Man, have I read some amazing (mostly YA) literature lately! I’ve been fortunate to burn through lots of gift cards loading up on summer reads based on great recommendations (Thanks, Jen Moyers, my book guru!), and I can hardly keep up with all of the inspiring texts I’ve been enjoying. (In fact, this book review is a month overdue, but I’m finally going through what I initially wrote to post it. More reviews should be on their way shortly!)
Today I want to focus on Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero. (Credit goes to Goodreads.com for the cover image.)
From the provocative cover to the unique use of images and poetry within the novel, this book certainly gets the reader’s attention from the start. I read it on an e-reader (due to space constraints while traveling—see this post for more about that journey), and I feel like I missed out a little bit on some of the interesting aspects of the text, but I’ve looked at a paper copy as well to experience some of the richer, more colorful aspects of presentation. It's also a short novel, and I've written before about how valuable that can be, especially with a teen audience in a classroom setting.
This brilliant novel hits on all sorts of issues through the eyes of a hilarious, curious, critical girl, Gabi Hernandez, as she journeys through her senior year in high school. She spends much of her time figuring out what it means to be a woman, and she documents all of her thoughts and adventures in a diary that we, the readers, are privy to seeing. Gabi struggles through many typical teen issues with humor and self-reflection: she’s an awesome friend who helps out with a friend’s coming out and another friend’s pregnancy, and she struggles to find her way in relationships with boys. Gabi works through finding her voice as a writer, and she goes through the challenging process of applying for college. She also continually works to maintain meaningful relationships with a mother who, while well-meaning, can be oppressive, a brother who can be irresponsible and careless, and a father who is a drug addict.
The best part of the novel is Gabi’s voice. She’s distinctive, funny, and self-assured (even when she’s insecure). She doesn’t hesitate to say exactly how she feels, even when it’s difficult or makes people uncomfortable. Here are a couple of examples: “Curse the day I fell in love or like or whatever with Joshua Moore! I hate him. Hate him! HATE HIM!” (Quintero 20). Here she comments on her discovery of her love of writing: “I’m finding out that I really like poetry. It’s therapeutic. It’s like I can write something painful on paper and part of it (not all of it, obviously) disappears. It goes always somewhere, and the sadness I feel dissolves a little bit” (Quintero 48). This manifests into some brilliant poetry later on in the novel as she discovers more about the world of writing. The poems about her grandmother and her father are stunning—ones that could easily stand alone, ones that I found myself rereading after I had finished the novel. Here's a brief excerpt from the poem about her father, "In light of the fear of my father's death I write this down":
Guilt of gluttonous
He evades questioning questions
and dodges disagreements
a refugee in refuge
a reduction of
my father the brave. (Quintero 65)
In the classroom: There are so many teachable aspects of this novel. However, the most intriguing aspect of it to me is the way that you could pair the novel with the texts and authors that Gabi discovers in the novel. As she discovers her own voice as a poet, she also encounters many other poets and writers, and you could use the pieces that she discovers as a way to pair the YA novel with more classical, traditional literature in the classroom setting. She encounters writers such as the Beats (specifically Ginsberg’s Howl), Sylvia Plath, Pablo Neruda, e.e. cummings, and Sandra Cisneros. She also talks about Brave New World (though only in passing), and there are references to Edgar Allen Poe and other authors. The text is full of literary connections that could enrich its reading.
I also love the incorporation of Spanish and the way that Gabi shows her readers what it can be like to grow up as a second generation immigrant in America. The Spanish in the text is unobtrusive to non-Spanish readers, and Gabi always makes her point clear in English, but it highlights the richness and complexity of her experience as she navigates through her world of colliding cultures and generations. The way that she talks about Mexican food also shows the richness of her culture. When one of her early relationships falls apart, she talks with her mother:
I tried to act like I didn’t care about the whole Josh situation, but it was hard. I came home today and told my mom what was going on (because she’s my mom and can ALWAYS tell when there’s something wrong and won’t let it go until I tell her) and she offers some words of comfort so my heart wouldn’t shatter. She knows heartbreak, she said. She said. “Yo se lo que es estar joven y enamorada.” I tried to think of my mom as young and in love, but I couldn’t, it was too far of a stretch. (Quintero 22)
Gabi's relationship with her mom is complicated (aren't they always?) but tender and rich. The way that Gabi embraces her heritage and balances her different cultural influences shows one more aspect of her growing into herself. She reflects on her Mexican-American heritage and how hard it can be to be in that situation of split allegiances. It’s one more way that the text is complex, while being totally approachable.
