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Here is an analysis of John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska, which won the Printz award for excellence in young adult literature.

SPOILER ALERT!

John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska tells the story of Miles Halter, a shy teenager who transfers to Culver Creek Boarding School for his junior year of high school, in search of the “Great Perhaps” (2007, 5).  His roommate, Chip “the Colonel” Martin, takes Miles under his wing, nicknames him Pudge, and introduces him to smoking, drinking, pranks, and Alaska Young.  Alaska is beautiful, witty, moody, and self-destructive, and Pudge is fascinated with her.  When some of the weekday warriors drag Pudge out of his bed, mummify him in duct tape and throw him in the lake (25), the Colonel vows to have revenge (29).  The weekday warriors dunked Pudge and peed in the Colonel’s shoes (29) because they believe that the Colonel ratted out Paul and Marya (37), two students who were expelled the previous year for drinking, smoking pot and having sex (23).  Alaska later admits to telling on Paul and Marya to avoid being expelled for sneaking off campus in the middle of the night and being in possession of alcohol (73).  Alaska, Pudge and the Colonel exact their revenge on the weekday warriors by putting blue hair dye in the weekday warriors’ shampoo and hair gel bottles and sending out fake progress reports to the weekday warriors’ parents, indicating that they were failing (109).  One night, after getting drunk with the Colonel and briefly making out with Pudge, Alaska breaks down crying (129-132), drives off campus and dies in a car wreck (139).  Alaska’s friends are riddled with guilt and grief and obsessed with finding out where she was driving with white flowers in her car in the middle of the night (163).  At last, they determine that Alaska was crying because she had forgotten the anniversary of her mother’s death, and Alaska was driving to put flowers on her mother’s grave (211).  Alaska’s friends must come to terms with their guilt and grief and accept that they will never know if the wreck was an accident or suicide.

 There are several themes in the novel Looking for Alaska.  One theme is that there is more to life and more to any person than can be experienced or known.  Pudge reads biographies and memorizes people’s last words to try to understand what kind of people they were.  He looks for meaning in the facts and the words that are recorded after a person dies.  Alaska fascinates Pudge because he does not “get” her, he cannot figure her out, but Alaska says, “‘You never get me.  That’s the whole point’” (54).  Alaska knows that people are complex beyond anyone’s ability to understand.  Pudge is devastated that he will never know Alaska’s last words (142), and that he would never know Alaska as he wanted to (212).  He feels like someone who has lost his glasses and is told that there are no more glasses in the world, and he will “just have to do without” (144).  Seeing represents knowing, and Pudge will never know the world through the filter of Alaska ever again.  Ultimately, Pudge realizes that “we are greater than the sum of our parts,” and because energy can never be created nor destroyed, “that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail” (220-221).  Another theme is that the labyrinth of suffering need not imprison us forever.  Alaska is incapacitated by her human failures and collapses “into the enigma of herself” (219).  But Pudge recognizes that “she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct” (220).  Alaska never forgives herself for her mother’s death, and her guilt holds her captive.  By forgiving himself for his part in Alaska’s death, Pudge finds hope, which lifts him out of the labyrinth of guilt and grief, so that he can catch a distant glimpse of the Great Perhaps.

The first person narration, authentic teen language and countdown to the climactic event of Alaska’s death lend compelling realism and suspense to the novel’s narrative style.  The story is told through first-person narration from Pudge’s perspective.  Readers are drawn in by Pudge’s introspective, often humorous outlook and the intensity of his feelings.  The language laced with expletives used by Alaska and the Colonel provides authenticity to the impression of teen life.  The literary and historical references challenge readers, and the unfamiliarity of these references give readers the sense of not understanding everything, just as Pudge does not understand everything about Culver Creek and Alaska.  The countdown to Alaska’s death provides suspense and provokes curiosity, as the reader wonders where the story is heading.  Green notes that people view the most important moment in their lives as a “dividing line between what we were and what we are now” (238).  Alaska’s death serves as a dividing line in the lives of Pudge and his friends, marking a moment in which their lives were irrevocably changed.  Green’s style gives immediacy and gravity to the story.

