Category Archives: young adult lit

Brown Girl Dreaming.

A note: I wrote this post as a mentor for my students.  It’s written in a more formal structure than what I usually use, and demonstrates structured writing that is just about ready to jump ship to more creative (thought still focused) nonfiction structures, which is where many of my 8th graders live as writers.  Also, this book was beautiful and I can’t wait to pass out the seven copies I just received through a Teachers College grant. 

ypl_woodson_Brown_Girl_DreamingSometimes middle schoolers can forget the power of the dream. Though still children, their school and family responsibilities and expectations often seem to fill their waking hours. They are often treated like adults, but the adults forget that the grown-up life is brand new to them. Jacqueline Woodson’s latest book, Brown Girl Dreaming, is not just a compelling escape for readers, it is a lifeline of hope and beauty. The realizations Woodson shares throughout her memoir set in verse can help guide adolescent readers through their own messy lives by giving them hope for the future.

Early in the story, Jacqueline Woodson realizes that drawing strength from her roots can help her store up strength to face the challenges she will face. The first stanza of the story sets the stage for the cultural atmosphere for her childhood: “I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA—a country caught between Black and White” (1). Woodson began right away with one of the most difficult realities that despite the decades past, our country still doesn’t know how to handle. Later, though, she writes, “From Columbus,’ my father said, ‘you could go just about anywhere” (16). Literally, her father is referencing the fact that highways run north, south, and diagonal through Columbus. Figuratively, her father is giving her permission to dream. Woodson is passing this ability off to her readers. Even when people are born into what might feel like an impossible situation, there are ways to move forward. Her voice in this story gives permission to the reader to dream about where they might be headed in the future.

In the middle of the story, Jacqueline Woodson acknowledges the difficulty in making sense of life, but realizes that it’s ok to struggle as she figures out who she is. When she and her siblings are shuffling between their grandparents’ home in South Carolina and her mother’s new home in Brooklyn she writes, “Our feet are beginning to belong in two different worlds—Greenville and New York. We don’t know how to come home and leave home behind us” (195). Beyond the difficulty of moving and feeling like an outsider, readers can relate to Woodson’s acknowledgement of the struggle to fit in. She also writes of how she is often compared to her siblings and feels lost in comparison. When she begins to listen to the voices of wisdom in her life, though, she has the courage to be comfortable being herself. She says of her grandfather: “And when I sing to him, I’m not just left of the key or right of the tune. He says I sing beautifully. He says I am perfect” (236). Woodson realizes that she doesn’t have to please everyone or be like anyone else and while this frees her. She is able to feel comfortable with the question “How can I explain to anyone that stories are like air to me?” (247).   This realization is also able to free the reader from some of the anxiety that accompanies adolescence and encourage them that it is normal to wrestle with their identity.

The biggest gift Woodson offers the reader by the end of the story is the message of hope in the future. As her older brother sings a solo beautifully in a school performance, she is stunned that she had no idea her brother had such a beautiful voice. She realizes, “Maybe…there is something hidden like this, in all of us. A small gift from the universe waiting to be discovered” (233). In the beginning, Woodson wasn’t sure where she was going to go, but was given permission to dream. And now she sees how a small passion, even if it is unknown to others, can blossom into something more. By the end of the story she is able to see how she was born to write: “I keep writing, knowing now that I was a long time coming” (298).   Woodson is able to grasp this enormous part of her identity and see that it has always been a part of her—it just took courage to keep at it. Her readers can see how her past and present work together to give her something that will carry her into the future, and can also believe that this could be true for them as well.

This story is one that was made for young teenagers who need to be reminded that there are many roads to choose from, the assurance that the journey might be bumpy, and most of all, that a future filled with hope is in their hands.

Coping with Violence in Young Adult Fiction: Moving from pat answers to real conversations

(Welcome to my new website! This is my first post on, after spending seven years over at blogspot.  I’m so thankful to my husband, the very talented Daniel Warren, who was the technological, coding brainpower, and inspiration behind the move. If you are interested in redesigning your own blog, switching to wordpress, buying a domain name, making your page responsive so it adjusts to screens on all devices, etc. please get in touch.  Leave a comment for me or you can DM him on twitter).

