Tag Archives: the reading teacher

UKYA Review: Mind The Gap by Phil Earle

Mind The Gap, Phil Earle, (Barrington Stoke, Jan 2017)

Genres in the mix: contemporary

Age target: YA

Story basicsWhen Mikey’s dad died, something in Mikey died too. He loved his old man and he never stopped dreaming that one day his dad would land the role of a lifetime, prove them all wrong, and rock back up to the estate in the flashiest car anyone had ever seen. Now there’s just numbness, and not caring, and really, really stupid decisions. He says the worst of it is that he can’t even remember his dad’s voice any more. Eventually Mikey’s best mate can’t bear it any more, and so he sets out to give Mikey the memories – and his dad’s voice – back.

Review-in-a-tweet:  Gripping and emotive tale of mates and choices. ‘Super-readable’, sharply contemporary, realistic; will strike a chord with many teens.

The emotional ride: Obviously, at times this is tough. Mikey’s pain over losing his Dad is clear, but it is generally quite understated. It’s more about the immediate problems of Mikey acting stupidly because he doesn’t care about things any more, and about his mate’s quest to find a way to give Mikey his dad’s voice once more.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: The biggest opportunity this book (and others from Barrington Stoke) offers teachers is the chance to get students reading for pleasure. It’s a genuine gift in that department.

At Yr 11 Parents’ Evening last week, I had this along with The Liar’s Handbook and Unboxed from Barrington Stoke, (and some other YA titles of various kinds) on my desk ready for the ‘but I don’t know what to read’ moment, and it was brilliant to be able to show them the fantastic package that these little books are to make them super-readable:

  • clear sans-serif font
  • tinted pages (one mum said ‘I have dyslexia and I can see those words – I couldn’t on the sheet of exam dates you just showed me’)
  • short chapters and overall book length
  • stories by authors already successful for this age group, not teachers or ‘dyslexia experts’
  • topics and themes found in other YA novels, nothing simplified in content, only in readability

Several students took photos of the books, to be able to buy them later/find them in a library – yay!

Main character: I’d say it’s impossible to read this and not be behind Mikey 100%, even when he’s being an idiot (and he really is, at times). Phil Earle makes you understand why he’s being an idiot, so you just feel for him even more (that’s part of the ‘not simplified content’ thing about these books – they require an emotional maturity, but the reading age is only 8. No mean feat!)

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

Mind the Gap is out now in the UK from Barrington Stoke, who kindly 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.

I’m counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017: my third for the challenge.

The Reading Teacher: A New Crop of Weekly Recommendations to Share

Here are my latest weekly book recs, which I display at the start of lessons in the hope of encouraging some students to find something that appeals to them. I am happy to report that some students have noted down the odd title in lessons, so I feel I’m making some kind of a difference. If I can introduce somebody to something they like that they wouldn’t have read otherwise, it’s worth it, right?

Download For catharsis slide as pdf.

Many students enjoy a good ‘weepie’ and these should appeal to those who’ve outgrown Jacqueline Wilson and gone through the Cathy Cassidy collection. They all cover difficult issues with heart and occasionally with humour.  

Download For fantasy fans slide as pdf.

Fantasy remains a staple popular genre and these are all excellent choices. I’ve tried to avoid some of the more heavily-promoted series in favour of novels students are perhaps less likely to have heard of – and couldn’t resist making a(nother) plug for Pratchett.

Download LGBT History Month slide as pdf.

February is LGBT history month and this is a good set of contemporary novels for students to find a range of sexualities and gender identities represented. If you want some non-fic on this theme, This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson (older printings may still say James Dawson) is excellent, and I would also recommend Beyond Magenta, which collects interviews with transgender teens, although this is a US text so some experiences are very US-centric.

As with all my recommendations, I’ve personally read the majority of these, or can vouch for their quality based on the word of others. The main aim of my recommendations is to encourage reading for pleasure, but I am doing so through well-written texts which are worthy of students’ time. If they read these, they will be exposed to decent vocabulary used appositely, well-balanced sentences, maybe some use of literary features such as metaphor, all while being able to access and enjoying a good story. For more on my reading recs, this page of my website collects my #ReadingTeacher recommendations and blog posts.