The Culver Creek Boarding School in Alabama offers a setting removed from the influences of parents, where Pudge and his friends can be responsible for their own choices and actions.  The woods, the smoke hole and the barn offer hideouts from Mr. Starnes where the friends can smoke, drink and plan pranks (101-103).  The freedom and lack of supervision that Pudge and his friends enjoy seems at times unrealistic.  It seems unlikely that underage boys and girls would be allowed to spend so much time together alone and unsupervised (126, 128, 131).  The trailer park (91) where the Colonel grew up helps to explain his hatred of the weekday warriors (13), the rich, spoiled students who attend Culver Creek.  The setting of the Deep South does not seem particularly critical to the story.  The story could have been set almost anywhere in rural America where lakes and woods can be found.

The mode of Looking for Alaska includes elements of comedy, romance and tragedy, but the story cannot be completely encapsulated by any one of these terms.  The powerful realism and poignancy of the novel stems from its mingling of comedy, irony, romance and tragedy, just as these elements are found in real life.  More than anything, Green’s novel is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story.  Alaska is unable to leave the tragedy of her mother’s death behind her, and so she is unable to come of age and move on with her life.  Instead she smokes, drinks, and drives too fast until she self-destructs.  The paper Pudge writes at the novel’s end (219-221) indicates that Pudge is able to come to terms with Alaska’s death.  His ability to rise above the tragedy and find hope demonstrates his coming-of-age.

The novel’s plot, theme, style, setting and mode work together to formulate a powerful piece of literature.  Readers are drawn in by Pudge’s emotions and reflections.  The way information is withheld, such as the nature of the Barn Night prank (99), entices the reader to keep turning the pages.  The countdown to the unknown, critical event of Alaska’s death builds suspense, and the literary references of the labyrinth (19) and Frost’s poem (10) foreshadow Pudge and the Colonel’s subsequent struggle to rise above the tragedy.  The setting provides the removal from parental influence, so that Alaska, Pudge and the Colonel are responsible for their own struggles, failures and achievements.  These literary elements combine to create a coming-of-age story that will appeal to anyone who has ever struggled to escape a labyrinth, whether that labyrinth is grief, guilt, adolescence or high school.  This ability to appeal to such a wide audience justifies the novel’s placement on the Printz Award list.

Work Cited: 

Green, John.  2007.  Looking for Alaska.  New York: Speak.

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Here is an analysis of Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson.

SPOILER ALERT!

The theme of Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak is explicitly expressed through imagery, plot and character development.  The theme of the novel is silence, struggling towards self-expression.  Melinda Sordino was raped in the summer before her freshman year of high school (1999, 135).  She is silenced by fear and shame, unable to tell anyone about what happened to her.  Throughout the story, Anderson uses imagery of being silenced, choked and gagged to describe Melinda’s character.  She bites and chews her lips until they bleed (5, 17).  She tries to speak, but the words will not come out (25).  Her “throat squeezes shut,” cutting off her explanations (28).  Pulling her lower lip in between her teeth, Melinda wishes she could swallow herself (39).  She imagines her lips are stitched together (46).  Her throat is perpetually sore, and when she wakes up in the morning, her jaws are clenched so tight it gives her a headache (50).  Melinda thinks her mouth looks like it “belongs to someone else,” someone she does not know (17).  She takes her mirror down from her bedroom wall and hides it in her closet (17).  Melinda does not recognize herself after being raped, and she is in denial of her identity now that it has been shaped by trauma.  In the bathroom after school, Melinda washes her face until she imagines “there is nothing left of it, no eyes, no nose, no mouth” (45).  She wants to wash away the trauma and her sense of being a victim, but she can’t.

Melinda’s classmates blame her for breaking up their party by calling the police, which resulted in at least one student being arrested and others getting in trouble (28).  Although her friends do not know what happened to Melinda at the party, their blame and anger makes her feel that she was wrong to call for help.  Melinda’s parents did not know she attended the party; she was supposed to be spending the night at her friend Rachel’s house (133).  Melinda struggles with the sense that her rape is partly her own fault because she went to the party.  Anderson emphasizes Melinda’s silence in her interchanges with teachers, students and her parents by writing one-sided conversations, where Melinda’s parts are preceded with “Me:” and followed by nothing but a blank space on the page (9, 21, 61, 88).  Melinda tells herself, “Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say” (9).  Her friends have their own conceptions of what happened at the party.  They already dislike her for calling the cops, and Melinda believes that her friends do not want to hear her explanations.  Besides, talking about what happened requires reliving the trauma, confronting the trauma and admitting it really happened to her.

