Monday, June 18, 2012

Code Name Verity {Read}

Code Name Verity.

By Elizabeth Wein.

2012, 337p.  Hyperion, $16.99 (978-1-4231-5219-4).

Gr. 9-12

Highly Recommended

            Under pain of torture and threat of brutal execution, Verity, a Scottish-British spy, artfully confesses to her Gestapo captors her involvement in the Resistance.  Her confession is penned on scraps of paper—everything from prescription pads to sheet music--belonging to former inhabitants of a country hotel in fictional Ormaie, France.  Through a physically, mentally, and emotionally excruciating written confession, we meet her best friend and civilian air corps pilot, Maddie, who flew her on her last mission.  Although the novel begins in medias res, Verity, in a defiant, sarcastic, and, at times, beaten tone begins with her best friend’s story up until the point she jumps from Maddie’s wounded plane in occupied France.  It is here that Maddie continues the narrative through her pilot’s notes in her simple, honest voice.  Maddie and Verity’s friendship is not one based on boys, clothes, or summer camp; instead, Wein crafts a narrative told in two voices that paints a portrait of genuine friendship in wartime.  A cast of secondary characters on both sides of the war provides depth and contrast to the two friends’ lives.  As historical fiction, some may be bothered by the inventive history and anachronisms, but the author seeks to justify her creative and research processes in the endnotes.  The narrators’ voices are in all essence la verite, truthful.  In the beginning a reader might feel bogged-down by the Scottish brag of Verity’s voice and minute details; however, once immersed in the relationship between the two young women, they will want to prolong the finale and their farewell to these friends. –Audrey Wilson-Youngblood



Friday, June 8, 2012

In Response to "Adventures with Cell Phones"

Audrey Wilson-Youngblood

SLIS 5720

Module 4: Blog Post 2

In Response to "Adventures with Cell Phones"


         Are student cell phones a nuisance or an asset in the classroom?  School boards, administrators, and teachers have gone to great lengths to prevent student use of cell phones from interfering with learning.   Sometimes, however, your greatest nemesis can become your closest ally. 

         The war against electronic devices in schools is a futile and misguided one.  We do not even hold ourselves to the expectation for students to silence, put away, and ignore their personal devices for eight hours.   Faculty meetings are the best example; the greatest perpetrators of cell phone use policies are teachers themselves.  As adults we have embraced and come to rely upon our personal devices to engage in the world.  Are teachers using their devices during meetings to engage in the content?  Usually not, although efforts could be made to incorporate their devices to raise engagement much along the same lines as students.

         In “Adventures with Cell Phones,” Kolb illustrates instructional practices where “a basic cell phone can be the Swiss Army knife of digital learning tools” (2011, p. 41).  Integrating personal devices into instruction 1) increases the time spent on teaching and learning that occurs inside and outside of class and 2) facilitates learning anytime, anywhere at the student’s appropriate pace.  Not only is instruction more effective, but integrating students personal devices into instruction teaches them responsibility through mobile etiquette and the utilization of these skills in future professions. 

         As new technology is developed and marketed to education, district budgets, federal grants, and state funding are decreasing.  A race is on to become a “technology campus,”  but campuses are ill-equipped to supply every student with an iPad.  Student cell phones are free to the district.  Instructional practices that utilize students’ personal devices can be integrated using a basic device that has text-messaging and camera capabilities. 

One practice uses Google Voice as a quizzing tool.  Students call the teacher’s number, listen to a prompt, and then record their response.  The messages are archived and available for MP3 file download.  The teacher can then send a text message back to the student as feedback. 

         Other practices involve taking pictures on the camera phone to Geotag and create maps.  Digital storybooks can also be created using the camera on phones.  Yodio ( allows students to create collaborative storybooks.   Other projects use apps such as Fickr and Photobucket to photo share.

         In addition to photos, students can interact with the curriculum through Classroom Response Systems at no extra charge to the school.  Two sites,,, and allow students to respond to polls, questionnaires, and surveys through text and then see the results live on the screen. 

         Before diving in and asking students to go straight to the cell phones during instruction, it is wise to provide some instruction on cell phone safety.  Kolb provides several specials, sites, videos, and references that help students examine and understand the special issues regarding cell phone activity (2011).   When educating students on cell phone etiquette and safety, the teacher must become the mentor for appropriate use of personal devices in the school community. 

Digital Dossier YouTube Video of “Digital Footprints”

Library Integration

         Libraries as well as classrooms have the potential to expand students’ academic experiences.  Through the use of cell phones, students can tap into a myriad of resources and tools as readers and researchers.  QR Codes or smart tags can be used to allow students immediate access to information. 

A QR Code could be placed on a display of summer reading titles that links students to a review of one or more titles.   All the student needs to do to access the information is to scan the code using a free app such as Microsoft Tag.  New releases can be accompanied with a tag that takes students to the book trailer or author’s website.  Immediate access allows students to engage in reading as a lifelong habit.  One librarian goes so far as to post codes in the bathrooms, strategically pulling students, who may not step foot into the library, into an exciting story with one quick scan.  

goodrads.png         Another use of cell phones in a library includes using social media apps for readers such as Goodreads (  The Goodreads mobile app has a feature that allows readers to scan a book’s barcode and automatically add it to a shelf.  During one ten minute trip to the library, a student could virtually stock his or her “to be read” shelf for months or add books they have read to their shelf for friends to peruse.  Goodreads also provides a place to explore lists, write and read reviews, and connect with authors. 


evernote.png         Phones can also be used as personal storage devices with apps like Evernote.  As students research, they can take pictures of text, write notes, and email themselves documents to be collected in a “notebook.”  They can even share notebooks with collaborators.  Evernote is also accessible through the website ( where students can download content to evaluate, synthesize, and publish their findings. 

         We seem to always be on the search for the next engaging tool or practice.  Rather than trying to re-invent the wheel and spend an enormous amount of time engaging students in classroom instruction, let’s use what students bring to the table—their digital lives—to create a dynamic, collaborative, and creative learning environment. 


For more ideas to engage students in reading visit the Nerdy Book Club blog post “Passive Aggressive Book Promotion.”



Kolb, L (2011). Adventures with Cell Phones.  Educational Leadership, 68 (5), 39-43. 


Thursday, June 7, 2012

In Response to "Gender, Technology, and Libraries"

In Response to “Gender, Technology, and Libraries”

Personal Response

As the fields continue to diversify and become more complex, it will be crucial that a balance of men and women professionals comprise the library sciences and informational technology professions.  However traditional they may have been,  IT and library departments will benefit greatly from an integrated workforce rather than perpetuating the gender disparity (Lamont, 2009). 

Lamont’s assertion that the lack of women in IT positions can be attributed to nature and perception accentuates the socio-cultural influence on women when determining a career path, often one that they place there themselves.  Societal “assumptions that family and home responsibilities will cause women to be less able to contribute” may be a driving force, but women in these roles perpetuate such a perspective and their presumptiveness becomes their greatest obstacle (Lamont, 2009, p.140). 

