A couple of weeks ago the entire world celebrated Banned Books Week. Okay maybe not the entire world, but a lot of librarians and English teachers did. Banned Books Week usually involves such activities as handing out bookmarks and challenging students to select and read a book from a list of commonly banned books. And for the most part, that’s a good thing. There are a lot of books on these lists that I have either bought for my children, read to them, or that I hope they will read one day. I have wonderful memories of crying, no sobbing, with my kids when we read Bridge to Terabithia and Charlott’s Web. In my English classes, I have taught Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mocking Bird, and Lord of the Flies. The Giver and Harry Potter are among my children’s favorite books. And, while certainly not my favorite, my eldest daughter has read nearly all of John Green ‘s books.
The fact is, it’s hard to imagine why many of these books were ever banned. It’s just crazy. But the crazy thing about the Banned Books Week movement is that proponents of the movement would have us believe that school libraries should be allowed to provide young people with literally any book out there without having to justify the appropriateness of the book. Any attempt to use discernment or determine age appropriateness is decried as censorship. And those who call into question a librarian’s choices are considered a threat to intellectual freedom.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating government censorship or that books be banned from public libraries. But as a mother and a tax payer, I would like to think that when I send my children to school, they will not happen across books in the school library that include passages like this one from Cristina Garcia’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban (which is actually a Common Core recommended text for 10th graders).
“Hugo and Felicia stripped in their room, dissolving easily into one another, and made love against the whitewashed walls. Hugo bit Felicia’s breast and left purplish bands of bruises on her upper thighs. He knelt before her in the tub and massaged black Spanish soap between her legs. He entered her repeatedly from behind.
“Felicia learned what pleased him. She tied his arms above his head with their underclothing and slapping him sharply when he asked.
“‘You’re my bitch,’” Hugo said, groaning.
According to the good folks at the American Library Association, any attempt to restrict this novel, or anything libraries choose to make available to children, is a violation of the First Amendment. The ALA lists Fifty Shades of Grey as one of the most commonly challenged books of 2013, but according to the ALA, a child’s right to read this book should be protected. This is apparently more important than protecting children from pornography.
I realize that censorship is a slippery slope. At least that’s what the Banned Books people want us to fear. If we ban Fifty Shades of Grey, what’s to stop us from banning every book with any sexual content whatsoever? Censorship is such a loaded word. It implies a secret plot to restrict ideas or knowledge or a Big Brother-like control over information. But what we are really talking about is limits. And don’t schools limit kids already? Students are not allowed to curse in school. They cannot make racially insensitive statements. They aren’t allowed to watch sexually explicit films in class – even those based on a classic novel. When, where, and how they can pray is restricted. And most schools have some form of a dress code in place. All of these rules restrict (censor) students’ freedom of expression is some way. Can you imagine a high school or middle school where kids were allowed to express themselves absolutely any way they wanted too?
Still, the slippery slope concerns are valid. Obviously book banning can get out of hand. Many books that are now considered classroom and childhood staples have at one time been challenged. Yet, should we really advocate, indeed celebrate, the notion that our children can potentially have access to books with virtually any content with no adult discernment as to the appropriateness of those books?
Where things get tricky is when people challenge books based on their own personal beliefs. Just because some people don’t believe that children should read books about witches and wizards, doesn’t mean the library should ban all Harry Potter books. Some people might feel that children should not read books that encourage them to challenge authority. That does not mean we need to ban Animal Farm. I get it. Discerning books is a delicate matter because what seems like a harmless story to one family might be considered gravely sinful by another.
Still, even with all the challenges involved with book restrictions, can’t we at least strive for some standard of decency? That’s all I’m asking for. A standard of decency. Can’t we at least agree that there are some things a child or young teenager should not be exposed to? Even the film industry does that much. How about this? If the contents of a book would warrant an R rating as film, then maybe it should not be made available to 14 year olds. It’s radical, I know.
It might not be easy. Sometimes we might ere too much on the side of caution. But the alternative is no standard of decency. To me, that is a much more frightening prospect than the notion that my children’s freedom will somehow be violated because their public school denied them access to porn.
Disclaimer: This is in no way a condemnation of librarians. My own children’s schools are staffed by thinking, sensitive librarians who seek to provide our kids with the best possible age-appropriate literature. We are grateful to have them.