The Reading Teacher: Recommendations to Share

Welcome to a new blog feature. I’ve been making recommendations over on Twitter for a while, with a particular eye on teachers’ needs, using the hashtag #ReadingTeacher and I thought I’d share a few here with a bit more detail (and some resources to share with students!). I’ve already blogged about this idea in general terms, so I’ll just cut straight to recommending some books, if that’s ok 🙂 Here are some I’ll be recommending to my classes over the next couple of weeks:

Download Lemony Snicket slide    Download Narrative Voice slide

I don’t know about you, but my resident teens and I have become big fans of the Netflix version of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’, so I thought that making some recommendations based on that might be prudent. I’ve gone for a gothic vibe largely, general weirdness and a dark comic tone as you can see from the info on the slide. I first read Good Omens in sixth form and it was certainly accessible (although I think there were references I only understood on re-reading as an adult), so I’m hopeful some bright yr11s might like it. Incidentally, there will be a Good Omens series (penned by Gaiman) on Amazon and the BBC in 2018.

As for my ‘narrative voice’ collection, I thought it would be nice to cluster books by literary feature sometimes rather than theme, as it allows for a broader spread of content and gives me more chance to offer something to catch the interest of more students in a class.

As with all my recommendations, I’ve personally read most of these, or can vouch for their quality based on the word of others (confession: I haven’t read Miss Peregrine – yet – but many of my go-to trusted bloggers have). The main aim of my recommendations is to encourage reading for pleasure, but I am doing so through well-written texts which are worthy of students’ time. If they read these, they will be exposed to decent vocabulary used appositely, well-balanced sentences, maybe some use of literary features such as metaphor, all while being able to access and enjoying a good story.

Three Recommendations for Transgender Rep: Non-Fic, YA and MG

Non-Fic Recommendation: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, Susan Kuklin

Recommended for: parents, teachers, youth workers, teens and tweens of all gender identities (and sexualities) – transgender, cisgender (non-trans), non-binary, agender.

The style of this book is very journalistic, but incredibly hands-off. Put together by photographer-author Susan Kuklin, it is clear that she allowed her teen subjects a lot of freedom in expressing themselves. It is also clear that she is a cis author seeking information from that perspective and for that reason, this book is perhaps slightly more useful for a cis audience. That said, there are clear efforts for the book to be representative in that there are two each male-to-female, female-to-male and non-binary teens presented in the book, so it would be very difficult to leave it with the impression that there is one transgender experience, which is great.

At times, probably because of their young age, some of the books’ subjects are a little dogmatic in their opinions and it might have been nice to balance this with the perspective of older, more settled, transgender narratives, but there is also much value in sharing teens’ voices. If a key purpose of the book is to help transgender teens see others in the same position, then the book certainly achieves that. Another would be to help cis teens understand, and I think that purpose is also well met. There are comprehensive lists of resources for support (US and UK) at the end of the book.

Hearthfire rating: 8/10 Sizzling

Beyond Magenta is out now in the UK from Walker Books, who provided me with a review copy. It was a 2015 Stonewall Honor Book in the US.

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.


YA Recommendation: If I Was Your Girl, Meredith Russo

 

Recommended for: YA contemporary fans of all ages and gender identities. There are separate notes for both trans and cis readers at the end of the novel (which are brilliant and generous but should only be read after the story because of spoilers).

This #ownvoices contemporary YA romance about Amanda with flashes to when she was Andrew is nicely put together and offers a satisfying story with some fantastic characterisation. I thought Amanda’s parents were well drawn, especially her Dad’s struggles with his daughter’s identity. That would be easy to present as black/white, but he is a fully-realised character with plenty of grey and I really enjoyed seeing that. Complex parents are not always something you get in YA.

The ways in which this does fulfil YA tropes are that Amanda is beautiful and desirable and, sometimes, things seem easier for her than they will be for many trans teens who read this. At first, this worried me reading it, but then I realised that it is intended to offer hope and, in fact, the more negative aspects of transition are discussed, they just might be in Amanda’s past or happen to others rather than being centre stage. This is also discussed in the author’s notes.

Overall, the charming story will easily carry readers through, while the author’s notes at the end serve nicely to emphasise the relevant points about trans experience. There are also adverts for UK-specific support services at the end.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

If I Was Your Girl is out now in the UK from Usborne. It was selected as a ‘Zoella book club’ title for W H Smith.