            Qualities of professionals in IT and library sciences may appear to be masculine and feminine:  hard work, commanding, driven, and competitive vs. instinctive, intuitive, innate, and nurturing (Lamont, 2009).  Perhaps these qualities can be pinpointed to specific male and female traits.  What cannot be undermined is the value all of these qualities contribute to every profession.  Therefore, it is a balance of personal traits, qualities, talents, and work ethic that should be considered when seeking to balance these professions, not necessarily X and Y-chromosomes.  

Until the culture is changed from within, traditional roles will be perpetuated.  Reevaluating, redefining, and rethinking these roles as technology continues to evolve will lead to a blending of these skills.  “If managed properly, the best of classic library theory will combine with IT into a dynamic and diverse workforce as well as a thriving and innovative organization”  (Lamont, 2009, p.141).

Technology Strengths and Weaknesses Analysis

As an educator, my greatest strength has been my ability and determination to continue my own learning journey.  When integrating new technology or exploring digital tools, I utilize technology as a resource to self-teach.  Tools such as YouTube, Google Videos, and subscription sites such as Atmoic Learning enable me to investigate, adopt, and implement a myriad of Web 2.0 tools and hardware.  I utilize colleagues and specialists in my district and networks to support my goals to integrate technology.

            In addition to my commitment to life-long learning, I’ve been fortunate to serve in a leadership role providing professional development to teachers, much of which was instructional technology.  My background, although in depth in many areas such as Mac hardware and applications, Promethean, and a few web-based tools, is not necessarily as broad as it could be.  A lack of breadth of knowledge might lead me to miss supporting teachers’ and students’ needs.  In order to improve upon this weakness, I hope to gain insight into resources that will diversify my technology knowledge base in hardware, software, and web-based tools.  My initiative and drive to keep learning will allow me to improve upon my weaknesses. 

Smart phone applications, in particular, are an area where I see tremendous potential for supporting digital students; however, I feel intimated by the sheer number that are out there let alone how best to determine their quality and usefulness.  Learning to utilize personal devices and piloting initiatives such ad BYOD days (bring your own device), will support students’ information fluency.  Information bombards students at astounding rates through their own personal devices they carry with them.  If we can help students to harness the device as a tool rather than a perpetual information conduit and critically evaluate information, this will positively impact their problem solving and digital citizenship skills (Smaldino et al., 2012).

            In addition to personal devices, I hope to continue to gain experience designing and maintaining engaging, interactive sites, blogs, and spaces. I envision creating a virtual space as diverse and extensive as the physical library for students and teachers that integrates traditional learning methods with 21st century literacies and skills.  In order to create such a space, I will continue to experiment with and become efficient in using platforms such as Google, Posterous, Wordpress, collaboration sites, etc.

A transition from the classroom or even professional development department into library and media specialist is a challenging process.  Fortunately, I feel that my drive and motivation to continually learn will allow me to meet these goals as I diversify and integrate my own skill sets and qualities.



Lamont, M. (2009). Gender, Technology, and Libraries. Information Technology & Libraries, 28(3), 137-142.

Smaldino, S.E., Lowther, D.L., Russell, J.D. (2012).  Instructional Technology and Media for Learning.  10th ed.  Boston, MA:  Pearson. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Independent Reading Myth #5--I have to cover all this literature {Teach}

Myth #5--I don't have the time.  We have all this literature we have to "cover."

I have too much to cover.   This perception of English Language Arts in the high school classroom makes me shudder-- only because I can hear my own voice echoing its sentiment.  In the course of the year I need to get my students through the Federalist Papers, The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, Huckleberry Finn, Great Gatsby, AND a full research paper!

I feel your pain!  There is little we can do to remedy the sheer amount of literature we are expected to teach in the upper-level courses (except maybe volunteer for the curriculum writing committee).  But, I am a firm believer of teaching narrow and teaching deep.  

There are creative and intuitive ways around and through the length and density of some literature, allowing time for students to truly develop as life-long readers.  I have sacrified Hawthorne to make room for Conrad, Collins, and Draper.  And I have even found ways to bring them all together.  Balancing the canon and young adult literature can be done, it is a lot of fun, and your students will be the better for it!

There are a few practices I've adopted and adapted over the years that have helped me achieve an acceptable balance;  two such practices saved me from a most regrettable pattern:  killing the story.  

To begin with, we (the literature lover in all of us) need to let go of teaching everything in a novel.  I, personally, loved my literature classes where we came in and the professor engaged us in a discussion about the week's reading, uncovering all of the hidden elements, characterization, theme, and symbols.  It goes back to the question, "Why do we teach literature?"  When was the last time you asked yourself why you use a particular title in your class and whether or not that time could be spent on building a community of readers?  In my English heart, I teach literature for the enduring story.  

It was a tough decision at first, determining which element to focus on.  I tried to choose no more than three elements that we could really dig into over the course of the novel study.  By narrowing my focus and teaching in depth, my students were able to focus on the enjoyment of the story.  All craftmanship and literary expertise aside, it's the story that makes great literature great. During The Crucible we focused solely on character analysis, which of course ended up in a terrific examination of theme.  Students chose which character they would "dissect" early in the play.  There were no surprises or "gotchas."  The expectations were clear and reading and writing support was in place so that students could read without fear of a looming test or on-demand essay. 

I learend to let go of my highlighter and annotations, and then I learned to shape my students' reading experience as a filmmaker.  Think of a cinematographer in a film.  He must decide, with the director's input, where to zoom-in tightly to focus on a detail in the scene or actor's reaction and when to zoom-out to provide the audience with a broader understanding of the scene, context, or event unfolding.  This is how I approach my longer texts and novels.  With the author's guidance, I consider the story line first.  One of my most regrettable teaching sins is having spent six weeks teaching my students To Kill a Mockingbird (this went on for longer than I care to share).  My chapter-by-chapter reading guides were excellent!  Vocabulary was carefully aligned with the current chapters, and all of my reading quizzes were exact.

I couldn't understand why after such an extensive and intensive examination of my favorite text, they didn't connect to it at all and breathed heavy sighs of relief as soon as the last sentence was read.  By teaching every literary element, analyzing characters to death, and continually asking them to ponder theme after theme, I had killed the story.  Ever heard of how in baking there's such a thing as kneading the bread too much?  My student's gluten strands had snapped back in chapter 13 and there inner readers were a goopy mess.  

I discovered, slowly, that my first responsibility was to the story.  Thinking in terms of film helped me to consider places in the novel where I could zoom-out to show a bigger picture or provide a context.  Zooming out might mean a shared reading where I read to the students as they followed, with no during-reading activities and very light after-reading.  It might look like assigning a particularly engaging section to students to read independently once I was certain I had supported everything they would need in class to understand and enjoy it at home.  I even employed film adaptation, graphic novel, and artwork to perserve the story but move our exploration along.  

I planned ahead of time where we would slow down, zoom-in, and take a closer look.  Oftentimes, these were key milestones in a character's journey or plot.  If our literary focus was on tone, as it was in The Scarlet Letter, we would use multiple draft reading (Gallagher) to re-examine as discovery.  Zooming in provided the scaffolding for my students to become analytical readers while enjoying reading.  