Image credits in order of appearance…
Note: I try to to give too much away in this review. In fact, since I am currently reading the second novel in the trilogy, The Mistress of Husaby, I wasn’t even able to finish some of the links posted below. If you don’t want to have any clue what will happen in the first novel, The Bridal Wreath, you better skip this post. But again, I tried to keep my spoilers to a minimum.
Recently I added the phrase “and what we wish they were reading” to my blog because I can no longer tolerate a full-time diet of YA literature. Yes, there is a great deal to entertain within this genre and even some literary gems. But a steady diet of YA books is much like a steady diet of junk food – pretty tasty, but not much substance. Lately, I have been starving for some nutritionally dense reading – mentally and spiritually. So when I read 10 Books You Must Read With Your Daughter (Or How to Keep Your Daughter From Turning Out Like That horrid Girl FromTwilight), I decided to dig out and dust off out my never-before-read copy of Kristen Lavransdatter and give it another try.
This novel and the two subsequent novels in the series are considered master works of historical fiction. That is why I am embarrassed to say that this was my second run at reading Kristen Lavransdatter, despite its stellar reputation and regardless of the fact that it was recommended by both my sister-in-law and one of my dearest and smartest friends, both of whom have impeccable taste. For some reason, the first time I tried to read this novel, I gave up quickly. Perhaps it was because I initially approached it as a beach read. This novel, set in medieval Norway, definitely lends itself more to a cozy fireside than a lawn chair. Maybe I lost interest because the second book in the Hunger Games Trilogy came out about the time I first started reading Kristen Lavransdatter. (Oh, how embarrassing!) Maybe it was because I was intimidated by the book’s reputation. I don’t really know, but I always intended to get back to it one day. Well, recently that day came! Within a few pages, I was hooked. I began to feel that every free moment that I wasn’t reading Kristen Lavransdatter was being wasted. I began to understand what all the hubbub is about.
The first book in the Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy, The Bridal Wreath, begins when Kristen is a young girl. She is the only child of pious Norwegian nobility. Her parents adore her – especially her father. Her mother who has suffered the loss of several other children is at times distant and sad. Her father, on the other hand delights in her. Both of her parents try to bring her up to be devout and virtuous and little Kristen is given nearly every spiritual advantage – example, education, and love.
While traveling with her father, Kristen meets Brother Edvin, a wise and kindly monk who is one of the novel’s most notable and lovable characters. He makes a great impression on Kristen (and on the reader) with his insights.
There is no man nor woman, Kristen who does not love and fear God, but tis because our hearts are divided twixt love of God and fear of the devil and fondness for the world and the flesh, that we are unhappy in this life and in death. For if man had no yearning after God and God’s being, then he should thrive in Hell…For there the fire would not burn him if he did not long for coolness, nor would he feel the torment of the serpents bite if he knew not the yearning for peace… T’was God’s loving-kindness toward us that seeing how our hearts are drawn asunder, He came down and dwelt among us that He might taste in the flesh the lures of the devil when he decoys us with power and splendor, as well as the menace of the world when if offers us blows and scorn and sharp nails in the hands and feet. In such wise did He show us the way and make manifest His love.
And yet, even with passages like this, this novel in not overly religious in tone. It is not preaching to the choir. All the characters are painfully real – both in their virtue and their flaws. As a teenager, Kristen is innocent and devout, eager to honor her parents and to live up to the expectations of her culture. Yet when temptation presents itself, as the handsome and charming Ereland Nikulausson, Kristen is easily led astray. Readers find Kristen’s selfishness and foolishness frustrating (I remember thinking, “Wait. What? How could she be so stupid. No Kristin. Noooo!). And we yet can’t help but hope she will escape the bitter consequences of her actions
Many of Undset’s characters are complex in this way. We see in them both flaw and hope. We relate to them and root for them. Ereland’s pride and his constant excuses for his behavior are maddening, yet we want to believe that in the end he will prove honorable. We want to believe that he really is as great as Kristen believes him to be. Even Kristen’s parents, Lavrans and Ragnfrid are, for all their love and devotion, not perfect, and they bare their own secrets, griefs and struggles. We to ache for them.
In addition to providing complex characters, Undset portrays life in medieval Norway with richness, beauty, and accuracy. Life for these characters, and indeed for entire Western world in those days, centers around the Church and her traditions and around the conventions of their society. While some of these conventions might rub the modern reader the wrong way (like a father’s absolute power over his daughter), a life so fully centered on and entrenched in the Christian calendar seems not only orderly and disciplined but also festive and meaningful.
Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature no doubt by creating an epic saga that combines a stunning portrayal of life in medieval Norway with complex, sympathetic characters. And without being heavy-handed or overly-simple, she manages to communicate beauty and truth.
Again, these characters are not perfect. There are some pretty grown-up situations in this book and some complex issues. But this is exactly the kind of book I want my kids to read – impressive and engrossing from a literary standpoint and beautiful and inspiring in it’s portrayal of eternal truths.
So, to recap. Why should your teen (this is not a book for tweens) and you read Kristen Lavransdatter?
- It is great historical fiction – a rich and accurate portrayal of life in medieval Norway.
- It won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
- It illustrates how the rhythm and seasons of life used to be lived in accordance with the Christian calendar and how this brought both times of fasting and feasting, all in honor of Christ and the Saints.
- It shows the power of sin and deceit and there devastating effects.
- The novel contains sympathetic characters – not perfectly good nor purely evil. They are easy to relate to.
- Kristen Lavransdatter contains nuggets of spiritual truth, beauty, and wisdom without being simplistic or preachy.
- Reading Kristen Lavransdatter allows you to enter into a great conversation with your child and with others who have loved this trilogy.
Yes, but no descriptive or graphic passages. In fact, some younger readers (okay and me) might miss the initial sex scene all together and not realize what has happened until a few pages later.
Not in the creepy way that I’m usually looking out for in YA lit. Kristen Lavransdatter is steeped in Christianity. However, as was common in medieval times, superstitions are also influential in the lives of Undset’s characters.
- Why do you think Kristen falls so quickly and easily from what her faith and her parents have taught her? Were you surprised by this?
- Does she truly love Ereland? Does he love her?
- What do you think prevent Kristen from confessing her sins?
- In the end is Lavrans too unyielding? Why do you think he comes to the decision that he does about Kristen’s marriage to Ereland?
- What is Kristen’s greatest virtue? What is her greatest flaw? What about Ereland? Lavrans? Ragnfrid?
- In what way are the themes of love, sin, forgiveness, and despair played out in this novel?
“I’ve done many things that I thought I would never dare to do because they were sins. But I didn’t realize then that the consequence of sin is that you have to trample on other people.”
“No one and nothing can harm us, child, except what we fear and love.”
“It’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.”
OTHER ARTICLES AND REVIEWS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Welcome to Common Core Monday where each week we will take a look at a work of literature found in the Common Core Standards list of exemplar texts. Many of the works found on the list are beloved treasures from classic literature. Others, such as Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban and Sherman Alexi’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, raise serious questions about what kids are reading.
AUTHOR: Sandra Cisneros
GENRE: Short story
GRADE LEVEL RECOMMENDED: 6-8
Eleven is the kind of story that makes you remember exactly what it is like to be in the 5th grade – on your worst day in the 5th grade. It’s Rachel’s birthday, but she doesn’t feel eleven. She knows that inside she is still 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, ,3, 2, and 1… Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.
So, on her birthday when her teacher, Mrs. Price, insists that, not only does Rachel own, but that she must also wear a ratty old sweater found in the coat closet, Rachel feels 3. And she cries in front of everyone like she is 3. Her birthday is ruined.
That’s it really. That is the basic plot of Eleven. It is a very simple yet very powerful story. It is powerful because Cisneros takes her readers back in time – back to a time when being forced to wear an ugly sweater in front of your entire class was unbearably humiliating. It is powerful because, through Mrs. Price, we see the devastating impact a seemingly meaningless and careless error can have on a child. Eleven is powerful because through Rachel, in only three short pages, we see that we are all eleven – at least sometimes.
My own daughters were not required to read Eleven in school, so I required it at home. Kids need stories like this one for two reasons. 1. It shows them that they arent’ the only ones who have felt 3 even when they were much older. 2. Eleven teaches empathy. We are allowed to glimpse inside someone else’s humiliation. We ache for Rachel.
Sometimes now when I look back on things that mortified me in middle school, I can laugh. The melodrama of it all is so funny. But every time I read Eleven, I cry. I cry even though I am 44. Because deep down I guess I’m also 43, 42, 41, 40,… well, you get the idea.
Note: To read Eleven, simply Google a free PDF copy of the story. You’ll be glad you did.
