GCSE English Reading list

Over the next few weeks, we will be writing a series of reviews of books that support and develop students’ understanding of key texts. Ideal for developing understanding of literature and different texts, this GCSE English Reading list compliments reading that students will do in literature lessons. 

Reading to support learning

Reasons behind the choices

Reading lists are great, and a GCSE English reading list for students can help guide young people in their studies. Each novel in this short selection supports the reading undertaken for the GCSE syllabus. Between them, they cover key themes including race, gender and class divides; as well as spanning different time periods, genres and writing styles.

“A small fact: you are going to die… does this worry you?”

The Book Thief

Markus Zusak

The Book Thief

A story told by death.

Set in the Germany in the 1940’s, the story centres around a girl who steals books from various sources. 

As Death narrates the protagonist’s life at this time, the unusual narrative point of view brings the reader closer to the reality of living in Germany under Hitler. 

There are two problems, and only two reasons I can think of, that might prevent people/students reading The Book Thief

  1. How long it is.
  2. The first page.

At nearly 600 pages, it’s a daunting book for some students to pick up and try to read, especially when you compare it with the size of other popular books like those from John Green, (Looking for Alaska, 297 pages), or John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, 216 pages). But the pay off for pursuing the novel and investing your time to read it is worth it. While I know lots of students enjoy the challenge of reading longer books, there are many – including ‘A’ level literature students that I teach – who prefer quantity of books read over the number of pages. 

But, if you’ve got the time and the courage to get through the first page, then the rest of the novel is a masterpiece.

I do jest about the first page. Ish. I read it a while ago, only to put the book down and not return to it for a long while. The first page isn’t bad, it’s not. It’s just very clever and at that point I wanted to read something easier. That’s the brilliant thing about books though, you can pick and choose when you (re)read them. Just as you don’t always fancy putting on a skiing jacket in the middle of a summer heatwave, sometimes a book isn’t right for the frame of mind that you’re in at the time. For me, The Book Thief was a perfect example of why trying to read the books that you initially discarded can pay dividends.

Why is it very clever?

Firstly, it’s written from a really interesting narrative perspective – from Death’s point of view. By doing so, Zusak sets the tone for the rest of the book and effectively conveys the mood the novel is set in. Secondly, it’s obvious from the very first pages some of the motifs and recurring ideas that run throughout the book. Readers are immediately confronted with colour imagery, the very first sentence is that Death sees (or tries to see) ‘first the colours.’ This, coupled with the way that Death intersperses the narration with direct address and questions or facts for the reader to pay attention to, means that The Book Thief is a book that requires you to think. 

So, having slated it for being long and clever, why am I recommending it? Well, for precisely those two reasons. 

The book is long, yes, but you can’t take any of the elements away from it and it stay as good. Zusak builds sympathy for the young protagonist, and the family that she ends up living with, slowly and effectively. I think you need this slow build of tension to help you understand the context of the novel and the changes that were happening in German society in the 1930s and 40s. While you’re reading, the fear and distrust within society, not only of the Nazi regime but of neighbours too. There are moments when you’re reading when you can understand and imagine the fear that members of the German population had when the British and allied air forces bombed German cities. During primary and secondary school in the UK, children study the Blitz and the effect on the London population. Despite this, there’s very little mention of ‘Bomber’ Harris’ attacks on Dresden (25,000 German civilians dead in 4 days), or Hamburg (estimated 40,000 dead), or Berlin (Berlin alone was subjected to 363 attacks by air between 1943-1945). For these moments, I think that The Book Thief  should be on students’ reading lists, particularly those who are studying or who have an interest in history. 

The Book Thief is a novel that requires you to think from the very first page also means that there are so many opportunities for discussion. Being able to talk about novels in this way is the hallmark of a brilliant book and it’s what many writers aspire to achieve when they’re writing. So go, read, talk and enjoy. Novels like this one open our eyes to history across the world. 

The English Teacher's Opinion

book thief

“Sometimes you read a book so special that you want to carry it around with you for months after you've finished just to stay near it.”

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