"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.
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.
Things have been busy lately. You know how that goes, I'm sure. One of the things I do when I get stressed is start LOTS of things without finishing ANY of them.
For example, I open fifteen tabs on my computer and leave all of them open, desperately rifling through the files to try to figure out which one to do first. As my mind races, I find that I continually think of new items that must be completed; with each new thought, a new tab opens. On particularly anxious days, I switch back and forth between the computer and my desk, making notes and sorting through papers (there are ALWAYS lots of random papers on my desk on days like that) as I struggle to make sense of my life.
So it goes with my blog from time to time. I now have at least five drafts going on this page at once; most have been open for at least a couple of months--some of them have been open since before I went back to work post-maternity leave in September (was it really so long ago?). I've been desperately trying to post more frequently, but the whole month of December already slipped through my fingers, and now I'm at the end of January.
Anyway, I'm super excited about two things that we're doing at school right now, and both of them are ideas that you could implement right away if you felt so inclined.
The first idea is using YA literature for text pairings:
With our English 11 classes (and, to a lesser extent, with my AP Lit class as well in the form of lit circles), we're pairing "traditional" (think canonical, in anthologies, mostly by dead authors, largely DIFFICULT and somewhat antiquated) texts with passages from young adult novels. It's been great so far.
For example, we paired a close reading passage using the beginning of "The Fall of the House of Usher" with the beginning of a spooky novel by Rin Chupeco called The Girl from the Well. We paired a passage from The Life of Olaudah Equiano about being kidnapped and the slave ship journey over with a passage from Sharon Draper's Copper Sun about the slave auction.
It's been really successful, and it's been a great way to introduce students to more YA literature while also exposing them to the classics and more traditional texts.
The second idea is focusing on social issues as a way to create units:
We decided to make our units revolve around social issues. We came up with a list of social issues--15 of them--that we thought might interest students, and then we used Survey Monkey to let students quickly vote on their top issues. It surprised me to find that bullying was the winner by a landslide--well over 50% of the students voted for that issue. The other winners were hate crimes, human trafficking, and violence in schools. It was great to use the survey because I would've been reluctant to choose some of those issues on my own, but with student input, it invited me to have space to talk through issues that are relevant to the students' lives. We're creating mini-units focusing on each of the issues they selected. So far, we've worked through human trafficking and are currently studying hate crimes (including racial and religious crimes as well as crimes related to sexuality). I've been amazed by the maturity and passion students have shown as we have dealt with difficult texts and topics.
I'll write more about the framing of those units in the future, but I wanted to throw these ideas out there in case you're looking for some new things to try. I've needed a bit of revitalization with lessons myself, and these two ideas have done a lot to enhance the lessons I'm making.
"This, I think, is how people survive: Even when horrible things have been done to us, we can still find gratitude in one another." ~pg. 76
I keep considering posts I've put off the past couple of months as other life factors have gotten in the way, but alas, I'm going to put those posts off a while longer. Today, I'd just like to share about a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading earlier this year. I meant to write about this one a while ago, but I'm glad to have this chance to revisit it. This is the only book I've ever read that encapsulated in genuine ways the feelings that so many experienced at a turning point in our nation's history.
Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan is a stellar novel that hits at the heart of what it felt like during and immediately after the 9/11 attack in 2001. The story is told from the perspective of three narrators, all of whom are in New York at the time of the attacks, whose lives become intertwined as they struggle to understand the world that emerges in the wake of the attacks. It's a story of fear, love, and hope during difficult times.
What I love about this book:
This one is definitely worth a read. For those of us who still remember all too well exactly where we were and what it felt like, it is consoling to read and reflect. For those who are younger and do not fully understand why that moment impacted our nation as it did, it is a glimpse into a realistic portrait of what that day (week, month, year) felt like for those of us who lived through it. It's a testament to those who lost their lives and to the way that it marked our country, but it's also a reflection on the impact that the attack had on our nation and the dark cloud that it cast over the years to come. It's great for young adult readers because it helps them understand a bit better how the world that surrounds them today was shaped by that moment.
"I think that if you were able to somehow measure the weight of human kindness, it would have weighed more on 9/11 than it ever had. On 9/11, all the hatred and murder could not compare with the weight of love, of bravery, of caring. I have to believe that. I honestly believe that. I think we saw the way humanity works on that day, and while some of it was horrifying, so much of it was good." ~pg. 106
In this honest, uplifting novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, Karen Finneyfrock does a phenomenal job of depicting the struggles and agony that many students experience during high school. At the end of Celia's eighth grade year, her best friend's mother removes her friend from the school in favor of homeschooling. Almost immediately thereafter, her parents announce that they are separating. The situation continues to worsen as Celia deals with bullying, the separation, and the difficulty of standing up for herself. She discovers poetry and finds that writing poetry becomes her only consolation in an increasingly lonely life.
Then she meets Drake, another freshman who just moved from NYC to live with his grandmother in Hershey, PA. They become friends and Drake reveals his own secret, one he had been too terrified to tell anyone before. But even their friendship cannot protect them from the cruelty of others and Celia and Drake both become targets for bullying as their world spirals out of control. They must take drastic measures to try to regain control in their fragile lives.
This novel illuminates the way that feelings of alienation and estrangement can consume you during those early teen years. With poignancy, humor, and compassion, Karen Finneyfrock forces readers to consider the role that we (teachers, parents, mentors, other teens) all play in helping teens become who they are and helping them find their way in the world.
Translation for Teen Readers and the Classroom: This book is excellent for students who are struggling to find friends and who feel alone. It's also good for students who are experiencing the separation of their parents. Additionally, students struggling with their sexuality and with the prospect of "coming out" to their friends and family will benefit from the honesty in this novel. While some districts may disapprove of classroom teaching of this novel because of the controversial issues such as homosexuality and suicide, the novel enables students to take a hard look at the impact of bullying. Finneyfrock reveals the power that words have to harm and to heal, and she shines a light on the reasons behind some of the seemingly irrational behaviors of teenagers. She unveils her characters' deepest secrets with compassion and tenderness while simultaneously showing how frightening it can be to admit vulnerability.
Classroom Project Idea: Celia learns much about herself, the world, and her future during her ninth grade year. Drawing on this narrative focus, I am having my freshmen students write a final project that will be advice to the incoming ninth graders. In addition to the writing piece, I will let them make signs and posters. We'll post their tips and ideas around the room so that it's the first thing that the incoming freshmen will see. Perhaps the words of their more experienced classmates will help ease them into the realm of high school, making them feel a little more comfortable and a little less afraid.
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.