“In my mind I am eloquent; I can climb intricate scaffolds of words to reach the highest cathedral ceilings and paint my thoughts. But when I open my mouth, everything collapses.”
From the first moment that I heard about the novel Warm Bodies, I was intrigued. To me, the premise is fascinating. Isaac Marion takes two major writing tropes (zombie apocalypse AND star-crossed lovers) and marries them, producing a riveting new kind of fiction. I love novels that are both gritty and tender--ones that delve into complex characters and explore all sides of them (and we all know that I love works focusing on apocalyptic scenarios). While I've read/watched lots of zombie tales, I had never read one prior to this novel that explored the psyche of the zombie, or that presented the zombie as emotional and complex. I love the way that Marion explores issues of identity, memory, alienation, loneliness, and grief. The best part? "R," the main character, has a wry sense of humor that is deadly. The first line of the novel demonstrates his wit: "I am dead, but it's not so bad. I've learned to live with it."
R often addresses the audience directly when he talks, which creates an interesting effect. Right away, R reflects on names as he talks to the reader: "I'm sorry I can't properly introduce myself, but I don't have a name anymore. Hardly any of us do. We lose them like car keys, forget them like anniversaries..." R goes on to reflect on the significance of names as part of identity and culture: "But it does make me sad that we've forgotten our names. Out of everything, this seems to me the most tragic. I miss my own and I mourn for everyone else's, because I'd like to love them, but I don't know who they are."
R's stunning eloquence as a narrator is juxtaposed with his utter inability to articulate his thoughts verbally. He struggles to say simple words and phrases. After trying to communicate with Julie, who is human, R states his frustration: "Julie looks at me like she's waiting for more, and I wonder if I've expressed anything at all with my halting, mumbled soliloquy. Are my words ever actually audible, or do they just echo in my head while people stare at me, waiting? I want to change my punctuation. I long for exclamation marks, but I'm drowning in ellipses.” What I love about Marion's prose is the captivating beauty with which he expresses the conundrum of communication. While R's struggles have to do with his undead state, he also articulates what so many people (perhaps teenagers most especially) experience when they try to share their thoughts with others. I want to change my punctuation. Ah, if that isn't beautiful, self-reflexive language, I don't know what is.
Despite my love of the novel, I was quite skeptical that my students would enjoy it. The text is much more difficult than many YA novels (in fact, it would probably not be classified as YA, though many people pushed it since the movie is definitely geared toward teens). The plot (despite the whole zombie thing) moves rather slowly. Additionally, the end, while functional, raises lots of questions. However, as with all novels I read and want to share, I put it to the test by placing it in the classroom library, and I found it to be a wild success. There was a waiting list for it, and I could never keep it on the shelf. Students who aren't crazy about reading seemed to handle it relatively well, and they enjoyed it.
If you're considering teaching a contemporary, post-apocalyptic novel, this one might be a good choice for a variety of reasons. First, the syntax and style of the novel beg closer study. Additionally, Marion provokes thought about complex issues of identity, alienation, and the determination to live despite horrifying circumstances. I would consider teaching Warm Bodies in advanced upper level classes (such as AP Lang or AP Lit) because of the syntactical structure as well as the complex questions that it raises about what makes life valuable. It would also be a great text to study along side of the film because the film version made some drastic changes (including sparing the life of a major character). You could explore the way that audience impacts storytelling and consider why Hollywood producers might soften the grittier parts of a novel for a teen movie audience. Additionally, Marion creates parallels between Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and his own novel (which I discussed here), and that paired reading would be fun to explore as well.
“Peel off these dusty wool blankets of apathy and antipathy and cynical desiccation. I want life in all its stupid sticky rawness.”
While I intend to focus primarily on contemporary YA lit and how to use it in the classroom, it’s been “much upon my mind that I ought to tell…the whole truth,” (things I remember from my own high school experience: Dickens’ Great Expectations) and the truth is that in class, I’ve been teaching Romeo and Juliet. Couldn’t get more classic, less contemporary, could we?
Because of its canonical aspects and the language barrier, I approached the unit with trepidation. While I’ve taught many of Shakespeare’s plays, I have rarely taught freshmen and had not yet come across this particular task.
I have no use for beating difficult texts over students’ heads (metaphorically, of course—I feel obligated to highlight that I do not promote abuse). I certainly have done my share of suffering when teaching texts that students did not enjoy (A failed attempt at The Crucible comes to mind, as do the early parts of years when I taught American lit as a chronological survey course). While I love teaching Hamlet to seniors, I found the thought of Romeo and Juliet with freshmen intimidating. I believe in instilling the love of literature and of learning in the hearts and minds of kids, and I believe that some texts invite that possibility more than others.