The Giver is a dystopian novel set around the life of a young boy, Jonah, and his community. In this community everything is regulated – careers, family size, emotion, even the temperature. At the age 12, when all children are assigned to their life’s work, Jonah is given the job of The Giver. The Giver is the one person entrusted with all the memories of humanity. For decades all other citizens have been denied knowledge of the pain, fear, and joy people experienced before the community was “perfected.” They are given only “the sameness.” The job of The Giver is both beautiful and torturous. It also gives Jonah an understanding that no one else in his community could possibly have – an understanding that makes it impossible to go back to the content, secure life he knew before.
The Giver is not exactly pop fiction. It has been a classic staple in American middle school classrooms since it won The Newberry Award in 1994. I decided to read it because my younger daughter was reading it for school. I don’t read everything she reads, but I knew The Giver was considered a classic for a reason. I just didn’t know what the reason was.
I was blown away by this novel. The parallels between Jonah’s community and our modern culture are chilling. The people of Jonah’s community possess the technology to regulate everything. This allows them to avoid pain, but it also costs them any true joy. It robs them of any real attachment to others and of a conscience. While our modern technology isn’t quite that all-pwerful, it can be spectacularly numbing. There is a particular scene in the novel that drives this point home dramatically. I don’t want to give anything away, but the scene illustrates how seemingly decent people can commit horrific acts of cruelty and violence because these acts are the societal norm.
The Giver is a must for young readers, but it should be coupled with discussion. There is a movie version of The Giver coming out starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. Parent and kids will likely want to read and discuss the book before seeing the Hollywood version of this story.
LANGUAGE – No. It’s a perfect world, no need to curse.
VIOLENCE – The people in this novel live in near perfect harmony, but not with out eliminating some problems. There is so graphic violence, but there is at least one disturbing scene.
SEXUALCONTENT– The “stirrings” of the adolescent citizens are controlled with medication. Some parents might want to discuss what is meant by “stirrings.”
SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS – None
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Why do you think dystopian literature so popular?
2. Is there something appealing about living in a pleasant world with no pain, or does it sound too boring?
3. What do the people of the community lose by having “the sameness?”
4. Do you think Jonah’s parent’s love him?
5. Why is what happens to Baby Gabe so disturbing and shocking?
6. Why would being The Giver be so hard? Would you rather to be a Giver with all that knowledge or a community member living in blissful ignorance?
7. Why is free will essential to being truly good, happy, or free?
“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.”
“We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.”
“I liked the feeling of love,’ [Jonas] confessed. He glanced nervously at the speaker on the wall, reassuring himself that no one was listening. ‘I wish we still had that,’ he whispered. ‘Of course,’ he added quickly, ‘I do understand that it wouldn’t work very well. And that it’s much better to be organized the way we are now. I can see that it was a dangerous way to live.”
“It’s the choosing that’s important, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you mean when you say ‘the whole world’ or ‘generations before him.’I thought there was only us. I thought there was only now.”
(cover photo from goodreads.com)
I am about 100 pages into this nearly 600 page book, and I’ve had enough. To be sure, I’ve read plenty of books that started slow and got better. I am not usually a book quitter. But the problem with Beautiful Creatures is not that is started slow. It’s that is started predictable. The story (at least the first part) is told from the point of view of Ethan Carter Wate, a teenage boy from a small town in South Carolina who is tired and bored with all his shallow friends, superficial teachers, and the town’s busybody citizens (which is all of them). Poor Ethan’s only solace is in reading (of course) Vonegut and Salinger. Fortunately, for Ethan life begins to gets considerably more interesting when a dark and mysterious new girl, Lena, moves to town to live with her reclusive uncle (the town crazy). Of course all the other kids hate her instantly because people from small, southern towns can’t possibly tolerate anyone different. Only cool, Kurt Vonegut-reading types could ever do that. Ethan on the other hand, is drawn to her not just because he is a secret intellectual, free-thinker, but because Lena has been haunting his dreams for months. And if I’m right Ethan and Lena will fall madly into forbidden love and have to fight against both human and supernatural forces to be together.
Maybe if there weren’t a zillion other paranormal teen romances on the market, I might have found Beautiful Creatures more intriguing. Maybe. And maybe if I weren’t from a small southern town, I wouldn’t be so tired of the stereotype. Maybe. But aside from all that, I frankly did not care for the supernatural elements. For example Ethan’s beloved housekeeper is practiced in spells and potions and, I suspect, other dark arts. I can handle a few do-gooding vampires and werewolves. And I like my fair share of witches and wizards stories – but only when there is a clear distinction between good and evil. When that line becomes too blurred, you can count me out. It is up to every parent to decided where that line is and how blurry is too blurry but when it comes to what my teen and tween read, I think we will pass on steamy teen romance laced with black magic and sorcery.
