Redwall by Brian Jacques

This week I read one of the books for my final project on engaging boys in reading. I emailed various friends and teachers (all male) and asked what they liked to read as boys, or what they noticed their male students liked to read. I got lots of good suggestions, and decided to read a book my brother recommended, one I remember him reading over and over as a kid – Redwall. Redwall is the first in a series (of over 20 books!) that take place in a fantasy world populated by mice and other woodland creatures.

In Redwall, the first book, the peaceful mouse abbey of Redwall is under attack by the rat, Cluny the Scourge, and his horde of rats, ferrets, and weasels. Cluny will not rest until he controls the abbey, and has made it his castle. The peaceful animals that have to learn to defend the abbey include the tough Constance, a badger, Ambrose Spike, a hedgehog, and our hero, Matthias, a mouse novice in the order.  Matthias undertakes the quest of returning the sword and valor of the legendary Martin the Warrior to the abbey in its time of need.

While I was reading this book, I was flying to a friend’s wedding, and several young men who saw me reading it got very excited. They remembered it fondly.

I think Redwall was a good choice for this project. It feels like a boy’s book. There is plenty of death, often grisly and unnecessary. There is warfare, adventure, quests, riddles, plotting, and feasts. I think plenty of girls would enjoy this book, too, because I liked reading about all the different animals and their special talents, and many of the main warriors are female. Overall, I personally felt this book was a bit boring, but I’m not a middle school boy, am I?  I would like to see what middle school boys these days think of it, since it seems a bit slower paced than some current books. But if a boy is a fan of fantasy books, I think he would really enjoy it. And like I said, there is plenty of grisly, descriptive, death.

Brian Jacques wrote the book originally for students at a blind school, so he put in lots of vibrant description. And apparently he loved the food scenes, because an entire Redwall cookbook has been published. In fact, the vast amount of other Redwall materials that have been published speak to its overwhelming popularity. There have been TV shows and a movie, a graphic novel, and a video game is in the works for this year. (This information courtesy of the fan Redwall Wiki.)

You can also visit Redwallabbey.com to learn more about Brian Jacques’ life and works. There is a forum for fans, and an online game.

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The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth

I thought The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily danforth was an excellent book. It felt very authentic. After reading a brief bio of emily, one can guess that this book is at least partially auto-biographical, which might be why it feels so true.

Cameron Post has just kissed a girl for the first time the day before she learns her parents have died in a car crash. When she hears of their death, the first thing she feels is relief, that they won’t find out she was kissing a girl. Then she feels guilt for feeling relieved, and these feelings impact the rest of her adolescence.

I like how Cameron explains (or doesn’t) her emotions about events. She often allows herself to take the path of least resistance, which I think rings true, adolescents aren’t always fighting or resisting, even when they don’t feel completely comfortable with the situation, either. Emotions are complicated, confusing, and often inexplicable. Here is an example of the way danforth writes Cameron’s emotions, that I like: “One second I was full-force out of there and then I was crying hard against his chest, which was embarrassing and made me feel weak and was still something I let happen for a little while, anyway.” (p.155) Cameron’s character is not aggressive or angry, which I appreciate. She is likeable, confused, feels guilty, and wants to be true to her identity.

The way Cameron comes into her understanding of her homosexuality is well-written too. It didn’t feel forced in any way. Reading about her experiences with different girls and her thoughts and feelings about those relationships was very refreshing. She doesn’t hate herself or try to change who she is, but neither is she willing to be out and proud about it. She’s working out how to be herself, and what that means to the various people in her lives. Her relationship with Coley Taylor feels natural, and Cameron even describes herself as ‘angsty’ when she talks about spending time with Coley alone, when Coley’s boyfriend isn’t there. Even when Cameron goes to Promise, she neither commits to getting ‘well’, nor does she fight the system. She takes in everything, considers it, and continues to grow into who she really is. I think that made her character really rounded. You would expect a book like this to be completely anti-re-education training, but Cameron keeps an open mind, makes friends, and does her best to live in a way that is right for her.

I also really enjoyed the setting of this book. I felt like I really was immersed in small-town Montana life in the early 90s. The descriptions of the horse sale and fairs were great. It also made feel a little nostalgic, being more or less the same age as Cameron was in the book during that time period.

I was hoping that we would come back around to Cameron’s parents at the end of the book, because the whole time I was reading it felt like we had left them hanging at the beginning of the book, and hadn’t wrapped up that loose end. That’s what I most wanted to see resolved at the end, more than what happens to Cameron and her friends.

This book is supposed to be a modern (loose) adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. I feel the connection is somewhat vague, though it has been probably 15 years since I read The Scarlet Letter. Cameron does talk about being marked when she goes to church, that everyone looking at her knows that she is going to a school to try to ‘fix’ her homosexuality. But that’s the only sort of connection I see. The plot and story are quite different.

Lastly, any thoughts on the dollhouse? I know it’s important, and I just didn’t understand it, the entire time. I don’t get it.

The website for The Miseducation of Cameron Post has some interesting tidbits, including a deleted scene from the book, a book club guide, and a video trailer for the book.

The Language Inside by Holly Thompson

This week I read The Language Inside, a novel in verse, that follows the transition that the narrator, Emma, is making from moving from her lifelong home in Japan back to the United States (temporarily). There was so much I liked about this book. I felt Emma was relatable, realistic, and above all, pleasant. So many characters in young adult books seem to be suffering so much anger, angst, or pain, that it makes them unpleasant, especially in their relationships with other family members. But not all teenagers are unpleasant!


Emma’s relationship with her mom is important in this book. Her mother has breast cancer, and they moved back to the states so she could get surgery and treatment. Emma’s father still has to work, and while the family is living near Boston with her grandma, dad is commuting from New York. So Emma is largely responsible for looking after her mom after her surgery. Emma rarely comes across as resentful, even though it was because of her mother that she was dragged away from her home. She does have moments of irritation at her mom, and they don’t always get along, but that is what makes her so believable as a character. But in the end, you know she loves her mom and respects her. Emma also has a positive relationship with her little brother, Toby, they hang out, share their lives with each other, and seem to enjoy each other’s company. This was a nice change, and one I related to when thinking of my relationship with my little brother (though we are both adults now!)

Digression:
I looked back at the other books I’ve read, and thought about how the main characters relate to their family. Daisy, in How I Live Now, basically hates her father and stepmother and has no relationship with them at all. She does learn to love her cousins, but not without some strife. And her character in the movie is not at all likeable! Daniel in Daniel Half Human is angry and resentful at his mother for hiding her Jewishness from him, and frustrated with his father for being naive and ignoring his mother’s needs. Lina from Between Shades of Gray is the most like Emma in terms of feelings for her family. She loves her mother and brother, and spends the book thinking about how to contact her father. Titus, the main character in Feed, seems to have no feelings for his parents whatsoever, but clearly dislikes his little brother. Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars also had a positive relationship with her parents, and is a generally pleasant character to get to know.

