Book Review and Common Core Text: Black Ships Before Troy

One would be hard-pressed to argue against the powerful story of The Illiad, but I am having a difficult time thinking through my thoughts about Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff. The trouble is not the story, but the text. I picked up this retelling of The Illiad because our state of Massachusetts Department of Education has listed it as a model reading text for sixth graders, and Black Ships Before Troy is the focus of one of the state’s exemplary Model Curriculum Lesson Units as part of our Common Core Initiative. (I am still trying to get my hands on the unit itself. We are not a Race to the Top school, and only Race to the Top schools have access to all the model units. I have no idea why.)

Which means the state would really like all sixth graders to read this book. I suppose some state folks might argue differently about my view on that — that this book is merely one example, and all that, but who’s kidding who? They don’t spent a year or more working on a model unit just for the fun of it.

Me? I had trouble getting through the book. Again, it’s not the story (although how much killing and battle can one read about before getting glazed eyes). It is the writing in this book. At least, that’s my humble opinion. Sutcliff’s text would go right over the heads of most of my sixth graders, and I can tell you quite honestly that I would probably lose them in the first chapter. With numerous characters and countless Gods, and with the story shifting between the heroes of Greece and the heroes of Troy, I could barely keep track of who is who, and I know the story already pretty well.

No doubt, the inclusion of this text is a sign of the “complex texts” element of the Common Core, and the drawing of connections between literacy and Social Studies. I get it. But I wonder if the folks who worked on this unit, and the folks at the Department of Education, thought deeply enough about something more than reading when choosing books (although, a quick look at the Lexile site shows that Black Ships, with a level of 1300, is clearly a high school text Or am I reading that wrong?).  If we lose our students in a book early, it is painfully difficult to get them back. I know this from experience.

And it’s not just Black Ships Before Troy, either.

I notice that Tuck Everlasting, which is a beautifully-written novel with some huge themes, has been set up as a text for fourth grade. Fourth grade? I teach this book in sixth grade, and there are many students who struggle with the issues raised in the novel, as well as the way that Natalie Babbitt uses her poetic skills to tell her story and set the scene. It’s a perfect text for 12 year olds. But 9 year olds? I don’t think so. (although Lexile does think so, as its 770 designation puts it in the fourth grade category).

There’s an issue of the Common Core. And there’s the issue of Common Sense. In this case, the two ideas are not meshing. And that is frustrating to me, as the teacher who wants to instill a love of reading and books in my students.

Peace (in the text),




  1. The problem, as I see it, is that publishers, state Education Departments, whomever, are making decisions based solely on Lexile levels. The actual Common Core State Standards document clearly states that three factors should be used when determining text complexity. The quantitative evaluation is only one factor. The qualitative evaluation must also be considered when making instructional decisions. A text’s “levels of meaning, structure, language conventionality and clarity, and knowledge demands.” ( also have to be taken into consideration. The final factor to be considered, the reader/task considerations, are clearly being ignored in the examples you offer.
    As you state, force-feeding students texts far above their readiness level is a recipe for disaster. We as teachers already face enough competition in the form of social media, video games, TV, etc. If we don’t stand up to these “decisions,” we will be doing a huge disservice to our students.

    • Thanks for the insights, Catherine. And I appreciate the time you spent making a comment. I know those charts around text complexity are in the documents and part of the discussions, but in the end, it will be the reality of assessments that will give us more insights into the expectations. The model lessons that states release are indicators, however.

  2. Kevin,

    Thanks for raising this issue here. I agree that text lists in the CCSS appendices, and the books chosen in state-written curriculum give teachers the message that all kids should read certain books. Here’s hoping that students’ reaction to a book factor in to the decision to teach with the book. It sounds like that is an important factor in your classroom.

    I’ve offered this book as a choice for 8th grade literature circles before, but I don’t remember it being a popular choice. With the lexile so high, I wonder why the book got the OK at 6th grade? What factors would make it more accessible than the lexile indicates it might be? It sounds as though the background needed to comprehend and the stamina needed to follow the plot would make it more complex.

  3. I read this with my 6th grade students as part of our ancient history year. We are a small private school in Southern Calfornia with a wide range of students and reading abilities. A handful of kids took this book and ran with it, others had a harder time. All the kids LOVED hearing it out loud, and I enjoyed reading it to them. Like Homer’s original epic, it’s best heard out loud. I think it’s a great text, but maybe not one to read in the same way as others.

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