If you would like to read a review from someone who has actually read the whole novel here is a link to GoodReads. Be sure to scroll down to get reader reviews.
I’m also including the movie review from Catholic New Services. I like their reviews because they usually take into account, not only parental concerns, but artistic merit as well.
Debbie from Yulpa Reads has reviewed The Fault in Our Stars for us. As a cancer survivor herself, she shares a unique perspective.
Sixteen year old Hazel Grace Lancaster has terminal cancer, but because of a “Cancer Miracle,” has purchased for herself an unknown bit of time. She wishes to minimize the damage her death will cause by staying close to home, spending her time taking classes at the junior college, reading, and watching reality TV. To please her parents, who are, as she says, the only ones in a worse position than she is, she attends a Cancer Kids Support Group. There she meets Augustus Waters who had “a little touch of osteosarcoma a year and a half ago…but is on a roller coaster that only goes up”. As their relationship slowly develops, Hazel shares her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, with Augustus. The author, Peter Van Houten, is the only person Hazel has come across who seems to understand what it was like to be dying but not have died. An Imperial Affliction ends in mid-sentence. Hazel accepts that the main character, Anna, has died but wants to know what happens to everyone else in the novel. She has written to the author many times without an answer. Augustus makes it possible for the two of them (and Hazel’s mother) to go to Amsterdam to meet the reclusive author.
Does this sound like a book that is sweet, funny and life affirming? Well, it is. The dialogue is witty and intelligent. It is wonderful to watch these two young people fall in love despite their circumstances. And it is particularly delightful to watch Hazel bloom and become stronger in spite of her frail body.
Very mild violence that involves the smashing of Augustus’ baseball trophies (with his permission) by their friend Isaac when he finds out his “forever” girlfriend dumped him because he was going to be blind.
I remember a few mild appropriately descriptive words.
Normally, I’d be disturbed about a sexual encounter between sixteen and seventeen year old kids, but in this case it felt life affirming. Others may disagree. Most of the explicit language was about her oxygen and his artificial leg.
Hazel and Augustus and Hazel and her Dad have some discussions about what they think happens after death. And the Dutch Tulip Man, a character in Imperial Affliction, is a metaphor for God.
As a cancer survivor, I identified with Hazel. There is not even a hint of sentimentality in the book, no brave sacrifice, no heroic messages, just reality. Her story felt true, so I was not surprised to find at the end of the book an acknowledgement to Esther Grace Earl and her family.
Even a successful fight against cancer involves loss. Hazel’s lungs can no longer do their job alone and their friend, Isaac, must pay a price for survival that would horrify most of us, the loss of his eyes. Even without such side effects, the body that you are left with is not the same one you had before. John Green respects his readers enough to tell them the truth and believes they can handle it.
Hazel loved An Imperial Affliction because it was her story and an honest story. She wanted to know what happened to the other characters because if they were doing well, maybe her parents would be OK, too. I love The Fault In Our Stars because it is an authentic story of hope and the daring to risk love in the face of death.
To find out more about the foundation created in Esther Earl’s honor go to tswgo.org .
Unlike Peter van Houten, John Green answers questions about his books. You can read some of them at johngreenbooks.com
End note from Laura Catherine – I LOVED the book. It was funny and clever and profound. But I have to give my “mom of two young girls” disclaimer. The sexual encounter between Augustus and Hazel is not graphic or steamy, but it would be the thing that would prevent me from recommending this for middle schoolers and younger teens.
Tandy Angel is a teenage girl living a life of wealth and privilege – and cruelty. Her parents have very high standards for their children. Though they do reward them lavishly for their successes, they also punish them harshly. Her parents are demanding, extravagant, controlling, strange, and now dead. They have been murdered in their bedroom in the family’s exclusive Manhattan townhouse while Tandy and two of her brothers are asleep in their rooms.
The police immediately suspect Tandy and/or her brothers. The fact that Tandy has been trained by their family therapist to suppress her emotions does not help her case. She comes across to the police as cold and unfeeling (A fact that would have made her parents proud.) And to a degree she is. In fact, Tandy is so good at suppressing that she can’t even be sure she herself is not the killer. After all, she does have “blanks” in her life – periods of time she can’t remember…there’s something about a boy, her parents, and an outburst of anger that landed her in a hospital, but it’s all like a faint dream.
