Quick Summary: This story centers on Aza Holmes, a high school student grappling with the loss of her father and learning to live with her crippling anxiety. She and her best friend Daisy get wrapped up in a mystery involving a reward for finding a missing billionaire; they get to know (or in Aza's case, reconnect with...) his son, Davis, whose mom died and who has to find his way to help his brother now that their dad is gone, too. John Green brings the issues of anxiety to the forefront of this gripping novel, showing readers firsthand what it's like to be in the thick of that spiral.
My Take: LOVE. IT. This is an awesome book that showcases an in-depth character study of a teenager facing tremendous anxiety. I love the way Green examines all sides of the issue, from her perspective as well as the perspective of friends and family. He does an awesome job of showing that there are no easy answers and that living with anxiety does not mean that a person overcomes it. The characters are vibrant and three-dimensional, and they suck you in immediately.
My conclusion: This is a brilliant novel dealing with the realities of so many vital issues connected to mental health and relationships. Green does an awesome job of demonstrating for a teen audience (as well as adults) what the world is like for a chronically anxious person. 5/5 stars.
Favorite Quotes: Phew, there are SO many. Here are a few...
"You think, it's like a brain fire. Like a rodent gnawing you from the inside. A knife in your gut. A spiral. A whirlpool. Black hole. The words used to describe it--despair, fear, anxiety, obsession--do so little to communicate it. Maybe we invented metaphor as a response to pain. Maybe we needed to give shape to the opaque, deep-down pain that evades both sense and senses." - So often in the novel, Aza so clearly articulates her suffering. Green does an amazing job of showing through Aza how a person can both understand her situation and be totally unable to control it.
"Every loss is unprecedented. You can't ever know someone else's hurt, not really-- just like touching someone else's body isn't the same as having someone else's body." While my analysis and much of our podcast discussion focused on Green's portrayal of anxiety, the role of grief is also pivotal in this novel, and he shows how the loss of Aza's father shapes her and wounds her.
What I added to my TBR list: First off all, I love. love. love All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven that Jen used as her pairing. I was interested in both Jenni and Sara's pairings, but I think based on the reading load I have right now, I'll add The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, which sounds like a hilarious and touching approach to the challenge of relationships.
Teaching Tips: This novel would work really well in a high school classroom. It certainly complements a classroom library, but it could easily be taught whole class or as part of lit circles. As we discussed in the podcast, an author study would be a great way to utilize Green's novels while finding different works to reach different readers.
Podcast Highlights: I so loved what Jenni shared about how it feels to be in the midst of an anxiety spiral, as well as what she shared as far as feeling like "the mustard" sometimes in life. It was fascinating to see how each of us viewed the novel; while we all loved it, I enjoyed seeing the different aspects that each of us appreciated.
One More Thing: I so loved this NYT article about John Green's own struggle with anxiety. It's well worth a read. I especially appreciated what Green said about sharing his experiences: “I want to talk about it, and not feel any embarrassment or shame,” he said, “because I think it’s important for people to hear from adults who have good fulfilling lives and manage chronic mental illness as part of those good fulfilling lives.”
Quick Summary: Everything, Everything is a super quick read about a teenage girl, Maddie, who cannot leave her house under any circumstances because of a rare disease. She has spent her entire life inside her house with only her mom and a nurse and her books for company. Maddie's brother and father were killed in an accident while she was just an infant, and shortly afterwards she was critically ill, resulting in her having to never leave the house again. When Olly moves in next door, Maddie realizes that she might not be content with staying inside forever. (Photo credit: Sara; check out her Meaningful Madness site)
My Take: Nicola Yoon does a great job with the difficult task of taking on a difficult issue, chronic illness, with a tender examination of all sides of the issue. Although Maddie could easily be both self-pitying and self-absorbed, Yoon shows her as a tender, compassionate teenager who loves her mother dearly but struggles to control the feelings she's developing for the boy next door. I love Maddie's characterization and the way Yoon crafts it; her journal entries and sketches in the book greatly enhance our understanding, and the text and online conversations between her and Olly show the contemporary nature of the novel while maintaining timeless motifs such as star-crossed love, the role of fate and choice, the impact of grief, and the challenges of coming of age.
