Introducing January’s Book of the Month: Asking For It by Louise O’ Neill (including A Level Lang classroom/homework task)

This contemporary YA novel is a sharply written introduction to the complexity of sexual consent issues, particularly around intoxication. It also explores how victims and culprits are treated in social media and school hallways, often in harrowing detail. (It’s probably worth pointing out here that there are graphic aspects to this novel and it isn’t suitable for younger students. I personally would (and have) recommend(ed) it to some yr11s to read, but it isn’t suitable for all KS4 classes).

In my experience, readers of this novel invariably find it powerful and persuasive because it is involving and gripping as a novel. I would strongly recommend anyone teaching teenagers to read it and consider recommending it to as many teens as possible. It’s an important one and sometimes a difficult read emotionally, but by no means a book you have to force yourself to read. I’d love to be able to discuss this with a class, but I also recognise that it would be difficult to set for GCSE (although I’ve seen it selected for Lang/Lit NEA successfully).

The opening few pages can be found on the Irish Times website (I would still recommend purchasing a copy or two for yourself and the classroom) and this can make the basis for an interesting discussion of class and gender representation for AS Level English Lang:

Writers have to use shorthand and common assumptions, even stereotypes to create aspects of character quickly, especially at the start of a text (as this is). The more individualised the character, the more important they are. (Stretch/more able addition: the more individualised way a category is treated such as gender/class/race, the more important that category may turn out to be as a concept in this work). What can we infer and what stands out about the class/gender identities of the characters introduced in this extract? (NB the novel is set in ‘a small town in Ireland’ in 2015).

Look out for more in-depth comments in a fortnight and another teaching activity using this text.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter Review and GCSE language analysis practice task (Book of the Month in-depth)

Age range: YA (12+)

Themes: folklore, justice, truth, fairness

Genre: high fantasy/second-world fantasy

Narrative style: first-person present tense (with passages in past tense as she provides backstory/history) and often lyrical.

This is the first in a trilogy set in a fantasy world with a clearly-defined religion/folklore system which is explored and questioned through the books. Each book is narrated by a different character, but their stories definitely lead on from one another and need to be read in the correct order – it is a series.

As well as being exquisitely written and therefore suitable to show to students as a model of good writing that is likely also to engage them, I particularly appreciate a fantasy story written with underpinning feminist principles. There are great examples of female friendships here and positive models for romantic relationships – no romanticising of stalking or other abusive behaviour here. In this instalment, some have criticised Twylla for being a little passive at the start of the novel, but personally I find that realistic for the context that she is in – her social status is laid out clearly and she is relatively young and naive. She makes mistakes and grows through the novel, which I think is what characters should do. A supremely capable protagonist from the start leaves rather less room for character development!

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Here is a set of prompts for analysis on chapter 1, which is shared on the Movellas website (but, again, I would also recommend buying a copy for your classroom/school library/self). This is suitable to use with year 9 students as practice for GCSE ways of working, or in year 10/11 to develop and practise skills. Obviously, reading a whole chapter would never be required in an exam, but it allows for more immersion in the language here and therefore more comparison between the different aspects of the chapter.

  • How does Salisbury use language to present different time periods in this chapter?
    • [this allows discussion of narrative structure as well as grammatical tense; students could literally try to timecode the various sections of the chapter to track the different timings covered, or to plot events on a timeline]
  • How does Salisbury present contrasting senses of control and chaos in this chapter? Which sections of the narrative are concerned with this theme and how does the language used support it?
    • [could discuss semantic fields, listing and/or particular word classes such as adjectives, verbs, adverbs used in key sections]
  • How does the description of the religious/mythological system help to create the fantasy world?
    • [this allows discussion of structure, narrative genre/style, use of invented names/vocabulary]
  • Why do you think Salisbury begins and ends with the references to screaming?
    • [again, directs to discussion of structure but also theme; could also extend to discussions on likely wider themes of the novel – this is the opening chapter so what has the author set up here?]

I might also be tempted to give this text to A Level Lang students as a potential style model for Original Writing. The complex time shifts and lyrical style help it address the ‘ambitious’ label in the mark scheme.