To exacerbate Tandy’s problems, she decides to stop taking her “vitamins.” A portion of the Angel fortune comes from her father’s pharmaceutical company. For her entire life this company has not only provided her family with an astronomical income, but also with a daily dose of individually customized “vitamins” for each of the Angel children: Tandy with the off-the charts IQ; Harry, her sensitive and artistic twin; her older brother Matt, the NFL superstar with a hot temper; her younger bother Hugo with an equally hot temper, and her sister Catherine, who died a few years before under mysterious circumstances. Now Tandy is beginning to question a lot of things – including her daily dose of pills. When she stops taking them, she begins to find it more difficult to suppress her emotions. She begins to feel more like a typical 16 year old girls.
Still, Tandy presses on, determined to solve the murder of her parents. Now, earlier I mentioned a spoiler alert. The truth is, I think this book should come with a spoiler alert, and it should read like this:
This book is not really a murder mystery per se. The primary purpose of this book is to set up a new series of books based on the adventures of – you guessed it – a teenage detective who got her feet wet solving her parents’ murder.
Sadly, no such information was given in the book’s inside cover. I had to read the entire thing to realize this. Now it isnt’ just that most of the characters, including Tandy Angel, were unlikable and un-relatable. It isn’t just that Patterson used the annoying technique of having the main character address the reader, as in Dear Reader I am not like most girls… It isn’t even that the ending was a big ol’ let down (not to mention totally unrealistic). What I really bothered me about this book, and about so so many of the books I’ve read lately, is that the entire thing was just a big fat prequel. Patterson leaves nearly every detail, except for how the Angel parents die, unfinished. Bottom line, the purpose of this book is to introduce us to Tandy Angel so that we will buy the next book in the Tandy Angel series. Patterson leaves several loose ends. Will Tandy and her brothers be left destitute? Will her brother Matt be convicted of killing his girlfriend? Will she ever be reunited with the mystery boy from her foggy past? And what was in those pills?
Just like John Grisham did with Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer, Patterson cheats us. I read this book expecting a story with a beginning, and middle, and an end, and I really just got a beginning, and a middle. I guess that’s how you sell more books.
There are a few four letter words in this book, but they weren’t the really bad ones and they aren’t excessive.
Not much. Tandy’s parents are poisoned, so that’s not really violent. They just keel over.
We find out that both her parents were having affairs. Matt’s girlfriend reveals an affair with his father, while Tandy discovers the secret lesbian affair her mother has been having with her live-in assistant. None of these affairs are described in any graphic detail.
None. No one even wonders where these awful people are now that they’re dead.
QUESTIONS TO DISCUSS
- Did you like Tandy? Why or why not? Did you like her more or less as the novel progressed? Is it important to like the main character?
- Did you suspect Tandy might be the killer?
- In what ways were Maude and Malcolm (Tandy’s parents) good parents? Were they good parents at all?
- Think about how many popular books are a part of a series. Why do you think so many author’s these days leave us hanging? Would you like to read a book that begins and ends a story on one volume, or do you like waiting for the next book to come out?
- Will you want to read the next book in the Tandy Angel series?
Generally the books we review here are current, popular fiction. We review, not what we wish kids are reading, but what they’re actually reading. And while Lord of the Flies is certainly not pop fiction, if you have a child between 8th and 10th grade, there’s a good chance he or she is reading or will be reading it this classic. Recently at my school, a parent decided (some eight chapter in to this twelve chapter book) that the content was too disturbing for her child. That is a decision that every parent has the right to make, but perhaps if she had been a bit more informed, she could have made that call in time for the teacher to make an alternative assignment.
So, spoiler alert…this is a fairly detailed synopsis.
Lord of the Flies is a dystopian novel about a group of British boys stranded on an island after the plane evacuating them from boarding school crashes somewhere in the South Pacific. The first two boys we meet, Ralph and Piggy, find a conch shell and use it to call the other boys together. At this first meeting, we are introduced to Jack and his choir (apparently for British boarding school boys being the head of the choir is akin to being captain of the football team, so Jack wields a lot of clout). In any case, after some discussion about there being no grownups, the boys elect Ralph chief. Jack is clearly ticked that he wasn’t elected, but Ralph placates him by asking him to be in charge of the choir. Jack declares they will be the hunters. This role seems to satisfy Jack- for the time being.
At first the boys are elated at the realization that there are no grown ups. They see the whole thing as a big adventure. Thy set about right away establishing rules and a system of order. The conch is the symbol of this order. When Ralph blows it, it is a signal to the other boys to report for an assembly. Any boy holding the conch also holds the power to speak.
