getting them to read

There's a story in the Guardian about a school in Wellington (NZ) where they are bribing the boys with Coke as a reward for some reading. The rewards get incrementally better with the number of books you can read.

Well. I'm a bit conflicted about this. On one hand, whatever it takes, eh bro? On the other, their little teeth! And the idealist in me wants to believe that there are better rewards, and that the desire to read should be intrinsically rewarding.

What reward programs have worked for you?

BOOK hOOt #4 Tomorrow All Will Be Beautiful

This anthology, provided gratis (thank you!) by the Fremantle Children's Literature Centre, is a collection of writing by Brigid Lowry and illustrations by Beci Orpin.

I went backwards and forwards about these stories and characters; some I loved and imagined reading aloud to my classes, and then there was the second last story "Petalheads."

I don't want to turn anyone who might be reading this (anyone?!) off reading the anthology, but this one was a doozie and exactly the sort of text I think teens don't need to read. I'd love to hear from you if you disagree! The main character Jaya Cloudburst is "let loose in a world of Emilys" and is depressed. She meets up with Ruby who is bipolar. They are in an institution, and are separated when they design posters for "Let's Kill Ourselves Day." Other patients include an anorexic, a romantic interest and Jaya's alcoholic parents. While the pacing is tight and interesting, there's just too much happening in there in terms of unnecessary pain.

Ok, so that one is not my favourite... "An Alphabet of Girls With Glorious Names" is cute and "There Are Two Sorts of People" is lovely too. I loved the structure of this one which used the repetition of the title adding the premise for the next section. For example: "There are two sorts of people, those who like beetroot and those who don't."

"The Wedding Poem" is just beautiful and made me tear up! Here's the first stanza:

Off you go, you two,off you go
Away with you into the dusky summer evening,
flying a light plane into the winds of possibility and chance,
into a sky abundant
with dreams and credit cards, daughters and dogs,
discussions about microwaves and fairy lights.

Everything in this universe
has led to just this moment.

Lowry has an excellent style and her quirky narratives would be cause for lots of discussion.

Recommended for: potential poets, girls who love to doodle and draw and from the back cover: "the girl with the dodgy sense of humour; for the girl who likes sad songs and blue marbles..."

Teaching points:
  • lots of ideas for modelling writing
  • illustrate your own writing a la this text

hoOt #3: So Yesterday

So Yesterday is a 2005 novel from Scott Westerfield. You might have read the Uglies series? It is narrated from the perspective of a 'cool hunter' called Hunter, but his side kick is the much more interesting. She is called Jen, and she's an 'innovator'. While Hunter is on the lookout for the latest trend, Jen is creating them. He first notices her because of her shoelaces and the rising sun pattern she has tied them in.
Again set in Manhattan, this tale is a race to find a disappearing boss, and solve the puzzle of an amazing pair of sneakers.

This is a pacey read that early teens would enjoy. Westerfield plays with the readers pop-cultural intelligence by not product placing any brand names in the text. For example: 'the client' is never named, but the reader can fill the gaps with the Greek goddess of victory ubiquitious shoe. His credit card is a four letter word! These little riddles are humourous and entertaining. But more than that there are informative sidebars into subjects like epidermiology to make points about consumerism and the spread of 'cool.'

I think this would appeal to teens who are consumer and advertsing aware, who might have been exposed to texts about coolhunting before, like the documentary The Merchants Of Cool, or web based organisations like Adbusters. Kids are culturejammers at heart; they hate the idea that they are a cog in the consumerist machine. And this entertaining read would touch that nerve.

Teaching ideas:
  • research an innovator (there's a list in the back of the novel)
  • invent some brand names
  • invent a cool new product and pitch it

Brigid Lowry

I had a lovely morning listening to Brigid Lowry discuss creative writing, and doing some writing myself.

I wrote a story about something I vividly remember from primary school, when a group of boys carved a series of dents in the dirt for a "marble alley" and all the kids gathered every recess and lunch to play. I embellished the edges, of course. Do kids still do that sort of thing? I remember the teachers eventually shut it down, probably because we were all coming back to class filthy or because the marble bartering and competitions got out of control.

Brigid is a Kiwi/ Aussi author of YA fiction books such as Guitar Highway Rose, and Follow the Blue, neither of which I have read- yet... I will now though!

She talked and demonstrated the ways to get some 'juicy writing' out of students. The first warm up task was to write a list of ten things. I started a "bucket list" and surprised myself at all the creative things I want to do. Like play the cello and paint a picture. AND have something published. Now there's a goal!

a world wide trend it appears

In the way that you do, I stumbled on this article from the Wall Street Journal which discusses exactly the ideas that prompted this blog. Go read the whole article if you have a chance. The journalist Katie Roiphe mentions several bestsellers, all of which have disturbing sounding plots.

Here's something that I wonder about:
"Teenagers have historically shown a certain appetite for calamity; they like a little madness, sadism and disease in the books they curl up with at night."

Do you think that's true? I remember moving from The Secret Seven into my Sweet Valley High phase, embarrassing but true. From there into some terrible Judith Krantz, and then all the *canon* that I was supposed to read.

I don't mean to sound like some sort of ingenue. But the DARK SIDE never really drew me in. What has changed that teens today are "curling up with these books"?

And then there's this:

"It’s easy to assume that this new batch of young-adult books peddles despair. In fact, the genre is more uplifting than the fizzy escapism that long dominated the young adult marketplace. Today’s bestselling authors are careful to infuse the final scenes of these bleak explorations with an element of hope..."

They DO peddle despair! And as a teacher, I have to worry that some teens might normalise these behaviours/ people/ events.

And does a happy ending counteract all the preceding misery?

Food for thought!

hOOt #2

Kikki Strike Inside The Shadow City (2006) is about a group of teenage spies who discover a map leading to a world beneath Manhattan.

One of my students put me onto this one. (She chose it on a whim while on holiday and couldn't put it down- one of those books that will be forever connected to the place that she first read it.)

What I liked about it was the smart and sassy dialogue, the attractive setting (it doesn't get any cooler than NY) and the witty 'how to' sections at the end of every chapter which teach useful skills such as "How To Be A Master Of Disguise."

The narrator isn't the titled character. Ananka is the outsider who is initiated into the Irregulars, the group of girls lead by Kiki who explore the underground city. Ananka, endearingly, learns that she has skills and abilities that are valuable to the group. It is this sense of belonging, and the art of making friends that also makes this a valuable read.

Recommended readers: a 12 or 13 year old without a fear of rats.

Teachable points:
  • The 'how to' sections are a fun way to teach instructions and tone
  • The idea of a place 'just beneath the surface' would make an interesting setting for creative fiction
  • The spy genre is ripe for parody or spoof: like The Secret Show

HOoT #1

So, a friend and I were lamenting the content of YA fiction in Australia. It began after a book promotion from "flightless bird" publications where the titles all seemed to involve:
  • a male protagonist (I think there were three females out of twenty titles)
  • the death of one or both parents
  • the removal of protagonist from familiar territory
  • cutting/ suicide/ anorexia/ mental illness and other such complications
  • a quirky and funny sidekick
Now, I'm not suggesting that it is easy to write a novel, or engage young readers who would rather be doing other things, but c'mon now!

So here I go on the lookout for books without any of the above criteria. Books I would be happy to let my class read. Here's hoping they're out there!