Beyond Hillbilly Elegy: Books for Country Boys


Bull with a few of his favorite books

I’ve been thinking about one of my former students recently, wondering how he’s doing.  His name was Logan, but everyone–his family included–called him Bull.

I’ve been thinking about him because I had him in class for two years, and it took me a long time to realize I’d been recommending all the wrong books for him.

With the recent popularity of a book like Hillbilly Elegy (which has caused quite a stir here in Appalachia) I’m reflecting on how it’s a book I probably would’ve recommended to Bull.  Like the many other “country” books I’d offered him, figuring the text had a character he could actually relate to, I think Bull would’ve hated it, as many of my friends here in West Virginia have.  I haven’t had a chance to read it, but my peers and students alike who have say it’s too much of a stereotype of Appalachian culture, that it paints Appalachia much too negatively, and that it in no way captures the beauty of our mountains, music, or lifestyle.

I had a hard time getting Bull interested in reading, but boy, he’d write.  He wrote beautifully about the country he lived in, the simplicity of his family life (he showed me videos of teaching his barefooted three-year-old brother how to operate a push plow on their farm), and his love of hunting.

I think no book can capture the kind of love that a kid like Bull has for his own heritage, and I didn’t realize that when I offered him book after book that I thought had a “similar” kind of character for a protagonist.

But, in his reading life, Bull was a different kid last year.  He was a senior, about to enter the real world and acutely aware of his need to be prepared for it.

When I talked to him at the end of last school year, he described his junior year reading life as “shitty.”  I asked him why, and he said, “cuz I was lazy.”  He read two books all year, and when I talked to him about this, he laughed sheepishly.

Last year, he’d read 13 books and was in the midst of his 14th–Monuments Men by Robert Edsel–when I went on maternity leave.  I think he read 17 books by the end of the school year.  Before I left, I talked with Bull about his reading life.  We’d discovered his love of war books with American Sniper.  “My great grand-pap was in Vietnam, and I want to read about what he went through,” Bull explained, gesturing to his stack of books.

I also asked him how he felt about reading.  “It calms me,” he told me.  “It gives me something to do.”

It calms me.  I still remember him saying that to me, sitting in my classroom with the back door open, where a spring breeze wafted in and the sounds of kids eating lunch outside could’ve been a huge distraction.  But as Bull reflected on what reading did to him, the act of thinking about books took him away from our classroom and into a place of relaxation.

I loved watching reading transform Bull.

From war biographies, Bull moved to war fiction, then to books in verse, then to graphic novels, then to a variety of nonfiction titles.  He eschewed books about country life, popular fiction, and YA novels all year.

I’m thinking about Bull now as I reflect on the mirrors, windows, and doors we ask students to walk through in their reading lives.  I’m thinking about him as I reflect on Pernille Ripp’s plea for us to stop grading independent reading.  I’m thinking about how I approached Bull first with books I thought of as mirrors, but he was craving windows and doorways all along.  I’m thinking about how his whole junior year, he got 2/10s on reading logs, and I’m thinking about what a colossal mistake that was on my part.

So, last spring, I asked Bull to compile a list of his favorite books, and the draft has been sitting in my WordPress sidebar ever since.  I share it with you now to remind you that this list, a list for “any country boy,” in Bull’s words, is a list of books set far beyond the mountains of Appalachia–and represents a story that can never be told with an independent reading grade.

  1. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell – “This was an amazing book.  It was a true story of a Navy SEAL, and his whole team got attacked in an ambush and he was the only one that lived.  Just the things that he gives you is like standing in war–it’s just amazing how something can give you so much detail that it seems to be real.”
  2. Article 5 by Kristen Simmons – “It was the end of the world basically, and there are a few kids running away from the people who were going to kill them.  It was also a really detailed book so I could imagine what the new world looked like.  I liked that book a lot.”
  3. Perfect by Ellen Hopkins – “This book was all about everything people give up to be perfect.  The whole time I was reading it, I just thought, nobody’s perfect–what is wrong with these people?  But it made me understand everybody else better.”
  4. The Auschwitz Escape by Joel Rosenberg – “Hitler ruled this book.  It was about war from a prisoner’s point of view, and it gave lots of detail about what he went through and what Hitler forced him into.  I would never have wanted to be part of World War II as a soldier or a prisoner.  That was some crazy shit.”
  5. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson – “This one was really hard to understand compared to the other WWII books I read.  I picked it for my challenge book, and it was about what happened in Russia during World War II.  It taught me more about writing than about war, honestly.”
  6. Watchmen by Alan Moore – “This was my first graphic novel and I liked that it was and was not about war, at the same time. It was kind of about the cold war, but through the fighters’ eyes and not the politicians or the history books.”
  7. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis – “Well this book was nothing like the movie, but I wanted to read the book after I saw the movie.  It’s about a football player that came right out of the Bronx, basically had no mom, and he just went from clear down to about nothing to making millions of dollars a year playing in the NFL.  I got inspired by him how you can come from nothing to the NFL and you can do anything you put your mind to.”

Bull now works for the water company here in West Virginia, still lives on a farm…and still reads.  And the song of his reading life is so much broader than a hillbilly elegy.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.



