The Watsons Go To Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Watsons Go To Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis, is a story about a family going through the good and the bad together. A true coming of age story, it also offers a view into the historical events going on in the country at the time (Civil Rights Movement). The characters are identifiable, and their experiences relatable to middle schoolers all over the world. Kenny, the protagonist, experiences bullying, friendship troubles, learns how to share and be compassionate, learns right from wrong, and the importance of family, through his experiences with his brother Byron, who is a notorious bully. It is because of Byron, that the family decides to travel to Birmingham to drop him off to stay with his grandmother for the summer. The grandmother is considered super strict, and the father believes that this experience will whip Byron into shape. They travel from the extremely cold Michigan to Alabama. When they are there Byron’s act changes, but that is not the most important thing that occurs; while at church Kenny is a firsthand witness to the bombing at the church, killing four girls. This experience changes Kenny and forces him to grow up. He no longer wants to play with toys, or hang out with his friend Rufus. He has witnessed an unfortunate reality of his life, and this has cased him to lose some of his childhood innocence.

What is great about this book are the characters. They are so well described they seem animated. I could see the events they experienced as I was reading. They are written realistically, but also humorous at times, making the story a better read. Of course, it is important to note the historical relevance of the Watsons going to Birmingham. Like Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, this book can easily be taught in correlation with a social studies curriculum. But I would also use the text for a character study and analysis. The characters in the story are always acting in result of a certain motivation; Kenny doesn’t want to be bullied and so ignores Rufus initially, Byron doesn’t want to be in trouble and begins to clean up his act, the father doesn’t want his son to be a delinquent and so decides to take the whole family to Birmingham. An activity that I would incorporate is a “Body Biography” where the students would be able to choose a character from the story, and map out his traits and experiences on a drawing of a body, representing the character. It a way to engage students of all learning styles, and gives the students the opportunity to truly understand character motivation.


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is a beautifully written memoir. Woodson writes her story in verse, giving the entire book a dreamlike musicality. Each chapter, that is given a title and not a number, is like its own entity, and can be studied on its own. Each one provides an image, a thought, a feeling that Woodson reveals through her language, and through the naïve eyes of her younger self.

The story begins with the author telling us how her parents represented the two views on segregation at the time. Her father would not accept it, and refused to go visit his in-laws in South Carolina, and her mother was caught in between, did not like how things were down South, but understood the reality. Woodson foreshadows her parents’ eventual split, by telling the story of how she got her name. Her father insisted that she be named Jack, after himself, but her mother, Mary Ann, wrote Jacqueline on her birth certificate when she was alone. The eventual compromise is that everyone calls her Jackie. The story moves on with Jackie’s description of moving to the South after her parents separate with her mother, sister and brother. They go to live with her grandparents, that were people who believed in peace and living in harmony. The grandfather, Gunnar Irby, a heavy smoker, works hard for a living, and does not make waves at his employment to cause any trouble when others with less experience are promoted, or when those who are beneath him treat him with disrespect. Jackie begins to learn the ways of the South, how to behave in public, how important church was to her grandmother. Mary Ann leaves her children for a little bit, and goes to New York to set up a new life for her family. While staying with her grandparents, Jackie understands the importance of family, of respecting others, and learns that sometimes things don’t always go according to plan.

The Woodsons eventually move to New York, where Jackie becomes friends with a Puerto Rican girl, and discovers her true love of writing. Although I would recommend it in an instant, I feel like the ending remains a bit unresolved in terms of her father. I know that it is a memoir, and the author writes things as they happened, but I wish that they could reconnect before the book ended.

What I love about the book is its ability to be taught in a classroom setting. There are so many literary elements that are accessed in the book. Some teachable elements are the use of verse to introduce poetry, the point of view of the author, the genre of memoir itself. But also the ability to be used as a text for cross content planning. The story takes place during the tumultuous times of the 60’s and 70’s, with historic events taking place as the story is told. A carefully planned Unit that crosses into he social studied class would give the students a better understanding of the story, and also the history that Woodson lived through. I definitely recommend this book.


