Tag Archives: English

YA Review: Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley

worlds of ink and shadowWorlds of Ink and Shadow, Lena Coakley (Abrams & Chronicle, 2016)

Genres in the mix: historical, fantasy, supernatural, gothic

Age target: YA

Goodreads summary: Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne. The Brontë siblings have always been close. After all, nothing can unite four siblings quite like life in an isolated parsonage on the moors. Their vivid imaginations lend them escape from their strict, spartan upbringing, actually transporting them into their created worlds: the glittering Verdopolis and the romantic and melancholy Gondal. But at what price? As Branwell begins to slip into madness and the sisters feel their real lives slipping away, they must weigh the cost of their powerful imaginations, even as their characters—the brooding Rogue and dashing Duke of Zamorna—refuse to let them go.

What sucked me in? Well, I am an English teacher with a lot of love for Wuthering Heights, who did drag a poor unsuspecting bf to their bront charlotte bront c11390 01childhood home, the Brontë Parsonage, aged 17 …

For those of you who are less Brontë-nerdy than me, the siblings really did invent worlds, Gondal and Angria – Verdopolis is a city in Angria – and write stories of adventure taking place there. These are all recorded in miniscule handwriting in tiny books that can mostly still be seen in Haworth at the Brontë Parsonage museum. At the same time, I was aware that the book combined Brontë knowledge with a fantasy element and I do love a good YA fantasy so I was sold on the idea!

So, how did the book live up to my Brontë-nerdly expectations? It did so well! It’s clear that Lena Coakley knows her stuff when it comes to the core research – the key characters, the Yorkshire moors, society of the time etc. I just felt that she was probably a lot like me and we’d get on really well. I think she had a lot of fun with the material. There were clear echoes of various Brontë novels (probably more than I picked up – I don’t know Anne’s work particularly), but I also really enjoyed the fantasy element that she introduced to explain how Gondal and Verdopolis worked and to create the story’s plot and conflict. Overall, I thought it was great and really enjoyed it. I think it’s probably a lot more fun if you do already know the background, but I’m sure it also stands on its own.


Classroom opportunities: In terms of teaching, I would recommend it to Lit A Level students who’ve enjoyed the Brontës as fun reading, particularly if they’re also taking/are into creative writing, as I think it’s a great example of playing with existing stories and ideas. I’m sure it wouldn’t be approved of as official ‘wider reading’, but for students who read widely, it would be an interesting choice.

Hearthfire rating: 8/10 Sizzling

Worlds of Ink and Shadow is out now in from Abrams & Chronicle, who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

Linking everything together: how my textbook writing draws on my life

You may think that writing English textbooks would be very dull and unimaginative. In my experience, however, writing textbooks and school resources is just as creative and personal an endeavour than writing stories, just in a different way.

There are of course restrictions and certain things that have to be included. You couldn’t have a GCSE English Language textbook without work on persuasive devices or writing descriptively (in the very specific ways that GCSE requires), for example – but this is where the creativity can come in. One of the beauties, for me, of writing this kind of material is in choosing the texts and data for students to work with.

Lang textbook

This past week, there was quite a bit of excitement in my department at work as sample material from the new AQA A Level English Language book was given out, with my name on the cover. For many, this was replaced by hilarity when people spotted that I had pulled together a batch of texts about dogs (I’m quite a doggy person…) for students to work on, not least a photo of my own dogs featured in a tweet.

UKYA recs
L-R: KS3 student book, KS3 teacher book, IGCSE student book

This made me think about how some of my other textbooks have drawn on my own experience and interests. Running this blog, and more specifically, being plugged in to the UKYA publishing world in a small way has certainly has a positive effect on my usage of texts in the teaching resources I have written.

I think it’s brilliant that I can be a blogger and a textbook author, as blogging has made me aware of some fabulous YA (especially UKYA) texts that other teachers might not be familiar with, making them known to the students using these textbooks in class. Obviously, I am also including the staple Dickens and Bronte passages, but how lovely to be able to also show students great recent writing, which they may wish to investigate further!