This novel covers so many issues: it is not a book about being overweight, but Gabi talks openly and honestly about her struggles with food and self-image. It’s not a book about sexual identity, but Gabi manages to highlight to us the struggles that so many teens face as they try to learn about themselves. It’s not a book about being homosexual, but her friend’s struggles with his family show how difficult it is for some teens to come out to their loved ones. It’s not a book about teen pregnancy, but her friend Cindy’s struggles show what that path can look like for a young mother. It's not a book about addiction, but Gabi shows the way that addiction impacts the lives of loved ones. Through Gabi's eyes and voice, Quintero covers so many issues with humor, compassion, and authenticity.
In short (I realize this should be an ironic statement since this review keeps getting longer and longer...), I LOVED it, and it would be an invaluable addition to some of the more traditional canonical texts.
This is the husband back for week two (I must've done okay last week, or the wife is just really desperate...). This week I’m stepping in for Ashley while she participates in the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) Conference in Boston. I am sure that a future post of hers will reflect on her weekend there. Stay tuned.
Last week I wrote about Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. We wrapped up our discussion of it this week and I asked my students for feedback. They were pretty positive about the book, and even the ones who did not enjoy it had some very insightful comments about it.
This week I thought I would look at my experience teaching Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982). This book is a memoir, and I had no idea how my students would respond to it. I feared the worst — complete apathy — but once again I learned that I underestimated my students... even when they did not “like” the book, they still took it seriously and reflected critically on its value and message. So, I was pleasantly surprised and plan to teach the book again in the future.
For some background, Richard Rodriguez is the son of Mexican immigrants, and he was born and raised in the U.S. He grew up in California, studied at Stanford (undergraduate), Columbia (MA), and UC Berkeley where he was a PhD candidate until he stepped away from academia to devote himself to writing. He is most well known as a (somewhat controversial) Chicano intellectual and essayist, the controversy stemming from his opposition to Affirmative Action and bilingual education. He has written several memoirs and essay collections, among them Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father (1992), and Brown: The Last Discovery of America (2002). He was a finalist for the Pulitzer for Days of Obligation and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Brown. I find his prose to be deeply moving, raw, and beautiful, and even when I find myself disagreeing with what he says, I am moved by the way he says it.
Hunger of Memory is an excellent book for exploring questions of identity, community, and personal reflection. Rodriguez breaks the memoir into chapters that examine the different “spheres” of his life: public and private (family and school), language (Spanish vs. English), race, religion, social class, profession… With my class, this served the dual purpose of 1) providing an insight into the life experiences of someone growing up in an immigrant, bilingual household, and 2) helping us to reflect on how our own lives are divided between a multitude of spheres and influence. While my students might not have personal experience with being a linguistic minority, the memoir does lead to conversations about linguistic register in informal (private) and formal (public) settings, and it even led to some fascinating discussion on how we (should) present ourselves on social media platforms (that space where public and private get all mixed up!). Also, since my class is made up of many first-generation college students, they could easily relate to Rodriguez’s story.
Our reading and discussion of the book built up to a five page reflective essay. These have been beautifully personal works, and this is an assignment that I will repeat again in the future. I have posted the prompt for this essay below.
In short, if you are looking for a memoir to teach, then I would definitely recommend Hunger of Memory. I think that it would work best with older high school students (juniors or seniors). I believe that it is an excellent text for college students. It is approachable, beautifully written, and organized in a way that lends itself well to class discussion. As a teaser sample, I offer this quote from the book in closing. It expresses a sentiment I'm sure many of us can relate to...
"Despite my best efforts, however, there seemed to be more and more books that I needed to read. At the library I would literally tremble as I came upon whole shelves of books I hadn't read." (65)
This is the husband. I have been asked to contribute a guest post this week, and because I am a supporting husband I will do my best to help out and not to destroy all of the pedagogical credibility that my wife has sought to establish on this site.
Full disclosure: I am not an expert in YA lit, and beyond the Harry Potter series I have read very little of it. My wife is possibly scraping from the bottom of the barrel by resorting to my contributions, but she does always remind me that my sense of humor is exactly the same as that of her freshmen boys. And then she rolls her eyes.
