Things You Either Hate or Love – Brigid Lowry

Georgia is the 15-year-old narrator of New Zealand  novelist Brigid Lowry’s YA book, Things You Either Hate or Love. I was smitten with her almost as soon as she opened her mouth to announce:

I like to think of myself as a brilliant creative person, but sometimes I just feel like a sad lonely girl with a big bum.

Georgia is madly in love with Jakob, the lead singer of a funk band called Natural Affinity. She spends long hours talking to his poster – free therapy – and plotting ways to earn money so she can fly off to Brisbane to see his band in concert.

In an effort to make some money, Georgia tries (and fails) at babysitting, working in a video store and then a bakery, before finally landing as a cashier at the local supermarket. When she isn’t moaning about regular teenage stuff (her mother, school, friends) she’s trying to navigate the fraught path from childhood to adulthood.

Georgia is charming and funny, but lacks any real confidence. She is a character that would definitely speak to a lot of girls. She certainly spoke to my former self. When she ends up working with Hunter, the gorgeous boy who used to come into the bakery, she can’t help but develop a bit of a crush. But she’s sure Hunter could never be interested in a girl like her.

If I have any complaints about the book it’s that the girl on the cover is a misrepresentation of the Georgia in the book  – although I have no doubt that Georgia is nowhere near as plain as she thinks she is. Also, Georgia contracts glandular fever and loses a lot of weight…just in time for the book’s happy ending.

That said, I really enjoyed Things You Either Hate or Love. Georgia is lovely and her trials are relate-able without being overwrought. It is a skilled writer who can make a book without an overabundance of teenage drama compelling and entertaining.

Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness

My love affair with Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy began with The Knife of Never Letting Go. The next book, The Ask and the Answer was also fabulous. Last night I finished the third book, Monsters of Men. I am not ashamed to say that I cried.

Monsters of Men begins on the eve of war. Todd and the Mayor, and  Viola and Mistress Coyle are not only at a stand-off with each other, The Spackle (the indigenous people of New World) have risen up to annihilate them. War proves to be frightening and messy and dangerous.

The flames spill out from the top of the horned creacher and cut thru the middle of soldiers and men are screaming  and burning and screaming and burning and soldiers are turning back and running and the line is breaking and Angharrad is bucking and bleeding and squealing and we’re slammed by a wave of men retreating and she bucks up again and-

The lines between hero and villain, good and evil, are  blurred in Monsters of Men. I found my feelings about the Mayor constantly changing. Is he a decent man caught up in extraordinary times? Is he a master manipulator? Is he a monster? Mistress Coyle didn’t fair much better in my estimation. Viola and Todd ask the same questions about the adults nearest them and as they aren’t physically together for much of this book, they also ask it of each other. How have circumstances changed them?

There’s also a new point of view to consider in Monsters of Men: the Spackle. For the first time we get to hear their noise. Truthfully, I found some of this bothersome because of the names they ascribed to things: the Burden, the Clearing, the Knife, the Sky, the Source. I was caught up in the narrative and it slowed me down trying to figure out who or what  they were talking about. Nevertheless, the Spackle are no longer a faceless enemy – if they ever were the enemy at all.

There are big questions to be considered in this novel, in the series as a whole. Despite the fact that Chaos Walking is marketed as a Young Adult series, Ness doesn’t shy away from asking them. Why do we fight? What does it mean to be human? I even think there is something in the books about this information age – the constant bombardment of data and noise we endure every day. With no quiet space to think, don’t we all have the potential to be driven a little mad? Alternatively, can’t we use this information to better understand and empathize with each other?

As the Mayor says to Todd near the end of the book, “War makes monsters of me, you once reminded me.” It is messy business, to be sure. But there is great humanity in these books. And Todd and Viola, as characters, will be with me for a long, long time.

A Must Read series!

Gone – Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson

Connor, the 17-year-old protagonist of Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson’s YA novel, Gone, is straddling the  fence between innocence and experience. He has just graduated from high school, lives with his Aunt Syl, and visits his father in a nursing home where he has been living ever since he crashed his car while driving drunk. His mother is also a recovering alcoholic.  He is certainly vulnerable to the advances of Corinna Timms.

Ms. Timms was one of Connor’s high school teachers.

Zach…called Ms. Timms serious babe material – too bad she was their teacher. Connor called her, just to himself, beautiful. Half the time in her class had been spent trying not to stare at her, then failing his resolve, ducking his head when she turned around from the blackboard and caught him.

For the nanosecond that their eyes locked – what?

It’s this what that drives the narrative of Gone. As Connor moves through his days, avoiding his mother, working at Chow Line, hanging with his friend, Zach – he does his best to avoid thinking about his growing feelings for Ms. Timms. But it is clear to the reader (and Connor’s closest friends) that something is happening. And make no mistake – the fuel for Connor’s growing obsession is hormones.

