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

” The Twilight Saga Continues..?” Other (Addl posts)

Books like Twilight, Harry Potter or almost any other YA Lit book series seems to have a reception that is mixed with both love and hate. In these terms, these particular books series are texts that teens love to read, but educators hate to teach. In our own graduate course a lot of us have expressed our own disdained for books like Twilight, because some critics say that this particular series lacks the necessary literary content that makes this book teachable. However, although books like Twilight may not be adored by many adults or educators, we have to admit that novels of this particular genre is motivating our students to read more actively and enthusiastically.  In doing some internet research I found this “sarcastic” site that is totally dedicated to stating reasons why Twilight should be disliked. Some of the points that were made were rather interesting, so I thought I would share it with the class. Even though this particular site makes these points, I think I like seeing adolescents excited about the books that they are actually buying, even if the text may not be the most academically challenging, because the act of just seeing students enthused about reading, would make me happy as an English Teacher.  -JC

Here’s the Link:

The importance of story


Photo by Pilar Castro / Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0, from On Being website

Listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with Maria Tatar, where the two discuss why adults like fairy tales, and why there are fairy tales written specifically for adults.

Could this explain why adults enjoy reading YA lit of all kinds? Do YA protagonists face issues that continue into adulthood, ones that we’re still dealing with and YA lit helps us understand? Or are we indulging ourselves with nostalgic visits to earlier times, when we were younger and problems were smaller and simpler?

Something to think about.



YA Lit Rebels: With and Without Causes

Hi all! Again, down the rabbit hole of YA Lit. . .

As I was reading through another stack of library books, I noticed that there was another trend that seemed to repeat (and I bet it’s going to come as a HUGE surprise to you teachers/parents/siblings/etc out there): REBELS! And all kinds of rebels, too–rebels that rebel and then feel bad, rebels that rebel and don’t feel bad, rebels that rebel for a cause, and rebels that rebel for, well, what seems to be the fun of it.

So the classic rebel could easily be Katniss in The Hunger Games (and probably some of her cohorts, for that matter). Although reluctant to be the symbol of the revolution between the Capitol and the districts of Panem, who could forget the iconic image when she twirls in that dress on Cesar’s stage, igniting into a fiery mockingjay, sparking the fire that lights the rebellion? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, *please* get thee to the library!)

However, it’s not like Katniss has a copyright on being a rebel. In fact, there are some really unique and intriguing YA books out there that deal with various kinds of rebels, too.

In terms of rebels regretting what they’d done (and indeed rebelling against their own rebellions!), one particularly interesting fantasy series is Cate Tiernan’s Immortal Beloved. Clearly aimed for the older YA set, it follows “Nasty,” one of the immortals who’s lived her life as a ne’er do well–and has not only not done well, she’s done downright vile. As her immortal friends have become increasingly oppressive, obsessive and generally dark magic crazy, she decides she needs to escape. Enter a special retreat for immortals who want to try to resolve their issues, recover who they are as people, and learn to be generally better. The holistic retreat is a shock for Nasty–but as the series progresses, her rebellious nature ultimately leads her towards awareness and improvement, rather than simply acting selfishly and exclusively for her personal benefit. This is a very well-written series, and a very engaging set of rebels!

The Secret to Lying

Following the fantasy rebel theme, though a little more lightly, is Todd Mitchell’s The Secret to Lying. It follows 15-year-old James, an afterthought and general nerd in his previous school, to a new school for the gifted. There, he decides to reinvent himself, to rebel against the stereotype he had been pigeon-holed as, and to spread his wings as a new stereotype (hmmm.): the cool kid. Not a bad idea, but his reliance on creatively retelling the truth leads to not only a humorous/uncomfortable string of events, but also functions as a warning to the reader. This is an interesting page-turner of a story, and speaks to the idea of rebelling gone not quite as well as originally hoped and intended.

Royalty has it’s place rebelling in YA lit, too.

And it rebels with a major cause. Rae Carsons’s The Girl of Fire and Thorns series features a 16-year-old princess-turned-queen protagonist who rebels against neighboring tyrants on behalf of her people. She also rebels (though perhaps inadvertently) against the Disney princess stereotype, as a self-described heavily overweight new queen. Her tendency to rebel both from societal norms and gender norms adds intrigue to a page-turning series.

Oh, but before you conclude that rebellion is a thing of fantasy, brace yourself! It also has a very strong hold in realistic YA fiction.


John Greene’s Looking for Alaska follows Miles Halter as he matures into a rebel against societal norms with his new friends, chases the girl, and tries to learn what’s important in life at his boarding school. Expect cigarettes, swearing, sex, violence and alcohol. (For some reason, elements of Miles remind me of a certain Holden Caulfield).