Matilda by Roald Dahl

Reading Matilda, by Roald Dahl, took me back to my childhood. Although I hadn’t read Matilda prior, I was a big fan of Witches. I can recall reading the book, and really questioning if witches were in fact real. What I can enjoy about reading Dahl, now as an adult and an educator, is his humor that is in fact intended for an older audience I believe.

So the story begins by setting up the plot and introducing us to Matilda Wormwood, who is a reading prodigy. She learns to read independently before even entering school, and finds comfort in escaping to the library and reading book after book. The librarian there helps her make her choices, and is amazed that a girl so young is reading such sophisticated literature.

Another aspect to Matilda is her home life, which seems completely unpleasant. Her father is a car salesman, that tampers with the cars he sells to make them appear as new, thus selling cars for much more than they are worth. Her mother is not really interested in being maternal to Matilda, and shows favoritism to her brother. Both parents discourage Matilda from reading books, and at times forbid her, even though she manages to sneak them in the house.

Once entering school, Matilda meets Miss Honey, her teacher, who is a loving and nurturing woman that identifies Matilda’s genius and tries to encourage her to advance in her schooling. She even attempts to have Matilda placed in a higher grade by bringing the matter to the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who shuts down this idea completely, and now has Matilda on her radar.

The headmistress hates children, and comes up with ridiculous ways to punish them for offences that do not seem serious in nature. As the story unravels we learn that she was once responsible for Miss Honey because she is her aunt and when Miss Honey’s father passed away, she gained custody, of the then child. Miss Trunchbull made Miss Honey’s life a living hell, to say the least, and Miss Honey ultimately manages to escape and build a life of her own, even though she has been essentially robbed of her birthright and her home. The surprising twist of events is that Matilda possesses magic powers, and when she concentrates on something hard enough she can make things move with her mind. Miss Honey helps her to cultivate this ability, and Matilda uses the power against the Miss Trunchbull and her family.

The story ends on a happy note with the Miss Trunchbull gone, and her parents allowing Matilda to live with Miss Honey after they decide to leave because Matilda manages to expose her father for the crook that he is. Even though the ending is a happy one, it still is quite a sad story, considering how this young girl is rejected by her family and must fend for herself. They discourage her genius, and refuse to help her embrace her love of learning.

Even though Matilda is intended for a younger audience, my 9-year-old niece loved it; I would make the book available to my lower level seventh graders, as an independent reading book. I think that the language is sophisticated enough to be appropriate, and there are so many literary elements that can be explored through reading it. I would have the students concentrate on character development, and characterization. I think Dahl excels in creating a visual image of what is being described when reading. I would also provide a visual component, perhaps to have the students create a visual representation of a character in the story, or a setting that is described in the story. This will also give them an opportunity to do a “close reading” of an excerpt and identify the language that enabled their visual interpretation come into fruition. I think Dahl’s language is vivid, and he uses descriptive language in a way that even the most awful of situations become humorous and colorful.


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

When I began reading The Graveyard Book I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t heard of it before, or had any prior information as to what type of novel it was. So when the first scene is that of the murder, I was in shock. I found it hard to get into initially, because I couldn’t follow the logic. It truly is easier to enter into fantasy scenarios with the imagination of a child. I believe adulthood leaves us a bit jaded, and so after entering into a suspension of disbelief, I ended up really liking it. I do enjoy novels of the fantasy genre, and especially with a bit of mystery. I thought that this book would probably go over exceedingly well with my 7th graders since they all enjoy mystery stories.

The story is that of Bod (short for Nobody), who is the sole survivor of the opening murder scene. At the start of the novel he is a baby, and having escaped the killer, manages to be saved from certain death by entering into the close by graveyard, where its inhabitants are the ghosts of the people who were buried there. An older, ghost, couple essentially adopts Bod, and he grows up in this environment, receiving food, shelter and education from the ghosts of the graveyard. He is invisible to outsiders who are living, but can be seen by other children. When a young girl comes to the graveyard with her mother, the two develop a friendship that ends up being long-lasting. The conflict of the story is that the killer will not stop searching for him, with the intention to kill him. Bod’s naïve nature, and lack of education essentially prevents him from understanding how he is being protected by this evil that is searching for him, and also gets him into trouble when he follows the ghouls to the depths down below. And true I really liked how the author never gave too much away but left little hints to the reader. Like how we never are told what Silas is. Which in the beginning puzzled me because he was said to not be alive or dead. So naturally I connected the dots and said that he must be some sort of undead or vampire. Even though he says he is a reformed evil creature, who has the ability to leave and return the graveyard, something that the spirits cannot do. Bod, as a protagonist, is clearly how the students would connect to the story. Although he is being raised under strange circumstances, he is still going through things that they have experienced as well. It is a true coming of age story too; that I think is what humanizes the mystical premise.

