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Five Contemporary Magical, Weird Collections to Add to Your High School English Syllabus

By: Bradley Sides (author of Those Fantastic Lives)

Shakespeare. Faulkner. Wilde. Dickens. These are names we mostly all know, and if I’m being honest, these are the names, as a high school English teacher, I sometimes get a little tired of hearing. These writers are certainly great, respected craftsman, but wouldn’t it be nice to teach some new writers? Some magical, weird new writers? Yeah, I see you getting excited. As high school teachers, we don’t have the time to teach multiple collections of stories. Unfortunately, the dreaded state standards make that a certainty; however, most of us do have some flexibility in what we bring into our classrooms. If you are ready to spice things up this year and add a little magic to your room, I suggest five stories from these contemporary works of magical realism. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed:


“Who Will Greet You at Home” from Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky

This Nigerian-set story takes a sharp look at the societal pressure women—and especially young women—face in regards to motherhood. It features babies made of yarn, mud, and hair, and it’s absolutely magical. It’s a great story to unpack in a large class discussion.


“A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way” from Matt Bell’s A Tree or a Person or a Wall

Set inside a hospital and revolving around the death of a child, this story is tough. But older students especially might gravitate toward this story that ultimately proves itself to be full of love. There’s a magical maze that helps guide this affecting story, which will likely have your class in their feels.  


“St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” from Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Students will find a lot of similarities in their own school experience to that of the three wolf sisters at the heart of one of Russell’s most popular stories. “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” is funny, but it’s also achingly sad as it reaches its devasting conclusion. The story looks at issues of home, self, and family and is a great introduction to magical realism for students.


“Mouthful of Birds” from Samantha Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds

If you want to give your students something really weird, go with Schweblin’s “Mouthful of Birds.” In this story, they’ll encounter a girl who has, well, a mouthful of birds. Yeah, a young girl eats birds. Her fussing, split parents don’t know what to do with her. As strange as it sounds, I think it’ll be easy for students to see themselves in the young protagonist. And maybe even to see their own families in the one in these pages.


“Take Your Daughter to the Slaughter” from Amber Sparks’ The Unfinished World

This story is one of my favorites to teach. It clocks in at just over two pages, so read it aloud. Trust me. The ending, full of a kind of rhythmic, energetic prose allows the story to really take hold of listeners. There are hunting rituals, werewolves, and father/daughter dynamics. Get ready to let your students discuss…  

Extra credit: For those students, and we all have them, who want even more weirdness in their lives, tell them to consider checking out short fiction from Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Alexander Weinstein, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, too. The weirder, the better, if you ask me.


Bradley Sides’ writing appears at Chapter 16, Chicago Review of Books, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Rumpus, and Southern Review of Books. He holds an MA from the University of North Alabama and is an MFA candidate at Queens University of Charlotte. He lives in Florence, Alabama, with his wife, and he can be found on most days teaching creative writing and English in southern Tennessee. Those Fantastic Lives is his debut. For more, visit bradley-sides.com.

About Those Fantastic Lives:

Prepare to be transported to the edge of the world in Bradley Sides’ affecting and haunting debut collection of magical realism short stories, Those Fantastic Lives and Other Strange Stories. In Sides’ tender, brilliantly-imagined collection, a young boy dreams of being a psychic like his grandmother, a desperate man turns to paper for a miracle, a swarm of fireflies attempts the impossible, scarecrows and ghosts collide, a mother and child navigate a forest plagued by light-craving monsters, a boy’s talking dolls aid him in conquering a burning world, and a father and mother deal with the sudden emergence of wings on their son’s back. Brimming with our deepest fears and desires, Sides’ dazzling stories examine the complexities of masculinity, home, transformation, and loss. Bradley Sides is an exciting new voice in fiction, and Those Fantastic Lives, which glows with the light of hope and possibility amidst dark uncertainties, will ignite imaginations.

Amazon Link to Those Fantastic Lives:

“Those Fantastic Lives is full of cinematic confections and concoctions. In deceptively buoyant prose that never sinks under the weight it carries, these stories are scary and funny and thrilling, sometimes all at the same time. I don’t know if we should take this collection as a series of warnings, but being doomed has never been so enjoyable.” -Josh Denslow, author of Not Everyone is Special 

“Bradley Sides’ debut collection, Those Fantastic Lives, is a treasure chest of dark wonder, one that brings to mind the best of Joe Hill and Ray Bradbury. It’s perfect company for a stifling August night, or a rainy April morning, full of lovely places to get lost for a little while.” -Shaun Hamill, author of A Cosmology of Monsters

Review of Paperclip by Seb Doubinsky: cool prose, serene mind, impish wit.

IndieBound.org: Indie Next List September 2021