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.
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.
Let's talk about a wonderful book. (I want you to know that I have tried at least five times to start with something that didn't play on the title, but alas, I just can't help myself. Also, while I'm making confessions, I must confess that I started this blog post BEFORE I came back from maternity leave. That was six (now SEVEN) months ago... It's on a LONG list of great books that I'd like to review on here.)
No, really, getting back to the point (man, that was a long digression--you can tell what things are like in my brain these days!)--this book is AWESOME. This is a brilliant, tender story about a kid who is struggling with social acceptance because of a significant facial deformity. In the novel, we encounter August Pullman just as he's on the brink of entering school for the first time. His mom had homeschooled him throughout elementary school, but he joins a private school when he's ten years old, and the novel follows his first year at the school beginning with the conversation his family first has about attending and moving through the end of year events.
This is a novel that's geared toward middle school, and it would resonate there because so many students struggle with social pressures and self-image. However, people at my school have taught it at the eleventh grade level and have found great success there, as well, because the students enjoy the tenderness and accessibility of the story, and they are able to read it relatively quickly on their own without support. Because of the storyline and reading level, it's a novel that could cover a pretty wide age range.
What I love about this book:
It tackles complex issues with compassion and awareness.
It has multiple narrators. There's nothing I like more in a book than when an author effectively shows the story from multiple sides. Palacio does an excellent job of showing how the main character's facial deformity impacts not only his life, but also the lives of the people around him. The narrators include August himself, a couple of his friends, his sister, and even his sister's boyfriend. Each person approaches the situations from such different directions that it makes the book even more fascinating.
The narrators talk about things that make people uncomfortable with tenderness and love. (I've noticed while writing this that I'm uncomfortable even writing about a deformity of any kind, and yet that discomfort is part of what makes Auggie's life so challenging, which Palacio shows so well.)
It's accessible, both with its reading level and with its straightforward approach toward difficult issues.
The love that Auggie's parents have for him is boundless. One of my favorite quotes is what his father says to him about a time when he was younger and wore a helmet everywhere he went: "“You were wearing that helmet all the time. And the real, real, real, real truth is: I missed seeing your face, Auggie. I know you don’t always love it, but you have to understand … I love it. I love this face of yours, Auggie, completely and passionately. And it kind of broke my heart that you were always covering it up.” Oh, man. That's what love really is.
This is also a book about groups and the way that humans inevitably group people as belonging or not belonging. It's a book about TOLERANCE, and the way that tolerance requires accepting people as being like oneself. Though it's been several years since we returned to the States, I remember so clearly that when my husband and I were living in Japan (this seems like a digression, but I promise it's relevant), we read a fascinating article in the Daily Yomiyuri about "inside" and "outside" circles, and the premise of the article was that IF aliens came to Earth, THEN (and ONLY then, the author seemed to say) gai-jin (the Japanese word for foreigners) would become part of the "inside" circle. Though this sounds like satire, the author's tone was serious. He meant it--he was just explaining social dynamics as he saw them. Though, of course, MANY people there accepted and loved me, I did have a sense of being on the "outside" of things many times. The truth is there are those kinds of boundaries drawn here in America (and in our schools) as well, and Auggie is acutely aware of those boundaries because he has spent his life being outside of all of them except for with his family. However, as he becomes part of the school community, his circle grows and other people accept him as "inside" with them.
Overall, this is an awesome book, and it's a great way to talk about some of the other issues that seem to be so omnipresent in our schools today (bullying, isolation, ignoring others, etc.) without having to directly attack each of them. Palacio shows that, when everything is said and done, we're all humans, and we should above all BE KIND.
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.
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.