When I began to carefully craft our exploration of a novel, I found that instructional time opened up for me.  I had time to book talk, read aloud, and even share excerpts from young adult literature that connected with the traditional literature we were studying.  

While reading The Great Gatsby we took some time to enjoy selections from Gordan Korman's retelling, Jake, Reinvented.  As Hester suffered in silence at the hands of the hypocrisy of her town, we listened to the experiences of a high school rape victim, ostracized by her school in Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak.  Oh, the magic that happens for your students when they begin to experience and find the connections themselves!  Had I not learned to edit, zoom-out, fast-forward, and zoom-in, we never would have had the time for those moments.  

My usual response to the colleague who pleads with me, "how can I possibly add one more thing to my plate?"  is "how can you not?"  When the truth is that by adding independent reading to your daily routine not only builds fluency and reading habits, thereby allowing you to let go of practices that might not be as efficient,  but as a regular practice it further develops:

1) vocabulary

2)  critical reading/ thinking

3)  writing

4)  focus and attention

5)  stamina

6)  comprehension

7)  self-worth and efficacy as a reader

8)  sheert enjoyment of reading!

How can you not?  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Independent Reading Myth #4--It'll mean more time for me...{Teach}

Myth #4--It'll mean more time spent on grading poster and book reports or messing with those leveled reading programs.

Oh, the poster project.  The book report.  The book summary followed by the tic-tac-toe assignment and endless CDs of soundtracks all dedicated to Edward Cullen. I've been there and sometimes I feel like it never leaves me.  

And what about those leveled programs we see so neatly packaged by lexile?  First of all, how do you know your students' true lexile scores?  From the state's standardized text score from last year's test?  Second of all, is there a magical button students press where the leveled program takes into account their reading interests as well as their reading ability?  Nope.  That's called a teacher, folks.  

Here's a secret to independent don't have to assign a major grade to it every grading period or rely on a strict program to hold students accountable.  Shocker, I know!

When SSR is integrated as a daily routine and students are encouraged to talk about and write in response to what they read after seeing it modeled by you, they will actually do it!  There’s no magical formula folks.  Allow students time and freedom to read for pleasure + read in front of and with your kids + model how readers think, write, and talk about what they read= students who read independently chosen texts AND talk to other readers about what they read (audible gasp)!

Am I oversimplifying the issue?  Yes, I am.  Unfortunately, most students need more external motivation than the pleasure of talk to other readers in the beginning,  which is why I started to integrated reader responses into my writer's notebook requirements.  If students are responsible for 20 entries for a grading period, 5 of those are expected to be in response to what they are reading.  

I'll even sneak an actual assignment (low-stakes) into the mix such as identifying and exploring the tone, mood, theme, or even characters.  We dabble in creative responses to literature in the form of reader's theatre scripts and found poems.  But, it's always an invitation to play.  I find that my students' responses to the texts they read for pleasure are much more insightful and analytical than those more traditional texts we often assign them to read in the name of rigor. 

There is still a time and place for cumulating projects.  Instead of book reports or soundtracks, my students read, analyze, and craft their own reviews to post to or a book trailer to post to youtube.  Because that's what readers do when moved by a text.  Formative assessments include their reader response entries, which I do read each grading period, and reading conferences, where the meat of their experiences are brought to the surface. 

Is there a time investment at first?  Most definitely.  When I consider practices to adopt or discard, I think of it in terms of investment.  What will the initial cost be versus the ultimate pay-off or return?  When it comes to independent reading, the return is well worth anything you put into it.  Independent reading saves me time.  Rather than creating individual vocabulary, reading, analysis, and writing tasks for my students, I spend that time browsing new books, talking to students about what they are reading, and investing in the reading habits that will continue to develop vocabulary, writing, comprehension, and critical thinking far after they leave my room.  That's more than any grammar workbook or novel reading guide has ever done for me or my students. 


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Independent Reading Myth #3--Students won't read in class...{Teach}

Myth #3--Students won't read in class if I give them time.

This is the #1 management issue I hear from teachers and that I've faced myself.  For some reason they think when I say, "reading time starts now," its code to begin whispering to one another, working on homework for another class, sleeping, or not-so-covertly texting.  

My first question for a teacher who comes to me with this concern is, what are you doing during SSR?  Nine times out of ten the teacher "borrows" a few minutes to take attendance, check her email, or enter those last few grades for the essays she stayed up well past midnight to grade;  I'm guilty of all of the above.  

Stop it!  When you stop everything that you are doing to read it sends a powerful and unforgettable message that reading is so invaluable nothing is to interrupt it, not even your own perceived needs.  This was probably the most difficult part for me.  I am a perpetual multi-tasker.  But, oh!  The freedom from trying to do so much revitalized my reading life. 

When all of the above fails,  I have to ask, how are you helping match your most tangled readers with an appropriate text to spark their interest?  We'll spend more time on this learned talent later, but until then here are just a few pieces to the machinery of my reading community.

  •  Book Talks--Talk about what you are reading.  What do you say to your friends when you are excited about a book you can't pull yourself away from?  You don't spill the entire plot, right?  Rather, you give them just enough so they want to snatch it up as soon as you are finished.  This is the perfect opportunity to model what real readers do as they share their reading experiences.  Also, it's an opportune time to sneak in a mini-lesson (very mini) about previewing and predicting texts.  Book talks work especially well at the beginning of SSR.  I'm very purposeful with my booktalks.  Sometimes, it's a book I've chosen for a reluctant or stalled reader, knowing he or she will be the first ask for it.  And other times the book might have a thematic link to our shared reading;  my more sophisticated readers understand the magic that can occur when you begin to read for themes across genres and across books.  If you're still unsure what to say, read the cover.  Publishers usually do a pretty good job o inviting readers to try the book on. 
  • Read-Aloud--I fight hard to preserve my read aloud time.  This is also a good practice to begin SSR with.  During read aloud, you are reading and the students are listening.  That's it.  Period.  I begin read aloud by reminding my students of the purpose--listen to enjoy.  Read alouds can be editorials or articles, cartoons, excerpts from novels, picture books, or entire novels.  One of my favorite read aloud experiences was with a little book called Same Kind of Different As Me.  Written by two Fort Worthers, this precious story describes the unlikely relationship between an entrepreneur, his terminally ill wife, and a homeless felon and how they learned that it's not the differences that matter, but the sameness.  Choose texts that are pleasing to hear, good strong story arcs or structure, and challenge the reader just enough to help build an understanding of structure and vocabulary.  At the end of a read aloud, don't start in with twenty questions over plot, character, support, or theme.  Invite students to respond however they need to with a simple, "what sticks with you?" 
  • Excerpts-  I love to be sneaky and bring in an especially enticing YA excerpt to pair with traditional literature.  Some of my favorites include Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak paired with The Scarlet Letter, Gordan Korman's Jake, Reinvented with The Great Gatsby,  Sharon Draper's Romiette and Julio with Romeo and Juliet, just to name a few.  The excerpts are used not only to draw connections between texts, but also as vehicles for many litearcy skills.  I find that examining the isolation and social-outasts from the perspective of a 15-year old freshmen is a little more approachable than through Hester Prynne.  Inevitably, some reader will ask to check out the entire book once we spend part of  a day exploring a snippet.  Excerpts also make for terrific mentor texts during writer's workshop as well. 
  • Conferences-  I've already discussed the power of talking to your readers about what you read.  Talking to them about what and how they read is as equally important.  I'm not talking about asking them to provide you with a five sentence summary, analyze the intrinsic motivation of the character, or expound on the symbollic or thematic elements.  The kind of transformative talk that makes readers grows organically from a student's reading experience, how he or she relates to the text.  Conferences, one-on-one or small group discussions with readers, allow this transaction to come to the surface.  Tangled and alliterate readers may not have recent experience with a text that invited them to make their own meaning.  Their experiences stem from teacher-selected reading tasks and purposes.  Again, I like to start with a simple question, "What sticks with you?"  From there, with some probing and modeling, I allow the conference to take its natural shape.  Not only can I judge whether or not a book is a good match for a reader, but I can facilitate a deeper reading experience and recommend subsequent titles. 

