Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, by M.T. Anderson

I imagine that it is pretty rare for a book with the word "astonishing" in the title to actually be astonishing. I am glad to report that The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, by M.T. Anderson, lives up to its promise. This is an extremely powerful novel, well deserving of the 2006 National Book Award for young adult literature, as well as inclusion on the 2007 Printz Award Honor Books list.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is a fictional slave narrative about a young African boy growing up in pre-revolutionary Massachusetts. Two things are distinctive about this narrative: the sophisticated voice of the narrator, and the way in which other fictional accounts of his life are interwoven into the story. I probably also should add that the events that this boy experiences are quite bizarre, but also plausible. Its this combination that makes the book such a good read.

History teachers in particular will enjoy this book, and perhaps want to include it in a study of colonial America. At the end of the novel, there is a very interesting commentary by the author about his use of historical documents and materials. I was most taken by the depiction of the revolutionary army at the start of the American Revolutionary War, as well as the motivations presented for independence. I couldn't help but think of the way the insurgency in Iraq is depicted in today's press, and I wonder if this would be something that middle school and especially high school teachers might make connections to as they discuss this novel.

American literature teachers who are teaching or using slave narratives might also want to incorporate this novel as a way to flesh out some of the issues and complexities surrounding the African experience in the Americas in the 1700's. The language in this book is quite sophisticated, but I think that it could be used with more struggling readers or in more general curriculums as a text that provides challenge but content that is engaging.

Run out and get The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. This is the first book in a series, so you'll want to be prepared for what comes next.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green

My third stop on the 2007 Printz Award Honor Books list is An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green. Don't be fooled by the cover, nor my booktalk below. This is a serious book written for advanced readers and other exceptional youth. It explores the challenges of falling in love and maintaining relationships, but also larger questions having to do with constructing an identity and the purposes of life.

Like Looking for Alaska, Green's previous award-winning book, An Abundance of Katherines pushes the limits of "acceptability" in young adult literature. In this novel, math formulas, footnotes, and words like "fug" are sprinkled throughout; nothing terribily offensive is ever done or said, but the dialogue is realistic and the issues raised are ones that people, and young adults in particular, think about all the time, but rarely get the chance to talk about seriously in school or most other settings.

English teachers might enjoy reading An Abundance of Katherines, but I suspect most will choose not to teach it in their regular curriculums because it is just too "edgy" and unconventional. Because of this, and because the novel revolves around a road trip that takes place immediately after graduation from high school, I recommend teaching the book in an elective English course with high school seniors. High school seniors would likely love the book, and enjoy discussing all of the various issues that it raises.

Even though the book might be a challenge to teach (woops--I forgot to mention that math teachers working with exceptionally talented math students also might find this book a useful one to incorporate into their curriculums), I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to adolescents in grades 8-12 for independent reading. Younger, advanced readers might also enjoy the book, though they might have more questions, or parents might feel a need for conversation about some of the content.

Last but not least, adults who were big fans of Judy Blume's Forever, one of the biggest young adult novels from the 1970's, might also pick up An Abundance of Katherines. This book twists Blume's plot inside out by having the break-up between a Katherine and her "lover" occur at the beginning of the novel, instead of at the end (as well as 18 other times in the novel!). Its a great twist on that previous account of teenage love, and provides today's teens with a much more hip and relevant depiction of the vagaries of adolescent romance.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, has leaped to the top of my list of favorite young adult books. This is a great one for both adults and adolescents. It is even published in two different versions, one for adults and one for adolescents, in the United Kingdom.

Like Sonya Hartnett, the author of Surrender, Zusak is from Australia. But he has written a timeless book that is sure to generate big audiences everywhere (The Book Thief even was on the NY Times bestseller list not too long ago, among other bestseller lists).

What captures my imagination the most is the narrative perspective we get on Nazi Germany in this book. Zusak uses Death as a narrator to tell the story of a young girl named Liesel and her community; the attitude and language of this narrator is unmatched in the history of young adult literature, and always keeps the reader guessing and intrigued.

Both history and English teachers should consider incorporating The Book Thief into their curriculums; in particular, it would pair nicely with The Diary of Ann Frank, or provide a useful substitute for those teachers experiencing Ann Frank-fatigue. Another great pairing would be with Maus, by Art Spiegelman. Students in grades 8 and up would learn a lot from The Book Thief about the ideologies that prevent human beings from acting with kindness and integrity; they also would learn about the power of words and stories to break through these ideologies and create more generous worlds.

My rising 6th grader is in the middle of reading this book, and he says it is terrific so far. The Book Thief is an ambitious read for someone this young (its a long book), but the short chapters, compelling action, and creative storytelling (a picture book is contained within the larger narrative) makes this a tough one to put down, no matter what the age.

Like the other books I am reading right now, The Book Thief is a 2007 Printz Award Honor Book, recognizing outstanding writing in young adult literature. I'm surprised this one didn't win the actual award; there must be a lot of good young adult novels out there.

Surrender, by Sonya Hartnett

The first book on my journey to understand the contemporary world is the 2007 Printz Award Honor Book Surrender, by Sonya Hartnett. Surrender was a great selection. It is one of the most frightening and compelling books that I have ever read (reassuringly, this is an instance of the cover being a very good indicator of the type of narrative contained inside).

My booktalk below gives some of the details related to the scene or situation that generates much of the action and suspense in this novel. However, what is really provocative about Surrender is the plot that follows from this situation. Basically, Hartnett creates a complex relationship between the main character, Anwell, and a "friend" named Finnegan. Through this relationship, Hartnett explores the meaning of isolation and friendship, and what it means to live in a world full of ghosts and terror (interestingly, the setting is Australia--Hartnett is Australian--but the setting for Surrender could be any rural environment in the developed world).

Surrender would be a terrific book to teach in 9th or 10th grade, and maybe even 8th grade, in juxtaposition with other suspenseful narratives such as ones written by Edgar Alan Poe. But the book also stands on its own; it is beautifully written, has lots of religious imagery, and contains subtle commentary on social problems in the contemporary world. The ending is guaranteed to produce energetic debate and discussion. This is a rare novel that will be read and enjoyed by both struggling and advanced readers.

I personally would think carefully about giving this book to a younger middle school student, especially ones who may not be comfortable with psychological suspense and horror. There are some violent incidents--nothing terribly bloody--but the telling is relentless in its darkness and gravity. Young adolescents and pre-adolescents will be drawn to the book; if this happens, I suggest asking them to postpone their reading, or engaging them in conversation about it. There is a lot to talk about.