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Contemporary Short Stories for ELA

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There are so many classic short stories available to teach, like “Harrison Bergeron,” “The Ones who Walk away from Omelas,” and “Hills like White Elephants.” I shared a lot of them in this fun collaborative post a while back. But when you start searching for more contemporary pieces, it’s easy to get lost. With modern writers’ work not yet in the public domain, you often need to buy a short story collection before you can find out if there is anything inside that your students will really engage with.

So I decided to pick up three contemporary short story collections this spring and do some sleuthing for you. Short pieces are a great way to help diversify your curriculum if you are struggling to get budget and approval for more modern voices in your class reading. The books I’m going to share today bring a beautiful, broad array of voices and themes into your text set, including LatinX, Muslim, Indigenous, AAPI, Black, and LGBTQ+ authors and characters.

The three collections are Flying Lessons and Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh, Take the Mic, edited by Bethany Morrow, and Black Enough, edited by Ibi Zoboi. Let’s take them one by one.

#1 Flying Lessons & Other Stories

I LOVED “Flying Lessons & Other Stories.” This is the perfect pick if you’re a middle grade (possibly stretching to 9th) teacher. My favorite stories were “How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium,” by Matt de la Pena (what a title!) and “Flying Lessons,” by Soman Chainani, both of which I think you’ll love.

But let’s do a quick run-through of all the stories you might like to use from this text (spoiler alert!):

“How to Transform an Everyday, Ordinary Hoop Court into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium,” by Matt de la Pena

In this story, a rising basketball star discovers a gym with incredible players and does everything he can to join them. He commutes in with his Dad at five in the morning, sleeps in his Dad’s car for three hours, then walks to the gym, only to be denied a chance to play for weeks. Along the way, he has a brush with the police just for being asleep in his Dad’s car, and slowly begins to understand his Dad a little better. He learns a lesson from the best player at the court when he’s suddenly tapped to play for the first time, and eventually finds his place with at the new gym.

“The Difficult Path,” by Grace Lin

In this story, a young girl is sold into servitude (and possibly marriage) on condition that she be taught to read. When the family she works for is attacked by pirates, she chooses to remain with the pirates rather than end up married to the cruel young man in the family, convincing the pirate captain to let her stay on and teach her to read.

“Sol Painting, Inc.” by Meg Medina

When she goes to her brother’s private school (soon to be hers too) to help paint the gym, Merci is not happy with how the soccer team treats her family, or how her father takes it. She’s got big plans for her family’s business, and she’s not excited about her new school.

“Secret Samantha,” by Tim Federle
Sam is beginning to define her identity and is drawn to Blade, a new girl from CA, during secret Santa Week (that soon becomes secret ninja week). 

“The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn,” By Kelly J. Baptist

Isaiah loses his father, then his home, but finds a book of his father’s stories about him and enters them in a writing contest. 

“Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains,” by Tim Tingle

Uncle Kenneth tells/improvs  a hilarious story of Naloosha Chitto, weaving in the importance of reading to his bigfoot tale. 

“Main Street,” by Jacqueline Woodson. 

After the narrator loses her mother, she finds a best friend. But it isn’t easy for her friend to be the only black girl in a very white town. 

“Flying Lessons,” by Soman Chainani

Santosh’s trip to Europe with his Nani didn’t go as planned. In the end, she helps him make a friend and reveals the deep secret of her sadness. This story is STUNNING.

#2 Take the Mic

Next comes Take the Mic. While I had high hopes for this one when I saw that Samira Ahmed and Jason Reynolds had contributed, when I actually read it, I thought it was the least likely to play a role in classroom curriculums. These stories are more overtly political, several making not-too-veiled references to the Trump presidency. The language and themes are sometimes more mature. However, there were a handful that I thought had potential for classroom use, especially if you are focusing in on how to be an ally or upstander, or how to use your voice for change.

Here are the ones I think could be a great addition to a curriculum (again, spoiler alert):

“Ruth,” by Laura Silverman

In this story, a young book blogger is attacked by an anti-semitic troll on Twitter. When she fights back, the troll starts a new account and brings in a huge amount of helpers to say terrible things to her. At first she disables her account, overwhelmed, but then she finds a truly thoughtful way to stand up for herself and her religion too.

“As You Were,” by Bethany Morrow

In this story, the editor of the collection tells the tale of a harrowing night for one young marching band member. Driving home the boy she likes, she is pulled over by the police, though she doesn’t know why. She is asked to step out of the car and lay down to be searched, and she is absolutely terrified, going over the stories of police brutality that she knows and wondering if she is going to become a hashtag. When she realizes the whole thing is part of a supposedly cute “Prom-posal” from the boy, she realizes she’s not meant to be with him after all.

“Parker outside the Box,” by Ray Stoeve

Parker, who is nonbinary, mentors Xavier, who is trans, for community service hours. But Parker eventually realizes Xavier means more to them than just community service hours, and becomes involved in protesting for safe bathrooms for everyone at their school. (There is a little swearing in this story, but nothing I found offensive).

