Book Review: Little Worlds (with Two Bonus Shorts)

Image from Amazon.com

I chose Little Worlds by Peter Guthrie and Mary Page over the summer to use in my English 1 classroom (early high school/late middle school) during our winter short story unit. I ended up adding a little: some Latin-American literature, Native American contemporary literature (see future review on Great Short Stories by Contemporary Native American Writers) and some essays (Martin Luther King Jr., etc.) before transitioning to short stories as a novel (The House on Mango Street), but otherwise we used Little Worlds to direct us. Not only does it include 29 short stories, but the first half-plus of them is divided into chapters/themes/weeks and we studied those themes—plot, character, setting/atmosphere, POV, irony, symbol, and theme—with the book as it went along. At least mostly. (I thought irony was a little specific.) Then I pulled in some more reading from the back (and swapped out the Ray Bradbury included for two others of his) before adding the extras that I just referred to. In hindsight, it would have been smart of me to loop in some more contemporary stuff, as this book was published in 1985 and included lots of classics that were around when I was in high school.

Still, this is an excellent book of short story classics (though you might have to find it used). I’m thinking it should be on the shelf of any serious reader. Sure, you can buy all the flashy, new titles at the bookstore and subscribe to literary magazines, but all the stories here are ones worth coming back for. The are also excellent for the classroom. The intro sections are a little short and to the point, but along with some teaching, they work. And many of the stories could also be used to introduce the reader to an author. From here, you could go to short story collections by Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Hughes, London, O’Connor, etc., or The Martian Chronicles or poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks or…

Here is a list of included stories (which is sure to jog a memory or two. My picks/most memorable have an asterisk):

  • “The Sniper,” O’Flaherty*
  • “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce*
  • “The Carbird Seat,” Thurber
  • “A Visit of Charity,” Welty
  • “The Masque of the Red Death,” Poe*
  • “The Lottery,” Jackson*
  • “Miss Brill,” Mansfield
  • “A Telephone Call,” Parker
  • “The Gift of the Magi,” Henry*
  • “The Monkey’s Paw,” Jacobs*
  • “Maud Martha and New York,” Brooks
  • “The Japanese Quince,” Galsworthy
  • “The Last Lesson,” Daudet
  • “Sun and Shadow,” Bradbury
  • “Winter Night,” Boyle
  • “Daughter,” Caldwell
  • “A Wagner Matinee,” Cather
  • “The Story of an Hour,” Chopin*
  • “Marigolds,” Collier
  • “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Hawthorne*
  • “Old Man at the Bridge,” Hemingway
  • “African Morning,” Hughes
  • “Through the Tunnel,” Lessing*
  • “To Build a Fire,” London
  • “A Summer’s Reading,” Malamud
  • “The Necklace,” de Maupassant*
  • “Why Reeds Are Hollow,” Mistral
  • “The Crop,” O’Connor
  • “The Fig Tree,” Katherine Anne Porter
  • “The Open Window,” Munro

Note: At the end of the unit on the test, I asked for the students’ least- and most-liked story. For a group of ninth-grade-ish boys, “The Sniper” won, hands-down. Short, straight-forward, a little violent, and complete with a twist ending: everything they could hope for, I suppose.

Despite it being a little “old,” though, this is a great book of short stories and a great book to use in the classroom. (Yeah, I already said that.) If you ever come across it at a used bookstore, I think just about anyone would enjoy it, actually. You’ll probably recognize—even just as a nagging in the back of your subconscious—some of these, but they are classics for a reason. No, that reason is not to torture students. They are classics because they are well written, interesting, innovative, and many of them include a nice twist that leaves the short story reader with an imprint of the story in their mind.

TWO BONUS SHORT STORY REVIEWS: RAY BRADBURY

I actually skipped the Bradbury in the book and instead assigned both of these. One of them is also included in The Martian Chronicles, but they are both well-written, interesting, and surprising. They also both look forward from the 1950s to the “future,” so make good discussion points.

THE VELDT

This, along with “The Lottery” and “The Gift of the Magi,” maybe “The Necklace,” are short stories that have lived with me since I read them as a schoolgirl. “The Veldt,” in fact, made the strongest impression on me, so I wanted to share this story instead of “Sun and Shadow.” It is a bit long, but it has some really interesting things to discuss including, as I mentioned above, Bradbury’s predictions about technology but also parenting (etc.). The reason it really stands out for students, I suppose, it that it is creepy (and again, violent). There is a real atmosphere here, which would make it a good pick for the chapter on tone/atmosphere. There should be a series of crinkles going up your spine while you read this, though it’s not horror (though you should be horrified by the end). It’s a cautionary tale.

THERE WILL COME SOFT RAINS

I like Bradbury, clearly. I enjoy his clean, compelling story-telling and also the innovative places he takes us. Whereas “The Veldt” takes us to a futuristic family and their space-age “nursery”/playroom (and how technology with the best intentions can go so very wrong), “There Will Come Soft Rains” takes us to a futuristic home after nuclear fall-out. We get to see the family and their homelife through a totally different lens at a totally different approach. In fact, these two stories can be studied together as two views of the family/home-life in the future. “There Will Come Soft Rains” also has the added charm of being very descriptive, full of surprising language, tight “visuals,” and noteworthy quotes. As a short story, I like it better than “The Veldt,” it just hasn’t been the one that’s haunted me for decades.

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