Due to the fantastical nature of the novel, I think that a creative writing assignment would be an excellent way to end a Unit on the book. I would provide the student’s with a list of characters from the story, all of which would be minor characters that live in the graveyard, and have them write their story. What happened to them, how did they die, why did they end up there? I would also have a visual component to the assignment and ask the students to create drawings or pictures of their characters, trying to use details from the story. I think that the writing activity will be one they enjoy to write.


The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, was unexpectedly marvelous. I loved so many aspects of the book. The story centers on the Bell family that consists of twins Josh, who goes by the name Filthy McNasty, and Jordan. The twins are basketball players at their junior high school, and the backbone of their team. The story is told through the eyes of Josh, who is going through the regular growing pains of entering puberty. He must deal with his brother getting his first girlfriend, Miss Sweat Tea, and his father’s health issues, that remain a puzzle to him for a large part of the story. He lives and breathes basketball, and has acquired his nickname from his basketball skills. The boys’ father, a former professional player, now is a stay at home dad, that also is their role model and, especially Josh, aspires to be like him. Their mother, the assistant principal, tries to keep the boys focused on their education, and constantly worries about her husband. Josh feels his hair, he has long dreads, are a source of good luck for his game, and when his brother cuts off his hair, the conflict that develops between the siblings becomes magnified. Josh becomes jealous of his brother’s girlfriend, and his jealousy leads him to make questionable decisions, one of which gets Jordan injured during a game. He is jealous of Jordan’s newfound relationship because he finds himself having lost his other half, and is no longer a part of the dynamic duo he is used to. He cannot understand why Jordan wants to spend all of his time talking or with this girl.

The most shocking part of the novel, though, is Josh’s secretly ailing father, who has been keeping his condition a secret from everyone, ends up in the hospital, and ultimately passes away. Alexander does an excellent job showing this loss through Josh’s eyes. As the reader, you are truly pained by this reality, and fell for this boy who has just had his life turned upside down.

What was truly amazing about this novel, apart from the beautiful language and great plot, is the poetic form the author uses. It gives the words movement on the page. The rhythm of the words mirrors the rhythm of the ball bouncing on the court. Also, the use of vocabulary words is great. In terms of using this book in the classroom, I can definitely see how the vocabulary can be an essential part of the Unit. I will definitely be adding it to my class library but will also request to have the books ordered for use as a class novel. I can incorporate it in a poetry Unit. As I read I was thinking of activities that I would develop for a culminating activity, and I think that a creative writing assignment would be perfect. I would have the students to write an autobiographical narrative, using the poetic form. The finished works can then be read in class to music perhaps, or shared in a larger grade level assembly. I see a lot of possibilities for this book, and am so excited to have discovered it. I have also recently found out that the novel has won the Newberry Award for 2015. It truly is a winner.


