I met Joyce Carol Oates. In real life. I actually spoke to her. And, even more miraculous, she spoke to me. It happened unexpectedly--because of the extra hour it took us to find a place to park, we'd missed her speaking. We (Jen Moyers, another English teacher, and I) watched D. T. Max speak about his experiences with David Foster Wallace as he wrote Wallace's biography and then wandered over to the food trucks on the far end of the National Mall only to discover on our way there that Oates' line for signatures was disgracefully short. We jumped right in line, and before we knew it, we were there in her presence, giddy and bumbling as we tried to convey the phenomenal impact that she has had on our lives and the lives of our students. She was gracious and kind and she asked us where we were from and we rambled on about books and stories that we'd loved. It was a glorious moment.
Later that afternoon, I had the privilege of seeing Khaled Hosseini speak. He was interviewed by one of NPR's Fresh Air hosts, and he talked about his latest novel, And the Mountains Echoed, as well as about his experiences in general, his novels, and his perspective on the world. He was a phenomenal speaker and it was such an honor to stand with thousands of other people who were there to show support and to listen to his wisdom and brilliance. When asked about his characters and morality, Hosseini said, "He's a good guy. He's a bad guy. To me, that's not interesting. It's the coexistence of those two entities within a person that is interesting." Hosseini talked about moral ambiguity and about the quest to do what is right. He spoke of how his works have evolved into more complex explorations of people who are neither all good nor all bad, but who are capable of both.
When asked about his writing process, Hosseini spoke about the images that come to him and the way that those images spark stories. For example, he said that Kite Runner came from the image of two boys participating in a kite running competition. Someone asked him about those images and how long he lets them simmer or resonate before acting on them. As he reflected on the writing process, Hosseini said, "It's more an act of discovery than an act of creation. It's as if the story is already there, waiting to be discovered." He spoke about the hopes that he has for a world where people better understand each other, and he commented with humility and grace on the honor he has had to speak on behalf of the Afgani people who are so poorly understood and frequently exploited by the western world. His words were powerful and they resonated with authenticity and sincerity. I cannot wait to read his latest novel!
This all occurred on Sunday of the book festival, on Saturday, we took 18 students from our high school to participate in the book fair. They were excited to be in DC and to see famous authors, but most of them were primarily there to see Veronica Roth. We all read Divergent by Roth as our school read last year, and it was well-received by the students, many of whom plowed through that novel at light speed and then read Insurgent as quickly as they could get their hands on a copy of it. To read more about how I used Divergent in class, see this post. The students waited over 2 hours in line without a single complaint to get Veronica Roth's autograph. They were thrilled to meet her and said that she was kind and personable.
We all went over to the teen tent (amid a torrential downpour) to see Roth speak. Her tent was packed to the brim. As she came on stage, the kids screamed and screamed like she was a rock star. Students chanted and shouted things like, "We love you, Veronica!" It was such a joy to see how much admiration and love teenagers could have for an author.
Roth spoke about the way that Tris, her main character, grew as she herself grew as a writer. She talked about her process, and how she wrote the scenes with Tris and Four first because she knew that the story was one that would be told through them together. She gave the kids lots of good advice about writing, including telling them to choose carefully to whom they gave their precious creative work, so that they would find people who would support and encourage them while also ensuring that they could grow.
Prior to our Divergent adventures, my group got to listen to Matthew Quick speak. I haven't had a chance to read his work yet, but after listening to him speak, I can't wait to read his latest works. He talked about being a voice-driven writer, and he talked about the way that he discovered the story by listening to the voice of his narrator. He also talked about Silver Linings Playbook, and how while he would have described the book in many ways, he would never have said that it was a book about mental health. However, he said, he was so happy that his novel had brought about some open and honest discussions about mental health and the way that our society is unwilling to confront it.
Both days were so inspirational, and it was one of the many times that I counted myself lucky and thrilled to be living so close to DC. It was an awesome experience that neither I nor our students will soon forget. (Photos and links to the Library of Congress video recordings coming soon!)
“In my mind I am eloquent; I can climb intricate scaffolds of words to reach the highest cathedral ceilings and paint my thoughts. But when I open my mouth, everything collapses.”
From the first moment that I heard about the novel Warm Bodies, I was intrigued. To me, the premise is fascinating. Isaac Marion takes two major writing tropes (zombie apocalypse AND star-crossed lovers) and marries them, producing a riveting new kind of fiction. I love novels that are both gritty and tender--ones that delve into complex characters and explore all sides of them (and we all know that I love works focusing on apocalyptic scenarios). While I've read/watched lots of zombie tales, I had never read one prior to this novel that explored the psyche of the zombie, or that presented the zombie as emotional and complex. I love the way that Marion explores issues of identity, memory, alienation, loneliness, and grief. The best part? "R," the main character, has a wry sense of humor that is deadly. The first line of the novel demonstrates his wit: "I am dead, but it's not so bad. I've learned to live with it."
R often addresses the audience directly when he talks, which creates an interesting effect. Right away, R reflects on names as he talks to the reader: "I'm sorry I can't properly introduce myself, but I don't have a name anymore. Hardly any of us do. We lose them like car keys, forget them like anniversaries..." R goes on to reflect on the significance of names as part of identity and culture: "But it does make me sad that we've forgotten our names. Out of everything, this seems to me the most tragic. I miss my own and I mourn for everyone else's, because I'd like to love them, but I don't know who they are."
R's stunning eloquence as a narrator is juxtaposed with his utter inability to articulate his thoughts verbally. He struggles to say simple words and phrases. After trying to communicate with Julie, who is human, R states his frustration: "Julie looks at me like she's waiting for more, and I wonder if I've expressed anything at all with my halting, mumbled soliloquy. Are my words ever actually audible, or do they just echo in my head while people stare at me, waiting? I want to change my punctuation. I long for exclamation marks, but I'm drowning in ellipses.” What I love about Marion's prose is the captivating beauty with which he expresses the conundrum of communication. While R's struggles have to do with his undead state, he also articulates what so many people (perhaps teenagers most especially) experience when they try to share their thoughts with others. I want to change my punctuation. Ah, if that isn't beautiful, self-reflexive language, I don't know what is.
Despite my love of the novel, I was quite skeptical that my students would enjoy it. The text is much more difficult than many YA novels (in fact, it would probably not be classified as YA, though many people pushed it since the movie is definitely geared toward teens). The plot (despite the whole zombie thing) moves rather slowly. Additionally, the end, while functional, raises lots of questions. However, as with all novels I read and want to share, I put it to the test by placing it in the classroom library, and I found it to be a wild success. There was a waiting list for it, and I could never keep it on the shelf. Students who aren't crazy about reading seemed to handle it relatively well, and they enjoyed it.
If you're considering teaching a contemporary, post-apocalyptic novel, this one might be a good choice for a variety of reasons. First, the syntax and style of the novel beg closer study. Additionally, Marion provokes thought about complex issues of identity, alienation, and the determination to live despite horrifying circumstances. I would consider teaching Warm Bodies in advanced upper level classes (such as AP Lang or AP Lit) because of the syntactical structure as well as the complex questions that it raises about what makes life valuable. It would also be a great text to study along side of the film because the film version made some drastic changes (including sparing the life of a major character). You could explore the way that audience impacts storytelling and consider why Hollywood producers might soften the grittier parts of a novel for a teen movie audience. Additionally, Marion creates parallels between Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and his own novel (which I discussed here), and that paired reading would be fun to explore as well.
“Peel off these dusty wool blankets of apathy and antipathy and cynical desiccation. I want life in all its stupid sticky rawness.”
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 2019. 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.