Introducing December’s Book of the Month: The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury (including GCSE English Language practice task)

This YA novel is a fantasy with a large scope set in a beautifully-realised second world. It’s a great choice for contemporary teens, particularly as it’s written with a strong feminist sensibility. This includes some great examples of female community and relationships, as we move through the trilogy.

Beautiful writing and themes of duty, sacrifice and loyalty make this a compelling read, delivered in lyrical prose.

Movellas has the opening chapter available to view and this could be used with pupils as the focus for a lesson activity (although of course I would also recommend picking up a copy or three for your school/classroom library).

Use the first eight paragraphs, up to ‘I have other demands on my time.’ as a practice AQA GCSE Lang Paper 1 Q3: ‘How has the writer structured their work to interest you as a reader? This section has plenty to discuss in terms of building tension, shifting timelines and hints/foreshadowing.

The Sin Eater’s Daughter (together with a further two books to make up the trilogy) is out now from Scholastic in the UK.

Look out for a more detailed review in a fortnight, with another teaching idea.

The State of Grace Review and Lesson Ideas for KS3, GCSE and A Level Lang on Gender representation (Book of the Month in-depth)

Age Range: 12+ (according to publisher’s website; I would happily use this throughout the secondary school – plenty to engage older teens, nothing ‘unsuitable’ for yr7/8, although they will be less interested in the romance aspects)

Themes: family, friends, being different, romance

Narrative style and genre: Strong first-person narration plants you firmly in Grace’s world and gives you clear access to her thinking. She is highly self-aware and able to explain in-depth how her world is different to everyone else’s being painfully aware of her differences.

The opening passage (and a few other sections dotted here and there) are brilliant for explaining what Asperger’s is like – see my last post on this book for an analysis task on this.

The State of Grace is a brilliant contemporary YA which centres on Grace, an autistic girl who is just trying to negotiate the world. In the novel she deals with family issues, the problems of not easily fitting in with what school wants, and the complexities of first love. It’s a great story, which also teaches about autistic experience. The author is autistic herself and has an autistic child, so it’s written with clear knowledge and understanding that there is a range of experience within the condition.

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Teaching Ideas: Gender and Book Sales

One thing that makes me a little sad about this book is that it its cover is coded in a way that is designed to mark it as ‘girly’, which reduces its potential audience. But probably the publisher believed that boys would not be likely to read it anyway. There is a belief among many adults – parents, publishers and teachers included – that boys are reluctant to read books about girls, and that is problematic for various reasons.

This idea can be seen as contributing to a society where women are seen as ‘other’ and potentially even less than human (witness the size of the sexual harassment/assault scandals we’re seeing at the moment). But of course it also simply reduces the art available to boys and men as they grow – concepts centred around a male character are seen as universal, while those centred on a woman are reduced to ‘women’s interest’. Obviously, this is not always the case, and those few exceptions may be showing that the world is more than ready for a wider range of stories. This article, citing writer Shannon Hale on how her ‘Princess Academy’ books are marketed and received, and providing clear feminist analysis of the issues might also be useful.

These concepts could be introduced for a media lesson at KS3, a non-fiction writing lesson for KS4 and as peripheral to the gender topic for A Level Lang.

For KS3, I would first allow students to read the opening extract from the publisher’s page, so that they have some familiarity with the content. They can then discuss the idea of ‘boy’ books and ‘girl’ books, with some careful questioning. I might give them prompts in groups such as:

  • Do you believe that there are topics that boys and girls are naturally more interested in? What kinds of topics would they be?
  • Do you think a book with a girl character is more ‘for’ girls and a book with a boy character is more ‘for’ boys? Why/why not?
  • Are you aware of having read and enjoyed a book that you think was ‘supposed’ to be for the other gender? What was it?

They could go on to discuss the book’s cover and then create alternative covers for the book which are less ‘girly’.

For KS4, I might choose some obviously boy-targeted and girl-targeted novel covers (or even go to the adult shelves for books the students are less likely to be) and pop them on a powerpoint with the 200-word challenge prompt:

Write an article that argues FOR OR AGAINST the idea of marketing books and films by gender.