MG Recommendation: George, Alex Gino

Recommended for: readers 9+ (including teachers and parents)

This book really blew me away. I’d read other trans rep before this one, but I couldn’t say I’d had the experience shown to me so definitively before. It’s all in the pronouns and voice.

George is presented using female pronouns (she/her) and, when the book starts, she’s at home by herself. When you then see her interacting with others who refer to her as a boy, it’s jarring. And then you get it – that’s how clearly and viscerally Alex Gino presents the reader with George’s experience. They never describe George as ‘wanting to be’ a girl or ‘feeling like she is’ a girl, she just is a girl, but everyone inexplicably treats her as a boy. And there it is. For this cis reader, that was the clearest presentation I’d come across. I don’t consider myself stupid and I would say I had (intellectually) understood the concept before, but no-one had made me feel it before. I was right there with George, though.

For a book geek, another delight of this book is the way Charlotte’s Web is used. George’s class is studying the book and they’re going to do a performance of it and George wants to be Charlotte. Of course, her teacher won’t let her be Charlotte because, to her, George is a boy and boys should be Wilbur or Templeton. In all, it’s a lovely story, warmly told, pitched perfectly for the MG audience (I also appreciated that we don’t get into discussing transition or the big questions of how George will be in the future – there’s plenty of time for that). This is the perfect, reassuring and warm introduction to the idea for MG readers who may or may not have questions about gender at this point in time.

Hearthfire rating: 10/10 Smoking hot!

George is out now in the UK from Scholastic.

I hope this round-up has been helpful and I really hope to see more books exploring the range of human identity coming out in the future. Some of these books have been out for a while in the States but are fairly new to the UK. I know that in schools we’re starting to see more kids expressing different gender identities and it would be good for teachers and support workers to have resources available to support them and other kids around them.

The Reading Teacher: 3 Ways to Sneak ‘Reading for Pleasure’ Recommendations into GCSE English Classes

I think (hope?) many of us can agree that GCSE set text lists do not inherently encourage students to become readers. By exposing young teenagers to  books deemed ‘classics’ or ‘great’ and requiring detailed analysis, we often in fact risk putting them off reading. This is, unfortunately, especially true for those not from a reading background whose only exposure to books is in school and who are left with the impression that the set texts they are given is what all books are like.

It is important, therefore, to try to share with pupils good examples of recently-published, engaging fiction for Young Adults (YA novels or Teen Fiction – although these are not interchangeable labels; teen is generally a little ‘younger’ and less likely to feature romance or tackle gritty issues). Here are some suggestions for ways that this can be achieved without going too far off-piste – especially if your school doesn’t have a school-wide initiative like Drop Everything And Read time.

  1. Use YA novel extracts when teaching writing skills. I know we often reach for the classics here, but especially now that this skill is tested in an exam and not as a CA, the boards are no longer looking for pre-1950s-style (and currently unpublishable) purple prose. More modern exemplars are likely to be useful to students.
  2. Offer extracts from YA novels as early practice texts for reading skills before moving on to the more demanding types of texts set by the boards (e.g. the 20th century lit set by AQA).
  3. Share recommendations, possibly supported by extracts, or simply blurbs and covers on slides for topical reads or good reads linked to students’ interests (including the canny use of TV shows and films as genre guides – here‘s my sizable list from the summer). This makes a nice plenary as a ‘how do these link to the lesson?’ or an end of half term task: choose one or two to look out for and read over half term (it’s always worth promoting libraries – kids don’t have to BUY books to read them…)

As of today, over on Twitter I’ll be sharing  daily #ReadingTeacher recommendations, which I’m hoping will be of use and interest to other secondary teachers. I’ll be using recently published YA and occasionally MG novels, and will link them to: curriculum possibilities such as teaching particular writing/analysis skills; broader curriculum issues such as SMSC/the four ‘R’s of Learning Power; themed months/days such as Black History Month or World Mental Health Day; students’ interests/TV/film to allow easy recommendations. I intend to use books I’ve personally read (although I may occasionally rec something based on reliable intel 🙂 ), but they won’t always have already been reviewed on here.

If you don’t yet follow me on Twitter, I’m @BethKemp (and I talk mostly books, but also dogs, so be warned!)

UKYACX Blog Tour Post: Killing Books from Dan Smith

It’s almost time for this year’s UKYACX event (formerly known as the UKYA/UKMG Extravaganza). This year, it’s headed north to Newcastle. I’ve been to the last two and they have been brilliant experiences.  A day celebrating reading and writing for young people: what could be better?

