and what we wish they were

Category Archives: Coming of Age

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When I took my daughters to see The Fault in Our Stars, we saw the preview for the upcoming film, If I Stay, based on the book by Gayle Forman.  And while I was hoping the TFIOS would fulfill our rip-your-heart-out movie quota for the year , I knew as soon as this preview started that there was to be yet another traumatic movie going experience in our future.  And I’ll admit I was intrigued too.

Of course I had to read the book.  One, because I know my girls will want to read it.   And two, because I cannot resist the opportunity to feel superior to all the people in the theater who have not read the book.

If I Stay is the story of Mia Hall, a classical cellist and the daughter of former punk rock parents.  From the beginning of the novel , we see that Mia’s is a happy, close-knit family.   Her relationship with her parents is easy and laid back, and she adores her nine year old brother Teddy.  When her school calls a snow day, the entire family decides to take advantage of the day off and enjoy a family outing.  Unfortunately, the outing turns tragic when their car is hit by an oncoming truck.

It takes Mia a few minutes to realize what has happened.  Her parents are dead.  She and Teddy are horribly injured.  And she is watching the entire scene unfold from outside her own body.   This is of course confusing to Mia.  How can she be lying in a hospital bed unconscious and at the same time fully aware of what is going on around her?  It is in this state that Mia realizes that the decision to live or to die is up to her.    The chapters that follow alternate from Mia watching what is happening at the hospital  to flashbacks of her life before the accident.

In these flashbacks we learn about Mia’s life.  Her parents are cool – permissive yes, but loving and devoted to their children.  This is a refreshing change from so many YA novels in which the parents are detached, selfish, clueless and more messed up than any teenager,  Still,  some parents of  teenage readers might want to discuss the Hall’s lax parenting style.  For example Mia’s parents seem to be fine with her sexual encounters in her upstairs bedroom. And when Mia gets her first boyfriend, her mother is quick to offer to take her to Planned Parenthood and to give her money for condoms.

But the real story of Mia and her parents is their deep love for each other.  In fact, their deaths are the main reason Mia considers giving up the struggle to live.  She can’t imagine a life without the family she loves.  But there are other people Mia loves too.  Her best friend Kim comes to the hospital and reminds comatose Mia that she still has a lot of people left who love her and want her to stay – aunts, uncles, cousins.  There is a particularly moving passage in which Mia’s grandfather talks to Mia about her decision to live or die.

And of course there is Adam, Mia’s boyfriend.  Her flashbacks detail their romance, one her mother describes as real but inconvenient at 17.  Adam is the lead singer in a punk rock band.  In a lot of ways, he is more like Mia’s parents than she is.   Her impending admission to Julliard and his rising singing career are a source of difficulty for the young couple.  As far as teenage romance novels go, the relationship between Mia and Adam is in some ways easier to take than others.  It is more mature, less desperate.   One version of the novel’s cover (see above) contains a review stating this story will appeal to TWILIGHT fans.  Perhaps, but unlike Bella Swan, Mia is accomplished and self-possessed.  She does suffer from the same unfortunate “why me”  response when Adam first notices her, but her entire existence and self-worth are not dependent on him.  If that were true, his love would make her decision about staying or leaving easy.  But it isn’t.  In fact in spite of his love, the thought of staying behind without her parents is almost unbearable for Mia.  Bella Swan, on the other hand, was willing to ditch her parents in a heartbeat to follow Edward into immortality.  So yes, Mia is a much stronger character than Bella, but I’m still waiting for the YA novel in which the girls knows how awesome she is before the boy falls in love with her.

