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.
Quick Summary: Tell Me Three Things is a story about the difficulty of loss and the power of relationships to help people move through grief. In the story, Jessie has lost her mom and has moved with her father to California where she lives with his new wife and her son. She has contact with an online “advisor” from her school whose identity is secret. The “advisor” becomes a comfort and a source of strength for Jessie.
My Take: While this kind of novel is not exactly my favorite genre, I really enjoyed the characters in this one and appreciated the way that Buxbaum got into more complex issues such as death, grief, blended families, and the challenges of navigating major life changes.
My conclusion: While I did enjoy many aspects of this novel, I struggled with the plausibility of some of it, and I didn't completely buy the ending. I will say that my Unabridged cohosts loved it so much, and I found that I appreciated the book much more after our podcast discussion! 3/5 stars.
Teaching Tips: This novel would work really well in lit circles. It has plenty of discussion points and could work well in a lit circle group focusing on grief, blended families, family relations, or coming of age.
Podcast Highlights: I loved our argument about the love components of this novel. I sound like such a cynic! (Even listening back, I still agree with my side of the issue, but I'm cracking up at my stubbornness!) Really, folks, it's such a sweet story. And I did love Ethan. In spite of myself.
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.”
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!
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.