UKYACX

Dan SmithTo celebrate this fantastic event, two blog tours are running simultaneously, with YA and MG authors discussing books, writing and libraries. Here at the hearthfire, we’re fortunate to have Dan Smith, author of Big Game, My Brother’s Secret, My Friend The Enemy and latest book: Boy X, about a boy who wakes up to find himself kidnapped on a tropical island – and he’s been injected with a mysterious chemical. Anyway, without further ado, here is what Dan wanted to share with us today on the theme of creating readers.


As she moved around the room passing out the new class reader, my English teacher told us that we were about to read a classic novel. It was brilliant, she told us, and we would love it. I was twelve-years-old, an avid reader of adventure stories and thrillers, and I looked down at the cover with excitement. This new book, with its jungle scene and roughly drawn, spear-carrying boys, held so much promise. Where was this story going to take me? A jungle island? A survival adventure?

Well, as it turned out, it took me through weeks and weeks of dull English lessons as my classmates and I took turns to read a few lines or pages. From time to time we would stop to discuss the themes and messages and . . . blah, blah, blah. And when the weakest readers took their turn, stuttering and stumbling, every word saw my eyelids grow heavier. The pages dragged through autumn term and into spring term. It took a LONG time to read that novel and I thought it was The Most Boring Book. Ever.

School killed that book for me, as it killed many others following it, and it could have killed the very idea of reading for pleasure. If those lessons had been my only contact with books, then I would always have associated books with the boredom of sitting in class. But I was lucky enough to have parents who read a lot. My background was one in which reading had become a major source of entertainment, so I was able to walk away from that classroom and pick up another book which I could read for myself. For pleasure.

I was also lucky that my school ran a monthly book club. Mr Johnson would sit at the back of the school ‘library’ beside a table laden with books of all kinds, and I would look through them and choose which ones I might like. Mr Johnson would smoke his pipe (we’re going back a few years) and talk with enthusiasm about the books. He would make recommendations, and helped me to be excited about books and about stories.

For me, that’s the importance of a school librarian. It’s the importance of an English teacher (or any other teacher) who knows the difference between reading for study and reading for pleasure; who understands that we need to encourage young people to read books they want to read. I appreciate the importance of studying novels, of teaching young people to be analytical and to ask questions. I understand the stress of targets and literacy levels, but we need those librarians and teachers who also haven’t forgotten what novels are really for; that there are no ‘right’ books or ‘wrong’ books and that, yes, novels develop our empathy, encourage creativity, help us to see a new world, and so many other things besides, but that their main function is to entertain us – to make us laugh and cry, to gasp in excitement, or tremble in fear.

Before anything, reading should be a pleasure.

Oh, and that book I read in class? I have since read it for myself, many times, and it’s now one of my favourite novels. If you think you know what it is . . . put your guesses in the comments below!


Thanks Dan (and I’m pretty sure I’m familiar with that book, having had a similar experience…).

If survival in the jungle type adventures are your thing, and you haven’t read Dan’s books, you should definitely add his titles to your wishlist. His website is here. He also writes thrillers for adults.ASh McCarthy

Check out the UKYACX MG BLOG TOUR POSTER and @UKYACX for more info on the blog tour or event.

 

The Reading Teacher: Summer Recommendations

Screenshot 2016-07-10 23.31.26I’m sharing the summer recommendations that I’ve been working on for my classes this year below as a pdf. I thought it would help if I based them on students’ likes and dislikes in terms of TV/film, hobbies and issues of interest. I’ve included a few ‘easy reads’ and also a few ‘challenge reads’ (CR) to make it suitable for the full ability (and motivation!) range, and have also included advice on where to look for reviews and further recommendations, with some of my favourite blogs.

Bear in mind that this is primarily intended as a reading for pleasure list and is all about enjoyment of books. It’s 4 pages and includes 170 different titles (although some do appear more than once), organised in clusters of 3-7. I have not personally read all of these, but if I haven’t read it myself, I know someone who has enjoyed and recommended it.

Feel free to adapt/share with your classes.

Summer Reading Recommendations

Recommendations Round-up: Revision Season Special – Escapism All Round

As GCSE and A Level students are starting to knuckle down to some serious study, I thought I’d offer you a selection of recommended reads that do not feature school and definitely do not include characters deciding their careers. I’m not promising no-one thinks about the future in any of these, but this is not the place for school-set contemporaries, ok?

