is a novel about the indomitable human spirit; how love, compassion and friendship can shine even in the direst of environments where poverty is extreme.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961). Ms Brennan says…

A sharp, comic satire about war. The characters are American pilots based on an Italian island during WWII. The only way to avoid flying further missions (and increase the chances of staying alive) is to be found insane. But if you ask to be let off flying due to insanity, you are deemed sane, because only an insane person would willingly fly the missions… And that is the ‘Catch 22’ of the title. Sometimes it is incredibly funny, at other times it is bleak. Overall, it is a brilliant, unique book with unforgettable characters and wit. I first read it when I was 17 and have loved it ever since.

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951). Mrs Kjellberg says…

You will get to spend two days inside the head of 16-year old Holden as he battles with his longing for more freedom (timely!) and what it means to enter adulthood. I read this book when I was 17 on a foreign exchange year in the USA. That was a long time ago and I mostly remember really liking it. However, my daughter read it last year when she was aged 17, and she really liked it too!

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953). Mrs Eastwood says...

It may seem odd to recommend dystopian fiction at such a difficult time but for a Librarian, Fahrenheit 451 is particularly meaningful.  American author Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in UCLA’s Powell Library over the course of nine days. The novel’s central story is about the burning of books; Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book paper catches fire. ”Imagine what it was like to be writing a book about book burning and doing it in a library where the passions of all those authors, living and dead, surrounded me.”

His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman (1995). Mr Selth says…

Every teenager in the world should read the His Dark Materials trilogy. The story told in Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass is a saga that draws in Arctic exploration, Church intrigue, parallel worlds, sinister angels, heroic scientists, and warrior polar bears. But it’s more than just the most exciting fantasy epic ever written (yes, that’s including The Lord of the Rings). Pullman's story is also a vivid, urgent drama about the value of individual freedom, the dangers of government and religious oppression, and the extraordinary, life-changing power of love.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndam (1951). Mr Shaw says…

The world has been ravaged, not by a virus, but by a mass blinding caused by an apparent meteor shower. As human society crumbles into anarchy, the winners turn out to be triffids – alien carnivorous plants that are better adapted to the new world than blind humans and almost every other species. The description of London almost entirely occupied by the blind is frighteningly believable. Overall, the novel is a readable combination of love story & thriller, as well as an exploration of what kind of society might emerge after an apocalyptic disaster.

The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan (1991). Mrs Naidu says…

I found this a great book to read as a teenager because it exposed me to different cultures and time in a rich, heart-warming way. The story spans generations of Chinese women in a family across continents, and their clever adaptations (and little deceptions!) to a patriarchal society. You can dive into this book and traverse time and places with characters that will create wonder, make you empathise with them or disagree wildly with their ways. You will also chance upon many (deep) fortune cookie bites of wisdom, such as “Chance is the first step you take, luck is what comes afterward.”

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003). Mr Everett says…

I read the Kite Runner after finishing my GCSEs and it ignited an interest in the (then) recent history of Afghanistan. It is a hard-hitting, often dark but enthralling story set within a period of the fall of Afghanistan’s monarchy in the 1970s, the Soviet invasion and then rise of the Taliban regime. It is therefore an excellent window into Afghanistan’s turbulent recent history but also an excellent story in its own right.

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (2008). Mr Yates says…

The Secret Scripture is a prize-winning tale of loss, darkness and intrigue which focuses on a mysterious old woman who has spent most of her life in a mental institution.  Barry tells this unusual account through two narratives, her secret autobiography hidden under the floorboards and the notes from her doctor who is trying to uncover her past to see if you she could ever be released.  As the novel unravels with surprising twists and turns, we see that her fate is closely interweaved with the religious and political turmoil of Ireland.

The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller (2012). Ms Crook says…

This is a beautifully told story about the relationship between the great Greek fighter Prince Achilles and the exiled Patroclus. It’s set during the Trojan War, which many of you will be familiar with, but also encompasses other parts of the pool of stories before and after the Trojan war. It is a story of love and loss and what it means to be a hero. If you enjoy this book, you may also enjoy Miller’s follow up Circe.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958). Mr Scott says…

Set in west Africa in the late 1800s, while European colonialists were racing to invade, occupy and divide Africa, Things Fall Apart tells the story of Okonkwo as his traditional, tribal society experiences it’s first confrontation with European missionaries and colonial government. I first read this novel when I was 18 and it has stuck with me ever since. It is powerful and tragic. I hope you enjoy it.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000). Mr McLaughlin says…

“Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.” A London writer telling a London story of love, friendship and legacy. If you can overlook the choice language in places, this is one of those stories where you carry the voice of the characters around in your head for years afterwards.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966). Ms Duggan says…

This was inspired by Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre", to which it is seen as a feminist and anti-colonial response. The brief story moves from Jamaica in the 1830s, shortly after the abolition of slavery, to Dominica and finally, England. Antoinette recounts her life from childhood, to her arranged marriage to an unnamed Englishman. Always the outsider; despised by locals because of her family’s slave-owning past and by her husband because she is Creole. The sense of place and descent into madness is sensitively presented.  It is a novel that bears repeated reading.

 
Poetry 

Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest (2013). Ms Brennan says...

Winner of the 2013 Ted Hughes Poetry Award. The title comes from a poem by William Blake (also recommended). Tempest is a spoken word performer, and her writing crackles with life and energy and rhythm, as she makes her biting observations on modern life.  Her work has generated huge debates about what poetry is, and what it should do. She's definitely memorable, and she's made a strong mark on contemporary poetry through her festival performances and recordings. 

 Selected Poems by Edward Thomas (1927). Ms Brennan says... 

Wonderful poems about love, nature and Thomas' harrowing experiences as an older volunteer during WWI, which he sadly didn't survive. Thomas' writing is really beautiful, and contains one of my favourite opening lines to any poem: 'Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain' in which he reflects upon the experience of listening to the rain whilst stuck in France during WWI, far from his loved ones, and uncertain of the future. If you enjoy his poems, I also recommend the brilliant biography by Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France. 

The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin (1964). Mr Bacchi-Andreoli says…

This was the book that as a teenager really got me into poetry. It was very accessible, simple but also profound. The poems touch on subtle observations of the everyday. The late John Betjeman observed that 'this tenderly observant poet writes clearly, rhythmically, and thoughtfully about what all of us can understand'.

Photography by Eleanor Bentall and Peter Mason