Inventions That Changed The World (David Maule) Intermediate
Speaking personally, I found this book quite interesting - but then I'm a regular reader of scientific magazines. Particular high points were the stories of people who broke bones and worse in failed early attempts at manned flight. I also had no idea how well balloons could fly long before the Wright brothers - crossing the English Channel in 1784. Even a science buff such as me found some of the detail a bit random and unnecessary, though, e.g. precise figures for the speed and distance of the Wright brothers' second flight. The other chapters deal with printing, mathematics, navigation etc. Unfortunately, my students who read this book found it quite difficult and not so interesting - but it might be good with Technical English students or others who are interested in history or technology.
The book has 3 pages of activities, some use of black and white pictures, and a word list at the back.
Schindler's List (retold by Nancy Taylor) Advanced
The most interesting thing about this book for me was how different it was to the film - for example, it starts right at the beginning of Schindler's life. My students who had seen the film or got it out on video to watch it after said the same thing. Those who had not seen the film found the book somewhat difficult to understand, and most of those who also had little understanding of the whole topic of the holocaust found it too difficult to finish. Other students were very complimentary about it, though, in terms of both interest and language learning.
The book has a brief introduction, a map and 4 pages of activities.
The Amazon Rain Forest (Bernard Smith) Elementary
This is another book where how interesting the students find the topic and how much they already know about it has a great effect on their ability to read and enjoy it. Great care has obviously been taken to make the content easy to understand, with short sentences, colour pictures, only 25 pages of content, lots of short chapters, a quiz and a comic strip. There are also less than 20 difficult words that are clearly not Elementary level (all given in the word list at the back of the book). Even so, most of my Elem students struggled with this book, and whether they persevered depended mainly on how interesting they found chapter headings such as Life of the Kayapo. There is a very strong environmentalist message.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (retold by Fiona Beddall) Beginner
Unlike the books with a mixed reception above, this book was as much a hit with students who initially turned up their noses at the cover and tried romantic books or non-fiction first as it was with the students who had read the story in their own language before and chose this book first. Again, supreme efforts have been made to simplify the story, and even students who had never read anything in English before managed to finish it in a couple of weeks. As with the other books above, it was not the language used that provided the difficulty in comprehension. This time it was the plot which some were confused by, as the loose ends are not really tied up at the conclusion. Having said that, the fact that the ending allows you to use your imagination and that low level students are able to use their limited language to understand quite a complicated plot was motivating for most students.
The book has a few full-page colour illustrations with captions, a word list and activities at the back, and an introduction at the front that explains the setting of the story and why it was even more amazing when Jules Verne wrote it - at a time when submarines and televisions existed only in his imagination.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (retold by Chris Rice) Pre-Intermediate
Talking of plots that are difficult to understand, even as a native speaker I found the twists and turns of this Shakespeare comedy difficult to follow when I first read the original. The problem is not just that it has more backstabbing and double crossing than a Brazilian soap opera, but that much of this is achieved through magic and changes of identity. This means that even students who are following what is written might have difficulty believing that they have understood because the story seems so unlikely that they think they are missing something. This book was chosen first by many students, perhaps because they are the sort of language learner who is most motivated to learn a language by wanting to experience great works of art in the original and this is the closest most of them are likely to get in the near future. The few that did finish the book certainly felt some sense of achievement, but that was lessened by the fact that they were not really sure they had understood what they had managed to read. Reading it myself, I was most impressed by the way they had managed to simplify the language but still keep some element of the old-fashioned and poetic feel of the original.
In summary, if you want to find books for your students that they will read through to the end, go on to read others after and make sure they learn lots of language from the experience, there are several factors you will need to bear in mind. The most important is feeling they have a reason to read the book, e.g. having an interest in the topic or having that interest stimulated by something you do in class. Secondly, you will need to make sure that the challenge is at the right level. This does not just depend on the level of the students and of the language in the book, but also on how well individual students respond to a challenge. Generally, though, the easier the story is to understand for the students the more they will be able to notice the language used and therefore improve their vocabulary level etc. This often means having a plot with no more than one major twist, avoiding surreal and unbelievable elements, and it often helps if it is a story that the students are at least half familiar with (through having seen the film etc). I can recommend all the books above for your school library, the difficult part is matching the right book to the right person.
Alex Case has worked as an EFL Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Director of Studies and EFL Editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, the UK and Japan. Alex Case is Reviews Editor of TEFL.net.