So I did what I do when I am anxious—I researched (which, as a random aside, is a terrible plan when it comes to things like medical concerns, but which works quite well for conquering fears over teaching certain texts). I came across lots of mediocre ideas and some stellar ones as well. I used one of John Green's amazing Crash Course videos (see youtube link here) to get the students interested and give them some helpful background information. For other engaging activities during the unit, I relied especially heavily on Dana Huff’s posts (on www.huffenglish.com). I was most excited by her ideas about pairing scenes from the Zeffirelli version of the film (1968) with the Luhrmann version of the film (1996). Many of the students are visual learners, and all of them are better equipped to interpret and analyze film, so those activities have been amazingly successful. They made great notes, had good discussions, and wrote strong essays. The films bring out so much of the power within the writing and the story. I watched Luhrmann’s version of Act V scene iii five times. This is the testament to the power of interpretation: I felt a shiver of chills every time Romeo took the poison and felt Juliet’s hand. I’m not easily moved, but I cringed (as did every student watching) as Romeo discovered the horrifying truth.
The unit has been much more successful than I expected. They have become much better at paraphrasing, have made tremendous progress with reading, and have managed to push through the difficult language and into the complex issues that the story itself presents. With the recent epidemic of star-crossed lovers in awesome YA lit novels, the story feels remarkably relevant and even exciting. (If any teachers want to contact me for additional ideas or resources for Romeo and Juliet, please feel free to do so on the contact page or through twitter.)
And so I look toward next year’s Fate and Choice unit with excitement instead of dread. I keep thinking of all the things I can change and add. I used a small excerpt from John Green’s The Fault in our Stars (a phenomenal novel! A review of this will come at some point, I’m sure, but at this moment suffice it to say that I highly recommend it) this year to help students understand the term star-crossed, but I’m excited about the notion of introducing more pairings next year. I just read Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (which is exquisitely written and includes a delightful balance between the crude nature of zombies and the irrepressible force of love), and I’m fantasizing about fun pairings between balcony scenes and other aspects of the two texts. Whether it’s gnomes (I have full intentions of using some aspect of the movie Gnomeo and Juliet), zombies, or terminally-ill teens, the power of this trope resonates throughout our world.
As R. says in Warm Bodies: “In my mind I am eloquent; I can climb intricate scaffolds of words to reach the highest cathedral ceilings and paint my thoughts. But when I open my mouth, everything collapses.”
“Clearly the end is coming,” she said, pushing her bangs out of her face. They instantly fell back over her eyes, shading her beautiful face from the world. I contemplate what she means. “We all know it’s coming. It’s just a question of what it will be.”
I laugh, half because I think it’s what I’m supposed to do and half because I’m uncomfortable with the prospect that she might be serious. She shoves her bangs out of her face again and for an instant, I see the sparkle in her brown eyes, caked with dark eyeliner. In the moment that I can see her gaze, I find her studying me, as serious as the grave. She seems strangely excited and resolute. There is no trace of humor in her eyes.
“My vote is on zombies,” she says confidently. “You know, it could happen anytime.” She gestures wildly around the room as her bangs form a curtain again covering her face. As I follow the gesture of her arm, I suddenly see her fellow students, crazed and active in various states of frenetic energy, in a new and eerie light.
“It could be worse,” she says resolutely from behind the veil of her hair. I consider her statement. I guess she’s right.
She stares at me through strands of her black hair. There is conviction in her voice as she says, “I won’t go out without a fight.”
I nod. What else is there to say? There isn’t much more that any of us can hope for than to put up a valiant fight when the time comes. Zombies and all.
It was then, at that moment of prophetic importance for the single girl student professing what she knew to be true, that I realized that something fundamental had changed in the consciousness of my students. They live in a world that we, the adults, both fear and fail to understand. In their world, the reality of humanity’s frailty is omnipresent. Gone are the days of humanity’s bold and brazen position as the pinnacle of existence. Unbeknownst to those of us whose brains have ceased growing, the world as we know it no longer exists. Humanity is no longer the apex of a complex hierarchy. The teens of today know what we, the adult world, can only grasp at with frail, flimsy comprehension.
We are not the top of anything. And our end will come.
The children of the twenty-first century are the prophets, the realists, and the planners. They are aware at every moment, in every way, of the fact that our tenuous existence could cease at any moment. They ponder which end will consume them. They’re comforted by the simplicity of poems like “Fire and Ice.” They fear much more complex apocalyptic scenarios. They dread the lengthy progression of a slow, gradual extinction. They awaken each day understanding in a way that I, a cynic and pragmatist of the 1980s, can only begin to vaguely fathom.
They live in the era of the apocalypse. And we, their so-called educators, can only do our best to keep up with their evolutionary prospective.
It seems appropriate to proclaim here the purpose of this blog: I intend to explore how to teach trending literature to a population who grows in many ways but continues to stretch farther and farther from the literature we as a society hold so dear. They are amazing kids and they deserve our best. If my creativity can stretch half as far as theirs, I might be lucky enough to serve their needs from time to time.
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.