The thing that is conspicuously absent from this novel is Mia’s concern for what will happen, where she’ll go, if she decides to die.  At one point she wonders if death will be just like a deep sleep, but other than that she spends little time contemplating eternity – Heaven, Hell, judgement, abyss, God, or an afterlife.  Hers is not a religious family, but they are not atheists, and they do sometimes go to church.  Her grandmother’s beliefs about the afterlife – people becoming angels in the form of an animals – crosses her mind, but in general, Mia seems more concerned about what living will be like than what being dead will be like.  This novel is not anti-religion or void of spirituality.  Rather, these things are only alluded to and not explored.  Perhaps this type of temporal thinking is realistically typical for a 17 year old.  But still, in a novel that tackles the subject of choosing life or death, one would hope the main character might wrestle with these questions.  However, even though Mia doesn’t, the reader of  If I Stay certainly might be inspired to do so.

LANGUAGE

Yes.  Mia’s mother in particular is a big cusser – the F word included.

SEXUAL CONTENT

There is a scene that takes place in Mia’s bedroom that is not graphic (in fact it’s not entirely clear how far they go), but it is very sensual.  There are also references to making out and to Adam sleeping over.  Still, Mia and Adam’s sexual relationship is not a major part of the novel or even of their relationship.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

Mia’s grandmother does believe that some of her relatives have returned in the form of animals, but Mia does not seem to take this too seriously.

VIOLENCE

None.  We do not get any details of the accident; however, Mia does describe how her parents look lying dead in the snow.  Very sensitive readers might find this disturbing.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.  Do you think Mia’s relationship with her parents might be different if they were less permissive?  Less cool?

2.  Do you agree with Mia’s mother that sometimes you can fall truly in love too soon?

3. Mia doesn’t give a great deal of thought to the afterlife.  Do you think this is realistic or do you think someone facing her own death would be more apt to consider the afterlife?

4.  What is Mia’s relationship like with her brother, Teddy?  Why do they share the bond that they do?

5.  Do you think people in a situation like Mia’s can will themselves to live or to die?

6.  Do you think people in a coma can hear people talking to them?

7.  Like Bella in Twilight, Mia can’t quite believe that Adam really likes her.  She feels unworthy.  Do you think it is common for girls to base their worth on the  boys who like them?  Do you think that Mia is ultimately a stronger character than Bella?

QUOTES FROM THE NOVEL

“And even though they don’t know who we are or what has happened, they pray for us.  I can feel them praying.”

“But the you who you are tonight is the same you I was in love with yesterday, the same you I’ll be in love with tomorrow…Hell, you’re the punkest girl I know no matter who you listen to or what you wear.”

“I shouldn’t have to care.  I shouldn’t have to work this hard.  I realize now that dying is easy.  Living is hard.”

“Sometimes you make your choices in life.  Sometimes your choices make you.”

“…seventeen is an inconvenient time to be in love.”

“Either way you win.  And either way you lose.  What can I tell you?  Love’s a bitch.” (Mia’s mom)

“I’ll let you go.  If you stay.”  (Adam talking to comatose Mia)

 

 

 

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Recently I came across this article by Anthony Esolen in Crisis magazine.  I was impressed with the author’s impassioned explanation of why we read to children. He shares with us a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, in which Roosevelt thanks Grahame for his delightful book.   And that is the point.  The book is a delight to the Roosevelt children and even to the president himself – which is, of course, exactly what a book should be.   When my children were small, I sought out books that would be a pleasure to read, not only for them, but for me as well. That weeded out a lot of what early 20th century educator, Charlotte Mason called twaddle.   However, we were left with a treasury of wonderful works of beautiful literature. Fortunately,  the list of  Common Core Exemplar Texts contains some of these great works (for the paltry 30% of fictional reading the standard allows).

Unfortunately, the CC approach to reading will likely make reading these great literary works a soul-sucking drudgery.   Take for example the 3rd grade standards. They seem fairly simple and age-appropriate.  Children are expected to recount stories and key detail of stories from a variety of genres and cultures.  Among other things, they are expected to articulate the central idea or moral of a work and to describe characters and their actions.   All of this sounds like it could be achieved by an engaging reading followed by a lively discussion and maybe some fun activities.  But nooooooo. Here’s an exerpt from the website Achieve the Core.  This is the objective for a 3rd grade (3rd grade!!!) lesson on Grimm’s The Fisherman and his Wife.  