You should include:

  • a sentence that opens with an adverb (e.g. obviously, clearly)
  • a rhetorical question
  • a reference to a well-known film, book or myth
  • a sentence of five words or fewer
  • a metaphor
  • the word ‘segregation’ (n) or ‘segregate’ (vb): the division of people into groups against their will/ to divide people… e.g. This is nothing less than segregation/ This idea segregates us

For KS5 Eng Lang, I might open with some covers, discuss their graphology and then dive into a couple of blurbs to do a bit of language analysis. If time allows, you could look at a body of four of five blurbs aimed at each gender to try to show methodology and model investigation practice.  Alternatively, you could take a more theoretical route and ask students to relate the ideas of boys not being expected to read about girls/from girls perspectives to representation theories. It might be a good way to make muted/dominant group theory a bit more real world, for example.

Introducing November’s Book of the Month: The State of Grace by Rachael Lucas (including GCSE English Lang teaching idea)

This gorgeous YA novel, focusing on Grace’s normal teen issues, handled in her atypical way, is a brilliant #ownvoices look at Asperger’s. Grace’s way of engaging with the world is clearly filtered through the symptoms and differences she experiences and these are rendered crystal-clear for the reader right from the start. The plot deals with changes around Grace’s family life and friends – there is a romance plot – and there is plenty to get caught up  in.

It’s very easy to root for Grace, and Rachael Lucas’s first-person narration plunges us into her thoughts and feelings with ease, with some interesting direct address telling about her unique take on the world.

[Note that the cover is very ‘feminine’, but there’s no reason that the lesson tasks described couldn’t be used in mixed classrooms. Some of the book’s content may be of more interest to some girls than some boys, but the book is not ‘unsuitable’ for boys to see – do check out the extract below to help you decide. The issue of ‘girls’ books/’boys’ books will be raised in my next post on this book, by the way…]

The publisher’s website has the opening extract available to download and this could be shown to pupils as the focus for a lesson activity (although of course I would also recommend picking up a copy or three for your school/classroom library).

The opening two paragraphs are very suitable for an AQA Eng Lang paper 2 q3 type task focusing on language (although I know that this is likely to focus on the older text – the skills are the same, it’s all practice and I’m keen to boost confidence and showcase worthwhile/enjoyable outside-of-lesson reading).

Show the extract and ask ‘Looking at the first two paragraphs, how has the writer used language to present an impression of being autistic?’ The passage in question is brilliant for discussion of the impact of imagery and the verbs used to create a sense of repeated/constant happenings.

The State of Grace is out now from My Kinda Book at Pan Macmillan in the UK.

Look out for a more detailed review in a fortnight, with another teaching idea.

The Hate U Give Review and GCSE Resources (Book of the Month In-Depth)

Age range: YA (12+)

Themes:  race, equality, justice

Narrative style and genre: The novel is contemporary YA, told in first person present tense to maximise immediacy and tension. The blurb tells us that Starr’s unarmed best friend is shot by police, so this comes as no surprise in chapter two, but everything up to this point feels like it’s pulling you there, and everything afterwards unfolds as a mystery, but with a degree of inevitability.

This is a really important novel. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and written by a young black woman with an authentic voice and heaps of credibility, but perhaps even more importantly for this message, this is a incredibly well-executed story with strong characters. It’s easy to lose yourself in and readers (especially those of the target age range) will readily engage with Starr’s moral quandaries as she navigates the uncertainties that follow Khalil’s shooting. There is plenty here for BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) readers to relate to and feel represented by, as well as tonnes for white readers to learn from, without feeling preached at or unfairly judged.

Easily one of the best US YA contemporaries I’ve read in years.

The pull quote on the back would make a great starter to introduce the novel to a class. Since the blurb clearly reveals the shooting, I don’t think there would be anything wrong with showing this to a class before using the GCSE qs below, as this would  make their inferences more definite and clearly is the intended reader experience.


Here is a set of GCSE-style questions on the opening to Chapter 2. This can be found in one of the downloadable preview excerpts online if you don’t have the book, but obviously I strongly recommend getting hold of a copy for your school library if not for yourself.

