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."
"We were all heading for each other on a collision course, no matter what. Maybe some people are just meant to be in the same story" (Nelson 269).
The first taste of fall--the need for an extra layer, the crispness in the air, the rustle of the dry leaves as they move toward changing colors and falling. Of all the things I love about the climate in this area, the distinct season changes has to be close to the top. I certainly do not love winter, and I'm still mourning the loss of summer, but there's still something enticing about the arrival of autumn here.
The changing season (that is quickly moving toward winter--it's amazing how long these drafts take me to post...) brings me back to a novel I read this summer that I haven't had a chance to discuss here yet. It's a book that deals with the seasons that come when life takes a profound turn for the worst. I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson is a literary work of genius. (Thanks to GoodReads for the cover image. I enjoyed reading this one as an eBook.) Of all the YA literature I've read lately, I have to say I enjoyed this one the most. It's riveting and powerful without seeming forced or contrived in any way. It's the story of twins, Jude and Noah, whose lives are drastically, irreparably altered by a catastrophic event. The entire story shapes itself around that event and their quest to find themselves functioning on the other side.
Let's talk about structure first. Both twins have narrative rights, and they each have a very distinct story to tell. One of the things I loved was how unique the two voices were. Noah talks in images, constantly interpreting the world through colors and visual analysis. When he sees a boy who had been his friend, he thinks: "I spot him following Courtney up a stair case, watch him as he razors through the crowd, nodding his head to guys, returning the smiles of girls, like he belongs. How is it he belongs everywhere? (PORTRAIT: The boy with All the Keys in the World with All the Locks)" (126). Noah sees the world in colors and shapes, and his perspective is tender and acutely perceptive: "...then colors start flooding into me: not through my eyes but right through my skin, replacing blood and bone, muscle and sinew, until I am redorangebluegreenpurpleyellowred-orangebluegreenpurpleyellow" (202). Jude is also an artist, but she is much more direct in her thoughts and narration. She is superstitious, but she does not dwell in abstraction as often as Noah. When told that she cannot eat a donut without moaning, she considers her condition: "No time to dwell, though. Guillermo and Oscar are giving the show before them--me--their undivided attention. How did I get into this? Tentatively, I lift the donut to my mouth. I take a small bite and despite the fact that all I want to do is close my eyes and moan a porn soundtrack, I resist" (185). Nelson knows her characters inside and out, and she lets each of them speak with clarity and with distinct perspective. The fact that Jude and Noah each get to work through the grief process through their own lenses and using their own voices made the entire story more powerful and captivating. The structure also takes on a "before/ after" approach that moves seamlessly between the present and the past, revolving around a critical event that profoundly affects the lives of the twins.
Another thing that I LOVE about this novel is the scope. Nelson takes on some heavy, complex subjects, and she does it with grace and delicacy, never oversimplifying or making things seem binary. Nelson takes on loss, grief, guilt, adultery, sexual assault, and suicide all within a captivating work with an intricate plot line that webs together beautifully. Though the topics are heavy and dramatic, the characters never feel melodramatic or insincere.
Perhaps the best part of the novel (though it's certainly debatable--there are so many awesome parts) is the way that Nelson portrays all of the characters (even the ones we don't get to know well) with tenderness and compassion. They are fully human--they do horrible things sometimes, and they hurt the people they love. They keep secrets and tell lies. They lie to themselves and to each other. And yet, she shows how beautiful they are and how deeply they love. And she shows the power of hope and of forgiveness. She shows how people can, despite all odds, help each other heal.
In the Classroom: I'll Give You the Sun would be a great novel to teach whole class or as a lit circle selection. If you teach it whole class, you could certainly create a group project that allows different groups to address the different topics that Nelson addresses in the book (such as the list I gave above--loss, grief, guilt, adultery, suicide--as well as others such as twins, relationships, and soul mates). The nice thing about teaching it whole class is that you could delve into all of the topics together, and the discussions coming from a novel of this caliber would be phenomenal. However, if you wanted to do lit circles, this book could work with MANY different lit circle themes.
Sample Lit Circle List (of several amazing novels) focusing on loss and grief:
[As an aside to my regular readers, I've got a new website for my technology job that's been pulling me away from this site for a while, but I'm hoping to find a balance and get back to posting more regularly here as well. Thank you for your patience and for sticking with me through these changes!]
"Quick, make a wish.