These are reads to take you far away from classrooms and exams and the kinds of conversations about the future that you’ve been having or are having regularly at the moment. Just don’t get too carried away and neglect the study, alright? (My best advice – use a timer for both study and relaxation, so you’re fully doing both at different times, and not having to feel guilty about reading when you should be studying or, worse, only half studying because you’re resentful about having no time to yourself).

Fantasy Genre – to really get away from reality

I’ve got quite a lot of good recs here, including YA and adult titles.

Fantasy revision readsOne of the hottest new YA titles around is Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands, which swishes together aspects of the Arabian Nights stories with elements of a good Western for some sharp-shootin’ fun with a fab female lead (who, naturally goes undercover as a fella at first to enter a shooting competition). If a UK setting – however fantasy-enriched – is more your scene, I have two great (and completed) series for you: The Night Itself by Zoe Marriott is the first in her urban fantasy series using Japanese folklore for the fantasy elements. This one all kicks off with her heroine’s (ill-advised, of course) usage of her family’s treasured katana for a fancy dress party. The second UKYA possibility here is Liz de Jager’s fab fae-focused series which opens with Banished, in which Kit, her protagonist, works to protect people from magical and mystical creatures intruding into our world. Naturally, things blow up and Kit finds herself in the middle of epic battles. Another UKYA fantasy tip, a series with two books out and a third to follow next year is The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury. Said daughter was removed from her family to live as a pampered assassin, able to kill with just a touch – her bare skin is lethal to all except the royal family,

Grisha & Throne of GlassFinally on the YA front, if you enjoy high fantasy (stories fully set in another world like Game of Thrones) and you haven’t yet discovered them, two US YA series to immerse yourself in are Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha series, which opens with Shadow and Bone, and Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass. Both feature a kick-ass teen girl protagonist and offer complex characterisation and richly-imagined worlds. Bardugo’s series is complete as a trilogy, while Maas has 4 novels out and more to come.

For adult fantasy series, I have two quick recommendations for you (note: both have sexual content):

adult fantasy revision reads

  • The Jane True series by Nicole Peeler is a snarky urban fantasy in which Jane discovers that she is part selkie and meets other ‘supes’ (supernatural creatures) and ‘halflings’ like herself. Tempest Rising is the first instalment.
  • Undead and Unwed is the first in MaryJanice Dickinson’s very tongue in cheek series about a vampire. These are very light-hearted and funny books, somewhere between Sex in the City and Twilight.

Crime/Thriller genre – books set in our world but hopefully far from your reality…

crime recs for revision

For a great YA thriller, I recommend Tanya Byrne’s Heart-Shaped Bruise. Set in an institution, this tightly-narrated novel offers clear insight into a criminal’s journal. It’s a chilling and absorbing read.

Two recent adult-market crime thrillers that I recommend are In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware and Someone Else’s Skin by Sarah Hilary. They’re quite different, but both superb. In a Dark, Dark Wood is a standalone thriller focusing on a woman who has inexplicably been invited to the hen weekend of an old schoolfriend in a secluded cottage deep in the woods. The novel opens with the woman in hospital, unable to remember what has happened, with police outside her room. Someone Else’s Skin, however, is the first in a police series featuring DI Marnie Rome and DS Noah Jake. Books 2 and 3 are also now out and are equally good. I love this series because it’s gritty, UK-set and you get a good sense of the detective characters as well as a strong mystery/thriller.

Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic

dystopian revision recs

Of course, another way to escape the here and now is to read about other societies, especially those with brutal regimes or those that are falling apart. Here are a few recs for those, all YA, and all UK. Do you fancy a creepy cult masquering as peace-loving earth-worshippers? Try Seed by Lisa Heathfield. Or a terrifying  post-apocalyptic world in which drugged-up supersoldiers have taken over? For that, read The Fearless by Emma Pass. Finally, you might enjoy a trilogy (2 books are out now) featuring a UK split into the pagan Greenworld (living in harmony with the environment) and the Redworld (exploiting the environment and being materialistic). Anna McKerrow’s Crow Moon starts with this premise and spins a magical battle there.

Whatever you choose, don’t forget: work AND rest!