At the beginning of the book, Melinda and her parents primarily communicate through notes on the kitchen counter (14).  Melinda explains, “I write when I need school supplies or a ride to the mall.  They write what time they’ll be home from work and if I should thaw anything.  What else is there to say?” (14).  The theme of obstructed communication is also expressed through the character of Melinda’s Spanish teacher, who tries to speak only Spanish to her students and is never understood (13-14).  These elements contribute to the theme of being silenced, unable to communicate complex thoughts and feelings.

Melinda wants to sleep most of the time, but she has trouble sleeping at home.  She lingers for hours in a “halfway place, a rest stop on the road to sleep” where she does not have to close her eyes but can “just stay safe under the covers and breathe” (16).  Many individuals who suffer from depression and post traumatic stress disorder have sleeping disorders, such as insomnia or hypersomnia.  Sleep blots out the pain of living as a social outcast and the awareness of what happened to her, but nightmares can force her to relive the terror.

Melinda feels that her identity as a victim is glaringly apparent.  She describes herself as “a wounded zebra” and her social studies teacher, Mr. Neck, as a predator, “hired to coach a blood sport” (5).  When her parents find out about her failing grades, Melinda describes the scene as dinner theater, “with Dad doing his Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation and Mom playing Glenn Close in one of her psycho roles” (35).  Meanwhile, Melinda plays the role of “the Victim” (35).  Melinda does not want to be defined as a victim, but she feels trapped in this role by Mr. Neck, her parents and IT.

Anderson draws attention to the duality of surface appearances and the reality underneath.  Melinda wonders how the cheerleaders can sleep with the football team and then be reborn as “virginal goddesses” the next day (29).  Even the Sordino’s couch has unspoken secrets.  Melinda turns the messy side of the cushions up while she eats dinner on the couch, then flips them over “to show their pretty white cheeks” before her parents come home (15).  Melinda’s school is also having an identity crisis as their mascot is changed from Trojans to Devils to Tigers to Hornets.  These details reflect Melinda’s facade of silent placidity while something dark and painful boils beneath the surface.

Art class helps Melinda begin to confront her trauma and begin to heal.  Melinda is excited by her art assignment to make her subject “say something, express an emotion, speak to every person who looks at it” (12).  Melinda is desperate to express herself, and art provides an outlet for her pain.  She starts painting watercolors of trees that have been struck by lightning, so they appear nearly, but not completely dead (30-31).  These paintings show Melinda’s first efforts to express her feelings about her trauma and the damage that her spirit has suffered.  She has difficulty drawing a healthy, normal tree (32), probably because she is unable to imagine feeling normal ever again.  By the end of Anderson’s novel, Melinda is able to draw a beautiful, breathing tree in which “one of the lower branches is sick” (196).  She hopes that the branch drops soon, so the sickness does not kill the tree (196).  Her tree is a metaphor for her own survival as she accepts and lets go of her trauma and moves on with her life.  By finally speaking her secret, she transforms herself from a victim into a survivor.

Work Cited: 

Anderson, Laurie Halse.  1999.  Speak.  New York: Puffin Books.

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Here is my analysis of Francesca Lia Block’s novel Weetzie Bat.  This is an excerpt of an assignment I completed for my Books & Materials for Young Adults class. 

Caveat Lector: SPOILER ALERT!

Weetzie Bat Analysis

            Francesca Lia Block styled her novel Weetzie Bat in the form of an urban fairy tale, but the challenges her teen protagonists face are very real.  Weetzie’s traditional family is broken, but she takes action to create a nontraditional family that can withstand the shocks and jolts of life.  In spite of the playful language, funny names and magical setting, Block explores a number of thorny issues, including divorce, substance abuse and death.  Nonetheless, Weetzie and her friends face these challenges with the stoic bravery of fairy tale heroes and fight for their happy ending.