Friendship and Intimacy in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

the_perks_of_being_a_wallflower_book_cover_drawing_by_pigwigeon-d5j78elStephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” centers on a group of teens and their early sexual experiences. We see characters form friendships that ripen into intimate sexual relationships. We learn about various formations, their depths, secrecies, tensions, dramas, and denouements, and finally how the characters cope with the ends of these relationships.
Charlie, the narrator, is the eponymous wallflower, and though he is decidedly passive at times, he is not what I would consider a wallflower, a shy person who doesn’t get involved. He definitely participates, particularly in his role as a friend. He is a keen observer of his scene, though Chbosky at times gives him a naivete for comic relief, but this naive stance doesn’t always ring true to my ears because of his obvious talents as a chronicler of his friends.
The main characters find themselves in emotional turmoil when their sexual relationships fail.
Charlie’s two relationships both turn out badly. The first with Mary Elizabeth ends on a passive aggressive note when he kisses his true love Samantha (Sam) instead of Mary E. during a Truth or Dare game at a party.
An interesting element of the novel is how friends ripen into lovers, break up, and find themselves integrating back into friendships, as if the friendship was the more important relationship and the sexual one simply an experiment.
Charlie’s 2nd “sexual” relationship ends before coitus despite Sam finally giving assent to him.
Why wasn’t Charlie able to go through with the act even though Sam had been his dream lover almost from the moment he met her? The issue isn’t fully explored though prior to the seduction, Sam criticizes Charlie for being passive. She said she didn’t want to date someone who had a “crush” on her, but someone who could have a reciprocal relationship. Charlie was also unable to be reciprocal with Mary E. She did all the talking and moves.But it’s understandable that he might feel intimidated by older women, particularly if they were first friends whom he admired. It wasn’t “wrong” in other words that he couldn’t go through with the sexual act with Sam. The reality of sex was too overwhelming. What he was afraid of is inferred, but not explicitly explored, and this might be a good place to ask students why he turned down a chance to sleep with the girl of his dreams.
Homosexuality, not surprisingly, is explored in this novel. Gay sex is treated with no more emphasis than straight sex, though the gay characters have the added burden of homophobia and gay bashing once their relationship ends.
How might this novel be the anchor for a generative unit?
The unit could be on friendship and intimacy or if I wanted to be more provocative, Friendship and Sex, but intimacy is a better term because it encompasses sex as well as the emotional closeness we experience in love relationships as well as friendships during these formative years. The teen years are when most people begin to actively explore their sexuality and this novel goes there without blinking.
The story is written as a epistolary novel, letters written to an unknown recipient. I anticipated that this unknown character would eventually be exposed or introduced, but he never is. It was a little disappointing, and I would question why the novel took this form. It could easily have been a diary.

Chasing a demon in A Wizard of Earthsea

I’m not generally a fan of fantasy. but I really loved The Wizard of Earthsea, which I found a wonderful parable. The story is about a young man making his way in the world, learning his craft, which happens to be wizardry, and struggling mightily to overcome something of his own making. He is struggling in a literal or literary sense to overcome his own inner demons. At books end he is able to “name it” and the demons name is Ged, he himself. This overcoming his demon is his own inner struggle to become a fully functioning adult. So once he names his demon, tames his demon–he becomes whole, fully Ged, an adult.
We all must struggle to overcome our inner demons, our doubts, fears; we run from this responsibility–and yet the demon will always find us, until one day we turn the tables on it and chase it, fearless of what will happen. One can not conquer running from fear. By chasing it, by moving directly at our demon, we weaken it; it is the one always running with its shadow face looking back. Finally it runs out of room, i.e. earthsea–we track it down and it is so enervated from the chase, we defeat it, and make ourselves whole, and fully adult. This is a wonderful coming of age parable. I would love to use this for a literature circle with other coming of age books, perhaps a book about a boy or a girl struggling while studying for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. This novel feels ceremonial in that way. There are aboriginal stories, native American stories I believe about children going into the wilderness and fending for themselves–that  might also work here. It would be interesting for students to consider at various stages of the book what Ged is chasing or being chased by. Le Guin does a masterful job of keeping this demon vague and foreboding enough that we are never sure what it really is.


