Curriculum Planning

Making Literary Analysis Engaging With Student-Created Companion Books

Literary analysis is rarely students’ favorite task, but having them write for their peers can make it more engaging.

May 20, 2024
Alice Mollon / Ikon Images

The literary analysis essay is rarely a favorite among English language arts (ELA) teachers and their students. Creativity, student choice, relevance, and authentic audience seem more difficult to incorporate into this traditional, though ubiquitous, genre. 

This challenge is partly because students’ analytical essays rarely have an audience or purpose beyond the English classroom. I’ve tackled this challenge by incorporating technology and student collaboration, inviting students to create guidebooks or companion books for literature.

Many teachers have developed and adapted the companion book strategy to suit their goals and needs, but the following approach is what I’ve found most successful. The activity has made literary analysis a favorite among my students.

Companion Book Basics

Companion books accompany and elaborate on already-published texts (books, series, movies, video games, or TV shows). They target an audience who has already read—and enjoyed—the text but want to know more about it or wish it never ended. 

Companion books aim to provide readers a deeper understanding of concepts in the original work. They give information and teach readers about ideas, concepts, or references they may have missed. Fans of many famous series (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel comics, etc.) have long made companion books, like the subgenre of “fanfic” that supplements these popular texts.

How to make it work

While students will likely balk at the task of writing an essay on the theme of The Outsiders, an assignment to collaborate with classmates and contribute a few chapters for a companion book to The Outsiders can almost sound fun, especially if students get to choose the focus of their own chapters (e.g., “Symbolism and Staying Gold” and “Foreshadowing Death”). I have my students draft a few potential tables of contents for their collaborative companion books and then divvy up the chapters based on who wants to write what. This way, I can still give them individual grades based only on their contributed chapters. 

It’s all the more enjoyable and meaningful if they are able to publish their work. I find Canva for Education is ideal, but I’ve also used Book Creator and other means of publication both digitally and in print. Our librarian supports our book-signing events in the school library, complete with barcoding and shelving students’ companion books—making them real, published authors who are searchable in our library database. I get to enjoy watching current students find and read the companion books of previous students on the library shelves.

Where to start

My favorite way to make this project a success is to have my students do this writing without even knowing it; by the time I present them with the task to write an entire companion book, the bulk of their writing is already done. 

I have them capture some written thoughts as they read a text (be it a whole-class novel, literature circle book, or independent choice book), but I never collect or grade this writing. I call it their “Deep Thoughts Notebook,” and I typically use Notice & Note signposts or other prompts that can work with any text to elicit deep thinking about reading—not just surface-level summaries. 

It’s downright fun when I task students with writing an entire book (cue tween outrage) and then tell them the good news that they’ve pretty much already written it. Each entry in their notebooks could easily become an interesting chapter in a companion book, and they’ve already quoted, cited, and elaborated on their unique thoughts about the text.

Infinite possibilities

Companion books are versatile and easily adaptable. The simplest way to incorporate collaborative companion books into the ELA classroom is with a whole-class novel. (My students have written companion books titled Inside The Outsiders, To Kill a Mockingbird: A Companion, and Everyone’s Monster: A Guide to A Monster Calls).  

However, I do very few whole-class novel studies and have still used companion books to suit many ELA endeavors in lieu of the formal, traditional literary analysis essay. Companion books work with literature circles, short stories, author studies, and more. This year, I even had two seventh-grade ultra-fans of the Wings of Fire books write their own companion guide to this series, which they read independently throughout the year; they’d never been more motivated or productive readers and writers. 

What’s more, companion books don’t need to be collaborative. Individual students can work throughout the year on their book as a long-term project. 

Final tip for success

Be sure to clarify that the purpose of a companion book is not to simply summarize the original text. The content of companion books should look much more like a formal literary analysis than a book report. To engender the depth and quality of writing comparable to that of a literary analysis essay, provide examples of companion books, and have students determine how they are similar to and different from other forms of writing. 

Students should be able to readily observe that companion books do very little summarizing and instead function much like analysis—they cite and elaborate on direct quotes from the text that are highly relevant to the particular focus of the chapter, and they are bookended by a formal introduction and conclusion, to name just several features. 

I like to help students embrace the specific purpose and audience of companion books by explaining what I call the “Easter egg effect.” I tell them: “Your readers don’t need you to tell them the basics of the text—they already know the main characters and setting and plot. But what did you notice, and think they probably missed? A true analysis reveals something through detailed examination. What’s your hot take? What Easter eggs will your writing reveal?” 

This framing focuses both their reading of the text and their writing about it.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Curriculum Planning
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.