Sherman Alexie on sad books

From my other blog. Be sure to read Gurdon’s article and Alexie’s post.

Lizzie Ross

banned booksIn a 2011 Wall Street Journal blog post, Sherman Alexie explains why YA books that address real issues of violence, death, sexuality, and other horrors need to be available for teen readers.

Alexie was responding to an earlier WSJarticle, by Meghan Cox Gurdon, decrying the prevalence of “dark” themes in YA lit and positing a troubling dichotomy:

This is an old dialectic—purity vs. despoliation, virtue vs. smut—but for families with teenagers, it is also everlastingly new. 

While I find myself (gasp!) agreeing with two of Gurdon’s points (books for teens are more explicitly violent and sexual than they used to be, and parents ought to be aware of what books their children read — as well as what shows or films they watch, and what video games they play), and while I will probably never read most of the books she references, I want to argue with her analysis of the…

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Thanks to our followers!

1421178042197Just a quick note to those who’ve found us, by whatever route, and are following. We love your feedback and suggestions. If there’s any book you’d like to recommend to us, please do so. We’ll happily read and review, as time allows.

Meanwhile, enjoy summer (or winter, if you’re in the southern hemisphere), keep reading, and keep in touch.


The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The Outsiders

In middle school, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, was one of my favorite books. When I read it again this year I was less impressed. Then I did some research and found out that S.E. Hinton published this book when she was only 17 years old and then I was impressed again.

The novel centers around two main groups of kids, the greasers and the socs. Socs is short for socials, as in the mainstream popular kids. The Outsiders is told from the point of view of Ponyboy Curtis, a 14 year old boy who lives with his two older brothers, Darry and Sodapop. Ponyboy’s best friend is Johnny Cade. Johnny and Ponyboy have both had hard lives considering how young they are. Ponyboy’s parents are both dead and Johnny’s parents don’t care about him at all. The friendship these two boys share is one of the most compelling things about this novel. Both Johnny and Ponyboy have gotten beaten up by the socs. In fact, most of the greasers have gotten into fights with the socs. But this is a suburban world where gangs and gang fights are all too common and this is one of the most realistic aspects of the novel. The Outsiders is full of many themes such as violence, friendship, isolation and loss.

Johnny Cade is the gang’s pet and possibly my favorite character. Everyone loves him despite the fact that he can be somewhat pathetic at times. One thing I love about Johnny is that he has a favorite poem and the fact that he loves poetry is one of the strongest aspects of his character. I love characters who love poetry. Johnny likes to tell Ponyboy that “nothing gold can stay”. This is also the title of the Robert Frost poem that Johnny loves. And this becomes a central theme of the novel and of Johnny’s character as well.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

by Robert Frost, 1874 – 1963

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

Posted by Naptharoe

On Using Various Lenses to Think About Literature

We all read in different ways. If we didn’t, discussing books with each other wouldn’t be half as much fun. Paying attention to how we read is just as important as what we read. Most women read from a feminist perspective without even realizing it, just as most men read from a perspective of masculinity. Reading from certain perspectives is part of who we are as individuals, but it is when we broaden our views and turn our lenses to the next dial that we really begin to see more deeply inside literature, inside ourselves and into the world itself.

Reading from a biographical lens appeals to me because I am as curious about the author of a book as I am about the book itself. In my opinion, authors put themselves into their writing whether or not they realize they are doing it. Some authors actively try to keep themselves out of their writing, but this too can be seen in a biographical sense, since what is missing from a novel can be equally as important as what is left in.

One particular essayist who interests me is Wayne Koestenbaum. In his book, Engendering Men: The Question of Male Feminist Criticism, he states that gay readers read from a gay perspective. I hadn’t given much thought to this fact until I read that statement, but it is one of those things that I will not be able to unread and I’m grateful for that fact because it has made me think more deeply about my own innate critical lens. Have I also always read from a gay perspective? I suppose I must have, including all the books the books on our reading list this semester, none of which featured a gay, lesbian or transgender protagonist. Someone reading this might respond with the fact that we are reading about adolescents in American literature. But all this reminds me of the two transgendered children that were in my daughter’s 6th, 7th and 8th grade class, or the time my son told me that every girl in his high school was bisexual. A question worth pondering: why is it that in this changing climate of adolescent sexuality is there still such a huge gap in GLBT adolescent fiction and what are we going to do about it?

~ Naptharoe

American Born Chinese Read through a Biographical Lens

American Born Chinese by Gene Yang is a graphic novel that consists of three main storylines: One, a retelling of the ancient story of the Monkey King. Two, the life of Jin Wang, a Chinese-American boy growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. And three, the story line of Cousin Chin-Kee. These three distinct story lines are all heavily influenced by Gene Yang’s personal life.