 
Back to The Language Inside:
Emma’s life in the United States becomes full, with her volunteer position, her membership on the dance team, and her budding relationship with Samnang and his family, not to mention taking care of her mother, and adjusting to life with a grandmother she hardly knows. I appreciated that Emma doesn’t complain about the volunteering, she feels nervous and uncertain at times, but she enjoys it and the scenes with Zena demonstrate the growth and pleasure a person can get from volunteering. We know Emma has in her heart a desire to help others, because she tells about helping her best friend’s family in Japan dig out after the Tsunami. And the damage from the tsunami is what drives Emma to create a dance program to raise money to help tsunami victims. This project seems perfect for her. It lets her be true to her Japanese identity, and it gives her a way to feel helpful and useful even though she is far away. It also allows her to integrate into the American culture and share something beautiful with her new American friends, including Samnang. And it allows her mother to have a project to help with during her recovery, as well. It also seems natural, for Emma’s personality, that of course she would plan a fundraiser. She is not a girl that would sit by when she knows she could be helping. I really liked that her character was written in a way to show that it is completely natural for a teenager to help make the world (tsunami victims, Zena, her mother) a better place. The story wasn’t written as a didactic tale with the moral of ‘you should volunteer.’ Volunteering was just one thing Emma did in the course of her regular life.

 
A final note about the poetry. Reading this book made me want to write poems! Seeing the way Emma and Zena read, shared, and created poems together was lovely. And I’m sure it would compel certain adolescents to try their hand at writing poems. I’m very glad Holly Thompson, the author, included a bibliography in the back of all the poems referenced.

The ending, as it often does, came too soon. I have so many questions! How did the dance turn out? How much money did you raise? Are you and Madoka still best friends? Will you go back to Japan, or stay in America? If (when?) you go back, what will happen with Samnang? And what about your American life and identity? Will you feel out of place in Japan now? Have your friends moved on while you were away? Will you come back to the U.S. in summer? Where will you attend college?  I worry that Emma will continue to struggle with her identity for a long time, but I want to see what she does next!

This was just a lovely book. I really enjoyed it.

How I Live Now: Book v. Movie

So we watched the movie version of How I Live Now this week, and I gotta say, for once in my life, I think the movie was a little better than the book.

I wasn’t a big fan of the book to begin with, and the movie simply had to connect some of the missing information by virtue of being a movie. There was also more action, which I approve of, and the way the plot was subtly shifted in parts made as much sense to me as the way it was originally written. For example, there was no ‘six years later’ business at the end, but the problems and feelings that Daisy and Edmond had to work through after the war were the same.

I didn’t like Daisy’s character as much in the movie as in the book. She was just a nasty, spiteful, mean person through most of the movie, even past the part in the book where she learns to love her cousins. But even in the beginning of the book, when she is bitter and confused, she never comes off as malicious the way she does in the book. Reserved maybe, or withdrawn, or even cold. But not like how she is portrayed in the movie. It was very unpleasant to watch her.

I think the movie did a better job of showing how Daisy and Edmond were in love, rather than the book which seemed mostly like lust.

One thing I would have preferred to see in the movie was the war-work scenes from the book more accurately portrayed. In the book, Daisy and Piper work in the orchards, making friends along the way. In the movie, they are toiling in muddy work camps, picking through produce and talking to no one. They seemed like prisoners of war rather than war orphans helping the cause. I also wish we had seen the scenes of Piper using the dog to reign in the cows, and the army men falling over themselves to befriend her.

Overall, I feel the movie got the feelings of the book across, except for Daisy’s personality (which is, admittedly, a big except), and included more interesting action and family-summer scenes. There were some parts of the book I liked that were excluded from the movie, but overall, I think the movie has more to recommend it than the book. Though neither one is something I would likely recommend to most people.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff is the story of Daisy, a 15-year-old New Yorker who is sent to live with cousins she’s never met in England. While there, war breaks out, and the cousins are separated and fighting to survive and reunite. This novel takes place in the present or near-future.

 
Thought this novel is described as dystopic, I don’t really agree. To me, it is a realistic fiction novel about war. It does not involve a society that seems perfect on the outside but really isn’t on closer inspection. It involves society as we know it, and war breaks out. It is a story about love, and war. Daisy seems like a girl who has never loved anyone or felt much love from anyone, with the possible exception of her best friend, Leah. But she instantly bonds with her 4 cousins, and the love she experiences particularly for Piper and Edmond transform her. She discovers that protecting Piper and saving her have in fact led her (Daisy) to save herself from her most destructive habits.

 
Daisy’s narration was the most difficult part of the novel for me. It is told in a first-person style which reads as though Daisy is telling a story as it happens. It feels like spoken words being written down, or perhaps even more accurately, Daisy’s interior dialogue put on paper. The only things we readers see or know about are the things Daisy thinks about. There is little description of characters, no quotations to designate dialogue, and long, colloquial sentences. Meg Rosoff has written Daisy this way on purpose. It certainly gives us an understanding of how Daisy works, but leaves so many unanswered questions. What does Edmond look like (besides a sweet and hopeful mutt with a cigarette)? Are your cousins actually magical? Who is this invading army and what happened to start this war? We don’t know, because these are not things Daisy thinks about. There is definitely a reason for the author to have Daisy narrate in this way, but I found it a bit difficult to read at first. (I had this same problem with the language in Feed. I’m starting to discover that I’m not a very flexible reader, eh?)

 
One thing I would have expected from a YA novel is the love story to be a bit more fraught. Edmond and Daisy quickly and easily fall in love with each other. And though their relationship is taboo, and they both know it, there isn’t really any tension there. Daisy does not have any internal struggle about the rightness or wrongness of the relationship, and due to the farm’s extreme isolation and dearth of adults, there is no societal pressure to end the relationship. There is little tension surrounding the relationship, which seems uncommon in adolescent literature (and real relationships.)

 
There is an element of magic to the family, which Daisy neither discusses with her readers nor questions. We understand that Edmond can read her thoughts, but Daisy never thinks, “how is he doing this?” She merely comes to accept that her thoughts are shared with him. I’ll be interested to see how this comes through in the movie, because I don’t feel that there is much connection between this bit of magic and the actual story. However, when Daisy and Edmond are separated, it brings Daisy comfort to feel this connection to Edmond. Piper and Isaac also have hints of magic about them, which again, rarely plays into the story, but Daisy feels worldly and an obligation to protect them.

 
I liked the story, and how the plot played out, but it didn’t have a whole lot of meaning for me. I didn’t get much from it. Often when I finish a book and feel that I enjoyed it, but felt it was missing something, I think perhaps I just missed the deeper parts of the book. I feel that way with this book. There is just something missing to make this a complete, meaningful story for me, but most likely, the missing piece is in my own understanding. I’m looking forward to discussing this book with my group to see what others got from it.

