By Teachers, For Teachers
Samuel Clemens, the man who would write under the name Mark Twain, was born on November 30th, 1835. In celebration of his 177th birthday, we’ve put together a teacher’s guide to the great American novelist’s work. Not only is Twain’s writing among the most respected American literature, his funny, adventurous work is of perennial interest to students. The list below recommends one of Twain’s major works for each grade from 6 to 12. Although Twain is one of the great figures of American literature, his writing is sometimes considered vulgar—we recommend reading anything you plan on assigning before your students do!
Grade 6: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
One of Twain’s earliest novels, Tom Sawyer is also a great place to start exploring his work. Despite some regional, period language, Tom Sawyer is accessible to Grade 6 students reading on level. The adventure story—involving theft, buried treasure, and attempted murder—may not be appropriate for all students, so as always, use your best judgment when assigning or suggesting the book.
Other suggestions: The Prince and the Pauper; Tom Sawyer Abroad
Grade 7: The Prince and the Pauper
Twain’s novel The Prince and the Pauper tells a story that has since become the basis for uncountable books, films, and television episodes. A Prince and an impoverished child who happen to look alike exchange clothes and live each other’s lives, with disastrous results. Keep a dictionary on-hand for any archaic words.
Other suggestions: A Literary Nightmare; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Grade 8: The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
The work that made Twain famous, The Celebrated Jumping Frog is a humorous short story that Grade 7 students will be able to read in a class period. The story follows a man who catches a frog with astonishing jumping ability. It is often featured in collections of Twain’s work, so students who enjoy the story can usually go right ahead and read some more.
Other suggestions: The Man That Corrupted Hadleyberg; A Literary Nightmare
Grade 9: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Twain was a great lover of technology, and in A Connecticut Yankee he tells the story of a modern man trying to use technology to improve the distant past. The novel should be a quick read for most students, though they may need support with some of the archaic language and technical ideas.
Other suggestions: The Man That Corrupted Hadleyberg; Pudd’nhead Wilson
Grade 10: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Called the first great American novel, Huckleberry Finn is a brilliant, but controversial, book. Following the story of a young man and an escaped slave, the novel presents racist language and ideas, though most critics feel it does so to attack them. If you think your classroom is ready to deal with the troubling content, Huckleberry Finn is an important part of any study of American literature.
Other suggestions: Pudd’nhead Wilson; The Innocents Abroad
Grade 11: The Gilded Age
The Gilded Age is Twain’s first novel, and the only one he ever wrote with a collaborator (Charles Dudley Warner). Unsurprisingly, it isn’t as well-loved as some of his other work. What makes it worth your students’ time, though, is the opportunity for a cross-curricular connection to United States history. The book is a vivid portrait of its period—so much so that “the Gilded Age” has become a common name for that time in our history. The book’s structure also makes it easy to assign individual chapters if you don’t want to dedicate a week or more to the novel.
Other suggestions: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Pudd’nhead Wilson
Grade 12: Life on the Mississippi
Life on the Mississippi is one of Twain’s most famous books of non-fiction, and one of his most complex works. Twain blends travel literature, autobiography, and history in this tale of his travel down the Mississippi. Although the work doesn’t have the same high-interest adventure as much of Twain’s fiction, it provides invaluable insight into American culture in a specific time and place.
Other suggestions: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; A Double Barrelled Detective Story