Teachers' and Librarians' Favourite Short Stories
Neil Gaiman said of short stories: "“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” In spite of their brevity, short stories can stay with us for a disproportionate length of time.
We asked high school librarians and teachers from across the country to share the short stories that have stayed with them and shaped their life, and teaching.
'The Bloodstained Pavement' by Agatha Christie
Miss Marple correctly identifies the criminals in each of the thirteen stories she is told in Agatha Christie's collection Thirteen Problems. Each of the stories stands alone and is interesting in its own right but, while most of the stories have blurred since I read them originally, the tale of the ‘The Blood-Stained Pavement’ has remained with me. Told by artist Joyce Lemprière, it concerns a married couple and their friend who goes missing after a swim. In true Christie fashion, not only are the clues there for you, but when the solution is revealed it is wonderfully clever.
Suggested by Kateri Wilson, librarian at James Young High School. Follow the JYHS library on Twitter.
'Baba Yaga' by Arthur Ransome, adapted from a Russian folk tale
My favourite short story is 'Baba Yaga', from the collection by Arthur Ransome called Old Peter’s Russian Tales.
Baba Yaga is a wicked witch who lives deep in the dark woods in a house that walks around on chickens legs. She has iron teeth, travels in a mortar driven by a pestle, and she eats children! A little girl is sent to Baba Yaga to borrow some thread by her wicked stepmother. Luckily, a wee mouse tells her what to expect, and because the girl has a kind heart she manages to escape Baba Yaga’s teeth!
In this wonderful tale, Baba Yaga is left alive but the stepmother banished! I use this for storytelling regularly, and each time I make the creatures have different voices. I also love the fact that Baba Yaga is left alive. Therefore, if you stray into the Dark Woods she will be waiting for you...
Suggested by Anne Ngabia, librarian at Grangemouth High School. Follow Anne on Twitter.
'Coffee for the Road' by Alex La Guma
This story about a young Indian mother and her two children driving across South Africa to meet her husband is a masterclass in immersive writing. Not many of us have been lucky enough to visit South Africa, but La Guma's oppressive imagery conveys the baking heat and dusty desolation in a way that puts the reader right in the middle of it. The car journey is full of the trivial annoyances experienced by most parents on long car journeys with restless children, but the undercurrent of menace is strong throughout. I won't spoil the story for you, but I promise it'll stick with you for a long time.
Suggested by James McEnaney, lecturer and former secondary teacher. Follow James on Twitter.
'The Monkey's Paw' by W.W. Jacobs
When I was asked to choose my favourite short story. I thought it would be quite easy. I am a school librarian who has devoured books since I was knee-high to a bookcase. Then I realised just how many short stories I had devoured. Fairy tales from all over the world, including Baba Yaga the bone-eating monster from Russia. The classics which all seemed to include dark gothic mansions with creepy possessed doll-houses and people.
So what would I choose? Would it be 'Whistle and I’ll Come to You' by M. R. James, with the bed sheets morphing into a presence from beyond? Or would I favour the poor heiress in 'The Yellow Wallpaper' by Charlotte Perkins Gilman who imagines there are women trapped and creeping around behind the wallpaper in her bedroom? In the end, I could choose only one and that is 'The Monkey’s Paw' by W. W. Jacobs.
Short stories should grab you and immerse you in the world their author has created, allowing you to share and care for their characters for a brief moment.
Even now, after years of being immersed in Stephen King, Graham Masterton, Simon Clark and many many other horror authors, I still feel a chill when I read this short story. The idea is so simple and yet so effective: that everything you wish for will come true, but at a price. You know exactly what is coming next. You know you can do nothing to stop it. But every time I read the story, I hope that this time it will be different! That for me is the magic of short stories. Short stories should grab you and immerse you in the world their author has created, allowing you to share and care for their characters for a brief moment. So please, if you have time, look out for 'The Monkey’s Paw' and make sure you don’t read this one in the dark!Suggested by June Reid, librarian at Grange Academy. Read her library blog, and follow Grange Academy on Twitter.
'A Letter that Never Reached Russia' by Vladimir Nabokov
I first came across this story in university and immediately loved its complexity and vitality. It’s now my favourite short story to teach, and I use it with my Higher English class (though I tend to leave it until later on in the year rather than jump into it in August).