Using YA Literature to Help Reduce Bullying

School bullying is recent trend both in YA literature and in education in general. With school bullying having increasingly violent reactions, teachers, parents, and school administrators are trying to find the best ways to stop bullying in their schools and help adolescents learn empathy. The movie Bully, released in 2011, brought the problem to a national and popular audience. The subject of bullying often brings back vivid memories for the adults involved in adolescent’s lives.


The Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database lists many novels on the subject of bullying that have recently been published, as well as memoirs and collections of narratives. All of these books deal with the heavy subject of bullying, but some seem so upsetting I didn’t even want to try to read them. Suicide is a common theme. I found at least 13 novels for middle and high schoolers (some would be too graphic for most middle schoolers, really) on the subject of bullying. And none of the books I found were even the books used in the literature studies in the professional articles I read. There is a lot of material out there.

I read some articles about how teachers can use literature in the classroom to address the subject of bullying. Though students may know bullying is ‘wrong’, they may not have the motivation or means to effectively change their behavior. They may not even recognize what they are doing as bullying.  Literature can take students into the lives of both bullies and victims, and teach them empathy. Candid discussions with students about what bullying looks like, why it’s bad, and how to stop it, are needed to encourage change. The subject of bullying cannot be part of the ‘hidden’ curriculum, where teachers hope students got the message. It must be taught explicitly.
One of the articles also analyzed the coping strategies highlighted in each book about bullying in the study. This was insightful to read before I read my YA novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. I looked for the coping strategies, and if they were ones the authors of the study deemed were effective in real-life bullying situations. I think the strategies promoted in Yaqui Delgado include distancing, advice-seeking, bystander interventions, with the ultimate resolution coming as a problem-solving or conflict-resolution strategy, which is advocated by the authors of the study. Yaqui Delgado was a pretty well-written book, that only felt slightly didactic at times. The main character felt like a real, relatable character, though the rest of the plot not related to the bullying was a bit thin. I liked how the author incorporated social media bullying, which is an area that is not referred to often, but has devastating effects on children who are being bullied. In this book, the victim, Piddy, was filmed getting beaten up, and then it was posted online. She was humiliated, and could see how many people had watched the video and the comments they had made. This humiliation was much deeper than the actual beating up had been, but in the end, was used as hard evidence against the bully, and demonstrated Piddy’s bravery and the downfall of Yaqui.
I also rented the recent documentary Bully. As expected, it was very sad. I think if there was a bullying problem at a school, it could be appropriate to show this film. I think kids often don’t see what’s happening around them as bullying, or aren’t sure what to do about it. But when you see the bullying happen on film, to someone you don’t know, and some of the horrific consequences , it makes you see how senseless the bullying really is. However, it is an upsetting film, so maybe not okay for all kids to watch. There’s no narration, it mostly just interviews the parents of kids who have committed suicide due to bullying, and follows a few kids are actively being bullied, and then shows how some parents are fighting for bullying prevention in the schools.
I think bullying is becoming something that kids are really taking a stand against. Websites like itgetsbetter.org and the Stop Bullying, Speak Up campaign by Cartoon Network are places where kids can find each other, and seek advice and see the positive effects of people working together to make things better for young people. Videos that kids have posted talking about their experiences can make it easier for kids who are being bullied to feel like they’re not alone.
This YA trend is, admittedly, mostly being led by adults. But as it gains momentum students are co-opting it, and getting more interested. Bullying wristbands are popular, and kids are talking about bullying with each other, though they might not be reading books about bullying for fun in their free time, especially considering that novels on bullying aren’t really escapist like fantasy novels are, and are very serious and heavy. But hopefully this trend is starting to make a difference in the lives of children who are or potentially would be bullied.

Bibliography
Flanagan, K., Vanden Hoek, K., Shelton, A., Kelly, S., Morrison, C., & Young, A. (2013). Coping with Bullying: What Answers Does Children’s Literature Provide? School Psychology International , 691-706.
Hirsh, L. (Director). (2011). Bully [Motion Picture].
Medina, M. (2013). Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Pytash, K. (2013). Using YA Literature to Help Preservice Teachers Deal with Bullying and Suicide. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy , 470-479.
Quinnn, K., Barone, B., Kearns, J., Stackhouse, S., & Ellen, Z. M. (2003). Using a Novel Unit to Help Understand and Prevent Bullying in Schools. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy , 582-592.

The Power of Poetry

Nikki Grimes says this on her website: “As I tour the country speaking to teachers and librarians, I love to talk about the power of poetry. Bronx Masquerade allowed me to display that power—the power poetry has to shape lives, to create community, and to underscore the vital truth that the most important common denominator in our universe is the human heart.”

Nikki Grimes lives in Corona, California. She has written lots of poetry for both children and adults, and she is also famous in Sweden for being a radio talk-show host and singer. She also enjoys art, and creates jewelry and crafts for family and friends.

Bronx Masquerade – By Nikki Grimes

Wow, this book was so good! Bronx Masquerade takes us through the thoughts and poetry of 18 high schoolers in a New York City English class. Their stories are simple and short, and each first-person narrative is followed by that person’s poem. Through their poems, we see this class of adolescents come to respect and love each other, and start to see past the labels they have given each other and see into each other’s hearts. The poems are excellent, and the way each student tells his or her story is unique and moving.

Nikki Grimes does an amazing job of highlighting each student’s point of view in a way that validates each person’s struggle. Some of the issues reminded me of my own time in high school, though the poems were far better than anything I could have written. Reading these poems makes me want to write poetry, right now!

The students build community with each other through their Open Mike Fridays, and we see small changes in how the students treat each other. These small changes are important to the inner lives of each child, and we see some of them learn to love themselves, too. The message I hope adolescents reading this book would take away is that yes, we are all different, and every person has their own things their working through. If you can work through these things with others, you won’t feel so alone. And poetry is one excellent way to share yourself with others.

What an excellent book!

About David Chotjewitz

Wow. Finding information in English about David Chotjewitz is very difficult. Here’s some information about him I gleaned from German online media translated by Google into English (it was the best I could do).

Chotjewitz has quite a body of literature in Germany, though only two of his books have made it into the English-speaking world (Daniel Half-Human and Crazy Diamond). He is a well-known playwright, and many of his books are biographies of famous Germans, for example Einstein and Karl Marx.

He recently (about 2 years ago) came out with a play called “Narcissus and the Revolution” that focuses on his childhood and his relationship with his father. His parents were very active in the political left during the 60’s, and David grew up in Rome, where he met many Communist leaders as a child. The play also explores how his parents let him be wild and left to his own devices while they partook of drugs, drinking, and extramarital affairs. His father was also a writer, and his mother, a journalist.

