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Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Teacher and a Former Teacher: An Exchange on The Hunger Games


This is a first on TeachYALit.com. Rather than a typical review of a book or series, I invited a teacher friend of mine to engage in an email exchange to post on the site. As this also was our forum for catching up on a more personal level, the emails have been edited for relevance. Laurie's emails are in green text, while mine are in blue


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Dave, 

I'd love to have the e-mail exchange on the teachyalit website.

FYI--I read the trilogy first two back to back and then waited for the third one. and read it early last fall.  I also listened to two of them in audio format before reading them, so the voice on the cd also influenced how I viewed the characters.  

I was intrigued by the premise and setting of the first book and fascinated by the secondary characters more so than the main character, Katniss.  I was never able to see her in the way that Peeta and Gale saw her.  I am not sure if that is because of the point of view, and Katniss has such low self-esteem that her character was suppressed or if I needed a little more back story and exposition to be able to see her more clearly.  One of my issues with all of the books was not being able to identify with her as much as I probably should have given she is the main character and the story unfolds through her eyes.
Laurie

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Laurie,

I completely agree about Katniss. I didn't really think she was believable as a beacon of hope (or as the type of girl for whom boys would be willing to die). It was interesting, though, that Peeta and Gale really seemed to be the only two who really loved Katniss. She seemed to grate on everyone else's nerves, perhaps with the exception of Cinna--but that was a different sort of relationship altogether. There's no doubt that Katniss was tough, but she relied heavily on help from others to survive. That, in and of itself, could be a good lesson for adolescent readers, but I can't help that feel that for a heroine, Katniss was much more pawn than queen. 

The weirdest part of all for me was that, even though I didn't really connect with Katniss or buy her as the savior of Panem, I was pretty enthralled by the books. I found them hard to put down, but I can't quite figure out why. Your thoughts on that?

Until soon,
Dave

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Dave,

I also got absorbed in the fast placed plot and the dystopian world of the stories, even though I did not like Katniss at all.  She did so many of the things that make me crazy for female characters to do, such as lead men on, play the game, pretend to be something she was not, feign affection/love, pout to get her way.  I did keep wondering throughout the book if the author was trying to talk about how real all of those characteristics still are, especially in adolescent girls who are "learning" the role of woman, or if she just couldn't write a story with a stronger female character in light of the success of books like the Twilight series (another weak female role model).  With listening to the audio version, I can't get the sound out of my head of the reader calling out "Peeta."  It had such a pathetic quality to it as opposed to grief.  And that definitely colored my perception of Katniss even more.  When I listen to audio books, I often do the theatre school/ acting training thing and think how would I do it differently, and as I pondered that, I really did begin to wonder what the reader was intended to make of Katniss.  Did the reader of the audio file "read" her right?  And if so, the intent was for Katniss to be a fairly pathetic girl thrust into the spotlight and trying to make the best of it, what does that say about the two other female characters, the mother, who does seem to have much more on the ball as a healer, but also lacks in character at important times, and the sister, who to me is the real feminine hero, combining the best of the mother and of Katniss.  And more importantly, what does it say about the two male characters both of whom want to take care of Katniss, and both of whom do not trust her to make decisions for herself or for the greater good if given all of the facts.  One of my favorite scenes is when Katniss and the young girl in the trees become allies and how Katniss reacts to her death.  This is a moment where Katniss shines as a good role model, but she does not maintain that quality.  And I never got a good answer as to why no one trusts Katniss to see the larger picture, especially after this scene.  Why Peeta is so in love with Katniss and has been since he took a beating to give her bread is also never fully fleshed out-- the only reason we are given is that she is beautiful, another superficial quality.  She is a complex character, but not necessarily in the good way.  I totally agree that she is much more pawn than queen, and I wonder if that was the author's intent and if she is has something larger to say or was trying to say something larger.  I would like to be convinced of that, but I just don't have enough evidence.  If I were editing this story or commenting on it, I would have to say that all of the main characters were uneven.

Fantasy and science-fiction are always commentary on our own world, and for as much as I was drawn into this book, I also felt completely gipped by the end, and cheapened somehow.  

I was fascinated by the setting though and thought that was where the power of the story lay.  Having a society that so dishonors children as to watch them fight to the death as entertainment was a powerful commentary on greed. It seems to have some roots in sweatshops and outsourced Western work to third world countries where child labor, daily poverty and starvation, and polluting of the environment are daily occurrences.  I do wonder what we as Americans would do, if our reality television relied on workers in those factories.  

I do want to explore the relationship with Cinna and the other adults, and also with family members.  

One thing, is that most of the students whom I talk with about this book also feel very let down at the end of the series.

I am loving these conversations.  We need to choose another YA book or series and read it so we can discuss it.  