My conclusion: Although this kind of romance book is not often my favorite style, I couldn't help but love Maddie and her tender relationships with her mother, her nurse, and Olly. The way that Yoon showed Maddie's struggle to maintain optimism and control in the face of such difficult circumstances makes Maddie so relatable. I loved how fast the book moved and how swept up it made me feel. 4/5 stars.
"Sometimes you do things for the right reasons and sometimes for the wrong ones and sometimes it’s impossible to tell the difference." - This story really highlights how you can love someone dearly and still manage to make lots of choices that hurt that person.
"My heart is too bruised and I want to keep the pain as a reminder. I don't want sunlight on it. I don't want it to heal. Because if it does, I might be tempted to use it again." - I love how this novel has a unique plot and characters while demonstrating at the same time a rather classic depiction of teenage love with all its glory and pain.
What I added to my TBR list: I had read and loved both Jenni's and Sara's picks. Jen's pick, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, sounds awesome! The premise, navigating arranged marriage, is compelling, and the opposing nature of the two main characters sounds fascinating.
Teaching Tips: This novel is totally readable in any high school classroom. Students will love the fast pace and relatable characters. I'd definitely have it on my shelf and would recommend it to a wide range of students. (Those who love Sarah Dessen and Stephanie Perkins would be good fits, but Yoon can also appeal to fans of Jennifer Niven, John Green, and so many other authors!)
Quick Summary: The protagonist of Backman’s novel is Swedish seven-year-old Elsa (who is "almost eight"). She loves her grandmother but has a conflicted relationship with her mother. She quickly comes to discover that her grandmother is dying. Her grandmother directs Elsa to deliver a series of apology letters through which Elsa has to come to terms with a very different picture of her grandmother than the one she knew. Backman unveils her grandmother’s connections to the other characters as the story unfolds. (Photo credit: Sara; check out her Meaningful Madness site)
My Take: I found this one a bit slow moving at first, but I quickly grew to love Elsa, and I found myself empathizing with her struggle to understand the way the world was shifting around her. Elsa has to confront the harsh realities of the world, one filled with loss, cruelty, isolation, and unimaginable courage. Although she mourns the loss of her grandmother, she grows to discover the truth about her grandmother's life and comes to love the people who had been precious to her grandmother.
My conclusion: Though I had to warm up to this one, it has left a tender impression on my heart. I'm a fan. I wanted a bit more explanation in places, and I could've used a few more tied up ends, but I really loved it overall. 4/5 stars.
"The mightiest power of death is not that it can make people die, but that it can make the people left behind want to stop living." - This book has some raw moments when it comes to capturing the pain of grief and the way it can entirely consume a person.
"Grow up and be different and don’t let anyone tell you not to be different, because all superheroes are different." - Yes! I love the way her grandmother empowers Elsa to be courageous and to be her own person.
"People in the real world always say, when something terrible happens, that the sadness and loss and aching pain of the heart will ‘lessen as time passes’, but it isn’t true. Sorrow and loss are constant, but if we all had to go through our whole lives carrying them the whole time, we wouldn’t be able to stand it. The sadness would paralyse us. So in the end we just pack it into bags and find somewhere to leave it." - As I mentioned above, the way that Backman can show the depth of grief is one of the best aspects of this novel.
What I added to my TBR list: Fannie Flagg’s Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man
Sara recommended this one, and it sounded great. I have never read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, but I grew up (in Georgia) watching that movie. Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man sounds like a captivating story, and I'll be checking it out soon!
Teaching Tips: This would work well as a lit circle book for upper level junior or senior classes. It certainly holds up to analysis and could be grouped with other books about grief, secrets, reconciliation, or coming of age.
Podcast Highlights: I loved when Jenni talked about the Worst and said, "It's a dog. Just call it a dog!" Jen made a great point about the grandmother when she talked about her own grandma and how she was "her person" and she knew that her grandma always supported her no matter what. I also really enjoyed our discussion about the way that the magic in her life changed and faded as she learned more about reality.
I'm excited to share that I'm now part of a podcast, Unabridged: Four Teachers Take on Books. We're launching in February of 2018! As part of the podcast, I plan to share my thoughts on the books we cover along with teaching ideas here on this site.
Exciting times! Changes are on the way. Here's our Episode Zero introducing us and the podcast.