Books referenced in this post:

  • A-Level English Language for AQA, OUP, 2015 (Dan Clayton, Angela Goddard, Beth Kemp, Felicity Titjen)
  • First Language English for Cambridge IGCSE, Nelson Thornes, 2014 (Beth Kemp)
  • Essential Anthology for KS3: Communication and Information (Student Book), 2014, Nelson Thornes (Christina Brookes, Caroline Davis, Ken Haworth, Beth Kemp, Nicola Williams)
  • Essential Anthology for KS3: Communication and Information (Teacher Book), 2014, Nelson Thornes (Christina Brookes, Caroline Davis, Ken Haworth, Beth Kemp, Nicola Williams)

Joining in: the online teaching community

There is a thriving online teaching community, a lively collection of educators with a host of ideas and tips. I was going to say that I’ve learnt more through Twitter in the last twelve months than in the last three years of whole inset-type provision, but that’s probably not fair. I’m thinking of the whole-school/whole-college inset stuff whereas of course the material I see on Twitter is already filtered according to the particular teachers and experts I choose to follow. And that’s the point, really. There are so many tweeting and blogging teachers and education leaders that it’s relatively easy to find people with ideas that appeal to you.

Anyway, for anyone interested in finding their niche in the online teaching community, here are some of the people whose words I generally appreciate:

Geoff Barton (@RealGeoffBarton) – a model of good sense and grounded views

Joe Kirby http://back2thewhiteboard.wordpress.com/ – some interesting and practical ideas (his suggestions for speed-marking books in a meaningful way are brilliant)

Christopher Waugh (@Edutronic_net) – founder of the fabulous blogsync project, bringing teacher bloggers together

Michael Rosen (@MichaelRosenYes) – interesting and outspoken views on education

Alan Gibbons (@mygibbo) – libraries campaigning and sensible discussion about reading and literacy

Isabella Wallace (@WallaceIsabella) – author of ‘pimp my lesson’ – some quick and dirty ideas for livening things up

Calderstones English Dept (@CaldiesEnglish@LucyD1237 – author of the fabulous GCSE persuasive writing ‘Boxing to argue’ resource)

TES English (@TESEnglish)

Guardian Education (@GuardianEdu; @GuardianTeach)

This is just a small selection to get you started. Feel free to check who I follow – don’t feel you have to follow me! (I’m @BethKemp)

Sylvia Plath and me: negotiating and teaching Ariel

Today marks fifty years since Plath’s death. I’ve seen lots of pieces in newspapers: interviews with people who knew her, extracts from books exploring her life and works, links to interpretations of her poems and plenty of discussion of the new cover image for The Bell Jar. Personally, I think there’s a strong possibility the new cover will attract new readers to the novel; hard to see how that could be a bad thing, even though at first glance the cover looks like it trivialises Plath’s themes. This Telegraph piece explains rather nicely how the cover fits the book.

But anyway, I came here today to write about my own experiences of working with Plath’s poems, having taught Ariel as an A Level text many times.

More than any other writer whose work I’ve had the pleasure of teaching, Plath herself gets in the way. It’s nigh on impossible to get students past their fascination with her life. There are no absolute answers, and therefore we want to know, damnit! But then, isn’t that a large part of what A Level English is about: the lack of immediately reachable answers?

What fascinates me is that my opinion of her life and her problems has changed, and not just once. Don’t forget also that this is in the middle of my attempts to get students past her biography and into the poems for their own sake. I can’t have students continuing to claim, as some will at the start of the course, that Lady Lazarus “proves” that Plath didn’t intend to kill herself fifty years ago (believing herself able to rise again), or that Daddy tells us that she was a Jew and her father was a Nazi. It’s very difficult to teach Ariel as a collection without any reference to biography (she says, never actually having tried it). And even her most clearly fantasised poems – like Lady Lazarus which she told us was about “a woman who has a great and terrible gift of being reborn” – intertwine with her own life so much that it’s difficult to discourage students from looking for bits about Hughes or her father.