The text is really challenging for students, most of whom are unlikely to have encountered a writer quite like Vladimir Nabokov before, but I make no apology for that. I firmly believe that it is important to expose young people to this sort literature and trust them to engage with it.
Ultimately the story is incredibly rewarding, both in terms of the message it delivers and the style in which it is written. If students - and teachers - are prepared to look for it, they will find what Brian Boyd described as “a gift of absurd generosity.”
Suggested by James McEnaney, lecturer and former secondary teacher. Follow James on Twitter.
'Jumper' by Garrett Adams
'Jumper' can be found in Stephen King's indispensable On Writing, and it's a cracker.
It is told from the point of view of a disgruntled employee who works in the kind of identikit shopping centre that's sprung up in every town centre across the UK. Consumerism surrounds this guy every day, and he looks at people not as human beings but lab rats in a giant experiment.
'Jumper' is an uncomfortable and insightful read, and it builds tension and atmosphere expertly until the stunning climax. I used to play my pupils a song called 'Fitter Happier' by Radiohead after reading this story, and discuss our consumerist and image-driven society: those were still among my favourite lessons, because they opened up all kinds of channels of discussion about how we can be better people and not be quite so invested in material goods. All that aside, 'Jumper' is a gripping and rewarding story that captured my imagination and never let go, and King's book is a hugely worthwhile read, so I'd heartily recommend checking it out.
Suggested by Chris Leslie, former teacher and now Schools Resource Developer at Scottish Book Trust. Follow Chris on Twitter.
'Master and Man' by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy's short story is set in the depths of winter, and we feel every step of the journey that Vasili Andreevich and his peasant Nikita make through the biting cold. Vasili Andreevich is impatient to make the journey to the town to conclude a business deal, looking to secure purchase of a forest for a knockdown price. When the two men become stuck in a blizzard, it becomes a test of human spirit and compassion from which emerges an unforgettable conclusion. This is a beautiful story with characters you'll take into your heart.
Suggested by Des Nelson, Modern Studies teacher at Bathgate Academy. Follow Des on Twitter.
'Here There Be Tygers' by Stephen King
I honestly spent a bit of time considering faking my favourite short story. Choosing something a bit more erudite and impressive - Katherine Mansfield maybe, a Muriel Spark perhaps - both of whom have written many short stories which I truly love. The truth of the matter…my favourite short story is 'Here There Be Tygers' by Stephen King. It's odd, it's compelling and it amuses me afresh every time I read it; reminding me of how embarrassing everything is when you are a child and transporting me right back to those L shaped basement toilets in Dumfries Academy circa 1997.
Suggested by Kat Brack, librarian at Lasswade High School. Follow Lasswade High School library on Twitter.
'All that Glisters' by Anne Donovan
Most people who know me in my professional life would say that I am a bit of an ice queen, very much in control of my emotions – actually everyone who knows me would say that. But, the short story ‘All That Glisters’ by Anne Donovan melts my icy, black heart, creating an almost Scrooge-like transformation before my students’ very eyes! Teaching goals! So, I’ve stopped teaching it. However, I remember the first time I taught it I asked a quiet lad with a Weegie accent to read it out. His less than confident delivery coupled with the authentic accent of the main character, Clare, just amplified the emotional punch of the content. But even now when I read those last lines (in private, of course!), my chin crumples, my eyes burn, my face flushes. Aye hen, subtle.
Suggested by Joyce Carey, English teacher at Broughton High School
'The Sniper' by Liam O'Flaherty
The Sniper by Liam O’Flaherty remains a favourite of mine. When I just started out as a school librarian I gave this story to a student who was adamant that reading was not for me. I still remember her reaction when she read the last line!
Suggested by Duncan Wright, librarian at Stewarts Melville College. Follow Duncan on Twitter.
'The News Where You Are' by James Robertson
I’m not sure that there is any other literary piece of only 365 words long that is quite so incisive and amusing. James Robertson’s gentle satire of those famous media words 'the news where you are' is laugh out loud funny and so very, very true. As someone who regularly travels down south where the news is national, I just love the truism that ‘the news where you are may be news to you… but it’s not news to us’. There is real depth and honesty in this piece aside from its humorous intent, and like all great writing, it just gets better the more you read or listen to it. You can watch James Robertson reading the story on YouTube.
Suggested by Rachel McCabe, librarian at Holyrood High School
For some more short story recommendations, try our book lists!