Learning Objective:  The goal of this five-day exemplar is to explicitly model the process of searching for and interpreting intra-textual connections. In this lesson sequence, the teacher poses an analytic focusing question and then guides students in gathering and interpreting evidence from the text in order to come to a deeper understanding of the story. Simple word play and art activities give students practice in closely attending to language and word choice, and in visualizing and recording their interpretations. Discussion and a short writing exercise help students to synthesize what they have learned. 

How’s that for psuedo-sophisticated language!  But wait!  There’s more!  After five days of reading and re-reading the story and picking it apart to make intra-textual connections,  students are asked to complete a writing assignment.

Writing Task: As a culminating activity, students synthesize their findings in an opinion paragraph, using specific references to the text. In this lesson, writing helps the children to organize and make sense of their thinking. For most third graders, writing is a relatively new tool for processing thought and one they will need to learn to use. Therefore, this task is highly guided and instructional, providing a model that can be used more independently on subsequent writing tasks.

Fun huh?  I’m not suggesting that school children not be held in some way accountable for what they’ve read.  But since 70% of their reading is what the CC calls “informational texts,” one would hope that what little fiction they are allowed not be ruined over-intellectualization and joy-killing assignments.

As Esolen so brilliantly points out, the whole point of reading should be for pleasure.  When we rob children of that pleasure, we kill their love of reading.  And when we kill their love of reading, any further attempts to encourage what Common Core calls a “close reading” will be fruitless.  By high school, their eyes will glaze over, and they will see very little point in Shakespeare, Austen, Keats, or any of it.  I know this because I see it now.  Of course the current group of high school students wasn’t raised on Common Core, but they were No Child Left Behind kids.  And where NCLB perhaps watered down their readings, the CCS hyper-intelleculizes them.  Different standards, different vocabulary, different texts, but in the end, both NCLB and the CCS have the same goal – to create good test takers.  The best way to insure children will score well on the test is to train them to get the right answer.  Sadly, this training often comes at the expense of a greater outcome – a love of stories.

So in a perfect, untested, non data-driven world, what would else could children gain from stories besides pleasure?  Well, nothing if pleasure is lost, but children, and people in general, who love books are graced with a world of gifts.

A LOVE OF LANGUAGE

Children who read The Jabberwocky  or hear a heartfelt reading of it might not be able to tell you what a stanza is or identify the rhyme scheme, but they know that it is fun to say jubjub bird.  They will shout, “Calhooh Callay Frabjous the day!”  They will experience the joy of nonsense and the fun of things that mean nothing but sound funny.  In time, when they write they will naturally want to use language  that captures the imagination and delights the senses. And they will know how.

On the other hand children who study The Jabberwocky are apt to say things like, “This is stupid.”  “This doesn’t even make sense.”  “What’s the point of this, anyway?”  How sad.

KNOWLEDGE

I never set out to teach my children about bull fighting in Madrid or about the life on the Yangtze River, but thanks to Ferdinand and Ping, they not only learned about these things, they wanted to know more about them.   Johnny Tremain introduced them to our founding fathers, and Laura and Mary showed them what it was like to live off the land.   Funny, we never did a single worksheet or critiqued a single passage.

IMMAGINATION

Fairies.  Knights.  Dragon.  Talking pigs.  Little boys who never grow up.  Little girls who grow to be the size of a house.   Flying monkeys. Giants.  Castles. Worlds of Ice.  Wicked queens.  Christmas Ghosts.  Is there really anything Common Core could or should add to these wonders to make books any sweeter?  Of course not.

ATTENTION SPAN

I haven’t gathered any data to prove it, but I think I could walk into any 1st grade classroom at story time, and tell you, with a startling degree of accuracy,  which children have been read to since birth and which have not.  I could do it again in 10th grade.

FRIENDS

Anyone who has ever been sucked into a story knows what it is to cheer with our heroes’ victories and cry at their defeats.  I earnestly hope our school children aren’t so busy picking apart the “texts” that they don’t have time to make friends with the characters.