“Homecoming,” by Darcie Little Badger

It’s never easy to start at a new school, but it’s especially hard when you’re indigenous and people are protesting that the old “Brave” mascot was taken away five years ago.

#3 Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America

This collection, Black Enough, is my top recommendation for high school. I recommend you buy it immediately! Take a look at this quick teaser video below from Epic Reads, and then you can peruse the top stories (in my view) below. While this book also has some language and mature themes, the literary quality of the stories is really strong, and there are so many powerful themes high school readers can relate to. Three of the stories are currently available online as part of a sampler for the book, and they are three good ones! You can find them here.

“Half a Moon,” by Renee Watson (find it here)

When a teen camp counsellor sees her half sister at camp, she’s not happy. Her father left her and her mother to have a new family, and she doesn’t want to connect with this new member of her family. But then one night her half-sister disappears. In the search to find her, a reconciliation begins.

Black Enough, by Varian Johnson

Cam wonders if the girl he likes thinks he’s “black enough,” and tries to change his style and way of talking. Turns out she wants him to pay attention to the issues confronting her, not dress differently.

*Warning: Color may Fade, by Leah Henderson

This was my absolute favorite story of the collection. A talented high school senior creates a provocative art piece as an entry for a major contest at her school about breaking boundaries and sharing your truth. But when she is too scared of getting in trouble to claim her piece, a privileged fellow student claims it as her own. This inspires the narrator to create a second piece, perhaps even better than the first.

“Out of the Silence,” by Kekla Magoon

When a classmate dies, the narrator remembers how she nonchalantly mentioned that the narrator seemed like she might be gay. “The words rolled out of you, so matter-of-fact. I’d never heard anyone refer to gayness in such a casual way. It wasn’t a slur, or a takedown. It was a window opening to a whole other world I’d never imagined. A window I wanted to lean through and take in every detail of the landscape for as far as the eye could see” (103). 

“The Ingredients,” by Jason Reynolds (find it here)

This joyful story features four happy kids walking home from the pool on a hot summer day, fantasizing about the epic sandwiches they’d like to eat. After defining in juicy detail their four visions, they arrive home and eat cereal.

“Oreo,” by Brandy Colbert

Two cousins misunderstand each other for many years – each thinking the other looks down on them for where they live and who they are. But they make it right while they get ready for their grandmother’s 80th birthday.

“Samson and the Delilahs,” by Tochi Onyebuchi

Sobechi is the best young debater in America. When a girl moves in next door who loves playing heavy metal, she expands his world and challenges his relationship with his mother. This story was also one of my favorites!

“Wild Horses, Wild Hearts,” by Jay Coles

Two young men from divided neighboring families begin to care about each other, crossing lines of race and family hatred, and a literal line between their land. It’s not an easy path, but they bravely find a way to come together.

“Kissing Sarah Smart,” by Justina Ireland (LGBTQ+)

After her mother’s breakdown, Devon winds up at her grandmother’s with her mom for the summer before her parents get divorced and she leaves for college. It’s disappointing, until she meets Sarah. 

“Hackathon Summers,” by Coe Booth

Garry meets Inaya at NYU and gets to know her in tiny flashes over three summers. When she tries kissing him and then chooses to pull back, he lets her go. At the same time, Garry reconciles with his mother who had not been there for him in his childhood.

“The (R)evolution of Nigeria Jones,” by Ibi Zoboi (find it here)

As the lone daughter of a black nationalist revolutionary, Nigeria wants to get away from the cult-like set-up her father has raised her in. Her best friend helps her escape for one afternoon to a coffee shop to read The Great Gatsby and fantasize about the television show Friends

So there you have it, my friend. For middle school, Flying Lessons is a great choice! For high school, I highly recommend Black Enough. Take the Mic could be helpful, depending on your situation. It definitely has some powerful stories in it.

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  • I have been teaching the Flying Lessons stories to my sixth graders since the book came out. They LOVE it. I’m commenting just to make sure that everyone knows that We Need Diverse Books has three other anthologies: another middle-grade (The Hero Next Door) and two YA (Fresh Ink–mostly realism–and A Universe of Wishes–fantasy and scifi). They are all excellent.

    There’s a story by Nicola Yoon in Fresh Ink called “Super Human” that’s so good I base a whole unit on it in 8th grade.

  • Thank you for this suggestion! I just ordered Flying Lessons from my local bookstore. I think this will connect perfectly to a UCLA workshop, “Changing Up Your Literary Canon,” a group of colleagues and I are taking this summer. I teach sixth grade, so I was glad to see Elizabeth’s comment.

  • Elizabeth, did you get a class set and read them together, or did your school buy one for everyone?

    • Hi Erica,
      I haven’t taught these at this point, but I ordered them all to read and preview to make it easier for you to know which one you might like to teach! I think you could do it in a number of ways – whatever works for your class and budget. Good luck!


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