These questions are based on AQA, as it’s what I have experience of, and I’m using Eng Lang Paper 1 as that’s the most likely place for a book like this to show up (and this section is great for structure and tension, so I’ve focused on questions 2 to 4). I’d probably use this as a group task, with different groups in a Yr11 class working on different questions depending on what they most needed to work on at this point. Then we could have a compare and consolidate session with three ‘mastermind’ groups with the aim of between them coming up with every possible point to be made (like a master mark scheme) for the question, before feeding back and explaining ‘their’ question to the class.

Use pages 24 and 25 – the beginning of Chapter 2 – as the full extract (‘When I was twelve,’ to ‘that’s even better.’).

2. Look in detail at page 24. How does the writer use language here to create a sense of Starr’s parents?

  • You could include the writer’s choice of:
  • words and phrases
  • language features and techniques
  • sentence forms  (8 marks)

3. You now need to think about the whole of the source. This text comes near the beginning of a novel. How has the writer structured it to interest you as a reader?

  • You could write about:
  • What the writer focuses your attention on at the beginning
  • how and why the writer changes this focus as the source develops
  • any other structural features that interest you  (8 marks)

4. Focus this part of your answer on the second part of the source, from ‘Momma fussed’ (paragraph 4) to the end.

A student, having read this part, said: “The writer really shows that something big is going to happen. She creates a lot of tension in the narrative voice, the action and the hints she gives.”

To what extent do you agree?

In your response, you could:

  • write about your own impressions of the tension created
  • evaluate how the writer has created tension
  • support your opinions with references to the text.    (20 marks)

I do hope somebody out there uses this. Please do let me know!

Introducing October’s Book of the Month: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (including A Level Language teaching idea)

This YA novel, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement is a great contemporary pick for Black History Month. It tells the story of Starr, a 16 year-old girl, who is with her friend Khalil when he is shot by a policeman after being pulled over (this is not a spoiler – it happens in chapter 2 and is covered in the blurb). The novel treats the aftermath of this event in Starr’s life, which is complicated by the fact that she lives in a poor (black) neighbourhood and attends a ‘posh’ (white) school. The novel beautifully presents issues facing Americans of colour today (and not just Americans, for some aspects at least), without being didactic or preachy – it’s a damn good story, extremely well told. The movie of the book is being filmed at the time of writing, with Amandla Sternberg (Rue from the Hunger Games) as Starr.

There are excerpts available online, and I’m basing lesson ideas off those, but please do buy the book for your school/classroom libraries – you will not regret it.

A Level Language Lesson Idea: Language Diversity (AQA spec)

Extract to use: opening pages (7-13 – 4 double pages): find one here at the Reading Agency (if that doesn’t work, it is worth googling as there are others and not all of them work from school accounts)

Copy 4 spreads and shrink to A5 each. Arrange onto A3 and give one copy between 2 students.  Students to highlight/annotate examples of language which reflect different aspects of the narrator’s/characters’ identity (teen, black, US) and feedback.

[suggestions – teen: semantic fields of fashion, music, school, ‘hoes’; black: elongation of ‘shit’ to ‘shiiit’ (or is that teen? – discuss), dope (ditto), stank-eye, gon’ say; US: bougie, third grade]

The Hate U Give is out now in the UK from Walker Books.

Look out for my more detailed review and a GCSE Language activity on this title (likely to be questions for an AQA Paper 1) in 2 weeks.

A Change Is Gonna Come Review and GCSE Resources (Book of the Month In-Depth)

Age range: YA (12+)

Themes: as this is an anthology, these are really varied, but include: love, sexuality, racism, islamophobia, bereavement, refugees, OCD, friendship, punishment, fantasy, time travel, fairness, identity.

Narrative style and genre: again, varied by the story/poem – pretty much the full possible range is covered, with first and third person perspectives, present and past tense and genres from realism to fantasy; history through contemporary to near-future dystopian.