The Reading Teacher: Fiction for Resilience

We’ve been hearing rather a lot about resilience lately. It’s one of those ideas that’s filtering through from business into education and, while I rankle at some of the ways the word is being used (like the recent suggestion that we train new teachers to improve their ‘mental toughness’), there is no doubt that being resilient is of direct personal benefit to young people as they grow up.

Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s ever been to my blog before, I think stories are a rather fabulous way to help foster resilience. There is no story without conflict, and it is in the (incremental) resolution of that conflict that the story works. ‘X wants Y. X gets Y’ is not a story anyone would publish and with good reason. Therefore, effectively, any story gives some kind of lesson in resilience, in determination, or persistence.

It all starts in the grand folk tale tradition. There must be three attempts to win the quest, pass the test, retrieve the treasure – two is unsatisfactory and four is a travesty. And after centuries of this, it is what we expect. So, any story is likely to offer a lesson in resilience if you look for this angle, but I thought I’d offer three I’ve read relatively recently which might be of interest to UK teens and also allow a suitable moral to be drawn.

Looking at the Stars, Jo Cotterill

looking at the starsThis marvellous novel about refugees from an oppressive regime offers hope through the determination of young Amina, who keeps her family focused through the stories she tells as they gaze at the stars at night. [NB: For anyone worried about sensitivity with a ‘refugee’ book, this is beautifully handled. It’s really powerful and is set in a fictional place, with a fictional regime, so it’s clearly about the experience and not ‘aimed at’ any political or religious group specifically.]

The Bone Dragon, Alexia Casale

The Bone DragonThis beautiful, lyrical novel is magic realism for teenagers. At the start of this novel, Evie (the narrator) does not seem very resilient: she has been hiding the pain of her past from her adoptive parents and is struggling to break this habit. She has a fragment of her own rib, left over from surgery to repair her old injuries, and she carves this into a dragon as a talisman. This is a beautiful, if somewhat unsettling, read that could be used to open up debates about resilience and recovery with older teens.

Bubble Wrap Boy, Phil Earle

bubble wrap boyOne for the slightly younger secondary students, this hilarious and warmhearted tale features Charlie Han, whose overprotective mother causes him considerable social problems. The novel follows him as he gains a new interest and uncovers a shocking secret about his mother. It’s brilliantly told and will definitely offer opportunities to discuss Charlie’s strategies for coping with school, his Mum and setbacks to his plans.

The Reading Teacher: Two Extracts from Recent Teen Fiction to Teach Writing

I have written before about the tension between writing ‘rules’ taught in primary school and advice shared with those who seek publication. Today, I thought rather than rehash that rant, I’d offer something a bit more concrete. So, here are the openings of a couple of recent UKYA novels that classes could explore to discuss some ways in which good writing works.

With less time for ‘reading’ lessons in KS3 and none with older students, it’s a good way to be able to push books in front of them that they might be interested in reading. I’m always happy to make stealth UKYA recommendations to my classes, convinced that this is a much more likely way to gain an extra reader or two than only ever showing them the classics.

I’ve happily used these (and others) with classes from KS3 to A Level. The novels are marketed as Young Adult, but in practice will be read by about 12 to adult (I enjoy them, so I’m not putting an end age, OK?). I’ve chosen a contemporary story and an urban fantasy for today, as I would pair these together in a lesson in order to meet different tastes in reading (and to show that genre writing matters too).

Teaching Dialogue: Emma Hearts LA, Keris Stainton

Orchard Books, 2012

‘Most girls of your ageemma hearts la would jump at the chance to move to California,’ my mum says. She had been standing in front of the fireplace to make the big announcement, but, thanks to my reaction to it, she’s now sitting on the sagging sofa next to me.

I stare at her. ‘You are joking, right?’

‘No. No, I’m not joking,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry, Emma, but this is a great opportunity for me. And it’s a great opportunity for us as a family.’

I glance at my sister, who’s sunk deep in a beanbag in the corner of the room. She’s fiddling with her phone, a half-smile on her face.

‘Bex!’ I say. ‘You can’t be pleased about this! Tell me you’re not pleased about this!’

She glances up at me from under her floppy fringe. ‘I think it’ll be cool to live in Hollywood.’

‘Well, it won’t actually be Hollywood,’ Mum says.

‘Near enough,’ Bex says, grinning. She’s a drama dork, my sister. I bet she thinks she’ll be talent-spotted at the airport and have her own Disney XD show by the end of the year.