The fire is another important symbol in the novel. The boys light their fires by using Piggy’s glasses (another important symbol). Their first fire gets rapidly out of control and one of the younger children is never seen again. Still, Ralph insists that maintaining a signal fire is their best hope for rescue, and he places Jack and his hunters in charge of keeping the fire going. Unfortunately, Jack’s primary interest is in hunting and killing pigs.
Ralph works to build shelters and maintain order. Finally he and Piggy see a ship on the horizon, but their joy turns to panic when they realize the signal fire has gone out. Ralph is furious with Jack for not maintaining the fire and confronts him. But Jack has just returned from his first pig kill. Most of the boys are too excited about the prospect of meat to be too concerned with the missed rescue opportunity. When Piggy criticizes Jack, Jack slaps him breaking one of the lenses of Piggy’s glasses.
The carefree days of freedom the boys enjoyed in their early days on the island are all but gone. Jack becomes increasingly obsessed with hunting. Ralph is constantly frustrated with the lack of order, the filth, the fire, and his hair (another symbol). The littler boys, the Littluns, are having nightmares, fearing a beast that they believe inhabits the island. In fact, even some of the older boys are beginning to have their own fears about the beast. A few nights later when two of the boys (twins named Sam and Eric but simply called Samneric) are tending the fire, they awaken to see the body of a dead parachutist, who has drifted down to the island, hovering over them. They are terrified and run to the others to report that The Beast has attacked them. The boys organize a hunting party, and their fears are only confirmed when they come across the strange “ape-like creature” hanging in a tree.
After this, Jack tries to convince the others that Ralph in no longer fit to be chief because, among other reasons, Ralph was afraid when they were hunting The Beast. When none of the boys support Jack, he runs off in tears and says he’s “not playing.” Before long other boys slip off to join Jack’s tribe. Soon, only Ralph, Simon, Piggy, and Samneric are left to tend the fire. The Littluns are fending for themselves almost entirely now.
At this point, Simon, who has always been a bit of a loner, wanders off into the forest. From his secluded spot he witnesses Jack and the other hunters gleefully kill a mother sow. The boys then leave the pig’s head on a stick stuck in the ground as an offering to The Beast. When they leave and Simon is alone with this ghastly offering, he begins having a hallucination that the thing is speaking to him. She tells him that they cannot kill the beast because the beast is inside them all. The whole thing is very creepy. Simon faints or has a seizure. When he comes to, he goes up the mountain and finds the dead parachutist. Realizing what it is, he staggers down the mountain to tell the others. When he arrives at the beach, the other boys, including Ralph and Piggy, are engaged in a frantic dance in which they reenact the killing of the pig. Simon stumbles into their frenzy and the becomes The Beast in their imagination. They beat him, bite him, and claw him to death. His dead body is swept out to sea.
The following morning Ralph is ashamed and despondent. Piggy refuses to acknowledge what they’ve done, but Ralph calls it murder. Samneric join them at the fire and all four boys try to convince themselves and each other that they weren’t really there the night before at all. Once again, Ralph focuses his attention on keeping the fire going – a much more difficult task with only four boys.
That night while they sleep, Ralph, Piggy,and the twins are attacked by Jack’s tribe. They’ve come for Piggy’s glasses so they can re-start their own fire. They take them leaving poor Piggy nearly blind and utterly helpless. Perhaps it is because of this, Piggy is desperate enough to confront Jack, and he convinces Ralph to get the conch so they can go to Jack’s camp and talk some sense into him. There a fight breaks out between Jack and Ralph, but Piggy holding the conch, commands, for the first time since they’ve arrived, the attention of all the boys. He speaks eloquently and passionately about rules and order. Then Roger, the most evil of all the boys on the island, launches a bolder off the side of the cliff. It hits Piggy and sends him sailing off the side of the mountain to the rocks below, shattering both Piggy’s skull and the conch. Like Simon, Piggy’s lifeless body is claimed by the sea. With the conch gone, so is any lingering sense of order or fairness that Jack might still have possessed. He orders Samneric tied up and Ralph is forced to flee a barrage of spears.