The anthology is a showcase of crisp, entertaining writing for young people in a range of styles by today’s top writers from a wide range of backgrounds. It’s great to see the range of ways in which the theme of ‘change’ has been interpreted, some with a political slant, others much more fantastical. For example:

  • Tanya Byrne’s story Hackney Moon is a gorgeous lesbian love story with an omniscient, God-like narrator. If you could read the whole story with a class, you could enjoy discussing the narrator’s character and function.
  • Catherine Johnson’s story Astounding Talent! Unequalled Performances! is a historical story of circus folk dealing with the death of their leader, with a historical note explaining her sources. Again, plenty of opportunity to discuss how writers work with source material there.
  • Yasmin Rahman’s Fortune Favours the Bold is the story of a teenage Muslim girl with anxiety getting through the day after a terrorist attack. This story offers plenty of moral discussion opportunities.
  • Patrice Lawrence’s story The Clean Sweep is a dystopian tale set in a version of Brighton where young offenders have been sent to be watched by the rest of the country/world as they are washed away (or possibly saved by a vote). Reading this story would allow useful exploration of structure, as the plot points and turning points come thick and fast.
  • Aisha Bushby’s Marionette Girl is a diary-style, incredibly detailed journal of a girl with OCD who reaches a turning point in her illness. Lots of chance for empathy-based discussions here, and perhaps to focus on the language we use around mental health and why it’s inappropriate to label behaviours/people ‘OCD/depression’ etc when those labels belong to debilitating conditions.

Obviously, on the whole I am 100% behind this book. As a project to increase representation, it is sorely needed, but it is so much more than that. It wouldn’t work if the stories in it weren’t good and they are GREAT.

 


Here is a set of GCSE-style questions on one of the story openings. These are based on AQA, as it’s what I have experience of, and I’m using Eng Lang Paper 1 as that’s the most sensible.

Use the first section of The Clean Sweep (to the second paragraph on p. 148: ‘…could hate us even more’) as the full extract.

1. Read again the first two paragraphs. List four things about the boys’ plan.  (4 marks)

2. Look in detail at paragraphs two and three. How does the writer use language here to describe Emo and Daphne?

  • You could include the writer’s choice of:
  • words and phrases
  • language features and techniques
  • sentence forms  (8 marks)

3. You now need to think about the whole of the source. This text is the opening to a story. How has the writer structured it to interest you as a reader?

  • You could write about:
  • What the writer focuses your attention on at the beginning
  • how and why the writer changes this focus as the source develops
  • any other structural features that interest you  (8 marks)

4. Focus this part of your answer on the second part of the source, from paragraph 5 to the end.

A student, having read this part, said: “The writer really shows the characters’ desperation in this extract. It comes through in everything from the description of the setting to the narrative voice.’

To what extent do you agree?

In your response, you could:

  • write about your own impressions of the characters’ desperation
  • evaluate how the writer has created these impressions
  • support your opinions with references to the text.    (20 marks)

I do hope somebody out there uses this. Please do let me know!

Event Report: A Change Is Gonna Come in Birmingham

I was fortunate enough to attend a panel event celebrating my Book of the Month, A Change Is Gonna Come, yesterday evening. It took place in Birmingham Waterstones, and we were treated to discussions from two of the authors, Patrice Lawrence and debut Yasmin Rahman, chaired by superstar blogger Mariam Khan (@helloiammariam).

Much of the discussion was around the need for this book, the spaces for BAME voices in publishing and representation issues more broadly. I thought I’d share with you some of the top comments I noted:

