Links Galore

Some links to help start the week off right:

To Thine Own Self Be True

ophelia200x200A personality quiz based on Shakespeare characters? Just what Friday ordered!

I got Ophelia and although they don’t give any reasoning for this result, I’m going to assume this means that I’m really trying to hold it together surrounded by a lot of evil and crazy. And I like flowers.

In case you want even more Shakespeare, tonight PBS airs Shakespeare Uncovered, which explores some of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, including Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest. And heads up, Whovians–there’s an episode in which David Tennant talks about Hamlet.

Trying to Understand Loss

Still a beautiful way to talk to children about death and grief:

I love that they didn’t try to explain why we lose people. At times like these, it’s incomprehensible how life can be taken and how tragedy can occur. But it’s important to focus on the people lost and the memories, not just the sadness.

Even for families not directly affected by the tragedy at Newtown, it’s still a horrible situation to deal with. The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance also offers some suggestions for helping children cope with this terrible news. And that can include children of all ages, not just the youngest ones. Ongoing, supportive dialog about loss can be good for people of all ages.

A Place for “Weak” Reading

The Hub has a great defense of “weak” YA fiction in the face of rising literary pressure from the Common Core and what this means to teen readers. Maria talks about why not all books need to be weighty works of literature, and why those stories aren’t necessarily going to inspire all readers anyway. One point I liked:

“Thinking about reading for pleasure,  I realized an important point. Literature that is “weak” — not intellectual, not “literary” — is often very enjoyable. It doesn’t require a dissertation; it just takes you along for the ride. And this is exactly the kind of literature that has the most power to motivate a struggling reader who thinks reading is boring.”

Although it’s important to help students’ vocabulary grow and to teach them how to analyze a text, it can be just as important to show students how awesome reading can be. Some students may love The Great Gatsby (crazy drunk parties and romance? heck yeah!) but others might be put off by the initial effort involved in reading and analyzing it. Lighter YA might never show up on the curriculum, but these can be so helpful for students who are developing their love of reading.

On a more personal note, I was always a reader. I was never put off by analyzing books in class or old-fashioned language. But I also read a lot of “weak” fiction in my day. Even though I’d like to claim that my young reading experience was all Madeleine L’Engle and Lois Lowry, I also read a lot of Sleepover Friends and Baby-Sitters Club. Those books didn’t hinder my reading experience; and honestly, sometimes it’s nice to balance reading experiences between the light and the heavy.

Also, I can name at least three times when reading lighter fiction worked in my academic favor:

  • In history class in 7th grade, we were just starting our Civil War unit. Our teacher asked when the Civil War ended and I knew it was 1865 because of Happy Birthday, Addy.
  • On the AP US History exam, I knew the answer to one of the multiple choice questions (can’t remember what it was about, exactly) because of the Felicity books. (Basically, all my knowledge of US History comes from American Girl.)
  • Taking the SATs, I recognized the word androgynous not from our English class vocab lists, but from Francesca Lia Block’s I Was a Teenage Fairy.

Again, this doesn’t mean Great Expectations or Hamlet should be taken off the curriculum. But I think we need to remember that students can get a lot from learning how to love reading and understanding that this experience can be part of their everyday lives. And a lot of times, that connects with reading “weak” fiction for fun.

Has The Catcher in the Rye Already Come of Age?

What does it take for a book to connect with teen readers, and can you teach those books in the classroom? At Slate, Jessica Roake says: “Young readers need a new coming-of-age classic, a book that has yet to be discovered and co-opted by the culture,” because apparently JD Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye just doesn’t do it for teen readers anymore.

I don’t want to argue that The Catcher in the Rye is still what Roake wishes it were–a novel that’s ‘cool,’ that gets passed from reader to reader and deeply affects students. But I think she forgets that English classes aren’t always about reading on your own and discovering books. Most teachers have to work from a syllabus, make students write essays, and analyze metaphors.

A heads up: this is not fun. This is not adventure reading.