The family moved back to Germany when David was 9, and when he was older he moved to Hamburg and worked in a bookshop and as an apprentice publisher.  He was married in 1983 and has a daughter named Sarah. His first book was published in 1984. He is more of a playwright than a novelist, however, and he helped found a theater company in Hamburg called Theater Playstation, which works with youth on innovative theater projects.

References:

Deutschlandradio Kulture

Golem

Hamburger Abendblatt

Theater Playstation

Daniel Half Human – by David Chotjewitz

This novel tells the story of two best friends reaching adolescence in Germany at the time of Hitler’s rise to power.

What I liked about this book is the insight it gave into how people could become Nazis. From our modern perspective, we can see that Nazis were bad. It’s not even a gray morality, it’s quite clear that the Nazis were wrong.  But then why did so many people join them? This story sheds some light on the fervor and excitement and fear that surrounded the cult of Hitler at that time.

Daniel and his best friend Armin believe in Hitler’s cause. They have grown up together as German schoolboys, playing soccer, getting into trouble, and attending the local elite prep school. The politics they know comes from Germany’s role in ‘The Great War’ and how Hitler is against communists and other enemies of German unity. Patriotism and unity are understandable things for young boys to believe in.

As they grow older, they want to join the Hitler Youth. It is made clear that if you don’t join, you will be watched, perhaps questioned, and certainly placed under suspicion. This is where the book shows its strengths. It’s easy for us to look back and say, ‘don’t join something if you think what they’re doing is wrong!” But when your family will become suspected of subversive activities, and perhaps sent to a concentration camp, it’s hard to see what the right choice could be.  Armin joins the Hitler Youth (HJ). Daniel declares he will join whether or not his parents allow it, which is when they have to tell him the secret: he is half Jewish.

Much of the book deals with Daniel struggling with his identity, which is certainly a common theme for adolescents. He comes to deny his German identity and embrace his Jewish identity. We hope the friendship between Daniel and Armin will have a happy ending, because, after all, this is a book for young adults. But Armin is under intense pressure to cut off his friendship with Daniel, and he eventually caves to that pressure. The consequences for staying friends with a half-Jew could be severe.

We also meet a Daniel who is 6 years older through flash-forwards spaced throughout the book. In this way, we are able to find out what happens to Daniel and what happens to Armin. The message that I got from this novel’s ending is that friendship cannot always prevail. It is that way in typical friendships as people grow up, and it is that way with these two boys.  When they meet as adults, we understand that their friendship really is over. And this time, it’s Daniel’s choice.

What happy ending can there be to any book about WWII? This book really doesn’t have a happy ending, except that Daniel lives. Which is important, because there was so much tragedy, that every story really should be told, even without the happy endings.

We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson

              This non-fiction book details the events surrounding the 1963 civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama, specifically focusing on the Children’s March of May 2 & 3. The author, Cynthia Levinson attempts to paint a broad picture of the ethos of the time, while using the stories of four real children to bring the events to a personal level for her younger audience. I think she does a good job of combining these two foci, and incorporating a lot of primary source material.

                Those of us that did not live through the civil rights era can only guess at the electricity in the air the summer of 1963. Children growing up in a world that has never known legal segregation may find it hard to believe that such appalling laws existed long after slavery ended. It’s important that Levinson can portray how charged and vital this movement was. I think her story does a fair job of explaining what was happening in Birmingham at that time. The only thing I wish it had more of was showing the emotions of the people there. This can be hard, since it is a non-fiction book, and her goal, as she says in her author’s note, is “to tell their stories as truly as possible.” (p.157) As the outsider, she is not at liberty to express her own feelings in the narrative.

For this reason, she highlights the experiences of 4 young adults that participated in the marches. I think this is a great idea, and hopefully brings her readers closer to the experience. The only downside is that her subjects aren’t necessarily writers themselves, and may not be best able to express the emotions that were weaving through these days. However, her subjects do have lots to say, and I think they were well chosen to represent a variety of experiences. They were also well-spoken (or well-written) subjects that told their stories clearly.

It is important that history be told from multiple perspectives. Though in hindsight, we can all agree that segregation was wrong, students need an understanding of why people thought it was right. It is through evaluating our past that we can make informed decisions in the present. So I think it is good that Levinson included a chapter called, “Views from the other side: What were they thinking?”

I think non-fiction is a great place to incorporate multimedia.  I’m glad this book used pictures, and I think it could have used more. Expanding on the reading by watching videos and listening to stories and songs on the internet can make the history more real, and get at the deeper emotional currents of this era.  In the back of the book, Levinson cites books, websites, film, and music  that can be used to extend the learning.

My only criticism of the book is that, even though she worked hard to make it engaging, there were some parts that I found slow and wanted to skip over. This is the same problem that history textbooks have, even for someone like me that loves history. When we don’t know the people, or why they’re doing what they’re doing, or understand the broader implications of events, the details of an historical event can feel dragging. Levinson was certainly trying to fill in the backstory, but sometimes I just wanted her to move on to the actions in early May. Overall, though, it was a well-told, engaging history.

Two of the most powerful messages that came through for me as an educator 50 years later, were brought up on the very last page of the book. “…marcher Gwendolyn Sanders fears that high dropout rates and high levels of violence in black communities “abuse all the things that we went to jail for and that Dr. King and so many others lost their lives for.”(p. 156)” The children that marched for freedom worry that young black children today aren’t living up to their potential. I often worry about Dr. King’s legacy, and what he would say to the children of today if he could see what’s happening in our country. Would he think that the hard-won freedom that the children in the 1960’s earned is going to waste, and a new revolution is needed? Or would he think that freedom means being given the choice to drop out of school and take your own path, even if that’s not what others think is best? I hope students reading this book today take a minute to think about these questions, and recognize how hard others worked to give them these freedoms.

The other message from the last page that I hope students can take to heart is that children can make a difference. “Children, James said, “are not too young to be involved in what’s going on around them. We, as children, got involved in what would appear to be adult issues.” (p.156)” This book could be a springboard to social justice learning and action, if children see that they can take an ‘adult issue’ that they care about, and work to bring about a change.

Trofimovsk Gulag – Historical Authentication

I was particularly interested in the setting of the Trofimovsk prison camp (or Gulag) from the the book Between Shades of Gray. Towards the end of the book, Lina and her family get removed the labor camp in the Altai region of the U.S.S.R. to Trofimovsk, above the Arctic Circle. I was wondering, was that a real place? What was there before the prisoners arrived? How authentic are the miserable conditions described in the book?

The accounts I was able to find verify that Trofimovsk was a real place. That is, it was a piece of land with a name. In the preliminary research I have done, I have found nothing about Trofimovsk as anything other than a Gulag. There is no village there, no port, no settlement of any kind aside from the one built by the prisoners. Here is some of the information I found.