Any new practice takes time to adapt.  Most of your average 17-year olds have very vague recollections of choosing a book AND being given time in class to read it.  Some have no memory of such a practice as they were probably never given that freedom.  Sad, I know.  And so it's going to take some time.  In the fall we are warming up, building those reading muscles, forming good habits as readers, exploring our own reading interests and styles.  Sometime before Christmas my new readers might finish the first book they have ever read by themselves that they chose.  Between New Year's and Spring Break everyone is exploring their reading identities.  And in the spring, we all sit back and marvel at the transformation.  Just remember, for some of your readers, one or two books is a success. 

Still unsure or need more convincing?  Check out some of these resources:

Teri Lesesne's Making the Match

Kelly Gallagher's Readicide

Penny Kittle's Book Love (coming fall 2012)

Janet Allen's Yellow Brick Roads

How are you able to facilitate a reading community that reads together?

Happy reading!



Friday, May 25, 2012

Independent Reading Myth #2--I have to know a lot about YA literature {Teach}

Myth #2--I have to know a lot about YA literature.

Let's face it; we can't all be Book Whisperers (nod to esteemed colleague and friend Donalyn Miller).  The life of an English teacher usually involves hours bent over essays or perusing the same classical text we've taught for the umpteenth time.  When am I supposed to have time to read something for fun let alone books for teens?    

I don't expect every high school teacher to be a card carrying member of the American Library Association, dedicated to each new issue of School Library Journal.  When I first introduced independent reading or Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) into my classroom routine, I had a grand total of 15 books sitting on the shelf,  five of which were in the Harry Potter series.  

It doesn't matter where you start as long as you start somewhere.  I don't care if it's The Hunger Games or even Twilight.  If your students start to see you as a reader, then they will begin to see that reading has value.

You may not know much about YA when you begin, but by the end of the first month you will have more book recommendations from students, blogs, and your librarian then you know where to make your reading piles.  Until then, here are a few sites to feed your new-found literary habit:

1) social site that allows users to build shelves (to-be read, reading, read) and organize their reading lists, browe new titles, connect with readers and authors, and rate and review their books. 

2) blog by two teachers who are devoted to sharing books they read that promote all areas of literacy.  The books are reviewed and can be filtered by literacy strand that the bloggers see an opportunity for classroom use as a mentor text.  Using current, exciting young adult literature to teach literacy!  How novel!

3)  YouTube--A simple search for "young adult book trailers" will produce gobs and gobs of professional and fan-made book trailers.  Bre sure to preview trailers before showing them to kids as the quality and content may not always be suitable for classroom use.

4)  Barnes and Noble/ Amazon--both bookseller's sites have a section for young adult literature, recommendations, reviews, and lists.  Warning:  do not auto-fill your credit card info before browsing as purchasing all the wonderful titles you find becomes very addicting and "just one more book" becomes two boxes full of hardbacks delivered by your local FedEx truck!

5)  Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA)  A division of ALA devoted to young adult teachers, librarians, and readers, this organization provides several useful top ten lists compiled by teens themselves.

6) we have another social media site where users can be readers and writers.  There are forums for writers to publish their own work on the site and to browse other user's writings.  On the reading side, Figment posts latest book news, trailers, author interviews, and reviews. 

A thriving reading community is dependent upon authentic reading role-models.  As the facilitator of the community, the time that you invest in reading in front of your kids and talking about what you are raeding, the more gains you will see in their level of interest. 

I may never be the kind of reader I imagine in my head; I read much more slowly than some might imagine.  Unlike my colleagues, I can't race through a 400-page novel in one Sunday afternoon.  I don't know if I'll ever read ALL of the Newbery books or complete a hundred book challenge.  But, I do know that if I never try, then not only will I never be that reader, but neither will my students. 

How did you make that reading leap?  What book re-invented you as a reader?


Happy reading!



Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Insurgent by Veronica Roth {Read}