I recently attended two memorial services--both amazing, well-loved people we lost too soon. Although my husband and I have had the joy of bringing our amazing daughter into the world this year, it has been a year of loss for several families that we love. Those somber occasions have given me time to linger in the space where loss leaves us, and I've found myself searching for words of comfort for myself and for people I love.
I came across The Art of Losing, a compilation put together by poet Kevin Young, at a time in my life when I desperately needed some solace. The book spoke to me immediately, and it provided me with a reservoir of language that consoled my hurting heart. I've come back to that book many times over the years, and I've come to think of it as an old friend who's always there, undemanding but ready when needed.
The image on the cover still resonates with me. The ribbon wrapped around the book is breaking--the threads are unraveling as it rips apart. (Thanks to Goodreads for the image, where you can also read about the book.)
That is what grief is like for me. Unraveling. The tearing of threads that were once woven together. A rip that cannot be repaired.
We all grieve if we live long enough. And yet grief is so individual, so intense, so unique... so lonely. We all hurt differently, and that individuality can make the pain so much sharper. It can leave us feeling so lost and so alone.
It's in that space--in the quiet solitude of grief--that poetry can enter, and Kevin Young found and compiled poems that speak to all of the stages of grief. Young worked on the compilation after he lost his father and discovered the lack of writings and compilations that addressed grieving in a meaningful way. It's such a beautiful, thoughtful edition, and it can offer comfort in a way that few collections can.
Today is the ten year anniversary of my mother's death. There are dates that we remember but do not celebrate.
When my mother died, I felt so lost. I didn't know how to grieve, or how to let other people who loved me enter into the space of my pain. I remember lots of people said lots of consoling things, but many of them felt superficial. In my bitterness and hurt, I couldn't understand their kindness. However, I'll never forget one person's response. At the school where I had just begun teaching, a mentor there simply recited a poem to me. I can still remember that moment so clearly; it was more powerful during that difficult period than any of the words that people said to me. It was then that I truly discovered the power of poetry.
The poem is included in the compilation by Young. It's Theodore Roethke's villanelle, "The Waking":
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
That moment will always stay with me. It's a reminder when I see others grieve that sometimes the simple beauty of poetry can be more comforting than the endless struggle to try to find the right words.
Sometimes there are no right words.
Kevin Young does an amazing job in his compilation of moving through the stages of grief, and the poems range in style and thematic elements. The sections are: Reckoning, Regret, Remembrance, Ritual, Recovery, and Redemption. The poems within each section suit the aspect of grief that the title indicates. There's also an excellent index by subject that can help those of us trying to find the right poem for someone we love who is hurting. In Young's introduction to the compilation, he thoughtfully articulates the tender way he put together the works. His opening line, "I have begun to believe in, and even to preach, a poetry of necessity," speaks to the power that poetry has to reach places that nothing else can. Though I hope that none of you find this particular necessity in your lives, this compilation is there for you (or your students) when you have the need.
I love this poem from the compilation that Kevin Young wrote himself about losing his father:
Behind his house, my father's dogs
sleep in kennels, beautiful,
he built just for them.
They do not bark.
Do they know he is dead?
They wag their tails
& head. They beg
& are fed.
Their grief is colossal
Each day they wake
seeking his voice,
By dusk they seem
to unremember everything --
to them even hunger
is a game. For that, I envy.
For that, I cannot bear to watch them
pacing their cage. I try to remember
they love best confined space
to feel safe. Each day
a saint comes by to feed the pair
& I draw closer
I've begun to think of them
as my father's own sons,
as kin. Brothers-in-paw.
My eyes each day thaw.
One day the water cuts off.
Then back on.
They are outside dogs --
which is to say, healthy
& victorious, purposeful
& one giant muscle
like the heart. Dad taught
them not to bark, to point
out their prey. To stay.
Were they there that day?
They call me
like witnesses & will not say.
I ask for their care
& their carelessness --
wish of them forgiveness.
I must give them away.
I must find for them homes,
sleep restless in his.
All night long I expect they pace
as I do, each dog like an eye
roaming with the dead
beneath an unlocked lid.
There's a nice NPR article about the compilation that I found when searching for the above poem online. You can listen to Young reading his poem "Bereavement," as well as another amazing poem, "Redemption Song," the title of which alludes powerfully to Bob Marley's legacy of hope and encouragement in difficult times.
For our students, as for us all, we need to provide a space for grief in our lives. Kevin Young's compilation might open the door for hard discussions, or it might give students a tool to wield when faced with the harsh reality of loss. It might remind them (and reawaken us to the fact) that we are here. We are listening.
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.