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.
Oh. My. Gosh. I just finished Winter (actually about a month ago--if you read these posts often, you know how long it takes me to actually post.) This is the final novel in Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles series, which began with Cinder (and includes Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, Fairest, and finally Winter). (Thanks to GoodReads.com for the lovely cover image.) It's been a long time since I got to the end of a series and enjoyed it so much. (This is especially true if I'm reading the series as the books come out... I've noticed I enjoy them more if I read them all at one time, but I do love the joy of waiting for a new book in a series to be released.) I love so many of the YA lit series books-- Marie Lu's Legend series, Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, and Cassandra Clare's The Infernal Devices series all come rushing to mind--but The Lunar Chronicles is a good contender that would be great for teaching and/ or lit circles.
Meyer plays with traditional fairy tales and spins them in new, interesting ways. Her books are set in a futuristic sci-fi world where life is established on Earth's moon (where the Lunars, who have varying degrees of mind manipulation powers, reside) as well as still on Earth (with the "Earthen Union", which is enjoying a long era of peaceful coexistence). As you might guess from the title of the first novel, Cinder plays with the Cinderella fairy tale, and in this telling, Cinder is a cyborg teen mechanic who is quite out of place on Earth. She does have some of the same traits as Cinderella--she's a misfit whose stepmother and one of her stepsisters are both totally evil to her, and she does in fact meet a prince.
What I love most about the series is the way each new novel integrates new characters that weave into the storyline and add more dimension to the plot. The second novel focuses on Scarlet, who might bring to mind some of the traits of Little Red Riding Hood, and the third focuses on Cress, who echoes the tale of Rapunzel. Fairest is more of a companion piece than the others, and it focuses on the Lunar queen, who harkens back to the evil queen in Snow White. (I read this one after I finished Winter, and I'm glad I read them in that order.) Finally, Winter tells the story of Princess Winter, who certainly connects to character traits of Snow White herself. I feel the need to say that I don't often enjoy twisted fairy tales or things of that style, but these novels, with their sci-fi and fantasy elements and powerful, complex characters, greatly appeal to me.
In the classroom: These novels would be a great way to talk about diplomacy, the tradition of rule by bloodline rights, and the aspects of equity and fairness (as they relate to cyborgs on Earth who are treated as inferior OR "shells" on Lunar who are treated horribly). With biowarfare and other brutal military tactics, the lengths that regimes will go to in order to gain power certainly speak to what we see in our own world.
In lit circles: These novels would work great with other novels that build on fairy tales. Here's a nice list of YA books that relate to fairy tales provided by GoodReads.com. This series would also work well with other novels that focus on diplomatic relations, and they'd be a great complement to other novels with dystopian tropes (such as the Legend series by Marie Lu, the Graceling Realm series by Kristin Cashore, or the Divergent series by Veronica Roth). While Cinder would be the easiest to work with as a single work in the classroom, you could probably teach any novel in the series (they fill in gaps quite well and could stand alone).
I love Marissa Meyer (a successful NaNoWriMo novelist!), and I've thoroughly enjoyed the series. As a series, it's accessible, compelling, and fun while having enough depth and complexity to make it worth the read. I look forward to seeing what she comes out with next!
"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.
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.