And yet. For all the frustration, I’d still choose Ariel any chance I had. Yes it explores dark emotions that some suggest it’s immoral to ‘expose’ teenagers to, but I’d argue that many teens are exposed to those emotions anyway, and a safe distance to discuss and explore them might be just what they need. And yes, some teens will almost worship Plath and practically make a cult out of her perceived suffering, but again, those who react so strongly to her would have found something else to ritualise (and again, discussing those feelings in class at a safe third party distance may be helpful). When there’s time to go there, it’s also interesting to discuss the phenomenon of this fascination with her and what she’s come to represent. Frieda Hughes’ poem, My Mother, published when the Gwyneth Paltrow/Daniel Craig film Sylvia came out is great for stimulating this.

In many ways, for all its extremity of emotion, Plath’s work offers us something that everyone can relate to on some level. Who hasn’t had frustrating relationships with their parents, been jealous or had thoughts which they know are destructive?

Lastly but absolutely not least, the poems have such a savage beauty. I love her use of sound – she clearly enjoyed the performance aspect of poetry – and some of her imagery is strikingly original and just gorgeous.

Miss, Why Can’t We Study Happy Books?

This is something I’ve been asked many times, by different groups of students. It’s true that we rarely do study books which are entirely happy (or sometimes, happy at all). Here’s a representative list of some texts I’ve taught over the last few years, most for A Level, some for GCSE:

  • Alexander Masters: Stuart, A Life Backwards (features homelessness, addiction, crime)
  • Shakespeare: Othello, King Lear (great tragedy)
  • Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman, A View From the Bridge (modern tragedy)
  • John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men (isolation, dashed plans, inevitable death)
  • Sylvia Plath: Ariel (mental illness, marital breakdown, suicide)
  • Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner (rape, cowardice, betrayal)
See? But then, when did you ever see a ‘happy’ text on a reading list? Here are some of the things that usually feature in my answer:
  • Conflict IS story. There’s simply no narrative in ‘everyone has what they want/need; everything’s fine’. (The common answer to this is: But what about a happy ending? Couldn’t we at least have that?)
  • ‘Serious’ literature, which provokes thought, is often heavier in tone than more ‘popular’ literature. I can’t explain why in any kind of satisfactory manner (which might tell you something about my views on the canon…), but happier writing is often taken less seriously.
  • Have you ever tried writing a happy story, or poem, or song: it’s hard! Or at least, hard to do without producing something cheesy, and cheese is not usually welcome on GCSE/A Level/uni reading lists.
Do you have any suggestions for other answers I could give? What would you say?

Words on Wednesday: Teen Talk in #UKYA

Dialogue is one of the things I notice most when I read: unrealistic conversation will turn me off a book quite rapidly. And, as it’s one of the’English Language’ things I teach, I really notice when dialogue doesn’t quite square with characters’ age, or regional or socio-economic background.

I thought today I’d share a few examples of recent UK YA novels which are particularly authentic in their use of teen-speak. For any other Eng Lang teachers out there, extracts from these are good ENGA3 analysis practice – and might just encourage the odd student to pick up a novel…

Hollow Pike by James Dawson (my review) may contain fantasy elements (witchcraft), but the characters sound exactly like many of my sixth form students. Since a key theme is bullying, bitchy comments and witty comebacks feature particularly highly in the carefully crafted dialogue of this third-person voiced novel.

When I Was Joe by Keren David (my review) is a first-person novel which demonstrates a keen ear for teen talk. Interestingly, both this and Hollow Pike feature a character who’s moved to a new area, so there are some characters whose relationships are very well established and others who are relative strangers.

Della Says: OMG! by Keris Stainton is a realistic contemporary novel (my review is coming soon, but short version: a great read) which captures the teen voice beautifully. This is another good choice for first person narration with a realistic teen feel, as well as sharp dialogue between characters.