{cover design by Jeannie M. Lee, Simon & Schuster}

This is the third blog post in a series about how violence in portrayed in young adult fiction.   I started with Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick and then Hate List by Jennifer Brown.  This week’s book is technically adult, but it is by Jodi Picoult, who many of my 8th graders read when they are ready to try a harder book.  Nineteen Minutes is a story about when a boy who was mercilessly bullied walks into his New Hampshire high school and starts  shooting.  In Picoult-fashion, it is a highly researched page turner with a surprise ending.

The strength of this story is that Picoult uses multiple narrators and flashback to tell the story so it becomes not just about one character.  We hear from his best friend from childhood who had abandoned him for the popular crowd and her mother who is a superior court judge.  We also hear from his mother who is a midwife and his father who is an economics professor who studies the cost of happiness.  In addition, Picoult includes narration from the defense attorney and the detective, both characters who throw their hearts into the case.

I also read his former best friend sympathetically because I was able to feel the social conflict she tried to bury, which is an extremely relatable emotion for teenagers, and honestly, any adult. The character who I read with the most sympathy, however, was the shooter.  The pain and humiliation he faced was unbearable, and I think for teenagers, the most important voice to hear.   As a teacher, I have sat in on countless assemblies where students hear messages about bullying, and honestly, they aren’t learning anything new.  Kids can recite for themselves the “lessons” presented to them and walking through the halls they mock them–not because they are callous or cold, but I think because they can sense that assemblies don’t make a difference.   What does, though, in my experience, is:

  • Inviting kids into stories that have a beginning, middle, and end in which they can explore motivation, cause and effect, character growth and begin to develop empathy and understanding for what it means to be human.
  • Inviting kids into art that addresses the difficult questions, rather than giving them another pat answer.
  • Inviting kids into conversations about these books and these pieces of artwork and giving them time to think and respond through conversation, writing, and art.
  • Listening to kids, respecting their opinions and experiences, and giving them grace and room to grow in the process of growing up.
  • Creating homes and classrooms where kids are reminded that everyone has a story and most often we don’t know all of it.

There are so many jumping off points for important thought-work and writing and conversations in this story, that my resounding answer to the question of how do we cope with these incredibly difficult issues in young adult literature is that we let kids read about them–we hand them the books–because they represent the complex, uncomfortable, difficult issues in life.   Reading (and responding to reading) is a safe way to explore things that they are going to be exposed to either way.  I’d recommend that parents actively read alongside their children–it will open up doors to conversations you didn’t know could exist with teenagers.

Coping with Violence in Young Adult Fiction: Hate List & Seeing One Another

Reading Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock led me to begin a study of how violence is portrayed in young adult books, which has made for a dark reading month, to be honest.  But in the same way that I said in my previous post, it has made me really consider the kind of adult I want to be with my students everyday.  Teaching 8th grade can feel like a roller coaster, but getting inside the minds of these protagonists is one of the best reminders of the struggles many of my students silently face and helps me remember the big picture in moments when it would be easy to let my anger, annoyance, or eye rolls reign.

The next one book I read was Hate List by Jennifer Brown, which is a story about a school shooting that leaves 6 students dead and many wounded.  The protagonist is Valerie, the girlfriend of the shooter, Nick, who was ignorant of his plan to kill, but implicated because she started a list of people they hated and Nick used it to pick his victims.  In the story, Valerie jumped up to Nick when he was shooting and inadvertently saved a girl who had harassed her.  Valerie took that bullet in her thigh and afterward Nick shot himself in the head.  The entire school wonders if Valerie was a hero or if it was a murder-suicide gone wrong.  The novel is Valerie’s story as she goes back to school for her senior year five months after the shooting.

Brown intersperses present day (Valerie’s family life, therapy sessions, loneliness) with flashbacks from  relationship with Nick (how Valerie had a place to feel understood and happy) as well as newspaper articles published about the shooting.  What I appreciate here is that young adult readers are able to really get inside the mind of the complex emotions that Valerie faces–guilt or whether her actions helped cause the tragedy, anger at Nick for not being upfront with her about it, losing Nick.  The combination continually asks the reader to consider perspective and how things appear don’t always tell the whole story, and this is what teenagers (and adults) must remember:

“People do it all the time–assume that they “know” what’s going on in someone else’s head. That’s impossible. And to think it’s possible is a mistake. A really big mistake. A life-ruining one if you’re not careful.” This quote from the story can be applicable to every character of the book–and every reader: Valerie didn’t know what was going on in Nick’s head, the kids who constantly made fun of them had no idea what was going on in either one of their heads, the parents didn’t know, the teachers didn’t know.  I wonder if what we can take away from this is that we must take the time to know people and their stories, which for me is what it always come back to–the importance of story. Teenage culture is a complex beast and there is no way to treat its darkness with simple adages.  So again, I am left thinking:

Teenagers need this book.