First of all, MAN, it is HARD to post when in the last trimester of pregnancy with a toddler. And even harder with an infant and a toddler! Still, getting this post (which I started ages ago) completed is the hardest part, and I'm determined to do it TODAY. I hope to post more frequently in the future, even if those posts are shorter and more focused on book reviews. Thank you to those who have stuck with me through this blogging journey. Despite the fact that I had hoped to post sooner, I realize as I read over the part of this I already wrote how pertinent it is in light of the recent events in our country. Okay, here goes...
Last winter, I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the first time in my life. (I've been meaning to write about it since then, but pregnancy and a toddler have certainly slowed my posting pace.) It was a fantastic book, and I do feel like I missed out a bit by not having read it sooner. At its core, To Kill a Mockingbird shows an authentic picture of what life is like in small, Southern towns--what it was like then, and what it is like for many people even now. I think what struck me most about To Kill a Mockingbird is that while it is certainly a book about the cruelty of racism, that aspect is just one component of a larger tapestry of what it means to be a southern girl growing up in a small town in Alabama. I think what interests me most is that in many places, we are still using this novel to teach about race. My father, who hated everything about education growing up in Alabama loved To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think what he loved about it most was what it revealed about the problems with public education in the South for he knew all too well the flaws in the system. Anyway, my point is to say that he loved that book when he read it in the 1960s.
Here's what I want to know: Today, in 2016, is To Kill a Mockingbird still the best novel that we can use to teach about race?
For better or worse, I'm always reluctant to post controversial things. While I'm quite opinionated and not particularly "centrist" with my ideas, I prefer to keep things neutral when possible. I know I'm talking about a novel that many revere as sacred here, and I'm hesitant to say anything to rock the boat. But with white police killing black boys on a weekly basis and presidential candidates clearly promoting white superiority, I cannot help but think we have to do more to better educate our youth about race relations. Black lives matter, and black lives (as well as the lives of other people of color) need to be more of a focus in the literature that we teach. I have to question whether a southern novel written by a white woman in the 1960s is the best way we have to foster those discussions about race and the Other. I am not suggesting that we abandon the classics or stop teaching this novel, but I would like for us to take a long look at WHY we're teaching it and whether it truly meets all of our goals. What I don't want to see happen is for teachers to feel that they can check "race and racism" off on their list simply because they taught this novel.
I'd like to consider some other texts that might work better for us to talk about the complexities of race in today's society.
All American Boys (Jayson Reynolds and Brendan Kiely): This is a phenomenal read that highlights the complexity of race relations, particularly related to the issues we're seeing in our country today between police and the black community. Reynolds and Kiely write the novel from two perspectives, that of a black boy who is wrongly attacked by a police officer in a convenience store, and that of a white boy from the same school who witnesses the attack and knows the police officer well. While Reynolds and Kiely do an amazing job of layering and showing complexity, they write in a way that is very approachable for high school readers.
“Had our hearts really become so numb that we needed dead bodies in order to feel the beat of compassion in our chests? Who am I if I need to be shocked back into my best self?”
Citizen: An American Lyric (Claudia Rankine): This poetry collection addresses the experiences of a black woman in America. It has images and art throughout that enhance the reader's experience. I love that it's poetry, and I was amazed by the way Rankine could evoke such powerful responses with so few words. This text would be hard for some students, but it would definitely work nicely paired with other texts, and excerpts could easily be used to complement other texts in class. The quote below--alone on a page in the collection--resonates so loudly as we face the news today.
“because white men can't
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates): In this stunning work, Coates writes directly to his fifteen-year-old son. He tells his son of his own struggles and of how he feels about where we are in the world today and what it means to be a "black body" living in a world with people who "believe themselves to be white." Stunningly powerful and at times heart-wrenching, Coates brings to life the difficulties of where we are in our country today. It's a challenging read for high school students, but it can certainly make an impact, and it would work also work as excerpts to complement other texts.
“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson):
Beautiful, gracious, and enlightening, Woodson's longer work in verse reflects on her youth leading into her adulthood. It's a captivating story that weaves together her family experiences, her own desires, and the pathway that led to her current life. Even better--it's poetry! Like Citizen, it would make a great work for excerpts, and it would expose the students to some stunning (but also accessible) poetry. Woodson comments on race and gender as a part of her life experiences, but the story simply tells of a girl's coming of age.
“I believe in one day and someday and this perfect moment called Now."
There are so many amazing options out there that can facilitate meaningful conversations about race, and those conversations could not be more important in our country than they are today. While I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, it's not the only text out there that can shed light on the injustices and barbarity of racism.
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.