            Block’s novel tells the story of Weetzie Bat, her friend Dirk, his significant other Duck, and Weetzie’s significant other My Secret Agent Lover Man.  The novel begins with friends Weetzie and Dirk, who want happy, lasting relationships but seem to be dating all the wrong boys.  Dirk’s grandmother Fifi gives Weetzie a golden lamp that happens to contain a genie (1998, 17-18).  Weetzie wishes for a Duck for Dirk, My Secret Agent Lover Man for herself, and a house in which they can live happily ever after (19).  One by one, Weetzie’s wishes begin to come true.  Dirk falls in love with a man named Duck (22), Weetzie falls in love with a man named My Secret Agent Lover Man (26), and Fifi dies and leaves her house to Dirk and Weetzie (20).  They all move in together, but everyone does not live happily ever, at least not immediately.  Weetzie wants a baby, but My Secret Agent Lover Man does not (33).  Weetzie, Dirk and Duck decide to have a baby together, but when My Secret Agent Lover Man finds out Weetzie is pregnant, he gets angry and leaves (38).  My Secret Agent Lover Man comes back after the baby is born, but Weetzie’s nontraditional family faces a series of other crises: a witch’s curse, a witch baby, Weetzie’s father’s death, and Duck’s disappearance.  By the end of the book, the witch’s curse is broken, the witch baby is integrated into the family, and Duck is found again.  Block implies that this family may not live happily ever after, but that they can choose to live happily, nonetheless.

            The plot and style of Block’s novel present the story in the form of a fairy tale.  The characters face a series of challenges and conflicts that become steadily more difficult to manage, some of which are magical and some of which are realistic.  Nilsen and Donelson categorize Weetzie Bat as a realistic spoof (2009, 24), while Block describes her books as “urban fairy tales” (2009, 82).  The magical elements of the story, the genie (1998, 18) and the witch’s curse (43), provide a lens of whimsy and fantasy through which to view real problems.  Finding and maintaining healthy relationships, finding a place to live, coping with the death of caregivers, and coping with the repercussions of infidelity all represent real problems that young adults face.  The adults are largely absent from the plot, leaving the young adults to struggle through these challenges with only their friends for support.  Weetzie’s father Charlie and Dirk’s grandmother Fifi make brief appearances, like fairy godparents, to leave the youth a house or drop a word of advice.  Block does not allow her characters to dwell on the deaths of Fifi and Charles for long, but keeps the action of the story moving at a steady clip.  This stylistic feature reflects the perspective of many young adults, who live in the now and maintain a forward-looking focus.  Ultimately, Weetzie and her friends must make their own choices and be the architects of their own happiness.

            Weetzie’s story unfolds in the integral setting of Los Angeles, with punk culture and Hollywood lending a surreal and magical element to the atmosphere.  Weetzie finds L.A. and Venice exciting, colorful and larger than life, which supports the fairy tale atmosphere of the story.  She hated high school because none of her peers seemed to appreciate the magic of L.A., except for Dirk (3).  To Weetzie, the fantasy land of L.A. seems like an ideal place to build her fantasy family.  But Charlie cannot embrace the fantasy of L.A., because it reminds him of Weetzie’s mother, Brandy-Lynn.  Charlie says that everything in L.A. is “illusion, imitation, a mirage.  Pagodas and palaces and skies, blondes and stars…  It’s like having a good dream.  You know you are going to wake up” (58).  Weetzie and Charlie’s different perceptions of L.A. highlight the idealism of teens and the jaded pragmatism of adults.  Weetzie and her friends learn that darkness sometimes lurks beneath the brightly-colored façade of life, but Weetzie accepts the darkness with the light and does not allow herself to feel cheated by appearances.