Laurie

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Hey, Laurie,


You make a great point about the unevenness of the main characters. (And I think "uneven" is the perfect word, as I wouldn't settle on calling them particularly static or rounded. 10 points to you for word choice.) I also was frustrated with Katniss's approach to "managing" the men in her life. I was also truly surprised at times by how much her emotions seemed to be driven by sexual contact. For all the desire of Peeta and Gale to take care of her, and for all the non-sexual ways that they showed their affection for her, her emotions seemed to hinge more on whom and how frequently she was kissing than on anything else. 

I agree also that the recklessness with which Panem treated the lives of children was fascinating and powerful, although I admit that I did not make the connection to sweatshops, etc. I thought of it at a little more zoomed-out level, wondering if Collins was making a broad statement about ways in which our society may not be great at protecting its children. And I think the relationship of the adults are a perfect example of that. For me, there wasn't a single grown-up character in the series who really stood out as a proper adult. Katniss's mother was a great nurse, but she wasn't much of a parent; Haymitch was a good coach for the Games, but he was an unreliable alcoholic and was willing to risk his proteges in the interest of bringing down Panem. I thought Cinna came the closest to being a proper adult--in some ways, he reminded me of a good teacher: he developed a strong relationship with Katniss, he listened to her problems, he struck a good balance between giving her solutions and planting them inside her to discover on her own--but even he was a bit too passive and not wholly honest. Maybe he can't be blamed too much, though, being that he was pretty entrenched in the Capital way of life. What did you think about Cinna and the other adults?

Also, I'm curious to hear more about what the students have said to you about the books and their ending.

Talk to you soon,
Dave

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And that's all there is on that for now. Please feel free to add thoughts and comments on The Hunger Games, questions for either Laurie or myself to expand on claims we made, or, indeed, suggestions for another book or series for this kind of exchange. And, of course, if we continue to email about the series, further notes will be posted here.

Note: This won't likely be the end of reviews on this site, but I hope to do more of this kind of thing--it was fun. If you would like to submit an (edited) email exchange on a book or series, please email info@teachyalit.com to discuss the particulars. (This is all voluntary, so there's no money in it, but you'll surely get credit as a contributor to the site and we'll happily link to your own personal blog or website.)


Friday, June 10, 2011

A Villain You'll Love to Hate (Review of FIRST FLIGHT | Sean Hayden & Connor Hayden)



TITLE: First Flight (The Magnificent Steam Carnival of Professor Pelusian Minus)
AUTHOR: Sean Hayden and Connor Hayden
PUBLISHER: Echelon Press
DATE OF PUBLICATION: 2011
PAGES: 141 KB (e-book only)
GRADE LEVEL(S): 4-6
RELEVANT CURRICULA: English Language Arts
CLASSROOM USES: Summer/Independent reading, Literature Circles, Read-Aloud

NB: This is the first book in a 6-book series. At time of writing, 2 of the 6 books are available to the public. [UPDATE: The third book is now available.]

Professor Pelusian Minus is more slave driver than carnival proprietor. He loves money and meanness, and not much else. As a reader, I loved to hate him. Minus's actions all contain some amount of venom. He doesn't get up from chairs; he slams them against walls. He calls his minions--er, employees--idiots and morons, and he terrorizes and denigrates the best performers in his carnival.

Minus is a car-wreck of a character: you can hardly stand to look at him, but at the same time, you won't want to miss a single one of his evil words or deeds.

Conversely, brother Dade and sister Paige are just the kind of heroes for whom any reader will want to root. They are kind and protective toward one another, while at the same time sly operators against Professor Minus. On top of that, they're blessed with considerable ingenuity. The irony, of course, is that their inventors' spirits are not only their only hope for escaping Minus's carnival, but also the carnival's only hope of making minus rich. As such, he'll do all in his power to keep them there.

First Flightwell, flies. The story is fast-paced, and the pages are few. It's the perfect book to use for a read-aloud in the last few minutes of class, or to give to a reluctant reader who is wary of a too-long story. Written by author Sean Hayden and his son, Connor, the language strikes a perfect balance: there's an economy of language that demonstrates Sean Hayden's finely honed craft as a writer, paired perfectly with the kind of exuberance that only a student writing for other students could produce.

I could go on, but suffice it to say, First Flight is well worth both your time and your money. At $0.99, it may even be worth the price of that e-reader you've been eyeing. (Note: you can get the Kindle app for almost any mobile device or personal computer for free.) Once you've read First Flight, I'd recommend saving your allowance and putting another five dollars aside. You'll want to move on to Second Chance right away, and you'll be drooling to get your hands on the last four installments.



