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 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!