            As is typical in young adult literature, the primary protagonists are all young adults, although we are never given definite ages.  Weetzie and Dirk are in high school at the opening of the book (3), but Block does not clearly state how much time passes in the course of the story.  This detail also supports the dreamlike, fairy tale quality of the story.  Weetzie makes her own clothes, and Dirk and Weetzie both experiment with outfits, accessories and make-up (4-5) because they are still trying to invent themselves.  Duck is “a small, blonde surfer” with freckles on his nose, and Duck and Dirk fall in love at first sight (22).  Duck’s character is less developed at the beginning of the story: Block only explains that he goes to the beach everyday, and sometimes sleeps at the beach in order to catch the “most radical waves” at dawn (22).  However, Duck’s character is revealed more at the end of the story when Duck runs away.  Duck is frightened by his friend’s illness (63) and tries to hide from his fear among the distractions of the San Francisco club scene (67).  But Dirk finds Duck and helps him recommit to life despite his fear (67-69).  My Secret Agent Lover Man wears “a slouchy hat and a trench coat” (27), and makes movies like Weetzie’s father.  Weetzie’s love for her father is mirrored in her love for My Secret Agent Lover Man.  Weetzie’s parents are supporting characters who actually provide very little support or guidance in Weetzie’s life.  Charlie and Brandy-Lynn have been broken by their relationship, and they serve as foils for Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man, and for Dirk and Duck.  Weetzie and her friends refuse to give up on their love for each other.

            Weetzie Bat is written in a romantic mode, with instances of irony and comedy thrown into the mix.  Protagonists Weetzie and Dirk must run the gauntlet of looking for love in L.A.’s punk scene, but divine intervention in the form of a genie rewards their efforts with true love.  Yet, while traditional romances ended with the hero finding true love, Block’s characters find love early in the story and must struggle to hold onto it.  Weetzie and her friends support each other through relationship problems, grief and fear of death, and their compassion and loyalty helps them hold their unique family together.  Elements of comedy include Weetzie’s reaction to the genie (18) and the rubber chicken incident (6).  Irony is embodied in the character of Weetzie’s mother, who is incapable of fulfilling her parental role and must instead be mothered by Weetzie (61).  Brandy-Lynn and Charlie love each other, but they seem unable or unwilling to make their relationship work.  But irony cannot suppress the power of love in this story.  According to the romantic model, Weetzie and her friends are rewarded with happiness and love at the end of the story. 

            Block’s tone evidences sincere affection for her characters and a desire for them to be happy and hopeful.  Block’s use of unusual names for her characters and their pets contributes to the sense of humor and whimsy in the story.  Her characters are unlike any characters in any other book, and their names reflect their unique identities.  Weetzie and her friends face serious difficulties in the course of the story, including divorce, death, infidelity, substance abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases.  Yet Block arms her characters with unquenchable optimism, and demonstrates that life can go on in spite of tragedy if the characters hold fast to their loved ones.

           The primary themes in Weetzie Bat include families and empowering the disenfranchised, with secondary themes of substance abuse and death.  Weetzie dresses in a feathered headdress and fringed clothing, explaining that she empathizes with the plight of the Native Americans (4).  As a young adult, Weetzie identifies with the Native Americans because of their disenfranchisement.  Teens do not possess the power and respect that adults command, although Weetzie seems mostly unfettered by her parents and left to her own devices.  At least, Block provides no evidence that Weetzie’s parents try to stop her from drinking and sleeping around.  Weetzie wishes that her parents’ romance had lasted (14), and feels powerless to reunite her broken family.  Therefore, Weetzie tries to take command of her happiness by making her magic wishes for true love, a home and a happily ever after (19).  While her parents wallow in passive regret, Weetzie rejects feelings of powerlessness and takes an active role in building a happy family for herself.

          Weetzie comes from a broken family with divorced parents, and Dirk’s parents are dead before the story begins.  Dirk lives with his grandmother, Fifi, who also dies early in the story (20).  Weetzie’s mother is emotionally absent, and while Weetzie’s father is emotionally invested in Weetzie, he lives on the opposite coast in New York City (15).  When Charlie dies of a drug overdose (59), Weetzie loses the parent who had the most positive influence on her life.  Weetzie and Dirk seek to create their own family, which, though nontraditional, appears to succeed where Weetzie’s traditional family has failed.  When Weetzie, Dirk and Duck decide to have a baby together, they plan to love the baby “more than any of their parents had ever loved them” (35).  Charlie admits that Weetzie was an accident (14).  Weetzie and her friends set out to prove that families that are made and nurtured with love and care can be successful, no matter what the components of that family may be.  The recurring movie making motif underlines the way in which Weetzie and her friends begin by role-playing in life, trying to find happiness by assuming roles in a reinvented family.