10 thoughts on “Beyond Hillbilly Elegy: Books for Country Boys

  1. Amy Rasmussen March 17, 2017 at 9:45 pm Reply

    Of course, I love everything about this post, but I especially LOVE your last line.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ML March 14, 2017 at 1:50 pm Reply

    I love this post. I live in NC and have some kids who could relate. So inspiring!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. angelafaulhaber March 14, 2017 at 1:38 pm Reply

    Good gravy, this is a great post! Thanks so much for sharing Bull’s words, Shana. I feel like I know so many Bulls in my teaching life. And his list is so awesome!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Shana Karnes March 14, 2017 at 2:10 pm Reply

      Angela, not only are you super smart and I love learning from you, you use amazing phrases like “good gravy.” It makes me happy. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Amy Estersohn March 14, 2017 at 11:52 am Reply

    This rings true to my reading life – there are a few books I want to read and can’t get through that are too close to my real life.

    We also limit readers when we try to “typecast” recommendations. I’m heavily paraphrasing here, but somebody once told author Tim Federle, whose characters are gay or questioning, that they don’t have a lot of his kinds of readers in their community. Tim responds, “So you don’t have a lot of kid wizards, either?”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Shana Karnes March 14, 2017 at 2:11 pm Reply

      YES YES YES!! So true!!! I have made many mistakes in my teacher career (and life, haha), and one was that I used to be way too eager to typecast book recs. I love Federle’s quote!!! 🙂


  5. 3011mileswestofvt March 14, 2017 at 11:38 am Reply

    This is a great list. In rural Vermont, we have many readers like Bull. Any ideas for the slightly younger readers with similar interests?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Amy Estersohn March 14, 2017 at 11:57 am Reply

      For WWII younger readers check out my rec on THE PLOT TO KILL HITLER:

      Also Kate Messner’s THE SEVENTH WISH is an intriguing book that happens to take place in the Lake Champlain area. It’s a lot more introspective than it may appear on the cover.


    • Shana Karnes March 14, 2017 at 2:09 pm Reply

      Hello to VT from WV! So, I have two resources for a ton of great high-interest books for middle grade readers. One is this list from our boys & literacy course with Tom Newkirk:

      And the other comes from our readers who submitted popular middle grade titles in their libraries this past summer…sorry it’s super long, but I just realized that it’s not really online anywhere!!! I hope this helps and it’s not too much to sift through!!

      Legend series; The Rose Society – Marie Lu
      Gym Candy – Carl Deuker
      This Is What Happy Looks Like – Jennifer E. Smith
      The Testing – Joelle Charbonneau
      See You at Harry’s – Jo Knowles
      The Crossover – Kwame Alexander
      Everything Everything – Nicola Yoon
      Need – Carrie Jones
      Boy 21 – Matthew Quick
      The Running Dream – Wendelin van Draanen
      Stung – Bethany Wiggins
      The Maze Runner – James Dashner
      A Child Called It – Dave Pelzer
      Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie – Jordan Sonnenblick
      The Girl Who was Supposed to Die – April Henry
      Percy Jackson series – Rick Riordan
      Eleanor and Park – Rainbow Rowell
      All American Boys – Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
      The Uglies series – Scott Westerfield
      Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher
      Dumplin’ – Julie Murphy
      Wonder – R. J. Palacio
      Reason to Breathe – Rebecca Donovan
      Tears of a Tiger; Out of My Mind – Sharon Draper
      Slam; The Greatest – Walter Dean Myers
      This One Summer – Jillian and Mariko Tamaki
      Origin – Jessica Khoury
      Salt to the Sea – Ruta Sepytys
      City of Bones series – Cassandra Clare
      Smile & Drama – Raina Telgemeier
      Unwind – Neal Shusterman
      Divergent series – Veronica Roth
      Uninvited – Sophie Jordan
      The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
      Cut – Patricia McCormick
      Ms. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs
      Black and White – Paul Valponi
      Prisoner B-3087 – Alan Gratz
      Butter – Erin J. Lange
      Genesis – Bernard Beckett
      Life As We Knew It – Susan Beth Pfeffer
      The City of Ember – Jeanne Duprau
      Ready Player One – Ernest Cline
      We Were Liars – e. lockhart
      Fish in a Tree – Lynda Mullaly Hunt
      Rules – Cynthia Lord
      If You Come Softly – Jacqueline Woodson
      Rain Reign – Ann M. Martin
      Pax – Sara Pennypacker and Jon Klassen
      The House of the Scorpion; The Lord of Opium – Nancy Farmer
      Matched/Crossed/Reached – Ally Condie
      The Silo series – Hugh Howey
      The Flappers series – Jillian Larkin
      The Dork Diaries – Rachel Renee Russell
      Red Queen & Glass Sword – Victoria Aveyard
      The Razorland trilogy – Anne Aguirre
      Octavian Nothing series – M.T. Anderson
      Throne of Glass series – Sarah J. Maas
      The Ashfall trilogy – Mike Mullin
      The Raven Boys series – Maggie Stiefvater
      Escape from Furnace series – Alexander Gordon Smith
      The Selection & The Heir series – Kiera Cass
      Secrets of Valhalla series – Jasmine Richards

      Liked by 2 people

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