I think one of the things that is really interesting about these (and other) novels that are successful in their depiction of teen language is the relative lack of up-to-the-moment slang. Of course, there is quite a lag between writing a book and its publication, but also slang can date really quickly. Authenticity is achieved via things like speech tags (… so he’s like ‘I’m leaving’ and she’s like ‘fine’…), qualifiers (it’s well good), alongside realistic depictions of teen life such as social hierarchies shown through labels (freak; ginge etc). All these things are likely to still signify teen culture and speech for the next few years, whereas more specific slang (maybe “reem”, for example…) is likely to firmly place any novel using it in 2011-12.

Words on Wednesday: the Meaning of Epic

What a great word! Applied to a story, it describes the sweep of a complex tale, usually incorporating a quest. It seems now, like many other words before it, to have broadened and weakened its meaning in some contexts, to mean something like “really really good”. 

It’s been our teenager’s adjective of choice for things she’s really pleased about for a while. For example, most of her Christmas presents were declared epic (to our great delight). I don’t know exactly how widespread this weakened teenage use is, but my students don’t tend to use it in this way. That could be due to age (my daughter’s 13, my students 16-19) or geography (we’re in Leicester, I teach in Nuneaton). Students in the college I work in are aware of it, though. GCSE students working on writing film reviews criticised a sample student review of Pirates of the Caribbean because it used the word epic, which they saw as slang usage and therefore inappropriate.

Is this a sign that some of these words which are used differently by teens could gradually lose their original meaning, as people no longer are aware of them? It hasn’t happened to some of the reversed meaning teen slang words like ‘sick’; the earlier meanings still stand alongside the new ones, but I’m pretty sure many teens don’t know any other meaning for ‘blatantly’ than ‘clearly’.

Is epic a teen word for good/great where you are?

Words on Wednesday: Fry’s Planet Word

If you’re interested in language and you haven’t yet caught BBC2’s fabulous programme “Fry’s Planet Word“, I’d like to suggest that you do. It’s a five-part series of hour-long programmes exploring language in a wide-ranging and intelligent way, and the last one is on this Sunday night (but don’t worry, they’re available on iplayer until the end of the month).

For those of use teaching English Language A Level, it’s been a godsend, with topics such as swearing, coded language (such as Polari) and how children acquire grammatical rules. Students have been delighted to see familiar names such as Jean Berko-Gleason and Steven Pinker talking to the wonderful Stephen Fry. We’ve also been able to see academics working on related disciplines in Psychology and Evolution Studies, and hear the stories of people with language-related problems such as Tourette’s Syndrome.

My students have been enjoying the familiar nature of some of the programme’s ideas, while also being stretched with new aspects that aren’t on the exam specification, but no specific prior knowledge of linguistics  is assumed. Go have a look!

The Three Key Ways School English Lessons Let Writers Down

For Words on Wednesday this week, issues which trouble me as an English teacher who writes.

  1. The assessment of creative writing (e.g. at GCSE) encourages students to use many adjectives and adverbs, which can lead to overwriting.
  2. In Primary School, pupils are encouraged to use as many different speech verbs as possible. The word ‘said’ is Number One in my daughter’s list of banned words from Year 2.
  3. Students’ writing is assessed in timed conditions. A typical example is the Key Stage 2 Longer Writing Test: Write a story/instruction leaflet/biography. You have 45 minutes. Ugh!
Note that I am not criticising teachers – we have to teach our students to succeed in the system. Unfortunately, those students who want to be professional writers have to master the style required in the classroom whilst also understanding that it is a specific genre and different to published writing. This applies particularly to the first two issues above while the third one helpfully creates a link between writing and stress.
I feel sorry for those teaching on Writing degrees in the UK – they must be spending ages undoing all this! We are able to do some work at A Level, but there isn’t that much writing in those courses. At least where original or productive writing* is assessed at that level, the requirements are more ‘real world’. Although the extent to which it is fair to expect an eighteen year old to produce an intelligent, well-argued piece about a linguistics issue in the style of a Guardian feature or an Independent comment column is debatable, following only two years on from “describe the room you are sitting in” with as much sensory description as possible… 
*It’s not called ‘creative writing’ to avoid the excesses that GCSE taught them were creative.