          The theme of the destructive nature of substance abuse is played out in the lives of Weetzie’s parents.  Brandy-Lynn criticizes Charlie for abusing substances while she downs cocktails and says she needs a Valium (15).  The irony of Brandy-Lynn’s behavior implies that some adults do not behave in a logical manner, and their interpretation of reality is skewed.  Block frequently uses the word “fake” to describe elements of Brandy-Lynn’s appearance.  When Charlie first saw her, she had bleach-blonde hair and was “sparkling with fake jewels” (14).  She wears mules with “fake fruit over the toes” (14) and paints her fingernails (15, 58).  These details reinforce the perception that some adults, especially substance abusers, are not trustworthy.

          The lives of Weetzie and her friends are touched repeatedly by death, yet the characters remain remarkably untouched by death at the same time.  Dirk’s grandmother Fifi dies (20), but she leaves Dirk and Weetzie her house, allowing them to start building a family.  Charlie dies of a drug overdose, but Weetzie’s friends support her in her grief (59).  Weetzie responds by trying to mother her mother, and Weetzie and her friends dedicate their latest movie to her father’s memory (61).  Duck is frightened by his friend’s illness, presumably AIDS, and runs away (63).  But Dirk finds him and refuses to let him hide from life or death.  Weetzie and her friends manage to find a happy ending because they respond to each visitation of death by embracing and celebrating life.

          Although some literary critics might identify homosexuality as a theme because of Dirk and Duck’s relationship, I believe that Block treats homosexuality as a nonissue.  Other than Dirk’s initial hesitance to tell Weetzie he is gay (7), the characters do not appear to worry about or struggle with the notion of homosexuality.  Weetzie says Dirk’s sexual orientation “doesn’t matter one bit” (7).  Block does not mention any instances in which Duck or Dirk are persecuted for their orientation.  Homosexual relationships are simply represented as another kind of love, no greater or lesser than heterosexual relationships.

          Weetzie Bat is told from a third-person point of view, but not an omniscient point of view.  The point of view primarily follows Weetzie’s actions, and the reader is granted access to her thoughts.  When Duck runs away, the point of view shifts briefly to follow Dirk’s thoughts and actions, although maintaining the distance of a third-person perspective.  When Dirk and Duck return home, the point of view returns to focus on Weetzie.  This perspective reinforces that Block is telling Weetzie’s story, but Weetzie’s family is not whole unless Dirk, Duck, My Secret Agent Lover Man, Cherokee, Witch Baby, and all the dogs are present and accounted for.  Weetzie Bat is about how Weetzie rejected her powerless role and fought for and won her happy family.

Bibliography

Block, Francesca Lia.  1998.  Weetzie Bat, in Dangerous Angels.  New York: HarperCollins.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Kenneth L. Donelson.  2009.  Literature for Today’s Young Adults. 8th ed.  Boston: Pearson Education.

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Cover Art by Edward Gorey

And now, comics about judging books by their covers!

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This article is about a children’s book, Buster’s Sugartime by Marc Brown, that has been challenged in the Union School District in Tulsa.  Luckily the Union school board voted to keep the book on the shelf.  The book includes some children who have same-sex parents.  Dr. Van Fleet posted this on Desire2Learn in our Evaluation Methods class forum, and I shared it on our class Facebook page for Young Adult Services.

The parents challenging the book apparently object to the ALSC core competency to maintain “a diverse collection, recognizing children’s need to see people like and unlike themselves in the materials they access.”   Children living in non-traditional families deserve access to books that reflect their reality, just like every other child.

Imagine removing everything from the library that mentions an illegal activity…  There goes the mystery section…  Whaling is illegal in the Arkansas River, so I guess Moby Dick would be out…

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I always wondered how effective the READ posters were.  But here’s further evidence that celebrity sells books as well as name brands.  I wonder if Obama’s done a READ poster?  If not, libraries should definitely ask him to.  The results could be huge!

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For those of us who support freedom of expression and the right to read, this is rather disturbing…

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