Dave at Night: A Departure for Gail Carson Levine

Dave at NightGail Carson Levine is known for writing fairy-tale–inspired children’s books such as Ella Enchanted and The Princess Tales. But you’ll only finds traces of a fairy tale in Dave at Night. Levine has said: “Dave at Night is historical fiction, my only novel without a shred of fantasy.”

Instead, Levine saw Dave at Night as an opportunity to imagine her father’s childhood. Her father had been an orphan at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum on 137th Street and Amsterdam Avenue during the 1920s, but he never spoke of his time there. So after his death in 1986, Levine researched the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and the time period more broadly, thereby giving us Dave at Night.

The story of Dave at Night is told from the perspective of the spirited, trouble-making, eleven-year-old Dave Caros. Dave is living in a Jewish community in the Lower East Side in October 1926 when his only living parent, his father, dies. (Dave’s mother died in childbirth, an event, Dave jokes, resulting from his earliest attempts at making trouble.) Soon after his father’s death, Dave’s brother Gideon goes to live with their Uncle Jack, leaving Dave with their evil stepmother, Ida, who does not waste any time in abandoning Dave at the Hebrew Home for Boys. From the very beginning, Levine does a remarkable job of revealing 1920s New York through the eyes of an impoverished yet sunny boy. Dave marvels at the automobile in which he rides to his father’s funeral, perhaps not altogether aware of what has happened and what will happen.

When he enters the Hebrew Home for Boys for the first time, Dave describes it as colder than outside. Later that day, at lunch, Dave describes the meat he and his peers are served as “gristly,” and the reader begins to see how the boys’ days are tightly regimented, just as the days at the actual Hebrew Orphan Asylum once were. Not to mention the fact that the asylum’s superintendent, Mr. Bloom (a.k.a. Mr. Doom), terrorizes the boys on a daily basis. Levine has an uncanny ability to set detailed scenes, using only an authentically adolescent voice. The action, too, matches the psyche of a daring adolescent boy, as Dave quickly finds a way to slip out of the asylum by night.

Through Dave’s nights out, Levine artfully weaves the history of the Harlem Renaissance—with all its great writers, painters and musicians—into the novel. On his first night out, Dave meets an elderly Jewish man named Solomon Gruber, who takes him to a rent party on 136th Street, claiming to be his grandfather. And it’s not long before Solly begins to actually fill that role in Dave’s mind. At the rent party, Dave befriends a wealthy African American girl named Irma Lee Packer. Dave is mesmerized by Irma Lee’s beauty and kindness, and she and Dave quickly become the best of friends. Although the doom and gloom of the Hebrew Home for Boys may seem to contrast Dave’s colorful nights in Harlem, there are some sunlit moments there. As Dave becomes closer to each of the “elevens” (the orphans of his age), Dave learns the meaning of friendship and loyalty.

It’s with the help of all of his new friends that Dave makes just the right amount of trouble – an amount that might make life at the Hebrew Home for Boys tolerable. Dave at Night does not want for history, introspection, action or character diversity. With much skill, Levine writes a historically accurate novel featuring a round, lovable narrator, a varying plot and a wide array of wicked and endearing characters.

-SD

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Huck Finn Reviewed: Tears and Flapdoodle

01_top10censoredbooks_huck-finnThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 1884/1885

Where should I start? Adventure story. Coming of age story. Hilarious satire. Cruel slapstick. Failed exploration of the South’s racist culture. Successful representation of Southern dialects. Great American novel. Insult to descendants of enslaved Africans.

Really, you can say almost anything about Twain’s novel, and most people have. Banned within a year of its publication (by the Concord, Massachusetts, Public Library), it’s been on many lists of challenged, censored, or banned books since then, mostly due to Twain’s use of “coarse language” (i.e., racial epithets). Twenty years ago, Jane Smiley pitted Twain’s novel against Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Twain lost (see her article here). Smiley’s argument focuses on Twain’s treatment of Jim, an escaped slave traveling downriver with Huck.

Huck, a child of the south, wrestles through much of his journey with the issue of stealing someone else’s property — in this case, Jim. Huck needs time with Jim to begin to see the man as a man, as someone who gets hungry and frightened, who shows courage, loyalty, and kindness, and who misses his wife and children just like a white man. Eventually, and to the reader’s relief, Huck decides his friendship with Jim is more important than following any property laws, and he decides to help Jim escape, even if it means going to hell.

