Category Archives: young adult lit

Literature and Loss: Wave

I am currently taking an elective for graduate school called Death Education.  It sounds off-putting and dark, but was described for me as a class that every teacher should take.  It also meets for two weekends, so with those two endorsements, instead of trekking up to Teachers College once a week from Brooklyn, I decided to enroll.  One of the first topics we discussed together was the emotional impact of loss of any kind: from an object to moving, divorce to faith, confidence to health and of course the death of loved ones.

There is freedom in the angle with which we approach our research assignments and projects, so I am approaching the topic through the lens of what I do: an English teacher.  My thinking has been mostly applied to the treatment of death in young adult literature and the impact it has on its readers and my conclusion has been that young adults need to have access to books by trusted authors about death and loss because not only do they teach so much about life and loss.  Books I’ve referenced with my students are ones like Bridge to Terabithia, A Monster Calls, Counting by Sevens and the Harry Potter series. Revisiting these titles has taught me so much about grief and emotional endurance and survival, especially as we are dealing with the tragic loss of one of their classmates.

Meanwhile, I just finished reading the highly acclaimed memoir by Sonali Deraniyagala, Wave, which chronicles her story of grief after losing her two sons, husband, and both parents in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka.  It is a story of such weight that I feel inept to say anything except I find it important to read and understand the stories of individuals alongside the over arching stories of the tsunami as a whole. In the same way that the young adult literature I have studied provides resources for my students, this book walks its reader through loss at its most intense–and rather than feeling like a voyeur of someone else’s hurt, it caused me to connect deeply with what it means to be human and I’m deeply grateful for  Deraniyagala’s strength to share this story with us.  It was as significant a read to me as Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking.

At this point, all I can say is I’m thankful.

I am thankful to authors who courageously write through their experience and share it so readers can be changed by their examination and process. I am thankful to authors whose writing enables me to understand humanity: my own and that of each of the living souls around me.  I am thankful to authors who write about the hardest things so I can glean some of their courage when I face them myself.  I am thankful to story and its ability to help us heal.

More Than This

 I read (and wept through) A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness this summer, about a boy processing that his mother isn’t going to survive her cancer.  When I saw he had a new title out, I was quick to pick it up and I can confidently say I’ve never read a book like More Than This: it straddles science fiction and mystery while having 3 beautifully written, realistic characters.  Interestingly, it also deals with death: the first chapter starts with the narrator, Seth, drowning in the ocean near his home.  From there, he wakes up in some kind of afterlife, which he spends the length of the book trying to figure out while simultaneously facing some of the hardest, most difficult, as well as the most poignant moments of his prior life, covering namely loss, parent/child relationships, teenage friendship, identity, and first love.

To write too much about the plot and this afterlife of Ness’s creation would be to ruin the experience of reading the book (which I highly recommend), so I’m going to focus on a few of the life philosophies of some of the characters.  Ness weaves these philosophies not so much for the reader to choose one, but for the reader to become aware of some of the many complex ways people use to make their way through life, as Seth faces both his current life and what he finds as both of his former lives and attempts to cull meaning from each of them.

The hopeful. Seth’s friend and first love Gudman says multiple times throughout the book in Seth’s memory: “There’s always beauty if you know where to look.”  This phrase haunts Seth in his deepest moments of pain.

The seeker of meaning and the cynic.  Seth spends much of his time in the afterlife trying to figure out a greater narrative for what is happening to him.  Regine, one of the two people he meets there says: “People see stories everywhere…That’s what my father used to say.  We take random events and we put them together in a pattern so we can comfort ourselves with a story, no matter how much it obviously isn’t true.  We have to lie to ourselves to live.  Otherwise we’d go crazy.”

The escapists. When his parents are considering a scientific, virtual escape from their lives after a tragedy Seth father shares: “You mean Lethe. The river of forgetfulness in Hades.  So the dead don’t remember their former lives and spend eternity mourning them.”

This brings us back to the title–there must be More Than This.  There are parts of life that seem to make no sense and we must seek to find answers.  We must know the present reality isn’t always the only truth. Ness seems to be saying the answer doesn’t lie within a singular philosophy, but in a complex matrix.  The older I’ve gotten, the more I appreciate openness to mystery and the more I’ve started accepting living in uncertainty.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have some anchors set down in a few key places, just that this life is so much bigger than I ever imagined.

