Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton: February’s Book of the Month in-depth – review and a writing activity adaptable for KS3-5

Age range: YA (12+)

Themes: identity, diversity/ethnicity/race, protest & politics

Genre: fantasy + western 

Narrative style: first-person past tense with plenty of pace and an engaging voice with plenty of ‘sass’ and wit. It’s really easy to root for Amani as she tries desperately to escape her situation by dressing as a boy and entering a shooting competition.

It’s great that she is a skilled shooter and can be admired for that, but she does have weaknesses to engage our sympathy too and her world is all too ready to dismiss her as ‘just’ a girl. With the imaginative combination of the Western setting and the magical 1001 Nights tales as a folkloric backdrop, there is plenty here to get involved in.


Using the opening page, which is available to read on the Guardian website, here is a writing-focused task which can be adapted for years from KS3 to 5:

Paste the opening page into the centre of an A3 page.

Ask students to examine the opening for the different jobs that it is fulfilling. They could highlight sentences in different colours to show this. For example, looking at information that helps:

  • establish setting
  • establish character

This can be further complicated by labelling the techniques used.

A more interesting/complex exercise for older/more advanced students might explore how Amani’s voice is created using a combination of words and phrases (lexis/register) and sentence structure (syntax), further considering how the information chosen to be provided to the reader through Amani helps characterise her by showing her attitudes to those topics. Again, different colour highlighters could be used for lexical vs syntactical techniques with the labels and subject-based comments written on around the text.

This analytical work can then feed into writing of the students’ own, where they introduce a character/setting/situation with attention to the same issues. A scenario could be provided for them, or they could be invited to come up with their own. Some possibilities include:

  • An already-known character from a fairytale/folktale but not the central character (e.g. telling Red Riding Hood from the Huntsman’s perspective)
  • An ‘outsider’ character in a dangerous situation
  • A young person readying themselves to do something difficult (a test, delivering some difficult news, telling a friend a tough secret)

Introducing February’s Book of the Month: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton (including GCSE Language prep task on inference)

This fantasy YA novel opens a glorious trilogy (the final instalment has just published this week) exploring identity, loyalty and other eternal themes relating to the classic battles between good and evil. As with many other books I’ve recommended, I love and recommend this series for its genuine feminist principles – not just a ‘strong girl’ lead, but well-rounded female (and male) characters, great examples of female friendships as well as serious moral dilemmas, not just glib ‘this is right, I must do it’ scenarios.

It’s a very popular trilogy, so well worth putting in front of students, as it’s likely to tempt less keen readers in with its vivid and unusual 1001 Nights-inspired setting crossed with the Wild West (at least in this opening section – it’s more fantasy and less western as the story moves on).

The opening chapter can be found here on the Guardian website, but (as ever) I would also recommend purchasing a classroom/library copy. Here’s an activity using the first four paragraphs only to really focus on inference skills. I’d use it with year 9 or 10 students to practice/build these before serious exam-paper-focused work.

Paste a copy of the book’s first four paragraphs into the centre of a blank page (ideally A3).  Students need to annotate the passage with statements to show what they can infer from it. The inference should be written as a statement, with the evidence for it underlined and linked to the inference statement. They might feel that more than one part of the text could be evidence – that is fine.

For lower ability groups, or to start them off, you could pre-annotate with ‘the narrator is a girl pretending to be a boy’ and link it to the clause in the third paragraph ‘but so long as I didn’t seem like a girl it didn’t much matter’. For the weakest students, I might be tempted to provide inferences on post-its that they just match to relevant places in the text, e.g.:

  • the narrator is doing something they shouldn’t be but it isn’t evil/wicked
  • the book seems to be a Western
  • the narrator lives with their uncle
  • the narrator is a girl pretending to be a boy

With more able students, you could then discuss how the writer shows us these aspects, to lead into a discussion of how information is introduced at the start of a narrative (perhaps introducing ideas about structure, or ‘show, not tell’, depending on where you’re headed next).

Look out for more detail about this book in a couple of weeks, and another teaching idea.

Asking For It: Review and A Level Language NEA Original Writing Practice Task (Book of the Month in depth)

Age range: upper YA (14+)

Themes: justice, gender, rape culture, social media

Genre: contemporary

Narrative style: first-person present tense; structurally separated into ‘last year’ and ‘this year’ (although all is expressed in present tense)

This is a punchily-written contemporary novel which explores the lead up to and aftermath of a gang rape of a teen girl at a party. Reviews all describe it using words like ‘unflinching’ and ‘brave’ and it has won and been nominated for a slew of awards, because it is an important book, published just before the recent stream of scandals that have hit Hollywood and caused people to discuss sexual behaviour again. This book is the perfect way to bring about that discussion with teens, as it is a great story which is not at all ‘preachy’, but alarmingly realistic in its presentation of people’s ‘shades of grey’ reactions.

I personally think it’s a stroke of genius that the main character is a ‘queen bee’ type and very definitely written to be unlikable – and yet once the rape has happened, I am firmly on her side. The pacing and use of point of view, particularly since Emma does not remember the event itself and must piece it together from things other tell her (and social media), are especially strong factors in the book’s crafting. It’s an absolute masterclass in addressing social issues through fiction, and that’s why the teaching activity for this post is a writing-based one.

________________________________________________

Here is a set of prompts for analysis on the first five pages, which are shared on the Irish Times website (but, again, I would also recommend buying a copy for your classroom/school library/self). I intend this as a practice task for working with a style model for the Original Writing part of the English Language NEA. Obviously, this extract is longer than students are permitted to write, but it helps them to get into the language and content of the text more if they can see a little more of it.

  • Which tense is used (and why)?
  • How does O’Neill create a picture of Emma’s mother as unreasonable?
    • find some relevant quotations and then identify the linguistic features used to craft this impression. How is this constructed?
  • How is dialogue presented?
    • Look at all the examples of dialogue and identify the tags/quotatives (speech verbs) used. Why is it done this way?
  • Examine the longer paragraph (‘The door closes behind her… jerking her head at me.’ p.6-7).
    • Why is this set of ideas presented in this way? What is the purpose of this block of text? How is this section different from the rest – in content and in style (features)?
  • What other features of this extract do you find interesting/effective in setting up this novel?

Use what you’ve observed to write your own YA novel opening in which you set up the characters and setting, making sure to similarly make the social context clear: family, social status, pressures on the character etc.

 

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!

________________________________________________

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.

___________________________________________

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.