Originally written for on May 23rd, 2012
Insurgent by Veronica Roth
One choice can transform you—or it can destroy you. But every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves—and herself—while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love ( What would you choose if you only had one choice:  bravery, honesty, selflessness, knowledge, or peace?  If all of your actions, your relationships, your being were to be determined by only one of these traits, what would be your choice?? 
The futuristic society of Veronica Roth’s Divergent has determined that the one way to combat the darkness of human nature is to divide itself into five factions, each faction devoted to one of the pre-determined necessary human qualities. Sixteen-year old Beatrice (Tris) Prior’s journey begins with a choosing ceremony.  (Sound familiar?) Unlike her peers, Tris has a much broader spectrum of who she could become.  Her choice takes her to a foreign world on the other side of the tracks in downtown Chicago where there’s a fine line between bravery and bullying, courage and cowardice. 
Suddenly, she finds herself at the center of a social and political civil war.  As Divergent closes we find ourselves speeding away on a train through the heart of Chicago seeking sanctuary from those who once stood by Tris, protected her,  glowing in the warmth of her new-found relationship with fellow Dauntless, Four,  and  suspended as  she yearns for redemption from her overwhelming guilt.
Insurgent is a remarkable exploration of human nature and motivation.  It’s an experiment in societal reform.  When society has so divided itself that it can no longer function as a cohesive organism what happens to those who have been abused and their abusers?     As the consequences of her fatal choice in Divergent fall like dominoes, faster than she can process, her dearest relationships are endangered;  her self-searching and determination to understand the truth about who she is at the foreground of a crumbling societey. 
True to many other “seconds” in a series, I found myself spending a painful amount of time teetering at the edge of our hero’s abyss.   In the first installation, we walk with Beatrice through the threshold (Divergent fans recall Tris catapulting herself from a rooftop) as she finds a loyal band of followers and undergoes a series of tests and trials as part of her initiation.  Once her quest is determined in Insurgent, other figures emerge as part of the dystopian landscape: the evil figure with the untimely good heart, the temptress, even death and rebirth.  As her plunge into the abyss drawers nearer, she must go deeper and deeper into her most fearsome landscape-- her own soul-- in order to proceed with her journey of self-discovery.
It is impossible to ignore the similarities between Tris Prior, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter, Todd Hewitt, Cassia Reyes and countless other YA sci-fi/ fantasy heroes, teens teetering at the edge of their own awakening to their true powers.  Every one of their societies is fighting to analyze, sort, and label who they will become.  The societies and settings, too, bare familiarities leading me to believe that Gale or Katniss will suddenly appear, running alongside the train with Four and the other Dauntless.  I hear Manchee’s searching “Todd?” from under some discarded street rubble.  At any moment, I expect Hermione to pop out of the Erudite crowd, toting a long lost volume that holds the key to what really lies outside of the fence. 
And so, as I sprinted through the final chapter and the shadows on the wall were revealed to me as they are revealed during the jaw-dropping finale, I couldn’t help but wonder …Why are we so drawn to adolescent heroes who are standing on a precipice, waiting and daring to take such a leap, whether it be bravery or curiosity that compels them?
 There is no denying the sudden rise in popularity of dystopian literature.  A recent Goodreads blog examined the growing trend in popularity of dystopian novels and described its over-arching themes over the last 50 years.  The blogger labels this latest explosion (The Hunger Games, Matched, Diverent) as “Romance” Dystopian and sites such inspirations as 9/11, War on Terrorism, and the prevalence of pop culture.  Tough heroines and anti-conformity drive these stories. 
After reading Divergent and now Insurgent, I am taken back to an Erudite’s explanation,
“Insurgent,” he says.  “Noun.  A person who acts in opposition to the established authority, who is not necessarily regarded as a belligerent. “ 
Do I hear anti-conformity?  Oh , yes.  But I think it extends beyond being radical, to being purposeful.  In a futuristic society where every member knows his or her purpose as it is handed down to him or her, where does that leave free-will?  As a constructivist, this resonates with me.  As information is funneled into our teens (as it so often is at many bytes per minute), they are persistently bombarded with labels, categories, and profiles, what choices then are left to them to determine what their truth is? 
Are we--all of us as educators, librarians, readers--not all insurgent, seeking truth for ourselves and then deciding how we will assimilate that truth into who we are and what motivates us?
Are teens devouring dystopian literature for their love triangles and star-crossed lovers?  Yes, probably.  But, are they also entering a landscape of their own fears, beliefs, doubts, and dreams in order to choose what they will take with them as they emerge from their own abyss and cross the impending threshold into adulthood?  Absolutely!
Official book trailer:
This is Audrey’s second post for Nerdy Book ClubShe is still the mother of a fantastic, nerdy little boy who can read Tigger over and over again, ready to wave “bye-bye” on the last page every time.  She is still an advocate of creating brilliant reading communities that allow for choice, identity, and risk-taking in the high school classroom.  And she is now and forever, insurgent.   Follow her blog at 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Independent Reading Myth #1--Today's teenagers don't read {Teach}

Myth #1--Today's teenagers don't read.

There is a heavily engraved image of today's youth, earbuds as an extension of their actual bodies, thumbs glued to their smart phones.  No where do we see books in their hands.  Today's youth is uninterested in the simple pleasure of reading.  He would rather be figuring out how to advance to the next level of Halo XXIII or updating his Facebook status about what he ate for dinner.  Not only is he uninterested in the simplicity of the printed word, he doesn't have the attention span for it.

On the contrary, according to the NEA's 2008 report, Reading on the Rise, young adults represent the fastest growing subpopulation that have significantly increased their reading habits.  Literary reading as a whole has reversed its downward spiral over the past two decades, increasing by 7% between 2002-2008.  Young adults, who on the last survey showed the steepest decline in 2002 have grown by 9 points, rising fastest out of the whole survey population.  In 2008, 51% of young adults reported that they read novels, short stories, poems, and plays either in print or online. 

The reality is that today's teens are reading and reading in droves!  Thanks to the popularity of recent blockbuster adaptations of YA series, these exciting and relevant stories are coming into mainstream.  In fact, there is even a movement to include a book award in Fox's Teen Choice Awards.  YA author Jennifer Donnelly has been an advocate of this movement from the beginning.  I can see it now--Veronica Roth's Divergent up there next to Lil Wayne and Lady Gaga.

Teens are flocking to stories with strong heroines and nerdy book smart boys.  They are stalking authors like John Greene and Stephanie Meyer with more gusto than any film or radio star.

How do I know this?  Because I talk to them about it. I ask them what they've read or who their favorite author is.  I ask them about how they choose books and who among their friends shares the same taste in books as they do.  I ask them what makes a book great and then dangle carrots of curiousity in front of their noses, hoping to lead to discover yet another awesome YA novel.

Then why can't we seem them doing it? Many of them are reading covertly.  Sadly, in their daily lives reading may not be valued.  Perhaps none of their teachers talk to them about reading for pleasure or even give them time to read something of their choice in class.  Devastating, I know.  Or for some, they are reading in plain view, right under your nose.  E-readers, apps, and digital media have connected a whole generation of "digital natives" to a new look at literary life.  They look like they are scrolling through Facebook?  Nope, they're flipping as fast as they can through The Summer I Turned Pretty.  Texting a friend?  Nope, they are updating their goodreads shelves and writing reviews of their favorites.

Perhaps it's not teens whose behaviors and perceptions need a major shift.  Perhaps it's how we perceive readers themselves and what they read that could use a little adjustment instead.  

Like to think about this a little more?  Check out some of these resources:

"The Young Adult Voice in Research About Young Adults" (YALSA)

"The Kids Books are Alright" (NY Times)

"American Reading Habits Studied"


Please share any resources you may have to contribute to this conversation!


Happy reading :-)





Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Myths Surrounding Independent Reading in High School {Teach}