Connor’s feelings for Ms. Timms are, in part, exacerbated by his parental issues. When his father dies and his mother, newly sober, comes to town, Connor is forced to confront some of his painful family problems. By then, though, things with Ms. Timms have crossed the platonic line and his world spins off its axis.

Gone is not a love story. Ms. Timms has her own demons. In the end, she comes across more as predator than genuine friend. And while Connor’s world does shift dangerously off track, he is a smart kid and I suspect that he’ll be okay in the end.

This book won’t be everyone’s cup of YA tea. But it’s intelligent and well-written, although there is some strong language. Obviously.

The importance of a classroom library

Kelly Gallagher is one of my teaching heroes. Gallagher teaches high school English and works with teachers across North America to help them help their students improve reading and writing skills. I’m a big fan of his.

In his book Reading Reasons Gallagher says:

Far and away the most important factor [to students reading more] was the establishment of a classroom library. I brought interesting books to my students. I surrounded them with a variety  of high-interest reading materials. I now have 2,500 books in my classroom, and I am convinced that developing this “book flood”…is the single most important thing I have done in my teaching career.

I started building my classroom library last year and in August I took advantage of’s amazing YA sale and my 20 or so books grew to this:

I buy books from Scholastic, second-hand shops, yard sales and take donations from whomever has books to give away. (A student I don’t teach but who hangs out in my classroom sometimes, offered me a whole raft of Goosebumps books, which I gladly took and which were practically brand new!)

I believe that the most important job I have as an English teacher is to create a culture where talking about books is commonplace. I don’t think my job is to tell students what books mean – like they’re baby birds with their mouths open and I am the mama bird who drops the worm of knowledge into their waiting beaks. I do think I have to give my students the vocabulary necessary to articulate their feelings and I do think I have to give them the opportunity to read widely from texts that are entertaining and challenging in equal measure.

 I think high school kills a love of reading for many students. Let’s face it, a non-reader isn’t going to make it past the first 50 pages of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I love Lee’s book, but even I have difficulty slogging through them. Mr. Gallagher suggests that “all students like to read, they just don’t know it yet.” I think most students did like to read, then we get them and we start acting like there is one right answer to be coaxed from a text, and we start testing them all the time about the one or two texts we do cover. (And it would be naive to think that students are reading those texts – the same ones I actually did read 30-odd years ago.)

Building life-long readers is the most important thing I can do in the classroom and one way to start is by putting books into the hands of students. Mr. Gallagher believes we can build readers, too. He suggests the following building blocks:

1. Access to high – interest reading material.

2. Time and a place to read

3.  Teachers model reading

4. Teachers stop grading everything.

5. Teachers provide a structure to their reading program

and finally

6. Students must want to read – they must see what is in it for them.

I think Mr. Gallagher is on the right track or, at least, he’s preaching to the converted. My upper level students read for 30 minutes twice a week.  I read when they do – no hardship for me. I wish they could read more, but lessons are only an hour long. My Writing students are required to log their reading and should be aiming for 100 pages a week. I want them to read a lot because I believe the cornerstone of improving their writing is to read, read, read. The only ‘assignment’ they have to do based on that reading is a book review – not report, review. Otherwise, we spend a few minutes each week talking about the books we’re reading, sharing excellent writing and one day we even did Book Speed Dating – which was a lot of fun.

I love my small, but mighty – and certainly growing – classroom library because it’s, well, in my classroom. There’s never an excuse for a kid to not have a book (or graphic novel, or newspaper or magazine or comic book…) Better still, when I see them deliberating I can actually help them select  something to read and if I do a good job, one book will almost always lead to another.

In a perfect world, all students will have been exposed to books from a very early age. I was. My kids were. But I have students who haven’t grown up in a house where people read, where there haven’t even been any books to read. These are the students who must be taught how to hold a book so the brand new spine isn’t broken, the cover torn, the pages folded. These are also the students who, with luck, will discover the delights hidden between the covers.

According to Scholastic, survey results indicate that classroom libraries increase reading by 60%. The paper goes on to say that “teachers can promote better reading performance by reading to children daily and by having them interact with booksthrough the extensive use of classroom libraries.”

We can’t just tell them reading is important. We can’t just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk.

One book at a time. One kid at a time.

The Possibility of You – Pamela Redmond

Pamela Redmond admits in the  introduction to her novel The Possibility of You that she “had bookclubs in mind” when she wrote the book. And that’s exactly how this novel reads – like a book written to get women talking.