Between Shades of Gray, p. 270-272:

“In late August we reached the mouth of the River Lena. The temperature was just above freezing. The icy waves of the Laptev Sea crashed against the barge as it was moored to the shore…It was completely uninhabited, not a single bush or tree, just barren dirt to a shore of endless water. We were surrounded by nothing but polar tundra and the Laptev Sea. The wind whipped. Sand blew in my mouth and stung my eyes…Trofimovsk. The very top of the Arctic Circle, near the North Pole”

Verification Text:

https://i1.wp.com/www.gulagmuseum.org/getImage.do

Gintautas Martynaitis. “Disembarkation of Lithuanian Exiles onto Trofimovsk Island, 28 August, 1942”. Drawing. 1990s. Copy. The caption to the drawing reads: “28 August, 1942, about 500 people, exiles from Lithuania, were put ashore on the uninhabited Trofimovsk island in the delta of the River Lena. This was the Far North – with Permafrost underfoot”. Gintautas Martynaitis (1935-1999) was born in Mariampol (Lithuania) into a family of office-workers. On 14.06.1941 he was deported to Siberia along with his family: the father was separated from the family and died in Reshota camp (Krasnoyarsk Region). In 1942 the mother found herself in exile on the island of Trofimovsk (Yakutsk ASSR) with her two small children.

(From the Virtual Museum of the Gulag. http://www.gulagmuseum.org/showObject.do?object=1772160&language=2)

Between Shades of Gray, p. 276-277

“They took the men with any strength and sent them to work finishing the NKVD barracks. The boys were sent to fish in the Laptev Sea. The remainder of the women and elderly were instructed to build a jurta, a hut, for their group. We could not, however, use any of the bricks or wood near the NKVD building….We could use scraps or pieces of logs that might have floated ashore…I picked up large stones, sticks, and chips of brick. Were we really going to build a house from sticks and stone? Mother and Mrs. Rimas found logs that had washed ashore. They dragged them all the way back to our site and went back for more. I saw a woman digging up moss with her hands and using it as mortar between the rocks.”

Verification Text:

“The supervisors collected the able-bodied adolescents and men and did not let them build shelters, but sent them to another island to fish for the state.

We, the women and children, hurrying as we were best able, started to build barracks out of bricks and moss. With our bare hands we ripped moss out of the eternally frozen tundra and put it between the bricks in place of concrete: a layer of bricks, a layer of moss. The barrack had no roof. In place of a roof we covered the tip of the barrack with boards covering them with moss and sand. Each person was allotted fifty centimeters on a plank. During snow storms snow would blow in through the cracks in the ceiling and cover the people lying on the planks on the floor.”

(LITHUANIANS BY THE LAPTEV SEA: THE SIBERIAN MEMOIRS OF DALIA GRINKEVIČIŪTĖ, Litanus: Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, vol. 36, no. 4, Winter 1990)

https://i0.wp.com/gulaghistory.org/nps/onlineexhibit/stalin/living-src/images/bread_detail.jpg

Gulag prisoner’s daily bread ration – Gulag Museum online exhibit

Between Shades of Gray, p. 307:

“Janina’s mother plucked the owl. We all crowded around the makeshift stove to smell it cook. “It smells like a duck, don’t you think?” said Jonahs. “Let’s pretend it’s duck.” The taste of warm meat was heavenly. It didn’t matter that it was bit tough; the experience lasted longer because we had to chew. We imagined we were at a royal banquet. “Can’t you just taste the gooseberry marinade?” sighed Mrs. Rimas.”

Verification Text:

“The “homeland” was associated with freedom and the normality of civilian life. The Lithuanian girls entertained each other in Trofimovsk by retelling – for the hundredth time – recipes of the meals that they used to have back in Lithuania. Although, from the exile’s perspective, these stories represented a time of wasteful abundance and abnormality, they also served as a collective framework through which their feelings of belonging and nostalgia could be expressed.”

(Balkelis, Tomas. Lithuanian Children in the Gulag: Deportation, Ethnicity, and Identity Memoirs of Children Deportees, 1941-1952. Lituanus: Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Science. Vol. 51, no. 3, Fall 2005)

Between Shades of Gray, p. 333:

“”I am Dr. Samodurov.” His hand was extended, for a handshake. I stared at it, stunned by his show of respect.

We worked under his supervision. That day we each had a bowl of pea soup and half a kilo of fish. He helped us store fish for the upcoming storms and plot out a burial yard for more than one hundred bodies, including the man who wound his watch. He had frozen to death. The doctor enlisted the help of Evenks, native hunters and fishermen, who lived less than thirty kilometers away. They came on sleds with dogs and brought coats, boots, and supplies.”

Verification Text:

And when no one had any hope left a man who saved everyone who was left from death arrived in Trofimovsk. This was Doctor Lazar Solomonovich Samodurov.

He picked his way through each barrack, sized up the entire situation, the half dead people, and began to work very energetically. He bravely entered into conflict with the Trofimovsk superiors who lived in warm houses built by us from logs, who dressed from head to foot in furs, wore only fur or felt footwear, ate bread, butter, sugar and canned pork sent to the Soviet Union by the allies from America to their heart’s content (all products, except salt, were brought by way of the Tiks port from America)…

The next day already each of us received one bowl of hot pea soup and half a kilogram of frozen fish which the doctor advised us to eat raw so as not to lose the ascorbic acid. He demanded several sacks of peas from the storeroom, let them germinate, and soon afterward brought sprouted peas to each barrack. Each of us would get a small measure of them—half a jar. He gave people several kilograms of Canadian flour as well. Little by little, the starvation and scurvy started to recede. Death also receded. Those who made it until Doctor Solomonovich arrived remained alive…

We bow down to you, Doctor Samodurov.”

(LITHUANIANS BY THE LAPTEV SEA: THE SIBERIAN MEMOIRS OF DALIA GRINKEVIČIŪTĖ, Litanus: Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, vol. 36, no. 4, Winter 1990)

A reconstructed peat hut, a so-called yurt, from the Laptev Sea region, a place with permafrost and a temperature of up to minus 50 degrees. The windows were made of pieces of ice and the inside temperature never rose above freezing. The museum guide standing in the door is Irene Spakauskiene, who was deported to the area with her family when she was a small girl. (From The Baltic Initiative and Network)

Between Shades of Gray – by Ruta Sepetys

This week we’re on historical fiction. I love historical fiction, it is one of my favorite genres. (I also love fantasy and memoirs.)Why do I love historical fiction? I think it’s the way it brings history alive. Learning about history from a broad perspective is fine, but when you see it through the eyes of one narrator, with one voice and one point of view, it really brings history home for me. And the more historical fiction I read, the more the broad perspective gets pieced together through the individual stories. I like the way it feels like time travel, taking me a different time and place and letting me experience that setting firsthand. As an adult, I especially enjoy historical mysteries. I would recommend anything you can get your hands on by Miriam Grace Monfredo, and I’ve also been enjoying reading the Lord Francis Powerscourt mysteries by David Dickinson. But I digress.