Often, when I'm out visiting with teachers and consulting, I make the positive presupposition (Thank you Kathryn Kee! ) that teachers are having their students read a text of their choice everyday.  I might make such comments as, "This would be an easy strategy to integrate into students' independent response time during their free reading time in class."  Or, "When you book-talk to your students, you might frame it in terms of genre..."
Sometimes I receive polite head-nods and sometimes I receive eye-rolling.  Independent reading time in a high school English classroom?  (And unicorns poop rainbows.)
Every now and then, I'm greatful for the honest and inquisitive participant who timidly raises her hand to ask, "What exactly do you mean by 'independent reading'?"  She is usually within her first 5 years of teaching,  graduated from a stellar English literature/ composition program, and is the dark horse of the English department who spends her time reading things like  English Journal or following Jim Burke on Twitter.
When these gems come my way, I leap at the opportunity to unravel some perpetuative myths that exist in high school English departments and their most faithful faculty regarding independent reading.  These conversations allow me to dig down to my most fervent beliefs about reading communities and often do challenge some of those beliefs.  But, by the end of our conversation, whereas we may not still agree with one another, both the participant and myself have expanded our views just a little bit broader.
And so, here they are!  The top 5 most common myths surrounding independent reading in high school:
Myth #1--Today's teenagers don't read.
Myth #2--I have to know a lot about YA literature.
Myth #3--Students won't read in class if I give them time.
Myth #4--It'll mean more time spent on grading poster and book reports or messing with those leveled reading programs.
Myth #5--I don't have the time.  We have all this literature we have to "cover."
Boiling down all of the-- honestly-- valid obstacles to independent reading I have encountered myself and heard from colleagues to these five things is probably oversimplifying the issue.  If I've learned anything about problem solving as an educator, it's that I need to start with what seems simple first.  Then, as I work my way through one problem at a time, the larger obstacle doesn't feel quite so overwhelming.
As a novice teacher, the five statements above floated above my head as I began to dig more into the possibility I knew was there for amazing reading experiences for myself and my students.  Please understand, I am not trying to be-little anyone's experience or perspective.  The following "myths" I'll offer as a series of posts echo my deepest, darkest, and most powerful experiences along my own journey.
More importanlty than de-bunking these "myths,"  I hope to provide a snippet of success here and there and resources that I rely on to create a transformative, empowering reading community.
Happy reading!


Friday, April 27, 2012

{Read} Dear Will: Dead End in Norvelt (2012)

Dear Will,
Here we are suddenly at the last Newberry (I reserve the right to skip around chronologically).  We started at the first, Story of Mankind, which I appreciated for its scope and history of our species.  I wrote to you about the importance of understanidng history to know where you came from and where you are headed.
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos urges us to consider our history so we do not repeat the same mistakes.
Miss Volker, the spicy old woman who delievers countless life lessons to young Jack as she dictates the dying town's most recent obituary, is a curator of history.  For each new death, she's able to find connection and make meaning by attaching a historical significance not only to the person's life, but to our collective history.  Through this, she reminds me that we are all inter-connected in a myriad of ways.
Jack undergoes a series of adventures from his dad's rebuild of a WWII fighter plane to a death threat from a menacing Hell's Angel who rides into town. Over the course of one summer, Jack learns, "The reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you've done in the past is so you don't do it again...."  But, history is more than about not repeating your own mistakes.
As Miss Volker dictates to Jack in an especially poingnant obituary for the town's librarian,
When the sun goes down each day it turns its back on the present and steps into the past...but it is never dead.  History is a form of nature, like the mountains and sea and sky...but every living soul is a book of their own history, which sits on the ever-growing shelf in the library of human memories."
Books, dear Will, reading and storytelling.  These are the gifts our history has bestowed upon our peculiar race.  Some quirk of evolution or act of God elected that humans be gifted with a collective memory through literature and history.  My hope for you is that you embrace the moments when you recognize a part of yourself in a book or someone else's life.  In these moments, we feel a tremendous connection where we can never be alone or lonely and we relate to others through empathy.  If there is one trait I wish for you above all else it's empathy.
Happy reading!


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

[Fear] Calls {Read}

I have a deeply routed fear.  It's been there now, deep in my psyche and weighing on my heart for about a year.  When I least expect, it creeps up like a serpnt from the base of my big toe and wraps itself around my heart.  Air rushes from my lungs and tears fill my eyes.

I've become a magnet.  A magnet to stories, blogs, novels, anything regarding parents and children, especially mothers and their sons.  It feels like there's been an explosion on Facebook of blogs reposted by friends of families who have experienced the loss of a child or a parent.  Their stories lead me to my knees, humbled in the face of my fear.

My fear is two-fold:

1) That I will lose my son.

2) That my son will lose me.

The truth of the matter is- unless a freak and tragic accident takes us both at the same time (God forbid)- one of us will lose the other in our lifetime.  And this is the thought that wakes me up at night and that draws me to stories of loss.

Today, a friend reposted a blog of a mother whose toddler son died from a heart arhythmia during his regular nap.

A couple of months ago, a friend reposted a blog of a husband and father of two young boys, whose wife died very suddenly last fall.

I read their stories and beg...whoever is out there to beg...that it not be me and my son.

Recently, I read Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls.  This superb, lovely, painful little book has haunted me ever since.  As the main character's mother is dying from cancer, he struggles to satiate the monster who calls on him every night at the same time.  At a certain point in the book, the boy steps into the monster and becomes him, wreaking havoc and destruction on his enemies.  And yet, this is not the monster that he fears the most.  What he fears the most is fear itself.  Fear that what he truly wants is for his mother to die to end her pain.  Fear that his mother will die.  Fear that, when the time comes, he cannot let her go.

At night, when the shadows reach across the bed from the tree outside my window, I can feel the yew's prickly branches and its spicy, woody scent fills my nose. 

I know one day that my fear will be realized.  Until then, I'll keep reading.  I read to find solace in the inexplicable connection grief can weave between strangers.  I read to unearth glints of understanding and patterns to try to ratioanlize why a mother would ever have to lose a child or a child ever to have to live without its mother.  But I know that just as this Winter will turn to Spring,  there is life on the otherside.  It's a life I never want to understand. 

But until then, I'll read.

My fear does bring me joy.  It's started to become my companion during the day, especially when a toddler tantrum raises feelings of frustration.  My fear whispers, "someday, these moments will be memories.  Someday your arms will ache to wrap themselves around him and he will not be there.  Someday he will long to hear you say his name and whisper, "I love you," but you will not be there."  And so, in those moments and every moment in between I will say his name and whisper as I wrap my arms around him, "I love you. I love you.  I love you."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

{Read} Urban YA Top Ten List

Urban YA Top Ten List

In preparation for compiling a top ten list, I asked a good friend of mine if I could raid her English department library to brush up on my urban YA lit. As we poured over titles in a colleague’s classroom library, she asked, "How are you defining 'urban YA?'"

I paused. "Well, YA titles with urban settings I guess?" (Dur).

I started to rattle off a number of what I felt to be obvious criteria: issues that deal with street violence, gangs, drugs, racial conflict, teen pregnancy, homeless teens, obscene language....and I stopped myself. Here I was, attempting to define a literary genre with every cliché that so many of my students are slapped with every day. I wouldn't limit my understanding of my own students with these labels; how incredibly unfair of me to do it to the books they love!

Not only are these selections never sitting on the shelf collecting dust, they represent the realities of so many of our students whose stories traditionally have not been included in the literature we teach (or the titles with which we stock our classroom libraries). As a reading teacher, the following titles are "friends," who I would gladly throw myself on my proverbial sword for if challenged, because the truth of the matter is these books could be challenged. Easily. The urban landscapes painted in these works are not only vivid and real, but their truth and complexity draws students into them, not the risqué four-letter words and adult scenes that keep pages turning and librarians cringing. The plots, while containing very adult themes, contain rays of hope amidst the stark realism of life on the streets for the protagonists who exhibit tremendous depth.

