The Astonishing Color of After, by Emily X. R. Pan, chronicles the journey of Leigh Chen Sanders as she goes to her mother’s homeland, Taiwan, in order to bring about some resolution for her mother (and herself) after her mother’s suicide. Shortly after her mother’s death, Leigh discovers that her mother has become a beautiful red bird, and she pursues the bird, which takes Leigh on a journey into the collective past of her family.
My Take: This book was stunningly beautiful. I also found it deeply painful to read. For a large portion of the book, I was worried that there was no hope for redemption or peace. The premise makes it clear that there is no hope for Leigh's mom (at least in her bodily form on this earth) as she has already succumbed to suicide as the book opens. However, I was completely captivated, and I found the twists and turns and magical realism that Pan weaves so smoothly into the text to be both compelling and comforting.
My conclusion: This was a stunning novel. Throughout much of the novel, I felt like I couldn't imagine feeling hopeful by the end, but it is remarkably uplifting considering the heavy content and premise. It was captivating, eloquent, and artistic. In short, I loved it. I was teary throughout much of it, but I found it cathartic and hopeful. Well done, Ms. Pan. I look forward to more works by this talented author. 5/5 stars.
Favorite Quotes: The memorable, gorgeous quotes are endless. I was taking photos of pages to capture the passages, and I truly felt that I could have photographed every page. I cannot believe this is Pan's first novel! Here are a few of the ones I loved.
Teaching Tips: This novel would be a great choice for lit circles, and it would work well with other works about grief, coping with loss, family dynamics, cross-cultural families, and second generation Americans.
Quick Summary: Tell Me Three Things is a story about the difficulty of loss and the power of relationships to help people move through grief. In the story, Jessie has lost her mom and has moved with her father to California where she lives with his new wife and her son. She has contact with an online “advisor” from her school whose identity is secret. The “advisor” becomes a comfort and a source of strength for Jessie.
My Take: While this kind of novel is not exactly my favorite genre, I really enjoyed the characters in this one and appreciated the way that Buxbaum got into more complex issues such as death, grief, blended families, and the challenges of navigating major life changes.
My conclusion: While I did enjoy many aspects of this novel, I struggled with the plausibility of some of it, and I didn't completely buy the ending. I will say that my Unabridged cohosts loved it so much, and I found that I appreciated the book much more after our podcast discussion! 3/5 stars.
Teaching Tips: This novel would work really well in lit circles. It has plenty of discussion points and could work well in a lit circle group focusing on grief, blended families, family relations, or coming of age.
Podcast Highlights: I loved our argument about the love components of this novel. I sound like such a cynic! (Even listening back, I still agree with my side of the issue, but I'm cracking up at my stubbornness!) Really, folks, it's such a sweet story. And I did love Ethan. In spite of myself.
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.
“He's getting old. I don't count the years. I don't multiply by seven. They bred dogs for everything else, even diving for fish, why didn't they breed them to live longer, to live as long as a man?”
My dog is dying. She's my beloved friend and companion, and she's been with us since before my mom died in 2004. She's perfect. Confident, kind, independent but affectionate. She's gotten me through some really rough times in my life. And she is dying.
The trip to the vet early last June was a casual one--just a routine checkup. They found out from their checkup that she had congestive heart failure and kidney failure. In December, we found out she also has bladder cancer. She's certainly beaten the odds. The fact that she's still with us a year later is amazing. And yet each time we take her the news inevitably gets worse.
She spends more time with us these days. She lovingly tolerates my toddler's affection, which involves putting blankets, hats, and aprons on her. Pulling her tail. Her ears. Shoving various toys and random household items under her nose. "Brushing" her with a broom. Despite their rather precarious relationship, she ventures upstairs and sits in my daughter's room as long as we'll let her--a space she used to avoid as she waited for us to return downstairs. She spends every second we're home with us as if she knows what we know all too well--our time together draws ever shorter. And yet she cannot protect us from the inevitable heartbreak. She cannot stop us from missing her.
As I spend my time contemplating my endless love for my sweet dog, I have found myself thinking so often of a book I read a couple of years ago, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. (Thanks to Goodreads for the cover image!) This post-apocalyptic, gritty novel looks at loneliness and companionship and the way that love between a human and dog can be the purest form of love on earth.
The style of the novel emphasizes the fragmented syntax that would likely come from years and years of solitude. It reflects the fragmented world that surrounds Hig, the narrator, and his dog Jasper. His thoughts--he's so often entirely alone in the world aside from Jasper, so he has a tremendous amount of time to think--are as profound as they are disjointed. “Is it possible to love so desperately that life is unbearable? I don't mean unrequited, I mean being in the love. In the midst of it and desperate. Because knowing it will end, because everything does. End.”
Despite the bleak situation, Heller fosters an eternal feeling of hope. The pragmatic, grouchy narrator never stops pursuing what is to come. Like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, this novel reveals the way that humans, and humanity itself endures. “How you refill. Lying there. Something like happiness, just like water, pure and clear pouring in. So good you don’t even welcome it, it runs through you in a bright stream, as if it has been there all along.”
This novel would work well in literary circles that focus on grief (see this post for more information about a lit circle list for grief) or harsh situations. It would also pair nicely with The Road or even the YA novel Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis. It would be significantly more difficult than the McGinnis novel, so it would be a good way to differentiate for students but cover similar issues.
Though it took me a little while to really get into this novel, I loved it, and it has stayed with me. It's a great read for students interested in post-apocalyptic literature. Heller takes a different, more realistic approach to the bleak situation that faces Hig as the world around him collapses due to warming conditions and disease. Hig's life is excruciatingly difficult at times, but it's also tender and full of hope for what's on the horizon.
“Funny how you can live your whole life waiting and not know it... Waiting for your real life to begin. Maybe the most real thing the end. To realize when it's too late. I know now that I loved him more than anything on earth or off of it."
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.