Ralph spends the rest of the day and all that night hiding in terror for his life – especially after he sneaks up on Samneric tending the fire and they tell him of Jack’s plan to have the hunters hunt Ralph. The next day, in an attempt to smoke Ralph out of his hiding place, Jack’s tribe accidentally sets the entire island on fire. All the boys run to the water to escape. As the boys crawl across the sand, Ralph runs smack into a naval officer who had seen the fire. When the officer asks who is in charge, Jack starts forward then retreats. Ralph takes responsibility for the boys – then he breaks down and weeps “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy.”
This might be one of the reasons some parents find this book so disturbing. The killing of Simon is horrific. Piggy’s fall from the cliff and subsequent skull shattering is describe in fairly graphic detail. And the slaughter of the pigs is even a bit disturbing. Most teachers (including me) would argue that this graphic violence is necessary to the plot – to illustrate the level of savagery the boys sink to. Still, some parents might want to check it out for themselves The killing of the mother pig is in chapter 8. Simon’s death is in chapter 9. And Piggy is killed in chapter 11.
In chapter 8, when the boys kill the sow, one of them shoves a spear up her anus. Then all the boys get a huge kick out of repeating the phrase, “Right up her ass!”
There is the mysterious beast, that comes to life in Simon’s hallucination. In that moment it is named “Lord of the Flies.” This is actually a biblical reference to the devil Beelzebub in the Bible. In other words, one way to look at it, is that the Lord of the Flies is the devil. At some points in the novel the beast is thought of as a creature apart from the children. In Simon’s hallucination, the beast reveals she is a part of them. Scary stuff.
When I read this novel with my students, I tell them that it reminds me of a slumber party I went to in 7th grade. One of the fun things about slumber parties is that you stay up way later than any grownups. You are, in essence, on your own – or at least it feels that way. At one point in this particular party, someone decided to play a practical joke on another girl. Everyone (including the girl) thought it was funny. So funny, in fact, that some other girls played their own practical joke. One prank led to another, and by 2:00 a.m. we had chosen teams and were in an all out prank war. I remember at one point in the evening thinking that things had gotten out of hand, but I didn’t say anything. I was driven by both fun and anger to keep going. No one was hurt. And no damage was done to anyone’s reputation or self-esteem, but property was destroyed and mother’s were called. In the end, I had no answer for why I went along except that everybody else was doing it. It was a mob mentality. Now, if a few 12 year old girls can get carried away in one evening. Imagine what a group of 12 year old boys would do after several months. Well, we don’t have to imagine it. William Golding has shown us.
– Are people basically good or basically evil?
-What would happen if we lived without rules?
-Is it rules that keep us civilized or is it our natural goodness or sense of right and wrong? Do we need rules to keep us from sinking into chaos or savagery?
-What is a mob mentality? Why are people so susceptible to mob behavior?
August Pullman. Auggie is a typical 5th grader – at least that’s how he sees himself. But most people see Auggie quite differently. In fact most people are shocked, even horrified, when they first meet him. Auggie has was born with a facial deformity, and until this year he has been homeschooled. He has always known that he is different. He is an expert at detecting the double-takes, fleeting expressions of horror, and quiet whispers of strangers, but Auggie has been blessed with a loving and supportive family, and has enjoyed a life of love and acceptance (at least at home).
But now Auggie’s parents have decided it’s time for him give mainstream school a try. Wonder tells the story of Auggie’s first year at Beecher Prep and how he is treated by his classmates (and even some of their parents). The novel begins from August’s point of view, but different sections of the book are told, quite effectively, through the eyes of Auggie’s sister, his classmates, and even his sister’s boyfriend.
I picked up Wonder because I wanted to read a book specifically for middle schoolers. What I found was an incredibly sad, funny, and inspiring story that should most certainly be read by middle schoolers but also teenagers, adults, and anyone who could use a lesson in kindness and empathy. Really, I cannot recommend this book enough. It is very entertaining, but more importantly, it’s the kind of book that makes you want to be a better person.
Nothing disturbing. Auggie is bullied, but there is only one incident when it gets physical and fortunately he has backup.
No. There is brief discussion between August and a friend about reincarnation. He finds the idea of coming back better looking appealing, but it’s only a fleeting thought.
IDEAS FOR DISCUSSION
Have you ever been in a situation when you were the “new kid”? What was that like?
Can you think of any kids at your school who feel left out? Who are teased? Bullied? Alone?
What are some things you could do to make life better for these kids?
Mr. Tushman speaks of the importance of being “kinder than necessary.” What does that look like in real life?
What are some ways you could be kinder than necessary?
Do you think a kid like Auggie could ever really lead a normal life?
Linked at Powerful Mothering