This much Smiley supports. What she objects to is what happens to Jim in the latter part of the novel, when Tom Sawyer shows up and takes over the rescue of Jim, being held until his owners can claim him. And I have to admit to feeling exasperated with Tom’s shenanigans at the end of the novel, which not only prolong Jim’s captivity, but add discomfort and even danger to his situation. Most readers, in fact, feel that the Tom Sawyer section diminishes the book’s impact.

What’s valuable in it, beyond the humor, is Huck and Jim’s idyll on the Mississippi: days and nights of floating quietly along, with time to appreciate sky and land and water, almost as though they were the sole audience of a glorious spectacle. And all this time, Huck is learning something that surprises him when he wakes up to it: that Jim’s freedom and happiness are invaluable.

–BR

Out of the Dust: A Mine of Teaching Opportunities

PDC – While reading Out of the Dust I couldn’t stop thinking of the unit themes or lessons that I could create if Out of the Dust was the anchor text.

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The amazing things about Out of the Dust are:

  • Time Period: Set during the Great Depression, this can be an opportunity for Cross-Curricular teaching. The students can learn the historical events of the Great Depression in social science. Maybe even learn what is a dust storm is or how it is created in science class. The time period is also a great chance for teachers to hit some Common Core Standards with included informational text, or a documentary into the lesson.
  • Free Verse: The entire novel is written in free-verse poetry. This is a great sage way into a poetry unit, or using Out of the Dust as an anchor text for a poetry unit. Students can explore writing free-verse, the history behind it and the impact free-verse had on poetry and writing.
  • The Story Itself: Out of the Dust is full of complex characters, an interesting plot and the conflict is gripping.

This is truly a novel that can be taught in so many ways and can give teachers a chance to work together cross subjects.

 

Why I would teach on the book The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox

Why I would teach on the book The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox

I believe that students should read a wide range of genres in their English classes. One of the genres I think is most beneficial is historical fiction. Students are able to connect their learning experience in history class to characters that they read about in their historical novels. History text books alone can be boring because of the many facts and figures. There aren’t enough details to engage students into the events and get them to think about the significance of what happened. When authors writing novels are able to use facts and make it relate to people’s own experience, then students could gain a better understanding of events in certain points of history and that is what Paula Fox did in her novel The Slave Dancer.

Paula Fox wrote The Slave Dancer, which is about a boy name Jessie who is kidnapped by sailors to play his fife in a slave ship. The story brought into awareness the horrors of the slave trade and slavery. Paula Fox spent many hours in the New York City public libraries to gather information for her novel. She wanted to have accurate information about slave ships to describe it in her novel. Fox also learned about the different laws that were presented in the time that the novel took place, which was in 1840. According to a New York Times article published in the 1974, Fox stated that The Slave Dancer, “In many ways … was the most difficult book I’ve ever written”. Fox said this because she wanted to have precise information, she also said, “When dealing with a certain period in history… the spontaneity of your writing is restrained by the nagging doubt, ‘Is this true? Is this the way it must have been?” So in order to answer her own personal questions she had to dig into books and find the facts. She read about different historical accounts and incorporated them into her novel.

Fox’s novel is a great literature to use in an English classroom because students would get to learn about the slave trade and slavery through fictional characters. The characters emotions and actions would bring the events to life, and students would see how it affected people. An English teacher could collaborate with a history teacher to create a curriculum where students are able to think about events from a historical lens, and from English. As I did in my mini- lesson, I would find real historical documents like the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano to have students compare both experiences and get an in depth understanding of the horrors slavery during that time period. JA

Check out a cool book trailer for The Slave Dancer

Check out a cool book trailer for The Slave Dancer

Hey All,

I’ve attached a link to the YouTube web page of a book trailer for The Slave Dancer. I must say that the trailers posted on YouTube are not made by professionals, but by students in school, so it’s not as extravagant as what you normally see for movies. There were many book trailers posted for The Slave Dancer and this one was my favorite. I thought that the person spoke clearly and gave great visuals. If you watch it let me know what you think. JA