A Monster Calls: a book about healing from grief, the power of story & some ruminations on the teaching of reading

My cousin recommended a middle grades book, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which is stunningly illustrated by Jim Kay.  I hadn’t yet heard of it, but apparently it is causing quite a stir, having already won the Carnegie Medal for literature and the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration.  It is beautifully written, smart, and the pictures are breathtaking–but it is not for the faint of heart; I cried for over an hour when I finished it, which I do not admit lightly.  There is such beautiful, difficult truth in this book, though, that I find it impossible not to recommend.

The main character Conor has been having a terrible nightmare, which he cannot talk about and does not reveal until the end of the story, that began when his mother started getting treatments for cancer.  In the mean time, a monster begins showing up at 12:07 every night, claiming that he only comes walking in matters of life and death. Conor has no fear of this monster because in comparison to his true nightmare, he isn’t scary at all.  The monster tells him he is going to tell him three stories, which are “the wildest things of all…Stories chase and bite and hunt,” (37) and then, he says, Conor will tell the monster a story–his story, his truth, what happens at the end of his nightmare, that he cannot tell anyone.

What is brilliant about the book is the way the monster interacts with Conor and the way that the stories he tells symbolize the complexity of what it means to be human–Ness has crafted a story that gets at the heart of pain and healing in a way that is significant and weighty and truthful for both 12 year olds and adults.  Through the narrative voice of the monster and his stories, he approaches life’s biggest fear–loss–in a heart wrenching, beautiful, and most important, truthful, way.

After the first story, they have this exchange:  “So the good prince was a murderer and the evil queen wasn’t a witch after all.  Is that supposed to be the lesson of all this? That I should be nice to her?” He heard a strange rumbling, different from before, and it took him a minute to realize the monster was laughing.  “You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons?” the monster said.  “You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?” (63).

This reminded me of some of the work I recently did at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s summer institute for the teaching of reading.  One of the best ongoing conversations at multiple sessions was about how students often don’t do the reading work that will move and change and transform them as people–they look at a complex text and often want to reduce it to the first lesson they can come up with–but this is empty work when in a rich text.  Life–and the best kinds of stories–are far more complex than to reduce to a single lesson.  And it is a sad day when amazing books get reduced to looking for a lesson (which seems to be what standardized testing is trying to do to reading–reducing it to a task, rather than an opportunity to understand what it means to be human, what it means to belong, to escape from reality for a moment, I could go on).

Conor goes on to say: “I don’t understand.  Who’s the good guy here?” The moster replies: “There is not always a good guy.  Nor is there always a bad one.  Most people are somewhere in between.” Conor shook his head.  “That’s a terrible story.  And a cheat,” (64).  This is where so many middle grade students find themselves–and because they have been trained to look for the “lesson” on a standardized test, or because for whatever reason they want to look for the easiest way out of a story rather than linger in what it is really offering.  The rest of the story follows Conor navigate and make meaning through the darkness in a way that stunned me as a person.

Like the monster says, stories are wild creatures.  They help us see.  They help us heal. And I love that it is my job to get books in the hands of kids and to teach them how to make their thinking messy, because that is how life goes.

Summer Reading List & Notes

Each June I marvel at the fact that I have a job that affords me the opportunity to end a cycle, refresh my mind, and freshly begin again in September.  One of the ways that my mind refreshes itself the most is through getting lost in reading and being outside, so each June I revel in the creation of my summer reading list.  My last day of school is June 20th, as I’m taking a day off to travel for a wedding shower in the great state of Ohio, and I’m participating in 2 of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Projects summer institutes, which will end on July 5.  Technically my days of freedom start July 6th, but it does take over an hour to commute up to Teachers College, so I plan on getting lots of reading done that way, too.  After that, you’ll find me in the park.  
Reading conclusions of summers past can be found here, if you’re looking for books I’ve already written about.  Or, feel free to join me in reading some of the books below.  Outside of my book club, these are unintentionally overwhelmingly female and modern.  Also, as a note, I decided that for summer reading, I could take a break from my New Years Reading Resolution, and could purchase new books.  
Southwest Ohio Ex-pat Former English Majors Summer Book Club
Two of my great friends from home and I decided to read together this summer.  We each picked a different book for a different month of summer

June: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
July: Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
August: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
Fiction: 
These come from the on-going list I keep on my phone from whenever I am wandering through a bookstore, a habit I highly recommend for those times when you have no idea what to read next or in an attempt to curb an out-of-control book buying habit 🙂