I have always read to my children and will continue to do so as long as they’ll let me.  I won’t test them or require them to defend their opinions of a story in writing (although there is certainly a place for that in the upper grades).  I will simply laugh with them and cry with them and wonder with them and pray that all children are given this same great pleasure in life  – the pleasure of reading for the sheer joy of it.

Linked at Mostly Homemade MondaysThe MaMade Blog HopPretty, Happy, Funny, Real


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The cover of Eleanor and Park has this review from New York Times bestselling author Gayle Forman:

This sexy, tender romance thrums with punk rock and true love. Readers will swoon.  

Eleanor and Park, set in the 80’s, is the story of two misfit teenagers who share and preference for punk rock and comic books and who fall madly, deeply, and I will admit, tenderly in love.  They meet on the school bus.  When every other kid on the bus treats Eleanor, a large redhead with a flamboyant style, cruelly, Park begrudgingly offers to let her sit with him.  Day after day he tolerates her.  Day after day she endures heartless classmates and an almost unimaginably abusive home life.   But when Eleanor and Park discover their shared interest in comic books and alternative music, an unlikely friendship slowly blossoms.  That friendship eventually turns into love.

Park falls in love with Eleanor for all the right reasons.  She is funny, smart, and easy to talk to. Yet, in spite of his love for her, he struggles a little with embarrassment over her misfit ways.  Eleanor’s love for Park seems equally un-shallow, but after years of abuse and neglect,  she struggles to let herself get close to Park.  And while  attraction for each other definitely grows out of their friendship and plays a part in their story, Eleanor and Park seem to be really in love – not just in “He’s so cute/ she’s so hot.” teenage love.  I like that about this book.

I also was struck by the story of Eleanor’s tragic home life.  I felt like this book gave me a deeper insight into what life is like for some kids.  For that reason alone, I’m glad I read it.  I have renewed empathy for some of my students.

Rowell does a masterful job of describing what it is like to be young and in love.  But there is an intensity to Eleanor and Park’s love that, as a parent, I find unsettling.  I know that in our culture many people see young love as a right of passage.  We have glorified high school romance to the point that most young girls (and guys) feel like their high school years aren’t complete until they find that one special (for now) someone. This is just the kind of books that feeds into that way of thinking.

I think in her review of this book, Gayle Forman is spot on.  This book is well-written, full of  beautiful and heartbreaking writing.  I guess the questions is whether or not you want your teen or preteen daughter to swoon over a sexy, tender, punk rock love story.  For mine, I’m going to go with no.  There’s a lot of great literature out there that does not perpetuate the myth that young love is what teenage life is all about.  I think I’ll encourage my kids in that direction.

VIOLENCE

Despite her horrible home life, most of the abuse that Eleanor endures is verbal abuse and neglect.  Her stepfather’s violence is mostly hinted at.

LANGUAGE

YES!  Almost all of Rowell’s character’s have filthy mouths and no respect for the Lord’s name.  That alone might disqualify this book for a lot of families.

SEXUAL CONTENT

Park and Eleanor have a couple of heavy make out sessions, but remarkably they don’t go all the way.  However, this is due more to a lack of opportunity than a moral compass.  There is also language that is extremely vulgar and sexual in nature.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

None

QUOTES FROM THE BOOK

“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly.  Or a heartbeat.  Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”

“I don’t think I even breathe when we’re not together,..”

“Eleanor was right:  She never looked nice.  She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”

“You think that holding someone hard will bring them closer.  You think that you can hold them so hard that you’ll still feel them, embossed on you, when you pull away…Every time Eleanor pulled away from Park, she felt the gasping loss of him.”

“Or maybe he thought now, he just didn’t recognize all those other girls.  The way a computer drive will spit out a disk if it doesn’t recognize the formatting…When he touched Eleanor’s hand, he recognized her.  He knew.”

“They talked about the White Album on the way to school, but just as an excuse to stare at each other’s mouths.”