Finally, Craig Silvey’s tour de force Jasper Jones follows 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin, brought to the brink by the heavy weight of a major secret, a complicated family life, a racist town, and a budding romance. Ultimately, he rebels against his family, against societal norms, even against the law. . . and becomes (arguably) a better–but definitely a happier–person for it. This book, seriously, made me laugh until I cried–talk about beautifully written dialogue!

And these, my friends, are just the tippy-top of some of the YA Lit rebellion canon, from what I can tell. Anyone else read some good rebellions lately? What are your thoughts about teaching rebellion in classrooms? How much is ok? How much topples over the edge? And why oh why is rebellion such a popular YA lit topic, anyway?


Divergent Crazy: Top 16 Books to Get you Through Divergent Withdrawal for the Next Year

Hi all! I meant to mention this before (and failed–sorry about that), but if you get a chance to see the movie Divergent (let alone read the series!) I highly recommend it!


Not all YA book to movie adaptations manage to transition from page to screen smoothly, but I thought that this one was great. Even my 68-year-old father–who makes fun of me incessantly for my interest in YA lit, and has therefore not read the series (though curiously did read The Hunger Games. . . hmmmm. . . )–really, really enjoyed this movie!

To the point, though: This hyperlink takes you to a great list of YA Lit broken into categories (the same as those in Divergent!) to help with the wait until the next episode of the Divergent series is released! So, for example, if you’re feeling rather Erudite, take a look at some interesting YA books under the Erudite section. What really caught my attention with this list is that there were a number of books on it that I haven’t seen time and again on other lists of YA lit. That could be good or bad, but for me? It’s a challenge that I look forward to checking out, and I hope you do too!

Also, to add a little context for those of you unfamiliar with the Divergent series, very briefly, it is a dystopic series set in a society that is broken into factions (separate work/personality groups). In this society, each teenager, upon reaching the appointed age, must publicly commit themselves to the faction of their choosing: either Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity or Candor. Once the group is chosen, though, there’s no going back and undoing it, and failure to sustain the requirements of the chosen group’s initiation results in becoming a member of the “factionless.” The series follows Trish in her choice of which faction she will join (no other hints because I don’t want to ruin it for you!), facing the challenges of that group, as well as trying to make sense of the world as she knows it when the factions war with each other. If you liked The Hunger Games, you’ll definitely enjoy Divergent!

In fact, come to think of it, dystopic novels are pretty popular for young adults. As mentioned, you have those of the Divergent and Hunger Games series, The Giver series, The Maze Runner series. . . I have a sneaky suspicion the list goes on and on. I’m sure there’s a lot I’m missing–anyone else have a dystopic YA series they can plug here?


Tuck Everlasting and Other Thoughts

Tuck Everlasting is a book I adored the first time I read it, probably when I was about 10; at the time I really identified with Winnie. However, rereading it as an adult I noticed a few things that concerned me. In general I am bothered by the literary trope where the immortal character falls for the young female protagonist. Here is someone with decades of experiences falling for a young girl. This is bad enough when the character is a teenage girl; Winnie is 10. I have read way too much about adults who “groom” young children for inappropriate relationships. For Jesse to try to convince 10-year-old Winnie to drink the water when she is 17, so she can be with him, truly disturbs me. I am currently teaching a 6th grade class, and I would hate to think any of my students would get the impression that it’s romantic for a much older person to express interest in them. Granted I am looking at this through 33-year-old eyes, and my 12-year-old students are adoring this novel. It’s possible I am over-thinking this, but I think it’s our job as teachers to notice things before they happen.

Sadly, Natalie Babbitt does not have a blog for us to follow, but she does have an author’s page through Scholastic (

Lastly, I wanted to respond to some of the questions and comments I received after my lesson.

  1. When working in my class I have shown my students a model Voki, this is also an activity I’ve returned to on more than one occasion, and so the more kids work with the site the more comfortable they are with it.
  2. It is possible to embed your Vokis in other sites; with much practice I was able to embed a Voki in a PowerPoint for a presentation.
  3. When students don’t have emails, or are unable to log in, I log them in using my sign in. In fact, I did this for a few people Tuesday!
  4. In order to prepare for this lesson I usually plan out which level I think each student should choose, this doesn’t mean they will, but if I think a student is at a fundamental level and they choose super challenge, I might try having them at least choose the challenge option. It’s also important to have a back-up lesson in case the internet is down, or the computers aren’t working.


New(ish) in YA Lit: The Novel/Photo Book

I’ll  begin this post by freely admitting that I’m a  bit off topic. And by a bit, I mean these are definitely nowhere on our reading lists. However, inspired by the articles posted for us on the benefits of the graphic novel in adolescent classrooms, I went out to the bookstore and library “exploring” how authors in YA are playing with this idea. What I found was somewhat interesting. 