The Monkey King initially surfaced as the main character in The Journey to the West, a 16th century novel published during the Ming dynasty. The Monkey King is one of the main characters in this novel. The Monkey King is a recurring character in many bedtime stories for Chinese children. This is how Gene Yang first heard about him. He says, “I eventually came up with the idea to use the Monkey King as a lens through which to reflect on my own experience as an Asian-American”. The stories Gene Yang heard as a young boy heavily influenced his own writing.

Jin Wang’s character is based on Gene Yang himself, but with a few key differences. Gene Yang says that the drawing of Jin Wang looks nothing like he looked growing up. Also, his best friend in grammar school was nothing like Jin Wang’s best friend in the novel. But there is one experience Yang had that left a lasting impression on him, which shows itself in the novel when Wei-Chen comes to Jin Wang’s school. When Yang was in grammar school, a younger Chinese boy started at the school and the teachers kept urging Yang to be friends with him because they were both Chinese. Yang didn’t want to be friends with this boy even though he followed him around everywhere. Yang says that the boy only stopped following him when he threw tanbark at this kid to make him go away. In the novel, Jin Wang becomes friends with “the new kid”. Perhaps this is Gene Yang’s way of righting his own middle school wrongs.

chinese 2nd grade

Cousin Chin-Kee’s character is the most outrageous in the novel. How does he have anything to do with Gene Yang’s personal life, you may wonder. When Yang was engaged to be married he was cleaning out the bedroom he’d had as a boy and he found a notebook full of cartoons he’d drawn in 2nd grade. One of them was of a silly Chinese character who pees in someone’s Coke. Gene Yang put this character in his book as Cousin Chin-Kee and has him pee in Danny’s Coke. It’s amazing that an entire character with a full fledged story line can emerge from one drawing Yang made in 2nd grade.

~ Naptharoe

The course has ended but the reading continues

So keep posting to this site. I want to hear about the new books you discover, and I bet others do as well. Tell us what your students are reading. Post Top-10 lists.

Top ten red word

Top ten red word

I’ll start with one of my own: In no particular order (these all rate #1 for me) here’s my Top-10 fantasy series list. Most of these were written for the YA audience, but adult fantasy fans will love them as well.

1. LOTR. I’ll only add that this of course includes The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, Tree and Leaf by Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham and just about anything else Tolkien wrote, including his translations of Old and Middle English poetry.

2. Michael Scott, The Alchemyst. Remember the first Indiana Jones movie, which barely left you a moment to breathe before sending Indy into another frenzy of breakneck action? Scott’s series does the same for twins Josh and Sophie, who team up with Nicholas Flamel to save the world. Fun, with mythological characters from the world’s cultures, along with a few heroes who ought to be dead but aren’t. Read the series BEFORE the movies come out (currently in production).

3. Cornelia Funke’s, Inkheart. Meggie and her father, a bookbinder, are hiding. When her father disappears, Meggie must rescue him. It sounds tame, but the bookbinder is able to make fictional characters real by reading aloud, and it’s this unique skill that has caused all the trouble in Meggie’s world, including the loss of her mother. The complex plot challenges the best of readers, but is well worth the effort.

4. Mary Norton, The Borrowers. There are no magicians or dragons in this series, just tiny beings who live alongside humans, putting scavenged items (needles, bread crumbs, wine corks) to use. When they’re discovered, they must run. The books take them afield, afloat, and aloft before finally settling them in a safe home. The fun part here is seeing our familiar world from a height of only 3 inches.

5. Edward Eager, Half Magic. A coin grants only half a wish. A box turtle and a lake make magical things happen. A toy castle leads to another world. This series, inspired by E Nesbit’s stories, features 3 different families of children, whose paths occasionally cross. These are old-fashioned books, with less action than readers have come to expect from YA fantasy. But the characters face challenges that require intelligence as well as strength, and Eager’s writing is excellent.

6. Pseudonymous Bosch, The Secret Series. The author’s comical “Don’t read this, you’ve been warned” trope never wears thin. Cass and Max-Ernest need the entire series to solve the murder of a local magician (not the fantasy type of mage, but rather the type who pulls rabbits from hats). Bosch puts himself repeatedly in danger by revealing secrets too dangerous to know, with only chocolate to keep him going. Funny, scary, adventurous, with truly evil villains. And, just as an interesting aside, the five volumes use the traditional five senses (smell, sight, taste, touch, sound) as framing devices.

7. Ursula K. LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea. Classic world-building, with themes that encompass coming of age, loss of religious belief, facing death, and feminism. By the end, LeGuin has posed the question: what is a woman’s place in a world where men have defined “true magic” as a male-only realm of power?

8. Garth Nix, Sabriel. A series in which a Necromancer is on the side of good! And the Necromancer is a young woman! Kudos to Nix, for creating such a complex and harrowing world, where the dead rebel and the living must control them.

9. Diana Wynne Jones, Chrestomanci. Jones’ magicians are memorable: Howl, from the Howl’s Moving Castle series, and Christopher Chant, from this one. A Chrestomanci is a wizard with nine lives (yes, just like a cat), who must come when called and solve the problem presented to him. As with the best of fantasy, the simple premise opens up to a complex plot.

10. Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials. This is heady reading, not for the faint of heart. Working from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Pullman builds a world in which our souls are visible external beings (dæmons), and the villains have created a procedure to excise these dæmons. The series can be enjoyed without reference to Milton, but Pullman’s purpose is strengthened when seen within the context of “man’s first disobedience.”
Honorable mention: E Nesbit, Susan Cooper, J K Rowling

ABC – Review of American Born Chinese

abcAmerican Born Chinese is one of the few graphic novels I have encountered in my adult academic career. While the pages are mostly taken up with colorfully sketched depictions rather than with script, it manages to bring forth an astounding story with a profound message. Gene Luen Yang was inspired by childhood folktales about the Monkey King and thought to use it as a lens to reflect upon his own life as an American born Chinese. Nonetheless the fusion of the two stories would not come without significant modifications as the author chose to replace the Buddhist mythology of the Monkey King story, with Christian beliefs on which his faith is based on.* With this potentially controversial fuse of myth and reality, ancient and contemporary, western culture and south-eastern culture, beliefs and faith, and morals and stereotypes, Yang manages to forge an incredible tale that I believe most first generation Americans can relate to and appreciate.

Of the deep messages that Yang presents in this story, the one that I find most significant is the plight that an American-born adolescent experiences while much of his identity is premised on his appearance. Although America has been the melting pot of many cultures for a long while, there is still an undeniable existence of discrimination and ignorance that persists. Through the character of Jin Wang, we see how he portrays himself with a stigma of not being “American enough,” and therefore, not good enough for the companionship and relationships he desires. Furthermore, we also see a great level of ignorance that is displayed when the teacher terribly mispronounces Wei Chen’s name and gives the wrong place of origin. This scene showed how little some Americans may care or even bother to educate themselves on members of the society who are of different origins.

Yang’s American Born Chinese would definitely be embraced by young adult readers because the text is full of vibrant and well detailed illustrations, is full of humor, and has enough heartfelt moments that would leave any reader learning a few valuable lessons.


* Yang, G. (2006, August 8). Origins of American Born Chinese – part . Retrieved from


Review on American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang was a fun read. Its exciting, visually provoking, and a page turner all while being relevant and thoughtful. It is relevant to what kids from all places are facing and experiencing: the venture in understanding oneself, self acceptance, and trying to “fit in”.  It also deals with racism and the experience of being an immigrant. American Born Chinese is a merry approach to discussing these topics. In regards to including it in teaching curriculum and all of the trials that follow because it is a graphic novel, I would love to teach this book and I think that it should be welcomed by all schools. There are layers and its a great way to expose students to another culture. This exposure allows for a deeper level of comprehension and empathy (which adoloscents are developing). It is also an all around awesome graphic novel, and I believe that it is important to show kids that graphic novels are okay, and it might also be the pathway for some kids to like reading and to relate to it. And who knows a future graphic novelist might be in the works, and exposing them to this will be a breakthrough and huge influence and change.


Reading Lenses

I think that this is an interesting assignment, since I have never thought about my reading process. I think that we all just do it naturally without realizing. A way in which the author describes something, the word usage, the direction are indicators of what lenses to use. When I am taking in a reading a few of the things that let’s say will make me think of feminism are a female character who desires freedom or independence or “a room of her own”; a female expressing her self and her individuality; a female character who is facing adversary or discrimination for how she is or looks or for being a woman; or a suggestion to a woman’s role or appearance. Some of the literary genres are easier to identity than others since they are heavy handed in their indications. For example when I read Gothic, I know that I am reading Gothic because there are great excesses like a room filled with mirrors, an allusion to a trangression, and often times a story line that entails a woman living in solitude or a man exploring a forgotten ruin. One of the key elements of Gothic are obscurity and shadows. Gothic is not only a genre but a lens as well; you can read a detective novel that has a scene with a character going down to a dark basement that leads to labyrinth. Comparing literature is another lens used without realizing. Let’s say while reading a narrator monologing exposition I think of Dostoevsky. The indicators for this lens are exposition and a general feeling of seclusion and sadness. I use my psychological or surrealist lens when I am reading about a character’s state of mind or about a dream. Personal experience is the first lens we use as readers, when we pick out aspects of how the reading applies to our personal selves and lives.


Romeo and Juliet in the Adolescent Classroom

So we’ve all read Romeo and Juliet in middle or high school. Thinking back would you do without it? Did you love it? How did it affect you? During one of my recent fieldwork observations I encounted these questions, and it reminded me how important this work of Shakespeare is. I was a freshman in high school when I read it, and it completely overturned my perspective on reading literature (a class I got an A+ in). After having read the book my 9th grade ELA teacher showed the class the 1997 film version of Romeo and Juliet and I think that’s what did it, boom, mind exploded. It made it more visual, relevant, fun and exciting. The teacher I am presently observing did the same, and I believe it had the same affect. And I have officially vowed to do the same. I am curious about what others think.