The novel tells the story of three women: Bridget, Billie and Cait and spans several decades. Cait’s present-day  story begins when she falls into bed with another journalist while they are on assignment to cover the story of a missing boy. Later, Cait discovers that she is pregnant and she decides she needs to locate her birth mother.

Bille’s story takes place in the 1970s. Orphaned after the death of her drug-addicted father, she heads to New York City with her best friend, Jupe. There she meets, for the first time, her eccentric and wealthy grandmother, Maude.

Going back even further is the story of Bridget, an Irish immigrant who works in Maude’s house caring for Maude’s young son, Floyd.

That these three women’s stories should be intertwined will come as no surprise to the reader. There isn’t actually anything surprising about that – or even all that original about their stories at all, actually. And I understand that that makes me sound sort of heartless. I think Redmond’s intent was that women of all stripes should find at least one of these women, and their stories of birth and death, to be compelling and relateable. The idea that women make sacrifices and mistakes isn’t riveting in and of itself, unless the characters are somehow sympathetic.

Maude was the most modern of the characters, a famous singer in her day, she married a much older man, had affairs which she openly bragged about and sent her maid, Bridget, to get birth control so she could sleep with her boyfriend without the complications of getting pregnant or having to get married. While she seems thoroughly forward thinking in 1915, at the end of the day, she is reprehensible and selfish.

The Possibility of You seemed like it should have added up to a lot more than the sum of its parts, but for me it just seemed like a cobbled-together story with all the talking points necessary for a good book club evening over a glass of wine.

My book club discussed the book last night and none of us were all that enamoured with it. In fact once we dispensed with the book’s central idea – how do women cope with giving up a child – we veered into a much more lively discussion of local politics. Despite the book’s positive reviews, we just weren’t moved by the novel or its characters.

Teach the books, touch the heart

On Friday, the teacher’s association to which I belong hosted its  AGM and  subject council days. Last year we were treated to a keynote by Rick Wormeli and this year Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith spoke. Both last year and this I was inspired to do better in the classroom.

My personal feeling has always been that we should be exposing children to more literature, not less. That instead of having them read and then answer a bunch of comprehension questions designed to catch them up because they haven’t read, we should be giving them opportunities to talk and write about what they think. In real life, when faced with a problem, we’re not given multiple choices in order to make the best decisions. We must weigh the options and choose.

Mr. Esquith’s fifth graders do a full length Shakespearean production every year. Esquith himself loves Shakespeare and his passion for the Bard spills over into the lives of his students, mostly impoverished, mostly not native English speakers. You can’t tell me that an experience like that doesn’t make a difference in their lives, a difference far more important than a score on a multiple choice test.

Every year at about this time I start to think about how I can improve my teaching in the classroom. I don’t think about how I can improve my test results – I think about how I can do my job better; how to introduce kids to great books, turn them into life-long readers, get them to think about how they connect to the material we read, show them how to write.  It’s not PC to say – but I don’t care about the tests as much as I care about their engagement. I want them to discover themselves in what they read, to experience the feeling of kinship with a character, to understand themselves and this world a little bit better.

At least, that’s the goal.

Teacher Claire Needell Hollander’s  opinion piece in the April 20th edition of the New York Times, Teach the Books, Touch the Heart, talks about this focus on testing  and what is lost because of it.  Teaching to the test is not teaching.

Twenty years ago, when I began as a teacher, I had this romantic notion that the classroom – my classroom – would be this amazing space with books and conversation. Yes, we’d do books together as a group, but we’d also read independently. We’d write, not just essays, but lots of different things because unless you go off to do a degree in English, you’ll probably never write an academic essay about theme again in your life after high school. Kids still need to know how to write well, though.

I didn’t stay in teaching very long. I just never settled into it; I felt like I was always playing catch up. My ego kept bashing up against these kids who just didn’t seem to like me. (Probably because I clearly didn’t know what I was doing.) Fast forward 15 years and here I am, back in the classroom…and I love every single day with those kids. My notion of what my English class should be like hasn’t changed and I try every day to balance that notion with the prescribed curriculum. Some days are more successful than others.

I have the experts on my side though. My gurus, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher, talk the talk and walk the walk. And every day I get a little bit closer, I think, to teaching the books and touching the hearts.

The library book sale


I love the first weekend in May because it’s the weekend that our public library holds its annual book sale. Every year I go, empty bag at the ready, and cart home more books that I really don’t need. My excuse this year is that I am shopping for my classroom library. According to reading and writing expert, Kelly Gallagher, a classroom library should have 2500 books in it. I have a loooong way to go and the prospect of buying all those books fills me with great joy!

I was able to purchase 20 books today for the bargain price of $16.50. And I can’t wait to go back tomorrow.