  • There are more BAME writers in this one volume than are being published in YA in the UK this year. Ouch.
  • Both authors spoke about wanting to contribute to a breadth of representation, to help young people be able to find themselves in books. Patrice Lawrence specifically talked about being a child who was never like the heroine in books (‘girls described as beautiful never had my skin colour, nose shape or lips like me’) and was saddened by Yasmin’s agreement, as she is much younger (‘Still? This is why we need this book.’)
  • Both authors also agreed that there is pressure on BAME writers in particular to be seen as representing their whole ethnicity when they write, whereas that pressure does not seem to apply to white writers, so whatever a Jamaican heritage writer does for example would be seen as therefore reflective of Jamaican writers, rather than purely themselves. There was some discussion about this also being true in the world in general: that you are expected to reflect the community in how you behave/dress/generally comport yourself, so this naturally also carries across to writing.
  • It was very clear that this collection is not just ‘for’ BAME readers. Obviously, there is a desire to reach readers of different heritages who may not have been able to find themselves in books before, but it is also important that white readers are able to read outside of themselves (ourselves), which we haven’t had enough opportunity to do in the past. I would add that this is a really important aspect for empathy and understanding. It’s really hard for people to see past themselves when they are only ever presented with images like themselves.
  • I was struck by Patrice Lawrence’s generosity and humility when asked about her feelings on winning the YA Book Prize and the YA category of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize with her debut novel Orangeboy (which is fab, by the way). She talked about how pleased she was that the award proved that there was an appetite and a market for BAME stories and that it might encourage publishers to be bolder in publishing them. She had talked earlier about how hard it had been to get the book published, with only one editor at one publishing house being willing to take a chance on it.
  • Both writers, and Mariam as chair were very complimentary to Stripes the publisher for their work on this project. It represents the start of a real commitment to increasing BAME representation in YA for them. They took on a (paid) editorial mentee to work on the collection (who has since gained an editorial role in another publishing house), who is credited in the book. They have since advertised for an editor of BAME background and are currently (through September) open to submissions from BAME writers, so this wasn’t a one-shot, trend-hopping thing for them.

It was a great event and if you have anything similar near you, or have the opportunity to book a #ChangeBook school event, grab it with both hands. Contact Charlie at Stripes’ Marketing/Publicity for more info.

Introducing September’s Book of the Month: YA BAME Anthology A Change is Gonna Come

This book is a superb introduction to a range of BAME writers working in the UK today. In this collection, they all tackle the theme of ‘change’ in short stories and poems for a Young Adult audience. The collection features many well-known authors such as Catherine Johnson, Patrice Lawrence and Nikesh Shukla, but the publishers also held open submission slots for previously unpublished and and unagented writers and the collection thus introduces new voices: Mary Bello, Aisha Bushby, Yasmin Rahman and Phoebe Roy. The project demonstrates a serious attempt to tackle the issue of BAME representation in YA writing, and since its publication, the publisher has also announced other proactive measures to increase opportunities for writers in this under-represented area.

The stories and poems cover a range of genres: contemporary, historical, fantasy, mythical and topics from personal loss to dramatic and fantastical transformations. (A fuller review detailing individual texts will follow later in the month.)

Lesson on representation issues and stealth-recommending the collection to students

Starter to highlight the gap in representation: how many Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic writers or characters from fiction can students come up with? In pairs, students could work separately on either characters or authors each, and then pair and share their ideas.


Non-fiction work: the collection features a thoughtful and thought-provoking foreword by Darren Chetty (@rapclassroom).  If you’re considering using this book in the classroom, or having copies in your classroom library, a lesson based on the foreword would be a constructive way to highlight the book to students. This text can be used to open up debate on representation and interventions such as this project. Students could be invited to discuss issues such as:

  • the eternal problem of minority writers being expected to record only the minority experience (e.g. gay lit reduced to ‘coming out’ stories)
  • the question of privileged writers writing from minority positions (but what about imagination?)
  • public perceptions of special collections such as this one
  • how/why increased and improved representation is important to minority or less privileged groups

Additional resource: a further text that could supplement this work is Tanya Byrne’s excellent article for the Guardian on the issue of BAME representation and resistance. (There are a couple of examples of strong language in this piece, so you may want to use caution with younger students). Again, this is a great text to open up debate, and it raises the issues particularly clearly. Students could be asked to trace Byrne’s arguments and/or look at how she gathers and presents her evidence in order to convince her audience. Tracking this through the piece via a flow diagram is a useful way of visualising it.


Creative approach: students could be asked to plan and perhaps also produce their own narrative on the theme of change. This may (or may not) be followed by a discussion of the stories and poems in the collection themselves.


I think if I had the space to use this anthology like a set text, I would teach from the foreword as discussed here, then set a creative writing challenge, then explore the stories. In reality, of course, it’s more likely that I’ll only be able to sneak in one extract as a means of ‘teasing’ the book and hopefully encouraging some students to read it. I think both non-fiction and lit-focused tasks have the chance to do that with different classes, depending on their interests.


A Change is Gonna Come is out now from Stripes, a division of Little Tiger Press. For a poster of the book for your classroom, contact @StripesBooks on Twitter (they did say I should tell people this!)