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.
Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
The young urban teen characters in this novel feel and sound authentic — they are the artsy crowd and use their talents to navigate their lives. Mural art is highlighted and so is spoken word poetry. The blend of the real world with the spiritual/ghosty world also feel convincing with much respect paid to the cultural traditions and family ties with some vividly creepy scenes. This is not a epic fantasy but a story of urban magic, much like a fairy tale where chance meetings and helpful beings are common devices to advance the plot and solve the protagonist’s problems. And thank goodness we have a wonderful strong young woman, who is not white, whose full face is shown to the readers on the beautifully designed cover!
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!
Firefight by Brandon Sanderson (Reckoners, #2)
This second book in the Reckoners series reads like a complete story — with it central villain(s) being dealt with by the last chapter and secrets revealed. It also sets up the next book nicely, because those secrets will propel the conflict into grander scales. A thoroughly enjoyable book that did not go beyond my expectations, even when some “shocking truths” are exposed. Perhaps because I have been binging on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as I read this book, and the two storylines share a lot of similarities especially when it comes to how the perceived good characters and those supposedly bad characters might turn out to be very different from what you have originally believed. So, I learned to mistrust all characters (even the narrator himself) until proven otherwise. This makes me wonder about the recent wild popularity of dystopian novels for young people and the central conflict rooted in a strong distrust of one’s government (or team, family, or friends, etc.)
I am all for critical thinking and questioning authority and demanding clear reasons and transparency when we are asked to behave in certain ways (and when we ask young people to follow certain rules and paths.) However, I often fear that we (as educators) are encouraging generations of young people to question everything every step of the way and mistrust those around them as the default form of interaction with the wider world. Once in a while, it would be so nice to simply just trust since I do believe that large portion of humanity is good.
by Rachel Hartman
Since I loved Seraphina so much and had waited for the sequel with huge anticipation, it was not surprising that I didn’t quite feel satisfied with this second volume. It took me a long time to get through it not because of its heft (almost 600 pages) but because I just didn’t quite feel compelled to know what’s happening next. Partly because I pretty much knew how things would have panned out, that readers would eventually see that Seraphina, after SOOOOOO many pages and chapters of self-doubt, self-pity, and self-blame, would have come through and be the amazing power that helps destroy the “evil side”; and partly because I was really tired of those self-deprecating qualities that were somehow more endearing in the first book. I do appreciate the varied and very invented half-dragons and their special talents and feel emotionally connected to quite a few of them. I also absolutely appreciate the non-traditional relationships between Phina, Selda, and Kiggs. Just wish that I had been swept away by this volume as I was by the first book.