Previously, I had read Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a strange jumbly mix of story narrative with creepy pictures used by the author throughout the narrative to tell the story. This is not your basic graphic novel, by any means. It’s actually a novel that just happens to use intriguing photos like hooks to tell the story and keep the students coming. And come they do! I taught this abroad several times and, by the last time I taught it, I had learned either not to hand it out until the end of class or risk losing students to photo ogling for the remainder of class. Alternatively, I could hand it out and assign an in-class writing assignment: pick a picture and write your own story about what’s happening in it. (I personally really enjoyed the creative aspect of the stories the students dreamed up on that one).

To my surprise and curiosity, the author now has a sequel out, Hollow City. I haven’t read it yet, but I have a feeling it’s in much the same vein: weird kids collected in a fantasy situation facing unspeakable big bad things. Notably, I just read an article announcing that the first book in the series is being made into a movie, due out in 2015, and (yay!) being directed by Tim Burton. 

However, Riggs isn’t the only author fiddling with this. I just read the notably creepy YA book simply titled Asylum by Madeleine Roux. This is more of a classic haunting/things that scare you and go bump in the night book, but with some classic YA themes sprinkled in for good measure. It, too, uses suggestive photographs throughout to build the tension in the narrative. There are a few differences, though. Where Riggs uses (from what the book notes say) only real photographs, Roux has a few real ones but many engineered ones. Also, where Riggs actively uses the photos to move along the plot, Roux uses hers as more of a prop–an addition to what she’s saying, but not a central one. 

AND now that I continue to do research, I see that Miss Peregrine’s has actually been published also as a full-on graphic novel:

I’m thinking that this movement to add a graphic novel in addition to the regular novel may be huge in YA lit–especially with the relative success of (like em or not!) the Twilight saga’s graphic novelization. 

I know that there are more books along these lines being published, and it’s not hard to imagine why these would capture the fancy of the teen reader crowd. What do you think? Does anyone know of others out there? Would you give these a try in your classrooms/classroom libraries?


Ella, Sophie, and the active fantasy heroine

Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine (1997), and Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)

Ella_enchanted_(book_cover)These two books work well as source materials for that old English class stand-by, the comparison essay¹. Ella Enchanted can be set against the story of Cinderella, and both can be set against their movie versions. But what I hope teachers will do with this assignment is push their students to go beyond merely listing the similarities and differences between or among whatever works are being compared, to asking their students to explore the reasons for the differences.

UnknownFor instance: the fairy tale Cinderella² gives us a rags-to-riches story, spiced up with some sibling rivalry and a handsome prince. Levine takes the basic premise and inserts a backstory that gives the heroine not just depth and reality, but also agency. When we discussed these differences in class, we noted how flat and passive Cinderella is. The most active she becomes is when she wishes to go to the ball. Ella, however, when given the “gift” of obedience, no longer has the option of choosing to obey, so she shows agency in how she obeys. Levine also puts Ella on a quest (one of the strengths of this book is how Levine so deftly mixes genres). It’s possible to argue that Perrault, writing in the late 17th century, can’t be expected to be a feminist. Fair enough. So when Levine in the late 20th century re-envisions this story from a feminist viewpoint, she creates a tale that surprises with its depth. Even the evil step-sisters have more to them than jealousy and the desire to be rich.

We didn’t have much time to speak of Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle, except as part of a larger discussion of Keeling and Sprague’s article, “Dragon-Slayer vs. Dragon-Sayer: Reimagining the Female Fantasy Heroine” (2009). To clarify this dichotomy for ourselves, we started listing characters from novels, and then from movies and TV series, whom we thought were one or the other. Lara Croft and Buffy are definitely dragon-slayers (and I’ll now add Mrs. Emma Peel, from the 1960s series The Avengers). Ella and Sophie are somewhere in between the two (as with any dichotomy, these categories are useful only as opposite ends of a spectrum; few characters are purely one or the other). Lizzie Bennet’s name came up as a candidate for the dragon-sayer side (although her face-off with Darcy’s aunt is more slayer than sayer).

Next up: two novels from non-Anglo cultural perspectives: … And now Miguel, about a family of Mexican immigrant sheep farmers in New Mexico, and I, Juan de Pareja, about Diego Velazquez’s slave. Both are Newbery Medal winners.

¹Will someone please explain to me why English teachers, so quick to stamp out redundancy in students’ writing, can’t see it in the tiresome name of this rhetorical mode, the “compare and contrast” essay.

²Andrew Lang’s excellent analysis of Perrault’s version of this European folktale can be found here, and Bruno Bettelheim provides a fascinating Freudian interpretation in The Uses of Enchantment.

Posted by BR