FTC Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of the book we received from the authors.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Positive Peer Pressure (Review of DRUGS MAKE YOU UN-SMARTER | Savanna Peterson & Jill Vanderwood



TITLE: Drugs Make You Un-Smarter
AUTHOR: Savanna Peterson & Jill Vanderwood
PUBLISHER: Motivational Press
DATE OF PUBLICATION: 2010
PAGES: 242
GRADE LEVEL(S): 7-9
RELEVANT CURRICULA: Health, Science, English
CLASSROOM USES: Summer/Independent reading, Literature Circles

I was drawn to this book by an email describing a girl born in a stress-induced labor, to a mother who struggled to provide for her children and a father who was perpetually in and out of jail for fraud and drug-related crimes. That girl is the author of this book. 15 year-old Savanna Peterson sat down with her grandmother, Jill Vanderwood, to tell her story and, more importantly, educate her peers.

Drugs Make You Un-Smarter is a book that should live in many classroom and school libraries, somewhere students can easily find it—and feel they discovered it on their own. It was written by a 15 year-old girl, and it reads as such. As such, this isn’t a book to be used as a model for fine writing; it’s a book to be used for truth telling.

Savanna Peterson’s story is compelling, written in a voice that will resonate for any teenager. Readers may or may not agree with her firm stance against drugs and alcohol, but they won’t be able to help feeling uplifted by Savanna’s ability to turn her own unfortunate family life into something productive and true.

Drugs Make You Un-Smarter blends Savanna’s story with the research and writing from other young people, as well as doctors and other health care professionals who work with addicts and youth. It’s just the right blend of personal narrative and research project. Put it in your school. Someone there needs it.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Bridging The Pull of Gravity and Of Mice and Men

An Essay by Gae Polisner, Author of The Pull of Gravity


People often ask why I incorporated John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men into my contemporary young adult novel, The Pull of Gravity (FSG, May 10, 2011). The short answer is that it was part intention, and part serendipity.

The Pull of Gravity follows teens Nick Gardner and Jaycee Amato who, armed only with the wisdom of Yoda, a rare first-edition copy of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and the vaguest of plans, embark on a secret road trip to try to keep a promise to the Scoot, their dying friend.

With the words “vaguest of plans,” those familiar with Of Mice & Men will already recognize a glaring connection between the works: In both stories, plans go awry, and, in the course of the unraveling, Nick and Jaycee (like Lennie and George) learn some valuable, if at times painful, life lessons.

Intention vs. serendipity.
When I started writing The Pull of Gravity, I knew first and foremost that I wanted to write a character-driven piece, the ilk of which I read as a kid from the likes of Zindel, Blume, Konigsburg. To me, character-driven means that the characters are *the* reason you want to know the story, and not the other way around, with the plot driving the story. As Nick and Jaycee formed on the page, I thought, ‘how better to see if Jaycee is as persuasive and intriguing as I want her to be (and the chemistry between the two teens as real as I hope), than by seeing if she can *sell* the merits of an often-taught work of classic literature to Nick, a 15-yr old boy.’ Hence, the sort of muse-driven idea of incorporating a classic novel was born.

But which piece of classic literature to choose? That is where intention factored in, and the connections between The Pull of Gravity and Of Mice and Men began to take shape.

Why Of Mice and Men?
One of the main reasons I chose Of Mice and Men was that it seems to hold more appeal for teen boys than some of the other mandatory classics still assigned, perhaps for obvious reasons. George and Lennie, the two main characters, are male. Most of the supporting characters are men. Given that I consciously wrote a novel that might appeal to both girl and boy readers, it was key not to alienate my male audience.

A bigger reason, though, was the theme of friendship that reverberates through Of Mice and Men. Indeed, the ending of Of Mice and Men may contain the ultimate act of friendship to be found in modern literature. Likewise, friendship is the main theme in The Pull of Gravity. Nick and Jaycee need each other, and their friendship buoys them through a time of change, heartache and pain.

I’ve also attempted to keep some structural similarities between the pieces. Of Mice & Men is a short work of fiction – a novella at 107 pages. George and Lennie’s story takes place over a mere four days. They set out on a Thursday and the story concludes on a Sunday.

While The Pull of Gravity is a longer work at 208 pages, the time frame of the story is brief, and the main part of Nick and Jaycee’s journey, to wit, their time in the Rochester hotel, also unfolds Thursday through Sunday.

Certainly, when I go into classrooms, I love to talk to students about how amazing it is that Steinbeck was able to create so much empathy for, and connection to, his characters in the space of so little time and so few words – the reader gets to know George and Lennie and, more importantly, to care about them, in not much more than a mere breath.

Similarly, Nick and Jaycee’s relationship unfolds quickly; they become important to one another – and, I hope to the reader— over a brief period.