‘It’s a new start,’ Mum says.

This extract is brilliant for exploring pacing in dialogue and the technicalities of using dialogue in story writing. Here are a few of the things I’ve had different kinds of students do with this text:

  • Highlight/underline all the actual speech to look at how the author has spread it out, using commentary from the narrator to provide additional information and stretch out the tension.
  • Explore why authors rarely actually vary speech verbs (better to use said/says, which becomes invisible rather than ‘bogging down’ the text; speech can be attributed using other comments e.g. ‘I stare at her’, ‘She glances up…’ in this example).
  • Examine the tone and language of the speech to see how it has been made realistic, perhaps then asking students to rewrite or produce a dialogue-heavy piece of writing of their own.
  • Explore specific features of the dialogue and speech-like aspects of the narration:
    • grammatical: why contractions are mostly used but then not in ‘you are joking?’
    • grammatical: minor and incomplete sentences such as ‘near enough’ and
    • lexical: repetition, discourse markers and recycling/repetition.
  • Discuss the way dialogue and narration are used together to create a voice which speaks to the reader and firmly places us on Emma’s side (e.g. the suggestion of mum’s ‘staging’ of her announcement and the focus on Bex’s unrealistic expectations).

Teaching Atmospheric Writing: The Night Itself, Zoë Marriottthe night itself

Walker Books, 2013

Stealing the sword was a bad idea. I can’t pretend I didn’t realize that at the time. I wasn’t even supposed to know about the thing, let alone sneak up and snaffle it from the attic where it was carefully concealed in the dark, under layers of cobwebs and rotting Christmas decorations. I was fully aware that if my father found out about the sword or about me taking it, he’d pop a blood vessel from sheer fury and kill me. Or die. Maybe both.

If your family’s priceless heirloom is some ugly vase or painting, like on the Antiques Roadshow, the worst thing that can happen if you mess with it is that you’ll smash it or ruin the patina or something. My family’s antique is a different story. Sixty-two centimetres of curved, single-edged steel, designed with a single purpose: to kill. You’d probably call it a samurai sword. But its proper name is katana.

And I needed it for my Christmas party costume.

I’ve used this extract as an example of a strong opening, creating a sense of both character and of plot. Something exciting is clearly going to happen. Here are a few activities I’ve found useful with various student groups in exploring this text:
  • Highlight/underline the descriptive phrases to explore the balance of description and information. There are some effective descriptive details, but too much at this point would swamp the story and slow it down too much.
  • Printing the extract out with a space after every sentence for the students to write back. This could be a question to the narrator (what sword? why did you steal it?) or their own journal-type musings (hmm, I’m interested now). With some students, making it a live-tweeting-type activity has worked well, with a sentence at a time on a powerpoint and ‘tweets’ written on mini whiteboards to capture their reactions. This leads nicely into a discussion about how the author manages (manipulates is such a harsh word…) reader emotions and expectations, especially if you can save some of those ‘tweets’ for discussion at the end, once the whole has been seen.
  • Examining sentence and paragraph length. Students too often write very long sentences and very long paragraphs. I have made students count words, list the words in each sentence and paragraph and then edit a piece of their own work to these rules:
    • no single paragraph longer than the first paragraph here (in number of words)
    • no single sentence longer than the longest sentence here
    • only one ‘long’ sentences (calculated as mean of three longest sentences here) per paragraph
    • at least one very short sentence per paragraph
  • Discussing tone: highlight/underline parts that fall into these categories, in order to show how more impressive vocabulary is balanced with more colloquial language to avoid an overly distanced or alienating tone. The separation of the final sentence is also worth discussion in terms of its punchline-like effect. With older/more able students, I also discuss how the syntax creates a spoken feel, focusing on:
    • unusual high-register/’fancy’ words
    • unusual colloquial/’slangy’ words
    • sentences that ‘feel’ chatty/casual
  • Exploring how to set up a story without over-explaining. Students list what we learn from this extract about:
    • the narrator
    • her family
    • the plot
  • Examining how the motif of conflict is seeded in this opening, by pulling out all the contrasted ideas and words.

What do you think? If you enjoyed this/found it interesting/useful, please do let me know. I’d love to feature further ‘popular’ fiction extracts that I’ve used in class along with what I’ve done with them.