Teenagers need reading experiences that will let them talk about this book and push them to grow as people.

Teenagers need adults who can read these books, enter into the conversations with them, and to remember that all is not as it seems.

So, Brown takes the adolescent reader through the pain, necessity, and reality of moving forward.  She also takes me back to what Leonard Peacock said: “show me that it’s possible to be an adult and be happy.” At the end of the day, I feel a responsibility to offer students the possibility of hope.

Coping with Violence in Young Adult Fiction & Thinking About Who We Are As Adults

This post has been many weeks in the making.  After I finished The Luminaries, I picked up Matthew Quick’s latest young adult novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. Quick wrote Silver Linings Playbook and also Boy 21, which I used quite a bit early in the school year with my students.  I am trying to organize a way for students to do an author study, so I set off to find comparisons between the two titles.  However, this turned into a theme study for myself, which has actually taken a lot out of me emotionally in the past few weeks.  On the first page of this story, Leonard Peacock is taking a picture of his breakfast and a gun, and we learn he is planning on killing one of his classmates and then himself later that day.

Just like I teach my students, I need to take to writing to make sense of what I’ve been reading lately.  This will be the first post in a series that focuses on how teenage violence is portrayed in literature.

I am incredibly liberal when it comes to kids reading what they want to read, especially my Brooklyn 8th graders who are not sheltered from life’s truths.  What I love about most young adult literature, and why I think it is unhealthy for teenagers to jump straight into a diet of adult books and classics when they enter high school at 14, is that most young adult authors respect, love, and honor teenagers and their experiences.  These authors are courageous in going to the places that many teens are scared to bring to their parents.  These authors understand social-emotional development and their books often feel like therapy.  Their protagonists deal with real issues in real ways and generally find genuine, realistic resolution: peace, an ability to move forward, an understanding of change.  These authors haven’t forgotten the pain, anger, and intensity of what it feels like to be an adolescent.  When kids skip straight to books with adult characters, they miss out on so many healthy learning experiences.

However, as I continued to read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, I felt more and more uncomfortable.  For an adult, I consider that a good thing: our reading should rattle us sometimes and force us to consider perspectives and experiences we would not otherwise encounter.  And actually, for young adults, I think this holds true most of the time, which is why I encourage my students to read books about people who are different from them.  But there was something deeply unsettling about this 17 year old character that made me stop and ask: are my 13 year old students ready for this?

Quick’s story telling does not shy away from harsh realities of our overly imperfect world: Leonard’s parents are non-existent, which has left enormous scars and every time he allows himself to hope for understanding from his mother, she disappoints him again.  He was abused by a peer. The ending of the story has hope, but it’s not completely resolved and feels like a harsh (yet healthy) coming-of-age realization.   Quick does provide two adults who support and understand Leonard, in the form of an elderly neighbor with whom he watches old films and his social studies teacher.  These relationships also offer sound (not saccharin) advice to any teenager struggling with suicidal tendencies.  I’m wondering if my uncomfortableness with the story comes from myself not fully realizing the depth of pain teenagers can face–and perhaps me wanting to think none of my 8th graders have reached this level yet–though, I know for a fact that’s not true.  And once I remember that fact, my uneasiness with the title makes me think that some teenagers need this story.

What I also realized, though, is that adults need this story, too–more so perhaps, than the page turning series that are so easy to devour (which also are important to read when you work with or have teenagers).  Quick’s book is hard to read, and that is why we must.  Leonard Peacock’s opinions about adults–surprisingly nuanced and mature–are the kinds of reminders adults need:

(Re: Vice Principal) Vice Principal Torres’s face starts to turn eggplant purple as he says, “I don’t have time for double talk this morning, Leonard.” …I was really trying to make a connection. I would have talked with him openly and honestly–no double talk at all–if he would have just sat down and taken a few minutes to be human.  What’s so important that he couldn’t take five minutes to look up at the sky with me? (37)

(Re: Mother) Show me its possible to be an adult and be happy. Please (46).