I do teach, though, so I’ve got that going for me. We spent the early years of our marriage teaching high school together (I teach Spanish, she: English). A decade, two continents, three states, and five houses later (and graduate school for both of us somewhere in there) I am now teaching at a small liberal arts college and amassing an impressive array of cardigans and corduroy jackets with elbow patches. You can always judge the erudition of a person by their sweaters and elbow patches. At least that’s what I tell myself.
So, qualifications established, I shall commence my contribution to this blog.
I primarily teach Spanish classes in our World Languages & Cultures department, but one of my favorite courses to teach is our First Year Seminar course for entering students. My course is generically titled “An Intro to Critical Thinking through Chican@ Literature,” and we cover a variety of topics pertinent to the liberal arts all through the lens of Chican@ writings. My students are predominantly white, from the surrounding area, and very often first generation college students. For many, this is their first exposure to Chican@ history and readings, and I have been very pleased with our discussions and interactions in class this fall. I am impressed with how quickly the students have been able to move from relative ignorance on the issue to embracing it as another aspect of the American experience that is unique but not so different from their own lives.
Currently I am teaching Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972), the groundbreaking Chican@ novel that has received significant critical and cultural acclaim in the 40+ years since its first publication. I would like to say that I have some incredibly creative lesson plans that I executed perfectly and I received a standing ovation from my students after each class. That is not the case. What has impressed me has been my students’ insights and discussions.
Since the First Year Seminar course is designed for first semester students at our institution, it is a course that lays much groundwork for the students as to what to expect from their college classes and what is expected of them. With these parameters in mind, I have made it a priority in my class to make students feel comfortable contributing to, participating in, and leading class discussions. I believe that if they can become comfortable with contributing to in-class conversations on a regular basis, then they will be able to get the most out of their college courses. We all know that these are not skills that are limited to a college classroom - they are desired for any level classroom, and are essentially desirable skills for community/civic participation and involvement.
To accomplish these goals of classroom interaction, I have modeled throughout the semester how to approach a text: What are some textual elements we are looking at?; What questions arise?; What questions are you left with?; How does this relate back to our lives? I got us started by leading discussion on the first few chapters and then I passed it over to small groups. They were responsible for creating the questions we would discuss in class and for guiding our approach to that chapter/section. Many times the groups have hit the same points that I would have. Quite often, I have been surprised by their insight into a point that I overlooked. Each time, I feel like the group has taken ownership of the discussion and genuinely wanted the rest of the class to understand the importance of their selected chapters.
This approach may well not work with younger high-school students. I am dealing with 18 year olds and they do have (some) more maturity than 13 year olds. But the moral of the story comes from the fact that I tend to be a control freak in the classroom. I like to micromanage every minute and make sure that I have plenty of activities to fill the class-time; however, I have learned that when I am able to release that desire to control and direct each component of class discussions, and when I hand that responsibility over to my students, I am often amazed by their responses and participation.
So, Bless Me, Ultima is a wonderful book to teach. There was a film adaptation made that just came out on DVD this fall and offers some great text-to-film comparisons. One of the greatest resources is the National Endowment for the Humanities' “The Big Read” pages. It comes complete with a teacher’s guide with sample lesson plans, discussion questions, and useful handouts. There is also a reader’s guide that offers history and context to the novel, and there is an audio guide and short documentary to accompany the novel. All wonderful resources.
Our class has approached the novel through the themes that it raises. Bless Me, Ultima lends itself well to discussions of myths, symbols, place, maturity, religion, critical thinking, and others. We spent a day talking about the place of myths in society and how they function for good and bad within our culture. Place is always a topic that my students can relate to, even though the hills of the Shenandoah Valley are quite different than the Llano of New Mexico. My students often feel very tied to their hometown and so can relate very well to the importance of setting and place in the novel.
Most importantly, I have found that Antonio’s coming-of-age narration is an excellent starting point for discussions on critical thinking and the process of learning. For these reasons, I think that it is an excellent book for students at a transition point in their lives, such as starting or finishing high school or college. Antonio must incorporate new knowledge into his understanding of the world, and this process is one that models critical reflection and intellectual growth.
So, when my wife discovers how I have tarnished the good name of her blog through my own lackluster writing, I may never be invited back to write a guest post again. I hope that the damage done is not irreparable. I promise, your regularly scheduled blogger will be back very soon! In the meantime, give Bless Me, Ultima a look.
Bonus: Below is the trailer for the 2013 film adaptation of Bless Me, Ultima.
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.