This week I read Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys, which is not that Shades of Gray. This one is about a 15 year old girl and her family that get removed from Lithuania during WWII and deported to Siberia.

Typically, most of the book details the horrors of living in a prison work camp in Siberia. And there are many.  I have read many books and seen many movies about the horrors of the holocaust, so some of the scenes from this book had a familiar feel. However, the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states is not a story that I (or many people, I think) know much about. So it was different to have the Soviet state as the enemy in this book, rather than the Nazis. And it made a crucial difference in how I saw the end of the book playing out.

Lina is an artist, and spends her resources in the book trying to get a message to her father about where she and her mother and brother are, by sending him coded messages in art. His last words to her were that he would be able to recognize her art anywhere. We hope, along with Lina, that they will be reunited at the end of the story. They are not. This was the only plot point that I felt was more history than story. The art being made and sent around the camps is documented by the author, and she lists three museums that showcase this kind of art. But in the story, it got sent away and if it ever reached her father, we’ll never know, because he never came back from his internment. It didn’t really add to the storyline. Everything else I really thought was well done. Dynamic characters, descriptive settings, good storyline that moves along in a sensible way. I liked the way Sepetys connected the flashbacks so smoothly with what was happening in the present. The flashbacks were an excellent way to introduce the reader to what ‘normal’ life in Lithuania would have been like before the war, and to break up the tragedy and horrors of the main story, giving the reader a little breather.

The map in the front of the book tells the reader that Lina and her family were in Trofimovsk, Russia, by day 440. So before the book even started, I thought, “geez, this ordeal lasted over a year for them.” But I kept thinking that no matter what they had to endure, and even though they couldn’t see it, I knew that the war would end. And it wouldn’t be long before they would go home. But though the war ended, the Soviets still occupied Lithuania. The most startling line of the book for me was in the epilogue: “The writings and drawings you hold in your hands were buried in the year 1954, after returning from Siberia with my brother, where we were imprisoned for twelve years.” TWELVE YEARS!? That is way longer than I was expecting. But after thinking about it, I realized that nobody would be liberating the Baltic states, because the U.S.S.R. was on the winning side of World War II.  How could anyone survive those prison camps for twelve years!?

So this is what I wanted to research more, the settings of the work camps. It is now a common cultural reference to talk about sending someone to Siberia. What does that really mean? Are the two work camps accurately portrayed in the book? I’ll share my research in upcoming posts.

Overall, I found the book very compelling and I would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the Stalin purges or Soviet World War II history. It brought that one story home for me, and made me see that time period from a new perspective that will once again add to my broader knowledge.

Anderson discusses Feed

The following short essay is by M.T. Anderson. It’s printed in the back of the book, as well as on his website. It’s some thoughts he had on consumerism, and his own views on the themes of the book.

On Feed

When I was a teenager, I was irritated at the way companies tried to sell me things. I think this is true of a lot of teens. All around us, ads and tv shows and movies are showing us images of the high life, playing on our desire to belong. There’s always that subliminal message seducing us and bullying us: If you just get this, and buy this, and order that, you’ll be cool, and you’ll be loved. See how much fun these kids are having? If you want to be wanted, then you need to want what other people want. And other people – what they want is this. Buy it. Buy it now.

This has become even more intense (and not just for teens!) now that most of us are connected all the time through devices of one kind or another. I don’t even notice the ads that flit past me any more, I take them so much for granted. And even though I know that my favorite shows are paid for product placement, I take that for granted, too.

Of course, I wrote Feed back in 2001, before most of these devices existed, and before marketing systems had become as sophisticated as they are now. But even then, before the iPhone and before the Blackberry became big, I was still tapped into a wider system of corporate communication. Already my dreams of who I wanted to be, my understanding of who I had been in the past, my hopes for who I’d become in the future – these things had already been influenced and perhaps even constructed by advertising images, movie stills, and prime-time TV, the hours of images of twenty-somethings crammed into bars, girls smiling at men who drank the right beer, leaving me with a dim impression that I was supposed to like a certain kind of music, a certain kind of shirt, a certain kind of ribs.

So I began to conceive of a story in which these media connections and social networking connections weren’t external, but within us all. What if we no longer needed devices? What if we had an internet feed within us, so we were never disconnected?

It is out of the memory of my anger as a teen at the bullying maneuvers of “youth marketing” that I wrote the book – but also out of the knowledge that even now, I’m part of this system of desire. I still can’t get out of my head the images of who I’m supposed to be. (For my current age: the picket fence; the lawn; holding some daughter up toward the sun; strapping my tykes into the SUV.)

I don’t think this would have been an interesting book to write (or to read) if I had only hated the hyper-marketed world I describe. For me, the key to the discomfort is how much I love some of it, how much I still do want to be slick like the people on the tube, beautiful, laughing, surrounded by friends. And how much I legitimately do think that the technology-based information resources at our command now are incredible (things like Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, instant music and movie downloads, even the much-maligned Wikipedia). These are tools for an amazing new intellectual understanding of the world, though they come with strings attached. Think about the way technological progress over the last twenty years has revolutionized the artistic possibilities in film, or the scientific processes of medical experimentation – or almost any field. We have at our fingertips knowledge and power like no other generation before us, and that’s intoxicating. I am no Luddite. And this would not have been an effective satire, in my opinion, if I hadn’t also been seduced by what I was mocking. It is the anguish of indecision that animates it. This is indeed a brave new world, but there is a cost.

People have told me that Feed is coming true. (Some of the technologies I discussed have been explored in recent years.) But in a sense, I believe it already was the reality when I was writing.

I was already dreaming in advertisements.

Feed – By M.T. Anderson

            This is one of those books that I feel there is a lot more to it than what I understood. I’ve read the reviews that say, “Feed has to be the best book I’ve read this year,” (Stephanie, Year 12 (Lollipops — What’s On For Kids (Australia))) and “Emotionally and intellectually involving, this is an extremely intelligent satire,” (Niall Coghlan (Inis – The Magazine of Children’s Books Ireland, Summer 2003 (No. 5))) so I know those things must be true. It has also won many awards. However, I found the language difficult to work through, the characters flat, and the story not very compelling.

Feed takes us to the not-too-distant future, to an Earth where everything is run by the corporations, and people have internet feeds directly implanted to their brains. Information is available in an instant. M-chat can take the place of speaking. Banner ads and personal shoppers help you to know what the latest fashions are, and to quickly make your purchases. It’s a world we can feel almost familiar with. Only we’ve exchanged hand-held devices for an integrated feed. As the book progresses, following the story of Titus, we learn that the Earth is a very different place from the one we know now. Farms grow filet mignon. The Moon is a favorite spring break spot. School™ is owned by a corporation. Cars fly, dinner tables are disposable, and people’s skin is starting to get infected and cause lesions. Titus and his friends have a normal adolescence in every way. During a spring break trip to the moon, they meet Violet, a girl who is a little strange, and they all get attacked by a hacker and have to spend the rest of their break in the hospital.  After the spring break trip, Titus and Violet start to go out, and we watch their relationship through the ups and downs.

