Four young readers from Shanghai (ages 13-15) and I spent two weeks together enjoying and analyzing Neil Gaiman’s Newbery winning title The Graveyard Book. The lessons were all conducted in English. We had a lot of fun and here are some of the observations that we made about the book:
(silly names we gave ourselves/each other)
- The author makes it so that the supposedly bad people (the graveyard dead, a witch, a vampire, and a werewolf) turned out to be super nice and caring. It made us reconsider our assumptions to the people around us.
- The author effectively uses verbs and action phrases for inanimate objects to create vivid and poetic imageries: tendrils of fog could insinuate themselves into the hall, the graveyard could keep secrets, and the burnt sun could gaze into the world below.
- We had lots of fun figuring out what Gaiman implies in his text. Silas’ true being is, of course, the most fun to guess: so many clues about what he is without the word* EVER being present in the book. But there are many other things that the readers need to figure out: the characters’ moods, interior thoughts and motivations, etc. In other words, this is a great book for inferences.
- Paradox is another literary device used often by the author. We bookended the course with this paradoxical phrase: “Glorious Tragedy” that Gaiman used to describe what it’s like to be a parent and how The Graveyard Book can be read as a book about the bittersweetness of successful parenting. This phrase could be used especially to frame much of the last part of the book when Nobody Owens grows too old to be contained within the safety of the Graveyard. Isn’t “growing up” also a kind of glorious tragedy? I asked the four young readers to contemplate in what ways that “growing up” is a glorious tragedy.
- Each student wrote me a quick feedback on their individual experience with the book. All were positive and had strong emotional reaction to the events and characters in the book.
- One wrote how they appreciated the many new vocabulary words (Gaiman definitely did NOT shy away from using precise, perfect, but not easy words.)
- They all enjoyed the “guess” work whenever I asked them to infer a particular subtly presented idea.
- One student who never read a single English language book before this class vowed to continue reading books in English!
I had a blast! The students were diligent and after the first couple of days, were lively and contributed a lot. It’s especially rewarding to closely re-read The Graveyard Book and confirm how finely crafted this book truly is, in every aspect!
* SPOILER ALERT — Silas’ identity is revealed after the cover image (for those who have yet to read the book.)
Silas is a vampire.
Avatar, The Last Airbender: The Search by Gene Luen Yang (Vols 1-3)
Artwork by Gurihiru
Lettering by Michael Heisler
My gosh, Gene Yang really is a super fan of the show and the Avatar universe because he totally understands what the fans want. He gives us a satisfying storyline, complete with a cohesive theme of sibling and parent-child relationships, to a long unsolved mystery from the 2005-2008 TV show of one of the beloved characters. (What am I saying, ALL the main characters are beloved! The show was that amazing.) And he gives us new magical beings and great world elements: the Mother of Faces is such a cool creation. Her backstory, tied with Zuko’s mom’s personal history, fits into the Avatar universe seamlessly!
Whenever I watch the show, I am always impressed by how well the show creators did their homework. Every time Chinese writing appears on screen, it is accurate, legible, and usually in perfect and artistic calligraphic form. Dark Horse (the publisher for the GN extensions) did the same: the letter that Zuko’s mom wrote and that we get to read on the background art is in the formal, literary style befitting the imagined time period (China/Asia a few hundred years ago?) And now I am reading the third extended story: Avatar, the Last Airbender: The Rift. It’s all about Toph Beifong (my personal favorite character in the show…) and will apparently bridge her story from the 2005 show to the recent Legend of Korra. Two more volumes to go and another post to follow.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Nichelodeon channel animated show from 2005, has been and continues to be really popular with my middle and high school students. (The show was created for even younger viewers.) I got curious and asked random internet users (via facebook, twitter, reddit, FCL, etc.) to fill out a form and tell me whether: “Avatar? OMG — AVATAR is MY LIFE!” or “This is the first time I have ever heard of this show,” and anything in between. Although the respondents can choose from 12 different answers, I decided to consolidate them into four categories: Extreme Love, Positive, Neutral/Negative, and Never heard of/watched the show. Those who filled out the form also shared their demographic information and self-identified as one of the following: Asian or Asian American, White (Hispanic), White (Non-Hispanic), Black (Hispanic), Black (Non-Hispanic), Racially Mixed – part Asian, Racially Mixed – no Asian, Native American, or Other* * I had to take out a few responses (for example, a self-identified “penguin” – Oh, internet, you never fails to amuse me!) As you can see, the responses are really positive, just like those from my students and myself. We are excited about the show, its spin-off Legend of Korra, and are happily reading the Graphic Novels series extending the storyline, and anxiously awaiting the new installments for both Aang, Katara, Zuko, Toph, Sokka storylines and the Korra storyline. My notes on The Search by Gene Luen Yang will be posted tomorrow. If your browser can’t load this embedded chart, click on THIS LINK. I also asked for age ranges but decided to not include that information in the chart.
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein
I can easily understand why my 4th grade students have raved about this one: there’s the thrill of watching a complex puzzle being solved, the excitement of exploring new friendship, the coziness of strengthening old friendship, and the novelty of discovering inventions of a high-tech, but still story-filled, library. Plus a little bit of safe scare: facing down and defeating villains that really aren’t that threatening from beginning to end. This is old school children’s mystery fun.
The Marvels by Brian Selznick
In this third installment of a loosely connected (by form, by theme, and by narrative progression) literary trilogy, following the previous two marvelous titles: The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck, Brian Selznick once again pours his artist’s soul and a writer’s heart into the tome and brings readers a moving tale. Much like the other two picture-novels, The Marvels features instant and fast friendship among two young characters, a cross-generational relationship that grows from suspicion and uneasiness to faithful loyalty, and the deep and palpable connection a person can have with history.
I had a grand time looking through the pictures and reading the story and was unbelievably moved (to a whole lot of tears) as the truth of the story of the Marvels family was revealed. And also by the fact that Brian’s portrayal of the gay characters is without additional fanfare: subtle and yet you can’t misinterpret.
I imagine the book an instant hit with all my students when it’s published on September 15! Can’t wait to hear their reactions!
One of the most delightful books I’ve encountered!
So much of it is sparkling, like gems — the humor, the humanity, the friendship, and even the heartaches. And there’s a special twinkle of absurdity: the squirrel poet, the hysterical blindness, the kind but weird neighbor with the “living” painting, etc.
Read this two years ago but never got to put the book note up and so much of the book is still vivid in my mind. Indeed a great Newbery choice!
George, by Alex Gino
Alex Gino achieved something extraordinary in giving the world GEORGE: they (Gino’s choice of pronoun) created an authentic main character struggling with gender identity (she, George) and a credible scenario with an appealing plotline that speaks directly and honestly to young readers in 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade. No extra unnecessary drama, just realistic reactions from those around George/Melissa. Very pleased to have read this short middle grade fiction.