Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

08.01.18Choosing Books: Random Notes From My Reading Desk

Image result for gulliver's travels book

Image result for a lesson before dying

This is a super-informal post- a set of impromptu thoughts as I sit here at my desk about my task for the past three weeks: reading up on middle level fiction and specifically what could be included among the books in our middle level reading curriculum. I’ve read a mix of contemporary YA fiction, historical classics and great contemporary books for adult–ie not YA–readers. It’s been fascinating and I thought I’d share a few hodge-podge notes.

Levels of historical fiction: I love historical fiction. It’s ideal for building background knowledge obviously and for giving students a window beyond their own daily reality. But I keep feeling like there are two classes of historical fiction.  Those that basically place a contemporary narrator in a historical setting and those that attempt to voice a historical-ized narrator.  I’ve just been reading a book set in the late 18th century for example. The narrative voice is all 21st century to me though.  She talks like a today-girl dropped in to the past. She thinks like a today girl dropped into the past. Or sounds and thinks too much that way for my tastes.  I think I like the other class of historical fiction better- where the author undertakes to make a compelling narrator but one that speak and thinks differently that a present-day narrator would. Maybe not perfectly 18th century- that would be impossible strange and inaccessible.  But at least a credible mix- a narrator who voices some of the ideas and thoughts a girl then might have thought and who does not speak like a 21st century teenager.   Similarly there are books of historical fiction that work hard to bring the context and setting and ideas of another period to life and some that tell an essentially contemporary story in and pleasantly and a-histoically set it in some bygone era-more in name than in reality.

Strangely the book I just finished  was set really nicely in the context of the late 18th century in terms of history but the narrative voice was so modern day I ended up voting to pass on it. I know i should tell you the book but ironically it’s by one of my favorite authors of books for young people and we’ll end up using another of her books for sure in our collection.  This one just panders a little too much in terms of the narrative voice.

Archaic fiction: There’s an issue I keep coming p on that I might describe as balancing exposition, plot and text complexity…  We’re going to include several texts that are the actual fiction of previous eras. In part this is because we love archaic text and think it’s immensely important for students to read it regularly.  It’s also the truest way to capture the voice of a bygone period.  Thus I have read in the past weeks

  • The Time Machine (HG Wells, 1895)
  • Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886)
  • Treasure Island  (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883)
  • Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift, 1726)

One of the things I find myself thinking about with archaic text is the balance of plot and exposition.  The books are challenging in terms of their language and syntax-that’s kind of the point. We want our students to read complex text. We want our students to be able to read the archaic sounding language of a different century. But I find myself thinking a lot about how quickly the reward of an engaging plot comes about. Do you wade through 15 pages of exposition before the plot starts kicking in with little signal to follow through what is surely a significant dose of noise? Or do things start moving along fairly soon. Does a compelling story quickly start to emerge out of the thicket of syntax and vocab fairly soon? Not saying i would object to long exposition in all cases but with students’ first exposure to older texts it’s something i’ve begun to consider.  I think I’d score Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde lower among the above books than Treasure Island or Gulliver’s Travels for example.  Pretty quickly in those two there’s a thread of story to draw you in- much sooner at least than Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Grade-leveling choice is also hard when we take into account the desire and position of parents.  The best single book I’ve read for the curriculum this summer is A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines.  It’s incredible- such a deeply worthy read in every way, So I think I am going to propose it for 8th grade.  But there are several fairly explicit scenes of intimacy and sexuality that I know some parents would have concerns with for 8th graders.

Sadly, I often hear teachers dismiss the mores of their parents in this regard.  A belief something like: If they are more cautious and conservative about exposing their kids to certain things, well, that’s just silly and quaint of them and I’m going to frankly just take it upon myself to decide what’s ok for young people to read.  I disagree with that. Reasonable people can differ but it’s hard to talk about parent-school partnership and the importance of parents supporting the school if you’re dismissive of the values some or many of them hold.  Ironically it’s the more conservative beliefs that educators are most dismissive of- often teachers who are most committed to respecting other cultures can be the first to ride roughshod over the fact that many of the other cultures we aim to respect view sexuality more conservatively than the dominant one, for example.  So to me how to balance the brilliance of the book with a healthy respect for the beliefs of parents and the pace at which they choose to allow for open depictions of sex and other aspects of adult life remains a very tricky question.


, ,

Leave a Reply