(Re: School Counselor) Deep down she absolutely knows I’m bullshitting her, I’m sure of it.  But she has a million problems to solve, hundreds of students who need her help, endless asshole parents to deal with, mountains of paperwork, meetings in that awful room with the round table and the window air-conditioning unit over the tropically hot boiler room, and so she knows the easiest thing to do is believe me.  She’s fulfilled her obligation, assuaged her conscience by finding me in the hallway and giving me the chance to freak out, and I’ve played my role too, by remaining calm, pretending to be okay, and therefore giving her permission to cross me off her things-to-do-list (97).

These quotes make me wonder if the title is actually coming from the voice of his peer-abuser or from the adults who didn’t notice what was happening.

So, I am left thinking about a few things at this point.  First, teenagers face incredible pain and as uncomfortable as some of the topics may be, books are part of the solution. Moreover, they need adults who can model how to be human in all its glory and hardship: how to be genuine with our emotions,  have meaningful relationships, and how to find joy amidst the struggle.

The Gift of Solitude: applicable to all adults, as described in a young adult novel.

If there is one thing I try to share with my students throughout the year, it’s the idea that each one of them has a story: that you can never know someone’s story just by looking at them, that it is one of life’s greatest gifts to get to hear other people’s stories, and that it is a privilege for me to get to know theirs throughout the course of the year.  My hope is that they will take the time to really know one another and build a community of understanding, respect, and kindness.

And then I had a moment where I met a protagonist I wanted every student to know:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: We all want everything to be okay (page 6).

The only way I can navigate through my life is because of the 98 percent that every life has in common (page 77).

In my experience, desire is desire, love is love.  I have never fallen in love with a gender. I have fallen for individuals.  I know this is hard for people to do, but I don’t understand why it’s so hard, when it’s so obvious (page 142).

A handful of my students were raving about Everyday by David Levithan in our weekly “Friday Favorites” five minute share and after hearing the premise, I knew I wanted to check it out.  The protagonist, A, is essentially a soul (without a gender): s/he wakes up in a new body everyday while maintaining a fully developed sense of self–just no physical body with which to express him/herself.  This is one of the most thought provoking and creative young adult books I’ve ever read.  It touches on so many young adult emotional-development issues, but not in a preachy way: the protagonist authentically brings them up and because his/her life experience is so different than the average human, and based on what I’ve witnessed in my classroom, I think young adult readers will just soak it in.

But I also found a section that spoke into everything I’ve been thinking about lately: maintaining a sense of self, of peace, of purpose.  He falls for the girlfriend of a [horrid] guy whose body he occupies for a day and then ends up maintaining a relationship with her–his/her first ever–though each day s/he is in a new body. S/he sees the stress she deals with and the broken, hurtful relationship she is in.  When s/he unexpectedly wakes up in her body one day, he decides to try to give her the gift of peace in solitude and goes for a long hike.  The description he uses is amazing:

I’ve decided to give Rhiannon the satisfaction of being fully alone.  Not the lethargy of lying on the couch or the dull monotony of drifting off in math class.  Not the midnight wandering in a sleeping house or the pain of being left in a room after the door has been slameed shut.  This alone is not a variation of any of those.  This alone is its own being.  Feeling the body, but not using it to sidetrack the mind.  Moving with purpose, but not in a rush. Conversing not with the person next to you, but with all of the elements.  Sweating and aching and climbing and making sure not to fall, not to get too lost, but lost enough…When no one else is around, we open ourselves to the quieter astonishments that enormity can offer (197-198).

I meet monthly with some friends and we talk about the creative pursuits in our lives and what we are learning about ourselves in the process.  It has become a treasured time for me.  My November wasn’t as creative as I planned: I made some substitutions for painting and calligraphy in the name of stress and exhaustion and travel, which at the time seemed justifiable.  I realized, though, that my substitutions weren’t the same, even though I was technically “doing nothing.” I realized once again that I need to spend intentional time opening myself “to the quieter astonishments that enormity can offer”–whether that enormity is staring at sky behind the branches of newly leafless trees, breathing in the scent of my Christmas tree, or taking out my paints and ink to let go and create.

Here’s to a beautiful winter season filled with beauty amidst the darkness.

(And here are some other winter thoughts in case you, too, struggle with the fact the sun goes down at 4:30, or just need some context and/or hope from someone who is often winter-hopeless).