“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."
Our students come back on Tuesday! We've had meetings since last Tuesday, so at this point, the thought of having class, and of getting into the normal routine, seems exceedingly blissful. I intended to post about back to school/ first day activities today, but after staring at my screen for a while, I decided that is a post for the near future. Today, I'd like to reflect on young adult literature that I discovered during summer reading this year.
This is the list of what I read from YA Lit this summer:
I couldn't say that I didn't enjoy any of these. They were all excellent novels. In fact, I was beginning to worry that I would reduce my credibility on Goodreads with my recent high ratings. I've given pretty much everything I've read this summer four or five stars. However, I realized eventually that the seemingly inflated ratings come from the fact that all of those books were recommended to me by a friend with excellent taste.
That brings me around to recommendations. I've discovered in the past year that talking with kids about books is the number one way to get them to read. I read things and tell my students about them; the next thing I know, they are reading them for themselves. They make their own judgments--I particularly enjoy it when a student plows through a book that I loved and then tells me that s/he did or did not particularly like specific things about it.
My thoughts about the books from this summer:
Lauren Oliver is brilliant. I've thoroughly enjoyed discovering her writing this summer. Her narrators are complex and challenging, and she moves forward at a riveting speed that leaves the reader breathless. I think (despite my initial doubts during the first 100 or so pages) I ultimately liked Before I Fall better than the Delirium series, but both were amazing reads that have been enjoyed by my students as well as me.
Saenz is a phenomenal writer and his story poignantly and directly attacks the struggles that teenage boys encounter when they discover that they are a bit different from their peers. It's a story of loneliness, self-discovery, and compassion, and I loved every minute of it.
Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is a hilarious, insightful story with a brilliant narrative voice. It moves quickly and is a great read for teens navigating the complex pathways of social networks in high school, as well as those who are struggling with the illness of a friend or family member. It's honest and sheds an authentic light on the hilarity and absurdity of life as well as the complexities of the human experience.
I just finished Bitterblue, and I can't say enough about how much I love the world that Kristin Cashore created. She thoroughly engrosses her reader in the fantasy world of seven kingdoms (with another world accessible only through tunnels). What I particularly like about those books is the continuity of progressive thinking and strong female narrators throughout each of the novels. I also love the way that the novels complement one another while telling unique, fascinating stories. Though I loved all three novels, I found Bitterblue the most powerful as Cashore reveals through that novel the long lasting impact of a devastating tyrant and the challenges that people face in the aftermath of such a horrible experience.
John Green's novel was brilliant--funny, moving, and perfect for teen readers who are feeling alone and learning to relate to the world and their friends. This is an awesome story about the unlikely meeting of two very different teenage boys who discover that they have some things in common. It's an excellent book for teenagers who are dealing with relationship issues, loneliness, sexuality issues, or depression. It's simply a great novel for readers who are looking for a fun read about the struggles of "normal" teenage life.
Marie Lu's series is AWESOME! I love the alternating narrators and the way that their lives intertwine. The story itself is compelling, and Lu unveils her post-apocalyptic, dystopian world bit by bit in a way that keeps the story ever suspenseful and intriguing. They are excellent reads and are among the best of the genre that I've read so far.
I loved, loved, loved Hold Still. It was raw and honest about the devastation that people experience in the wake of suicide. However, what makes it remarkable is the way that LaCour shows with candor and authenticity how art and love and reflection can bring about healing and remembrance. It is a story of bravery and hope, and it addresses mental illness and self harm in a way that is approachable for teen readers as well as adults.
Finally, I will end with the book that began my summer. The Dog Stars is a phenomenal book. It took me quite a while to get into that one, but it was well worth the wait. It is a brilliant book that shows the desire to keep living in a post-apocalyptic world where virtually nothing is left. The narration is powerful with curt, broken syntax and sharp realities depicted in single word phrases. “Life and death lived inside each other. That's what occurred to me. Death was inside all of us, waiting for warmer nights, a compromised system, a beetle, as in the now dying black timber on the mountains.” This is a remarkable story, and it would be a good one to teach in an advanced or AP class.
Well, this has turned out to be longer than I anticipated... I loved the novels I read this summer (almost as much as I loved the summer itself), and I can't wait to share them with the students this coming week. Best wishes to all of you fellow teachers as you settle in to a new year with your students.
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.