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.

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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 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!

Recommendations for Black History Month (KS3 to 5)

There will  be a reading recs slide for Black History Month too, but here are some brief reviews for some great BHM books to share with/recommend to classes. Obviously A Change Is Gonna Come also fits into this category, as it does so much to balance representation, and some of the stories could really be used to teach BAME experience (Yasmin Rahman’s and Nikesh Shukla’s are about contemporary BAME experience in the UK while Mary Bello’s and Ayisha Malek’s are also contemporary but with different geographical focuses).

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (spoiler alert: this is next month’s Book Of The Month in honour of Black History Month) is an amazing YA contemporary novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. It follows the experiences of Starr, who is with her friend when he is shot by police and has to negotiate the moral minefield that follows. Everything is complicated by the fact that she lives in a black neighbourhood and attends a largely white school. This book is going to be a major Hollywood film and is seriously well written. It teaches loads about contemporary Black experience in the US without a single note of didacticism or bitterness. I’d recommend this for year 9 up.

Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence is a contemporary UKYA novel which is great for reflecting common Black teen experience in the UK. Marlon is 16 and struggling with various things, mostly exacerbated by his social situation. I loved this book for its texture and realism and the sense of ‘oh no, Marlon’ but at the same time, knowing he lacked much choice. It’s great for showing the ‘mind-forged manacles’ that still exist for many (sorry, guess what I’ve just been teaching!!). I’ve also just read Patrice Lawrence’s second book and it’s also fab – both novels also heavily feature music as being important to the characters, which I appreciate as music is central to so many teens’ lives and identities. I’d recommend this for year 9 and up.

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson is a glorious UKYA historical novel based on real events. It tells of a young woman who reinvents herself as an exotic princess after trauma. The novel is a fab demonstration of colonial attitudes in early nineteenth century Britain, with many people keen to embrace Caraboo’s act and to study her ways. Catherine Johnson’s attention to detail in her historical research is fantastic and her characters are an absolute delight. Many students will enjoy this book, but in terms of appreciating its messages for BHM, it’s more suitable for older students. Students from KS3 could read it but I think those in KS4 and 5 are more likely to understand the depiction of imperialist attitudes.

Look out for my The Hate U Give posts during October for Black History Month, especially an extract q for GCSE practice which will enable us to introduce the text into the classroom. It’s a real gift of a book to put in front of young people and I’ve no doubt that bringing an extract in for such a lesson will prompt some to go out and read the whole and expand their understanding of contemporary race issues in the US (and worldwide).

Rewriting the World: Fantasy and Social Issues (YA Shot Blog Tour with Ellen Renner)

cropped-yashotcolourlesssmallAre you aware of the YA Shot event? It’s a fantastic Arts Council-sponsored event taking place next week in celebration of libraries and young people’s literature. 71 YA and MG writers are appearing in 3 venues across Uxbridge on Wednesday 28th October. There is also a programme of blogging and vlogging workshops for those who want to learn more about this area.

This thought-provoking post on the world of fantasy writing from Ellen Renner appears courtesy of YA Shot and demonstrates the high quality of material that you can expect on the day.

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Rewriting the World: Fantasy and Social Issues

I write in order to understand. Writers stand outside the world and watch it spin. We study this amazing, contrary world we live in and ask: Why?

Why do some people do bad things, and others good? Why is society organised the way it is? Does power always corrupt? Is history doomed to repeat itself? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where do I fit in? Can I make a difference?

These are the very questions children ask of themselves and the world as they grow up. Writers simply never stop asking. Perhaps we never truly grow up. The first job of a story-teller is to entertain (otherwise no one will listen!); the second, to ask the hard questions.

Castle of shadowsAll of this is why I predominately write fantasy, although my debut novel, Castle of Shadows, could more accurately be described as alternative history. I wanted to write about power and politics set in a time of great technological and social change. In fact, I wanted to put a mirror up to our own world while keeping a necessary distance. So I created a world based on 1830s England but free from its history. Castle of Shadows was written just after the Iraq War and, not surprisingly, features political shenanigans and a weapon of mass destruction.

My most recent boTributeoks, Tribute and Outcaste, are straightforwardly within the fantasy genre, with all its related world-building. It was both liberating and terrifying to realise that the only limits were those of my imagination. But too much freedom can be a trap and I chose my ‘magic’ carefully and made sure it had logical limits within the story. Instead of potions and spells, my magic-users have a genetic ability to transform matter (telekinesis).

I wrote Tribute because I wanted to explore issues that have haunted me since I was a child: racism, sexism . . .all the ‘-isms’ which are an excuse for the all-too-human tendency to scapegoat segments of a society as ‘other’. In other words: the failure of empathy. It is no coincidence that my main character, Zara, is gifted – or cursed – with extreme empathy. She has no choice but to rebel against the evil she not only sees, but feels.

In this book – and especially in Outcaste – I explore the group-think mentality which allows genocide to happen, which enables members of a self-defining group to de-humanise those who do not belong. I’m extremely proud that Tribute is endorsed by Amnesty International.

Fantasy, for me, is a Petri dish in which I can place elements of our own society and culture them in isolation and watch them develop. Sometimes unexpected things grow in the dish. It isn’t surprising that the world of Tribute is unfair and violent, or that the non-magic are enslaved by those with telekinetic power. But I was shocked to discover that this terribly dark society had a single positive aspect: one silver lining to the cloud of oppressive evil. As I explored the logic of my world, it became clear to me that since women mages are as powerful as men – and cannot therefore be dominated physically – that there would be little reason for sexism to exist inside their society. Which means that when the main character – magic-user and rebel Zara – flees to the non-magic world of the Makers, she is in for a rude shock. That story is told in the sequel, Outcaste.

Sadly, fantasy still seems to suffer from a twentieth-century bias amongst the critical establishment. This, despite the fact that, when used well, fantasy is one of the best literary tools for asking those difficult questions. It is a device which allows writers and readers sufficient distance from our messy, complicated lives in which to think more clearly. Fantasy, used well, is a direct descendant of the great world mythologies. The best examples of its practice deserve to be read with thought and care, in the realisation that – in the hands of a good writer – nothing is more ‘real’ than fantasy.

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How brilliant was that? Thank you so much, Ellen – and YA Shot, for that great post. If you want to find out more about Ellen’s writing, she is published by Hot Key Books and there is a fabulous review of Tribute by SF Said on the Guardian Books site, in which he says:

Two things make or break a fantasy novel: the magic and the world. In both these respects, Ellen Renner’s Tribute shares something with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, stories that gave us an original conception of magic and a richly imagined world, using the genre to say something deeply resonant about our own world.