Lastly, I most appreciate these books for the sense of personal and reading identity they inspire in their reader. For many, these books are their first experiences with the sheer joy of reading. In these books, students recognize themselves, perhaps for the first time in their reading lives.

Top Ten Urban YA List (in alphabetical order):

Bronx Masquerade
by Nikki Grimes

“When Wesley Boone writes a poem for his high school English class and reads it aloud, poetry-slam-style, he kicks off a revolution. Soon his classmates are clamoring to have weekly poetry sessions. One by one, eighteen students take on the risky challenge of self-revelation…” (

The power of the spoken word--of poetry to bring down walls and build bridges. The experience of reading Bronx Masquerade aloud with my students not only helped to shape their reading identities as they could relate to the myriad of characters who lend their voices, but it also allowed us to explore our own stories through poetry. This title is one where students feel compelled to write in response to and in imitation of the student voices they recognize so well.

The First Part Last
by Angela Johnson

“Bobby's a classic urban teenager. He's restless. He's impulsive. But the thing that makes him different is this: He's going to be a father. His girlfriend, Nia, is pregnant, and their lives are about to change forever...” (

This is one book that I brought to my classroom after finding it tucked away in the corner of a YA stack in a local used books store. It came to class on a Monday, I book-talked it in each class, and on Tuesday morning it was gone, never to be seen again. But, I would hear about it in passing from my students who shared it among themselves, and then from their friends and friends of friends in the hallway. It is such a gentle book. I don’t know how else to describe it other than that the tenderness and sincerity of the narrator, Bobby, is like a feather lofting through a breeze. And so does the book, float from reader to reader. Even my most hardened non-readers find something familiar in Bobby’s struggle to be a single, teenage father and the heart-breaking loss he keeps tucked away
by Alan Sitomer

“When Teddy Anderson's little sister Tina is gunned down randomly in a drive-by shooting, the gangstas who rule the streets in the Anderson family's rapidly deteriorating neighborhood dismiss the incident as just another case of RP, RT-wrong place, wrong time. According to gangsta logic, Tina doesn't even count as a statistic …” (

In readers’ notebooks, I often find pages upon pages of students’ thoughts and reactions to this novel. Many of them feel they are Teddy. Empathy is hard to come by in many teens; Sitomer’s skill at painting characters who devolve truthfully through the course of the story enables the teen reader to put himself in another’s shoes.


Monster by Walter Dean Meyers

“Sometimes I feel like I have walked into the middle of a movie. Maybe I can make my own movie. The film will be the story of my life. No, not my life, but of this experience. I'll call it what the lady who is the prosecutor called me. MONSTER” (

Written as a screenplay, Monster is quickly devoured by any reader who opens to the first page of scrolling, Star Wars-esque credits. For some, however, reading a screenplay can be every bit as challenging as a full-length novel. But, once they embrace the form and listen as Steve stands behind and in front of the camera to try to process what has happened to him they are hooked to the end. Many readers feel compelled by the injustice as Myers masterfully paints the portrait of “the-boy-next-door” who made one mistake and is exposed to the harsh consequences of youth.


The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

“Written over forty years ago, S. E. Hinton’s classic story of the struggle between the Socs and the Greasers remains as powerful today as it was the day it was written, and it is taught in schools nationwide…” (

Come on. Really? How could I not include the grand-daddy of all urban YA Lit?! I toyed with it, of course. But in the end, this timeless story still appeals to a wide array of readers in my high school classroom. Many students first encountered the book in middle school. In fact, in their reading biographies they write for me in the beginning of the year, The Outsiders, is the #1 book mentioned that they finished reading! Ever! With that kind of staying power, how could it not be on any top ten YA llist. Ponyboy is a reminder of the ever-present “socs” and “greasers” in the microcosm of high school.

Perfect Chemistry
by Simone Elkeles

“When Brittany Ellis walks into chemistry class on the first day of senior year, she has no clue that her carefully created “perfect” life is about to unravel before her eyes. She’s forced to be lab partners with Alex Fuentes, a gang member from the other side of town, and he is about to threaten everything she's worked so hard for—her flawless reputation, her relationship with her boyfriend, and the secret that her home life is anything but perfect…” (

Yes, it’s true; this is a re-told Romeo and Juliet...sort of. Perfect Chemistry is a prime example of the urban novel that crosses over from a landscape of privilege to challenge (Thomas, 2011). Even though the story and characters might border on cliché, the universal appeal and high-drama keep this book from collecting any dust on the shelf. I always find it interesting to watch the conversations between unlikely students that this novel sparks. Girls and boys alike of all backgrounds line up to read it and its subsequent sequels. They dub themselves the “Alex and Brittany Fan Club.””


The Rose that Grew From Concrete by Tupac Shakur

“This collection of more than 100 poems that honestly and artfully confront topics ranging from poverty and motherhood to Van Gogh and Mandela is presented in Tupac Shakur's own handwriting on one side of the page, with a typed version on the opposite side” (

I happened upon this tiny book by luck in the bargain bin at Borders Bookstore. I immediately saw its potential to engage students in poetry, but I couldn’t have imagined the fire it would ignite in my students. Not only were they astonished that they were allowed to read Tupac, they were thrilled to finally understand what I meant when I talked about choice--I really meant they had the freedom to choose books of their own interest. His collection of poetry became a gateway for students who would go on to Tupac’s biography, and then Jacquelin Woodson’s Tupac and D Foster, and into the worlds of Sitomer, Myers, and Drake.

by Coe Booth

…”Tyrell is a young, African American teen who can't get a break. He's living (for now) with his spaced-out mother and little brother in a homeless shelter. His father's in jail. …. Tyrell feels he needs to score some money to make things better. Will he end up following in his father's footsteps?” (

Honestly, Tyrell had me blushing at times when I read it. I wondered how I could bring it into my class library without drawing too much attention. Luckily, my students have learned the value of discretion, especially when they find a book they love. What I love about Tyrell is that he is a deeply sensitive, complex, conflicted teenage boy...aren’t they all? The age-old father/ son conflict plays like a soundtrack behind the reading of this novel, even though the father character never makes an actual appearance. We see all kinds of women as well, who are brought to life through a sixteen-year old’s eyes. Despite the dire circumstances and odds, Tyrell inspires hope.


The Skin I’m in by Sharon Flake

“Maleeka suffers every day from the taunts of the other kids in her class. If they're not getting at her about her homemade clothes or her good grades, it's about her dark, black skin.

When a new teacher, whose face is blotched with a startling white patch, starts at their school, Maleeka can see there is bound to be trouble for her too. But the new teacher's attitude surprises Maleeka. Miss Saunders loves the skin she's in. Can Maleeka learn to do the same?” (

How I love this book! I wish I could put this in the hands of every adolescent teenage girl, no matter their ethnicity, race, nationality, geography, or belief. I often need a box of Kleenex close buy as I read young girls’ responses to Maleeka’s struggle to accept and LOVE herself as she is. I swear, I think they walk a little taller by the end of this book.

by Kalisha Buckhanan

"Baby, the first thing I need to know from you is do you believe I killed my father?"