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (I’ve been on “Lost Generation” reading kick lately)
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (from an imprint that brought me Elegance of a Hedgehog and A Novel Bookstore)
Mystery Books for my August Travels (& an e-book trial run): 
There is something wonderful about having a mystery read while stuck in airports or when flying across the Atlantic (!).  I am also trying something new with these titles and borrowing my fiancee’s e-reader in my first-ever attempt to not add 15 pounds of books to my suitcase weight.  I will probably add my August book club choice on it as well.  It’s best to travel prepared, you know? I’ll write more about my e-book experience upon return, as it’s bound to be a bit hard for this lover of turning paper pages.  I’m also trying to encourage public library e-book check out with my students in the fall, so I need to be able to speak knowledgeably by then!

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
The Stone Cutter by Camilla Lackburg
Nonfiction: 
Though I’m generally heavy on the fiction, I like to mix it up and I’m pretty excited about all of these

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan (Lately I can’t get enough of history)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson (the description of this book of essays sounds perfect)
The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt (because I adore her)
Young Adult (this could be a bit ambitious, but that’s a good way to plan for reading, right?)
I try to stay somewhat informed about what my students are reading, be full of recommendations, and be knowledgeable about the young adult literature world.  This summer’s stack has the widest variety ever, from 50 Cent’s novel to a transgender protagonist, to nonfiction picture books and collections about people who helped change and shape the world.  The only one missing is Wonder by R.J. Palacio, because I may have already pulled it from the stack and started it! 



Happy Summer Reading!!

Rhythms and Anchors: life truth from young adult literature

I’ve been reading up a storm lately, but you couldn’t tell by looking here.   I recently finished Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rivka Brunt and reread Crank by Ellen Hopkins with my students.  I  also reread the young adult Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes for my graduate class and loved it just as much the second time around.  It is set in a small Ohio town in 1973 and the Karl, the high school senior protagonist has been a part of a therapy group at school since elementary school.  They dubbed themselves the Madman Underground, since they know everything about each other’s lives, but generally stick to their own social circles outside of therapy.  Karl’s dad passed away and his cat-hoarding mother drinks her nights away and steals Karl’s money to pay for it.

This calendar year has felt like a whirlwind to me: planning a wedding, moving to a new (fixer upper) apartment, and going back to graduate school on top of grading essays and state tests has left me feeling scattered and in survival mode–I’ve spent quite a bit of my walking time getting from one place to the next dreaming about getting upstate with some English breakfast tea, hiking boots and a pile of books.  In the midst of the crazy, I came across this passage from Madman from a scene when Karl feels exhausted and overwhelmed and looks over to a list of household projects and chores that his dad made for him before he died:

Dad had left me a list, month by month and week by week, when to do all the stuff he’d shown me how to do.  I couldn’t always keep up with it, between Mom and the cats. I knew it would all fall to shit the minute I left for the army.  Still, mostly I kept it up.  Nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d just turn on my desk lamp, point it at the wall, and read that list to myself til I knew where I was in the world again (110).

I actually teared up thinking about Karl re-grounding himself in rhythms that were passed down to him by his father and the way that rereading them enabled him to remember his true identity.  This is the piece that I have often gone without this year–I have kept going and going and the easiest things to let go of were the rhythms and anchors that remind me of who I am–be it through writing, running in the park, cooking a meal.  We are also in the midst of our final unit: studying Coming-of-Age literature and thinking about what it means to grow up, and this wisdom from Karl is some of the best advice I could ever give a teenager, and also helps put their lives and craziness into perspective.
There was a crazy day last week when I didn’t have time to cook but couldn’t bear to order in food that wouldn’t feel good to my body.  So I decided to make a meal that would take the longest to make, of course: risotto with spring vegetables.  I was filled with anxiety and my mind was looming with deadlines, but decided that it was worth it to walk to a grocery store much further than the two closest to me to get higher quality vegetables.  Within a block of walking I was so taken by the late spring evening light and my neighborhood’s energy that I was able to completely reset my mindset.  It was a mental miracle.  

So.  I realized that I needed to build in some time for anchoring myself just like Karl did.  This week I started reading Brene Brown’s The Gift of Imperfection with a friend of mine (after seeing her game changing Ted Talks last fall and being blown away).  One of the first things she talks about is recognizing the moments when you feel yourself becoming depleted and to do something about it in the moment–remembering your anchors and truths.  This past week I’ve been able to climb out of the craziness bit by bit and breathe.

It also helps that summer is so close.