One of my biggest hurdles to overcome at the beginning was the language. Anderson writes the way his characters would talk, including a lot of futuristic slang that the reader has to decode. A teenager’s stream-of-consciousness writing today would be difficult enough to understand. But with segments in the first couple pages like this one:

“It sounded pretty fun, and at first there were lots of pictures of dancing and people with romper-gills and metal wings, and I was like, This will be big, really big, but then I guess I wasn’t so skip when we were flying over the surface of the moon itself, because the moon was just like it always is, after your first few times there, when you get over being like, Whoa, unit! The moon! The goddamn moon! and instead there’s just the rockiness, and the suckiness, and the craters all being full of old broken shit, like domes nobody’s using anymore and wrappers and claws. ” (p. 4)

it makes you dizzy and does not entice you to keep reading. I do understand that Anderson chose to write this way on purpose. Perhaps he wants his readers to feel immersed in the situation, and maybe feel a little off-balance, because he wants us to know that this world is a little-off balance. But a person can’t immerse themselves in a book that they struggle to make sense of. And they can’t understand a writer’s intention if they decide to put the book down and quit reading. Another review said this about the writing style: “This one had a frenetic, kind of frenzied quality about it which was really fitting to the tale.  Voice coming out its ears.  But, it was the one thing that almost made me put the book down.  So I guess it begs the question, how much voice is too much voice?  Is there any such a thing?” If I hadn’t been reading this for a class assignment, I would have put the book down. It just wasn’t engaging enough at the beginning (or ever, really.)

As the story went on, I struggled to have any feelings for the characters. Many reviewers said they felt for the characters when troubles hit, but I had no strong emotional reaction. When Titus and Violet broke up, I cheered that I could be done reading about them soon. I felt they both had valid and true points about the other person, which just felt like watching someone’s painful relationship finally come to the end it was meant to come to.  Titus accuses Violet of liking him because she wants a glimpse of the ‘ordinary’ world. He says, “You wanted to mingle with the common people. Just latch on to this one dumbass, and make fun of his friends for being stupid, while all the time, having this little wish that you could be like us, without thinking about what we’re like, or what our problems are, or that we might not be like saving the environment or anything, but we have our own problems – now you’re – you know?” (p.271) After this speech, I felt that Titus was right about Violet’s motivations.  Violet also accuses Titus of not caring about the world, or the fact that people’s bodies are literally falling apart, and people are being controlled by corporations. And she’s right. He doesn’t give a shit. He didn’t learn anything from Violet or grow as a person.

I also can’t help but compare this book to The Fault in our Stars by John Green, since I read that just a couple weeks ago.  Both books feature a teen romance that is put to the test when one person learns they have a fatal disease. Though Gus and Hazel’s romance was just as short as Titus and Violet’s, I felt they were written so beautifully, and fit together like two matching puzzle pieces, I wanted to keep reading and see how it would end. But Titus and Violet never belonged together. Titus is meant to show what the feed-world has made humans become; conformist, stupid, pleasure-seeking idiots. Violet thinks she sees more in him than that, but she is wrong, and she acts condescending as she tries to bring his level of discourse to a higher plane.  He is who he is meant to be, as is she, and the two of them have no magic together. When Violet knows she is dying, Titus does his best to ignore and avoid her, while she personifies the clingy, obsessive girlfriend character. They are both grating to observe.

A student reading this would see the obvious satire. If we let computers into our bodies, we lose control of our bodies. If we let corporations take the place of government, we have no say in how our world is destroyed. The point is well made, but the outlook is bleak. The only people who want to make a change are dead. Carrie Hintz, in her book on young adult dystopian novels, writes: “What could give more freedom to children and young adults than to open vistas of new worlds through speculative fiction, and ultimately inspire them to change the world around them?” (Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, p.13) Hopefully this book will allow students to think about their own habits as consumers, and as citizens of the world. That should be the message of the book, though young adults might also take away something from it about romantic and friendly relationships and about being true to yourself.

Essays on Dystopia

Essays on Dystopia

This week I read a dystopia, (I’ll post my review about this mystery book in a day or two) which is one of my favorite types of story. Here is a link to a whole book entitled Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults by Carrie Hintz and Elaine Ostry. It’s a collection of essays on various topics in Dystopian literature.

Here’s a quote from the introduction relevant to this week’s YA book: “Portrayals of technology alert young people that no matter what technology is used, and the extent to which it is used, it must be used wisely.” (p.11)

American Born Chinese – by Gene Luen Yang

This week, I read American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. I picked this book because I don’t love graphic novels. In the past, I have read Persepolis and Maus, but neither left me satisfied that I had fully understood the story they were trying to tell. There’s something about the depth of character development you can get into with a regular novel that is more appealing to me. So I chose a graphic novel in order to try to analyze why I didn’t connect with them, and moreover, why so many other people, especially adolescents, do. I look forward to the literature discussion this week so I can hear what others thought about the book and hopefully expand my understanding of graphic novels.

American Born Chinese tells three stories that tie together at the end. We meet Jin, a new Chinese-American student trying to fit in at school; Danny, a popular high-school boy whose unruly Chinese cousin comes for an embarrassing visit; and the Monkey King, a well-known story from Chinese mythology who goes through a humbling transformation.

Jin’s story is the most straightforward and understandable. He struggles with his identity. He discovers that how he sees himself is not how his white classmates see him. This idea of not fitting in, and wishing you could be different than how you are, is something many adolescents struggle with, for many reasons. In the end, Jin realizes that he is a prisoner of his desires and by accepting who is, he can free himself. The scene of self-acceptance is not very nuanced or subtle, which to me is a drawback of the medium. The reader doesn’t really have to think about the message or what Jin went through to discover the message. There is quite a bit of action surrounding this moment, which could be appealing to the adolescent reading it, but seemed somewhat unnecessary to me. ‘Guess we better have another fight scene; this is a comic book after all.’

The character of Chin-Kee, the Chinese cousin, is a characterization of stereotypes. Because his story is accompanied by a ‘laugh track’ and his character is drawn and behaves in such an over-the-top way, I was confused for quite a while as to what was ‘real’ and kept expecting to be let in on the secret; maybe we were watching a TV show, or in a dream? At the end, we are let in on the secret, and it’s a pretty good one, tied up with Jin’s self-discovery.  But the character is hard to watch, the stereotypes grate against the boundaries of what I know to be acceptable. I think any student reading this book would need some guidance in how to think about and respond to the Chin-Kee character.