“He’d thought he was over caring about what people thought of him.  He’d thought that loving Eleanor proved that.  But he kept finding new pockets of shallow inside himself.  He kept finding new ways to betray her.”

“He felt himself smile.  He felt like something warm spilled in his heart.”


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I love it when I read a book that is engaging and thought provoking and that I can share with my kids. This is not that book. Reading Struck by Lightening was like watching The Breakfast Club, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, and a host of other 80’s movies rolled into one. -but not in a good way but in a “this has been done over and over kind of way.”

Carson who is both the protagonist(sort of) and antagonist in this novel is a smart kid. And like all smart kids in teenage angst novels, he is a misfit. His parents are a nightmare. And everyone in his small town is an idiot. What an original concept! When Carson realizes he needs to create a literary magazine to secure his chances of getting into Northwestern he decides to blackmail all of his classmates into contributing to his publication. Luckily, this is not hard to do because all the cool kids at his school (coincidently the ones who have been torturing him since grade school) have dirty little secrets.

The head cheerleader is sleeping with the football coach. The son of the town’s richest, most respected citizen is having a homosexual affair with his best buddy. The yearbook editor likes to send pornographic photos of herself to strangers over the Internet. The sexy foreign exchange student is really from San Diego. And the goth girl’s baptist parents don’t know that she worships Satan. Blackmailing these kids is like shooting fish in a barrel.

Predictably, as each of these pathetic individuals turns in a submission, Carson comes to realize that everyone has problems. They don’t all have perfect lives or hearts of stone as he had assumed.  (Think less likable version of the football player and the prom queen in The Breakfast Club.) He actually does feel some sympathy for his victims – not enough to call off his plans but enough to make him not a complete sociopath.

What is not predictable about this book is the ending. I fully expected Carson to form some sort of bond with his peers, or maybe even end up kissing a former enemy – you know, like Emillio Estevez and Ally Sheedy just before Tears for Fears starts to sing. Instead, Carson doesn’t seem to give his new revelation a whole lot of thought. After all, he’s trying to get into Northwestern. Who has time for a conscience?

We do see some change in Carson when he finds out his drunk, depressed mother has thrown away his acceptance letter, and he’ll have to stay in his hometown and go to community college with all the other losers. At first he is devastated that all of his hard, dirty work was for nothing, but eventually decides that he will rise above his circumstances and make the best of things. He’s not going to let these idiots get the better of him. Just when we see a glimmer of hope for our young, errrr ummm, hero, he gets struck by lightening as he’s leaving the high school and dies.  I’m serious. That’s how it ends. I think Colfer was trying to be funny and ironic. Or maybe he just ran out of snarky things for his main character to say. Either way, I was both annoyed and relieved.

All and all I thought Struck by Lightening was a horrible book. But I’m not gonna lie. I laughed out loud more than once. Colfer did manage a few observations about teenage life that were spot on, and the homecoming float scene in which Phillip and his sidekick dress up as a notebook and pencil is particularly hilarious.  I thought it was funny, but my kids will not be reading it.

LANGUAGE
YES! All the really bad ones.

VIOLENCE
No.

SEXUAL CONTENT
Yep. What’s a good blackmail plan without the sex to back it up.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS
None.  These people are entirely Godless.

FUNNY/INSIGHTFUL QUOTES

“Can I please just say that it has been scientifically proven that teenagers learn and test better when they go to school later in the day?  Which I suppose would be taken into consideration if school wasn’t really just a government-funded day care meant to keep kids occupied.  (I don’t know about you, but I’m most prone to committing crimes between the hours of 6:00 am and 3:00 pm).  Thumbs up!”

“She struggles with concentration, metabolism, and plagiarism…but who’s perfect.?”

“What grinds me the most is that we are sending kids out into the world who don’t know how to balance a checkbook, don’t know how to apply for a loan, don’t even know how to properly fill out a job application, but because they know the quadratic formula we consider them prepared for the world.”

“I wonder how much I could get done if I wasn’t in the way.”