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: Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone is a YA fantasy novel the centers on three characters who live in Orisha, a fantasy world loosely based on the author’s Nigerian heritage. This world that has lost its connection to magic. Zélie is one of the maji, individuals blessed with a connection to the gods who could do magic. The other two narrators are siblings, the children of the king who killed an entire generation of maji and who banished magic from the kingdom. Amari, the princess, has quietly struggled to meet her parents’ expectations through a lifetime of trying to fit in and to resist her desire to leave the castle. Inan, the prince, has done everything his father wanted, becoming a captain in the military who will enforce magic’s banishment. All three characters struggle with conflicts that have no easy answers, particularly as they come to know each other and their unique, hidden challenges.
My Take: Man, I loved this book so very much, and it was really tough to realize that I'll have to wait a long time for the next book to be released. I was enthralled by Zélie from the start--I loved her stubbornness and her loyalty to Tzain and her father. Her dedication to her mother's memory was powerful, and I appreciated the struggle she had throughout the novel to reconcile the damage magic could do with the way that it could give power to the powerless. I found Amari's and Inan's perspectives intriguing as well, and I appreciated the way that all of their lives wound together as the novel progressed.
My conclusion: I'm a fantasy lover in general, and I've been long overdue for a great fantasy read. I had extremely high expectations for this novel and could not wait for it to be released. Often, it's tough for a novel to live up to those expectations, but in so many ways, I thought that Adeyemi delivers. Adeyemi manages to tell a phenomenal story that is compelling and gripping while also making it a socially conscious commentary on the struggles within our contemporary society. That is hard work, but she pulls it off with finesse and seeming ease. 5/5 stars.
What I added to my TBR list: I was so interested in the text that Sara shared, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba. With that kind of recommendation, I want to make sure that I read it soon! I also love Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison so very much. Jen sharing that one made me want to read it again.
Teaching Tips: This novel would be a great option for lit circles. As we discuss in the podcast, it would work well as an option along side of other socially conscious books that are taking on issues such as racism and police brutality more directly with realistic fiction. I love how this book takes a different angle on these complex issues our society is facing.
Podcast Highlights: I so appreciated what Jen said about Amari's quiet strength, and I thought Sara's commentary about the backstory she created for Saran was fascinating. I most especially appreciated how we all found different things about the book interesting, but despite those various perspectives, we each loved it. That speaks to the strengths of the novel. I can't believe it's Adeyemi's first novel! I'm so looking forward to the rest of the series.
Dane Huckelbridge’s Castle of Water is a story about two strangers, Barry and Sophie, who are on a small plane that crashes into the ocean. They end up on a small, deserted island where they have to learn to survive . . . and to live together.
Phew... We had so much to say about this book! It was so fun to discuss, and we could've dug into it for much longer.
My Take: I enjoyed this story very much. The language is breathtakingly beautiful, and the perspective (that includes some rather cosmic examinations of the two main characters and their predicament) is quite interesting. The role of art in the novel is also powerful and gripping. The best part of the book? I appreciate it more each time I think about it, which is a great complement to a book!
My conclusion: Upon my first reading, there were a few facets of the plot line about which I felt a little critical. (To avoid spoilers, I will not specify what those were, but I will say they mostly occurred toward the end of the book.) However, the more we discussed the book (both at book club and then with the podcast crew), the more those tiny details fell away and the stark beauty of the story--one of survival, love, and hope--remained. 5/5 stars.
Favorite Quotes: How can I choose? The quotable passages are endless. Here's just a small sampling.
Teaching Tips: This book would be an amazing one for lit circles and could stand up to a whole class reading with advanced/ AP students.
Podcast Highlights: I so LOVED listening to Jen read the passage about rowing from the novel (which was undoubtedly one of my favorite parts of the work as a whole), and I thought after our discussion that I could enjoy this book all over again by listening to it as an audio book.
Quick Summary: This story centers on Aza Holmes, a high school student grappling with the loss of her father and learning to live with her crippling anxiety. She and her best friend Daisy get wrapped up in a mystery involving a reward for finding a missing billionaire; they get to know (or in Aza's case, reconnect with...) his son, Davis, whose mom died and who has to find his way to help his brother now that their dad is gone, too. John Green brings the issues of anxiety to the forefront of this gripping novel, showing readers firsthand what it's like to be in the thick of that spiral.
My Take: LOVE. IT. This is an awesome book that showcases an in-depth character study of a teenager facing tremendous anxiety. I love the way Green examines all sides of the issue, from her perspective as well as the perspective of friends and family. He does an awesome job of showing that there are no easy answers and that living with anxiety does not mean that a person overcomes it. The characters are vibrant and three-dimensional, and they suck you in immediately.
My conclusion: This is a brilliant novel dealing with the realities of so many vital issues connected to mental health and relationships. Green does an awesome job of demonstrating for a teen audience (as well as adults) what the world is like for a chronically anxious person. 5/5 stars.
Favorite Quotes: Phew, there are SO many. Here are a few...
"You think, it's like a brain fire. Like a rodent gnawing you from the inside. A knife in your gut. A spiral. A whirlpool. Black hole. The words used to describe it--despair, fear, anxiety, obsession--do so little to communicate it. Maybe we invented metaphor as a response to pain. Maybe we needed to give shape to the opaque, deep-down pain that evades both sense and senses." - So often in the novel, Aza so clearly articulates her suffering. Green does an amazing job of showing through Aza how a person can both understand her situation and be totally unable to control it.
"Every loss is unprecedented. You can't ever know someone else's hurt, not really-- just like touching someone else's body isn't the same as having someone else's body." While my analysis and much of our podcast discussion focused on Green's portrayal of anxiety, the role of grief is also pivotal in this novel, and he shows how the loss of Aza's father shapes her and wounds her.
What I added to my TBR list: First off all, I love. love. love All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven that Jen used as her pairing. I was interested in both Jenni and Sara's pairings, but I think based on the reading load I have right now, I'll add The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, which sounds like a hilarious and touching approach to the challenge of relationships.
Teaching Tips: This novel would work really well in a high school classroom. It certainly complements a classroom library, but it could easily be taught whole class or as part of lit circles. As we discussed in the podcast, an author study would be a great way to utilize Green's novels while finding different works to reach different readers.
Podcast Highlights: I so loved what Jenni shared about how it feels to be in the midst of an anxiety spiral, as well as what she shared as far as feeling like "the mustard" sometimes in life. It was fascinating to see how each of us viewed the novel; while we all loved it, I enjoyed seeing the different aspects that each of us appreciated.
One More Thing: I so loved this NYT article about John Green's own struggle with anxiety. It's well worth a read. I especially appreciated what Green said about sharing his experiences: “I want to talk about it, and not feel any embarrassment or shame,” he said, “because I think it’s important for people to hear from adults who have good fulfilling lives and manage chronic mental illness as part of those good fulfilling lives.”
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.
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.