I thought the format of graphic novel was best suited to the Monkey King story line, making another culture’s beloved mythology accessible to those of us without the background knowledge to stay engaged without illustrations. I liked following the Monkey King on his journey, as he too tries to fit in with the other Chinese gods, and where that leads him. At the end of his journey, when he winds up in Bethlehem with baby Jesus, I was definitely confused. Gene Yang explained on his website, “I’ve replaced the story’s Buddhist underpinnings with Christian ones, drawing from my own faith… Christianity, you see, lies at the very center of my identity as an Asian-American.” He goes on to talk about his worries about changing the storyline of a cultural story like the Monkey King, but in the end decided to go for it. I think this was a nice decision for him, and speaks to the identity struggles that many people face who straddle two cultures.

When the book wraps up and all three stories come together, we learn about the real identity of Jin’s childhood friend, Wei-Chen. I felt this identity was a bit of stretch, and again unnecessary to the storyline.  I’m sure that mythologically, Wei-Chen’s story that ties him to the Monkey King is accurate, but I mostly felt confused about why it was in this story. He could easily get a whole book to himself for his story, his message, and his adventures, but instead it was crammed in at the end of someone else’s journey. I felt that Jin (and Danny) and the Monkey King were enough for this book.

Overall, reading this graphic novel didn’t engage me enough to want to read more graphic novels in the future. I believe in the value of having students read things that are engaging to them, and would be happy to make this and other graphic novels available to any students that want to read them. But this book would probably be better taught in a structured way than read independently, especially with the racism and themes of self-hatred that arise and that students might need guidance in understanding.

The Fault in Our Stars – By John Green

“There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”

From The World According to Mister Rogers

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a very engaging and moving book about two teenagers with cancer and their relationship with each other.

I think this book can be an important book to share with adolescents because it makes something that’s hard to talk about accessible. The characters drive the story, and it’s easy to become immersed in the actions and feelings of the protagonist, Hazel. I feel that she is portrayed as a very human person – not exactly a typical teenager, but nonetheless, someone with feelings, thoughts, opinions, and her own routine daily life. Once we get used to her as a person, we see that the oxygen tank she drags around with her is not something shameful or uncomfortable. It’s just an oxygen tank that she needs to drag around with her. The same is true when we get to know Augustus and Isaac, and it’s easier to think about and discuss disabilities and disease when we can see that any regular person might someday have a part of their body change, and that it has nothing to do with their choices or personality.

Hazel and Augustus’ relationship was delightful to watch. I felt that they complimented each other well, and were lucky to have someone that understands them so perfectly. You feel easy in their company, like the are familiar friends with no awkwardness between them.  As one reviewer said, “they get on like a house on fire.” However, I thought they took a rather high tone when talking to each other, and were almost show-offs in how smart they were. Their banter seemed natural to their characters, but well outside the knowledge base of most teenagers.

I was also impressed with how mature they were and how little doubt they conveyed. When Hazel decided she couldn’t be with Augustus, because she didn’t want to hurt him when she died, there wasn’t any internal debate about it. She made her choice, and she made it clear to him what her choice was. That seemed pretty self-assured for a 16 year-old. Equally, Gus knew the very day he met Hazel that he wanted to be with her, and pursued her with confidence. Hazel’s maturity could be her acceptance of a short life ahead of her, and that she knew she didn’t have the luxury of wasting time or making mistakes. Gus saw a long future ahead of himself, but knew the terminal nature of Hazel’s cancer. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t want to waste any time in getting to know her? Both their characters were very mature about everything – talking about their feelings for each other, dealing with cancer, and other events that they encounter in the book, such as dealing with Peter Van Houten. I feel like this didn’t always ring true in a story about teenagers. Even though they may have had to grow up faster because they knew their time was short, they still didn’t have the experiences behind them to teach them how to be mature in so many ways.  Hazel managed her emotions and relationships with a dignity and reasonableness that I would find hard to match at twice her age.

The relationship between Hazel and her parents is lovely to watch as well. She doesn’t feel weird about saying her mom is her best friend. And she has deep concern for their well-being after her death. She worries about them as much as they worry about her. She likes spending time with her parents, and they like spending time with her. I think more teenagers like their parents than we might realize, and it’s good to see that being portrayed as an okay, normal way to behave.

John Green did a great job with the settings. I liked reading about Indianapolis because I lived there for five years, so it was fun to think, “ooo, I know where that is!”. It also was a good setting for a teenage story like this because it was so ordinary. They lived in an ordinary city, in ordinary neighborhoods, with nothing terribly special about it. Love and cancer can happen in ordinary places. Then of course Amsterdam was fun. I felt like I was experiencing it with Hazel and Augustus, because Green’s descriptions were so lovely. I wouldn’t have expected a book like this to take us overseas, and let us visit the Anne Frank house and tour Amsterdam, and I enjoyed that a lot.

I feel like Augustus’ cigarette metaphor was a bit overplayed. Nobody is ever going to understand why he’s walking around with an unlit cigarette. Nobody will ever ask, they will just assume he’s about to light it. And he didn’t get cancer from smoking originally, so it doesn’t seem like a really important connection. Maybe this is the one place where Augustus is a typical teenager, making a symbolic statement that he feels is powerful, but is actually kind of silly.

The end of the book was of course sad. It’s a book about kids with cancer, there’s bound to be sadness in it, despite lots of humor and light-heartedness throughout the book.  I needed some time to think about the book and what it’s message was, after I finished it. John Green says on his website where he answers questions about the book, that “all meaning is constructed meaning” and “this engagement with constructed narrative is (imho) a big part of what makes us human.” Though he had an intention when writing the book, he is open to having readers build their own meaning into their reading of the book. And what I thought about a lot after putting the book down, is how easily tragedy can strike, and how hard it is to deal with when it does. Every day, all over the world, people are trying to cope with their own personal crises. Sometimes we admire their strength and resilience, sometimes they turn into Peter Van Houten. How will I deal with tragedy when it arrives? How can I help others right now cope with their own situations? How can I remember that people are more than what happens to them, yet what happens to them becomes part of who they are?

Thank you John Green for not ending the book in the middle of a sentence! He says, “I agree with Augustus that there is a contract between reader and writer and that not ending a book violates that contract. Also, I try really hard in my work generally not to do ostentatious things like ending books midsentence.” (Tumblr)

What about Augustus’ desire to die for a deeper purpose? He doesn’t feel like just dying of cancer is heroic or noble. I can understand feeling the futility of dying before you’ve been able to accomplish anything.  John Green said, in his 2013 Butler commencement address, “we are taught that the hero’s journey is from weakness to strength…but those stories are wrong. The real hero’s journey is from strength to weakness.” That seems to connect quite well to Gus’ last months. He wanted to die a hero, and he did, just not in the way he had imagined.  I think Green is trying to remind his readers that every death is heroic, and at the same time, none are. When you are at your weakest, at death’s door,  and you still love, and laugh, and care for others, and try to protect those you love, that is what makes you a hero.