Not to say English class can’t be an excellent place to discover literature. I remember diving into The Great Gatsby and being surprised at how awesome it was. But there’s also an aspect of work to it. You’re not allowed to discover the book in our own way because, most often, the teacher is working to make sure the entire class understands the text. It’s a totally different setting than discovering a thrilling and controversial book on your own.

My own Catcher in the Ryeexperience was a good one. I had a fantastic English teacher who didn’t shy away from the book’s racier aspects. (Our final essay was an analysis about the use of “fuck you” in the last few chapters.) I thought a lot about what it meant to save your essential innocence in a world determined to destroy it. I’m really glad I read it in a classroom setting that pushed me to analyze the book.

But I think Roake has a good point–The Catcher in the Rye isn’t a surprise in the same way it was when it was first published. We all know about Holden’s angst and the novel’s use of swears and sex (which are pretty tame compared to what you see on tv). And that’s okay. I don’t think you need to say “we should get rid of it in English classes because it’s not a secret powerful read anymore.” I think it’s still an enormously valuable text and can lead students to a lot of other books–especially YA novels like The Fault in Our Stars, Speak, Story of a Girl, etc. Roake’s suggestion of Black Swan Green sounds awesome, too.

Basically, we should open up syllabi to different and unexpected books. You never know what’s going to connect with students. But I don’t think that should come at the expense of rejecting older works because students already know about them. Students can find something in The Catcher in the Rye or Black Swan Green or Hamlet or Antigone.

May the Words Be Ever in Your Favor

Another reason to pay attention in school–you could get ideas for your own bestselling dystopian YA series. The Oxford Dictionaries looks at the language of The Hunger GamesThey point out how Panem is a take “panem et circenses,” a reference by Roman poet Juvenal to Ancient Roman society. Another part I liked in particular:

“Like many fantasy writers, Collins has invented some new vocabulary of her own. Anavox is akin to a slave – someone who has been punished for a ‘crime’ and thereby made a mute servant. Her reason for choosing this word is simple: the Greek prefix ‘a’ means ‘without’ and the Latin ‘vox’ means ‘voice’ so avox literally means ‘without voice’.”

When I was in sixth grade, I was so mad at my parents for signing me up for Latin class. But apparently they–and Suzanne Collins–were onto something. From real history to bits of inspired Latin, a little knowledge can really inspire your book.

(image: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Authors on Higher Education: What’s Worth It?


Apparently it’s “YA Authors Talk About Higher Education and How It Affects Your Finances” week. First up, John Green looks at whether college is worth it or not.

On the graduate degree side, Laurie Halse Anderson looks at the MFA and if that’s worth it.

As someone who attended both, I had a great academic experience, and I can certainly say that my career was furthered because of my education. But I’d also say that this isn’t the right path for everyone, or the only path available. College and grad school can be absurdly expensive and there are major problems in academia. Still, like John says, the opportunity to learn lots of things is awesome. It really comes down to who you are and what you want out of your education.

(image: Rex Hammock)

Learn All the Things!

John Green talks about why education is awesome:

I’d also add that even though you might not love everything you learn in school, you never know what bit of awesome information will touch you or come into play in other parts of your life. Being a writer means that you need to know everything. Who knows when you character could want to build a catapult, or go to Neptune, or live in feudal Japan, or quote Shakespeare.

School for Rare Books (and the People Who Love Them)

Sometimes Alderman Library inspires silliness instead of scholarship.

This article combines three of my favorite things: books, libraries, and Charlottesville, VA. The Rare Book School, a summer program at the University of Virginia (wahoowa!), is an intensive course about the study, care, and history of the written word. How cool is that? Also cool:

And rare books aren’t just a matter of leather and fine paper. Mr. Suarez has added a number of classes about digitization and likes to begin his own course, Teaching the History of the Book, by passing around a box of Harlequins. Romance novels, he notes, are the biggest part of the publishing industry, and the part that has been most radically transformed by e-books.

“I tell my students to follow the money,” he said. “If you don’t understand the money, you don’t understand the book.”

Would love to hear the Rare Book School’s take on children’s literature. Make sure to check out the rest of the article. If you’re like me, you might be getting started on the application for next summer’s Rare Book School session.