“So begins Upstate, a powerful story told through letters between seventeen-year-old Antonio and his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Natasha, set in the 1990's in New York. Antonio and Natasha's world is turned upside down, and their young love is put to the test, when Antonio finds himself in jail, accused of a shocking crime…” (

(Confession) I haven’t actually finished Upstate. I don’t remember how it came to be in my library collection. I know I picked it up a few times and put it down, feeling that it was too trite, superficial, and explicit for my taste. But, out of desperation to get a certain reluctant teen reading, I placed it in her hands, and it spread like wildfire. I have faith in this book after reading about its characters in many response notebooks. My current copy has been “permanently borrowed,” but I’m not upset about it; I know it’s out there, floating from reader to reader inspiring hope.

Finally, I’d like to end with a poem that represents the Urban YA genre to me and its place in my classroom library:

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it
learned to walk without having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

~Tupac Shakur, The Rose that Grew from Concrete


Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth, "Landscapes of City and Self: Place and Identity in Urban Young Adult Literature" (2011). Faculty Publications. Paper 3.

Originally written for

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

{Dear Will} The Story of Mankind (1922)

Dear Will,

You are eleven months old, a very busy eleven-month old. Everyday I am more and more proud of you and your sweet smile. This evening I held you in the rocker after we read Goodnight, Moon. I sang to you the same song I've been singing since you were a few days old. You turned your head and leaned it against my chest, ear pressed to my heart. With one hand grasping tight to lovey and the other hand stroking my cheek, you cooed back to me while I sang. I saw your eyes closing and felt your body relax and watched as you drifted off to sleep with a grin on your face.

In less than a month you will be a year old, and to stop and think about how much you have grown is absolutely astounding. To stop and think about how much I have evolved as a parent is absolutely mind-blowing. Over the course of the last year I have found places in my heart, mind, and soul that I had never visited before. When you came into my life, I entered into my own life too. The evolution of a person into a parent is a mysterious and glorious process.

This is where my thoughts came back to our first book, The Story of Mankind. It is a story, a tale about the evolution of our species from early land-seeking fish, who first pushed legs through their scaly bodies and willed their lungs to breathe air, through the advent of cities and the great ancient civilizations, to the destructiveness of the modern world with its factories, machines, and warfare.

I honestly have mixed feelings about this book. At first, I was mesmerized by the opening scene of a boy climbing through dark, cramped passages to arrive at a bell tower where he could see across land and time to take in the story of man for himself. Reading the author's simple explanation of how humans evolved from single-celled organisms to the upright, intelligent mammal we are today provided me a piece of my own history. I shook my head at the warring Semite tribes, wondered about the inventiveness of the Greeks, jealous at their simplistic lifestyle, and scoffed at the arrogance of the Roman emperors. As I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the self-centered, prideful, racist, ethnocentric, greedy modern man, I also became dissatisfied with the book itself.

I have a confession to make before I go on: I did not read the book in its entirety. Someday, I will hound you to finish your reading assignments for school, but dear Will, please stop me if I ever try to force you to finish a book that you pick up for the pleasure of reading alone and then choose to abandon it. Not every book is a match for every reader. The Story of Mankind, did feel (some of the time) like a favorite uncle, walking with me through a great field, pointing out the intricacies of the plants and animals around us. But about half-way through there were just so many events, names, and stories that I did not find it pleasurable. So, I selectively read the rest of the book.

It is a proper- although odd- book to begin my journey as it is an example of how even man's own literature evolves with the needs and spheres of which man concerns himself. In the 1920's, when the author first published it, The Story of Mankind, must have appealed to its main audience: academic, anglo-saxon young adults and librarians of a privileged class. For me, however, a thirty-something, middle-class woman, it did not. And, for a book that won an award that honors books for children, it was sadly lacking in children (or women) itself...

It did however, provide me with some ideas regarding our species that I would like to share with you:

There is a great, looming question regarding history: does history truly repeat itself? Van Loon clearly answers this question with a resounding, "yes!" It is this assumption that compels him to write of the "mighty Tower of Experience, which Time has built amidst the endless fields of bygone ages."

On a personal level, I have to agree with him. To truly understand your own history: that is the power of experience and reflection that enables us to face our problems, big and small, and say with all of the confidence we can muster, "this is who I am." And, where our pasts do not always dictate our future, they do act as guideposts for what's to come.

Another question we tend to ponder over, quite a bit actually, is, "What is the true nature of man?" The Story of Mankind paints a paradoxical image of man. On one end, we have the ancient Greeks, who "before everything else, wanted to be "free," both in mind and in body. That they might maintain their liberty, and be truly free in spirit...." This is in comparison to the other races of ancient man (although they sound more modern than ancient to me), who worship "'Things,' chairs and tables and books and houses and carriages.... In the end they [things] invariably make him their slave and his hours are spent looking after their wants, keeping them polished and brushed and painted."

Oh, William. No matter how much I would like to call myself "Greek," you cannot begin to imagine how much time I spend polishing, brushing, and painting; therefore, I am apt to believe that most of us lie somewhere in the "in between," ever striving to be free. After all, this quest for freedom paradoxically destroys and builds nations.

My warning to you is to be ever wary of a "Roman," who built his happiness upon "millions upon millions of poor and tired human beings, toiling like ants who have built a nest underneath a heavy stone. They worked for the benefit of some one else. They shared their food with the animals of the fields. They lived in stables. They died without hope." Happiness is not happiness at the expense of another human being's freedom, dignity, or hope.

So things may not have changed that much over the millennia. Our author would have us think differently warning, "that you will not pay much attention to such talk. You see, it took our ancestors almost a million years to learn how to walk on their hind legs. Other centuries had to go by before their animal -like grunts developed into an understandable language. Writing--the art of preserving our ideas for the benefit of future generatiosn, without which no progress is possible was invented only four thousand years ago."

We begin at the end--a story about the stories of men, with, perhaps the greatest Divine gift, we as a species were allowed. Writing. Perhaps the ancients got it wrong; it was not fire that Prometheus gifted to us poor, helpless creatures. It was the power of language, of ideas, of writing, that not only lifts us up above the animals and sets us apart but can consequently lead to our downfall.

And finally, the author ends his work with these words:

``The more I think of the problems of our lives, the more I am ``persuaded that we ought to choose Irony and Pity for our ``assessors and judges as the ancient Egyptians called upon ``the Goddess Isis and the Goddess Nephtys on behalf of their ``dead.

``Irony and Pity are both of good counsel; the first with her ``smiles makes life agreeable; the other sanctifies it with her ``tears.
``The Irony which I invoke is no cruel Deity. She mocks ``neither love nor beauty. She is gentle and kindly disposed. ``Her mirth disarms and it is she who teaches us to laugh at ``rogues and fools, whom but for her we might be so weak as ``to despise and hate.''

And with these wise words of a very great Frenchman I bid you farewell.

And so, dear Will, I will end this letter with a reminder to walk with pity in your heart and deny cruelty to your fellow man.

All my love,