Other Common Themes

- The American Dream (“Everybody Wants a Place of their Own”). Both The Pull of Gravity and Of Mice and Men deal with the desire to attain the American Dream: work that is bearable (if not more) and a small patch of land that feels like home. In The Pull of Gravity, Nick’s father is unable to attain this goal, to balance metropolitan career aspirations with his family’s move to the suburbs, which is one of the failures that spurs the main action of the book. Similarly, Jaycee is relegated to her mother’s new husband’s gaudy house, and, moreso, to the fluffy pink bedroom of the new husband’s daughter that will never feel like home.

- Disability. Of Mice and Men illuminates the prejudices suffered by Lennie because of his retardation, but also the burden on George, his friend, in trying to care for him. In The Pull of Gravity, the Scoot has a physical, rather than mental, disability, and while he doesn’t suffer the direct prejudices Lennie does, Nick – just like George with Lennie – struggles with his role as a loyal friend versus obligated caretaker to the Scoot.

- Loss & Loneliness. The Pull of Gravity opens with this quote from Of Mice and Men:
“Lennie broke in. ‘But not us! An’ why? Because…because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why.’ He laughed delightedly.”

This quote epitomizes the friendship theme that resonates through both stories. Without each other, George and Lennie have no one. Similarly, Jaycee and Nick experience a lack of fitting in, connecting, until they find one another.

Of course, the counters to friendship are loneliness and loss, and these themes also run through both stories. George and Lennie have suffered loss when we first meet them, and, once at the farm, there is the loss of Candy’s dog, of Lennie’s puppy, of Curly’s wife, and ultimately each other. In The Pull of Gravity Nick, Jaycee and the Scoot have all suffered parental loss (whether temporary or permanent). It is a bond they have in common. They also each suffer the loss of their family structure, and ultimately, Nick and Jaycee suffer the loss of their dear friend, the Scoot.

Connector Texts for The Pull of Gravity:

Freak the Mighty, Rodman Philbrick
Godless, by Pete Hautman


Additional Information

You may find additional information about The Pull of Gravity including advance praise at the author’s website, http://gaepolisner.com, as well as an early review here at http://professornana.livejournal.com/520777.html.

Gae Polisner is the author of The Pull of Gravity, Frances Foster Books/FSG, May 10, 2011. She is also a practicing attorney-mediator and avid open water swimmer. The Pull of Gravity is her debut novel. You may learn more about her here: http://gaepolisner.com

*this essay was written with the generous assistance of Paul W. Hankins.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: LEVIATHAN | Scott Westerfeld




Title: Leviathan
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Illustrator: Keith Thompson
Publisher: Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon and Schuster
Date of Publication: 2009
Pages: 440
Grade Levels: 6-9
Relevant curricula: English language arts, social studies
Bridge texts: WWI history, other World War literature, texts about Darwin and/or genetic engineering, other steampunk

Aleksandar (Alek) Ferdinand is the prince of Austria-Hungary, on the run after the assassination of his father, a peace-loving archduke, and his mother in Sarajevo. Because Alek’s mother was a commoner, Alek isn’t supposed to inherit anything from his family, especially his grandfather’s throne. Alek’s adversaries aren’t taking any chances and hunt him across Austria. His teacher-protectors have given up everything in order to protect Alek and get him to a secret hideout in Switzerland.
Deryn (a.k.a Dylan) Sharp is a British girl disguising herself as a boy to earn a position as a midshipman on one of his majesty’s airships. She has lost her father in a fiery accident. Deryn earns her spot on an airship, a Leviathan-class ship that gives this novel its name, but worries every day that her crewmates will discover her secret.
Europe is divided and on the brink of war. The year is 1914, but not the 1914 that you know from the history books.
Scott Westerfeld has created a steampunk, alternative WWI history in a world where Darwin discovered DNA (the threads of life) and gene splicing. Europe is divided among Darwinist countries, which employ genetic engineering to create incredible creatures to take place of their machines, and Clanker countries, which reject what they see as godless genetic tinkering in favor of engineering elaborate, diesel-driven machines.
Other elements: a heavy pile of gold bullion, a lady scientist with a mysterious cargo bound for Constantinople, flying jellyfish, talking lizards, walking tanks, a tasmanian tiger, and a lot of clart.
The story is fast-paced and exciting, cutting back and forth between the two main characters until they eventually run into each other on a glacier in Switzerland. The audience is privvy to just enough secrets to make us feel involved in the story, but not so many to ruin the excitement and suspense. I love that we don’t know which adults are trustworthy—if any. And I love the afterword, in which Westerfeld sorts out the real history leading up to WWI from his own inventions.
A great middle-grade to young-adult book and the first in a trilogy, followed by Behemoth, released in October 2010, and Goliath, scheduled for release in the fall of 2011.
FTC disclosure: I received this book in a Twitter contest from Simon & Schuster last summer and I’m passing it on to my ten year old. 

Reviewed by Dani Smith