Deadline by Chris Crutcher

deadline Crutcher’s novel is the story of an adolescent boy who learns that he has a terminal illness. It starts off pretty much with the protagonist, Ben Wolf, getting his diagnosis. We then experience his final year of life, which is also his senior year of high school, through his eyes, while he makes his best attempt to live every day as if it is his last. The catch; he doesn’t tell anyone that he is dying, and refuses to be treated for his “blood disease.” When you enter into this world that Crutcher has created, Ben’s world, you cannot look at the story through a magnifying glass, but take it at face value. That is what I felt while reading it. Even though there are so many details not thoroughly explained and so many storylines that may seemed chopped, the focus of the story is how the protagonist chooses to take control of the limited time he has left, and experience things he probably would not have if he were not going into it with his own expiration date in mind. He joins the football team, which in itself is a major feat since we are informed of his small build, he talks and begins to date the girl of his dreams, and expresses his opinion all the time on every issue, even at the expense of his history teacher. Even though the main story line is Ben’s impending death, there are so many other issues that are brought to light in the story: mental illness, rape, molestation, suicide, religion. I think that this book would best be taught to a senior class due to the subject matter. While reading I thought of activities that could be partnered with the novel, and I think it would be nice to give the students some power by letting them rewrite any part of the story. I would be compelled to have Ben try some course of treatment for his “blood disease” giving him a shot to live. Also setting goals. Ben uses his limited time by making a list of things he wants to accomplish and books he wants to read. Another activity would be to have the students make a list of their own goals for the school year, and then have a follow up at the end of the year to see how many they accomplished. Deadline is a novel that I intend on recommending, because I think it is a well written story that can touch anyone who reads it. AH

Notes on Tuck Everlasting et al

This is my first (David Breitkopf’s)  blog entry on an  independent study class I’ve been taking on  YA novels. This is an area of literature where I can say unabashedly that I am poorly read in. This summer I made a slight dent into the vast library of YA novels. I enjoyed most of the books not only for the stories but for the quality of the writing. The novels varied widely or as I was about to write, wildly,  everything from Roald Dahl’s Matllda to Ursula K. Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea.  

I hope to write a series of entries about the books, a total of 8 (I’ve read 7 to date)  that I will read. I realize that these  entries may lack the immediacy that comes with writing a blog entry as one is still in the midst of the novel, a hot-off-the-presses feeling of one’s reading. That has  to do with my Luddite allergies acting up as regards to blogging on this site. But my olfactory seems to be willing to accept some new machinery these days. Lastly, my ultimate aim in these blog entries is to discuss how I might teach these novels to a class of high schoolers. I will endeavor to put forth those notions as well as my general impressions of the books. The first novel I want to discuss at length is the last  I finished: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. A lovely fairy tale, lyrically written, and centering around a grand moral dilemma. I liked how the novel casually begins, giving us a presentiment of something occurring between the three characters and the locus–Treegap Wood, the hub for these three spokes. The story of the spring or the fountain of eternity comes to light only when Winnie Forster happens to meet Jesse Tuck. That moment is the catalyst for everything that follows, and it all happens in rapid succession–Winnie is kidnapped and taken back to the Tuck’s rather unkempt house. The story seeps out about the spring that Jesse prevented her from drinking from.

Within the novel, characters who are aware of the fountain have varying attitudes towards it. The mysterious man in the yellow suit, tries to make money off it, but pays for his hucksterism with his life. 

But the Tuck family all have varying degrees of understanding and attitudes about the spring. The father, who by the end is likely close to 200 years old, is the most opposed to having anyone else discover and drink from the spring. He explains to Winnie  eloquently about the importance of death, getting her to understand that death is absolutely necessary for life to continue otherwise there would be no room to move in the world. The Tucks in their eternity feel outside of the world. They can’t die but they must keep their immortality a secret. Miles who wants to make something of himself, loses his family because his wife gets older but he doesn’t. 

Jesse prevents Winnie from drinking the water, but later after they became friends and a bit flirtatious, he gives her a vial of the water for her to drink when she turns 17 so they can marry and always be the same age. On impulse to save a toad, Winnie ends up pouring the water over the toad, which we learn in the final chapter has survived Winnie, who lived long, was a wife and a mother, but died before the Tucks returned to the area after many years to find it substantially changed. 

An obvious question, I might ask students is what would you do if you had the choice of eternal life? Would you drink? Or would you, like Angus Tuck long for moving on even if it includes death? To drink or not to drink. The complexity of the dilemma in part depends on one’s age. Jesse is more amenable to the idea. He is young and ever youthful. Tuck the father, and Mae are tired and long for change. The man in the yellow suit, is avaricious and perhaps wants to simply sell the liquid to become rich. 

Ultimately Winnie chooses to not drink the water, though anointing her toad with everlasting life. 

This novel would work well as an anchor novel for a unit on life and death, or the life cycle, how we as humans change physically, mentally, emotionally as we age. 


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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