Saturday, April 30, 2011

Unwind, by Neal Shusterman

Title:  Unwind
Author:  Neal Shusterman
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
Year:  2007
Pages:  352
Genre:  Science Fiction, Dystpoian
Themes:  Reproductive Rights, Ethics, Morality, Survival, Identity
Age Levels:  7th-10th Grade


Set in the future, the second civil war is fought over abortion. To end the war, a compromise is reached that ends the practice of abortion but creates an alternative called "unwinding." Between the ages of 13 and 17, parents or guardians can choose to have their children unwound, which involves having every part of their bodies harvested to be "donated" to another person so, technically, they don't really die. The complex and compelling plot follows three teens whose stories intertwine when they escape while on their way to the harvest camps. Fifteen-year-old Connor's parents can no longer control him. Lev, a tithe, was raised by religious parents for the sole purpose of being unwound. Risa, a ward of the state, is a victim of shrinking budgets since she is not a talented enough musician to be kept alive. (From School Library Journal)

My first thought upon finishing this book (in practically one sitting, I might add) was "Holy crap!".  Not the most literary of sentiments, I realize, but I was so blown away by this story that "Holy crap" was as articulate as I could get.

When  this book was first recommended to me by a close friend, I was a little bit concerned about the subject matter.  Not that I consider myself squeamish, nor and I averse to a good debate over something I feel strongly about, like a woman's right to choose-I was more afraid that the book would come off as preachy, which is something I find pretty abhorrent in a book (though less so when the author's preachiness agrees with me!).  I was assured by my (many) friends who had read Unwind that was not the case, and they were 100% right (I can hear them all saying, "Of course we were, stupid!"-well, maybe without the stupid part!)  In fact, after reading the entire book I'm not sure where Shusterman himself would come down on the subject of reproductive rights-but I do know how he feels about respecting and protecting  the children already here.

Shusterman's characters are well-drawn, and sympathetic while still being flawed, each in their own way.  Connor, the character who sets the rest of the events in motion, is a perfect example of a good kid gone bad through lack of impulse control.  I see two or three of those go through my classroom every year.  Risa is actually the most functional of the three youth, which is ironic given the fact that she spent her entire life in a state youth home with no family.  Lev is the one that got to me the most-a boy raised from birth to believe that he was destined to honor God by allowing himself to be "tithed" to the church by being unwound.  Let's see, young men raised to believe that it is an honor to die for their religious beliefs-sound familiar to anyone?

Obviously the whole concept of unwinding could lead to some pretty intense discussion of morality, ethics, and the existence and/or nature of the soul.  But there are points all along the way to take that discussion into different directions.  What about the doctors?  Don't they take and oath to do no harm?  What happens to the parents?  What kind of belief about the sanctity of life does unwinding lead to in the society?  Do people seem to value life more or less as a result of storking and unwinding?  Should people be allowed to pay for body parts?  Should scientists do something, like the neurobonding in the book, just because they can, or is there a higher ethical standard to meet.  This book has a ton of different ways you could go.

Teacher Resources:
Simon and Schuster Reading Guide
Teachervision Reading Group Guide
 eNotes Study Guide

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Forest of Hands and Teeth, Carrie Ryan

Title:  Forest of Hands and Teeth
Author:  Carrie Ryan
Publisher:  Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Year:  2009
Pages:  320
Genre:  Dystopian Science Fiction
Themes:  Survival, First Love
Age Levels:  7th through 12th Grade

Mary knows little about the past and why the world now contains two types of people: those in her village and the undead outside the fence, who prey upon the flesh of the living. The Sisters protect their village and provide for the continuance of the human race. After her mother is bitten and joins the Unconsecrated, Mary is sent to the Sisters to be prepared for marriage to her friend Harry. But then the fences are breached and the life she has known is gone forever. Mary; Harry; Travis, whom Mary loves but who is betrothed to her best friend; her brother and his wife; and an orphaned boy set out into the unknown to search for safety, answers to their questions, and a reason to go on living.
(From School Library Journal)

If you liked M. Night Shyamalan's movie The Village, and you like zombies, then you will probably like this book.  While I enjoyed this book, I'm not sure that I would say that it is one of the best examples of dystopian young adult literature that I've read.  There were moments when it had similar suspense to Hunger Games, but without the emotional impact.  It had elements of the drudgery of The Road, but without the masterful use of language.  All in all, I think that this book (and the ones that follow) would be best used as part of a larger unit on dystopian literature, perhaps as a choice book for students to read after studying Hunger Games or Life as We Knew It.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Three Questions, Jon J. Muth

Title:  The Three Questions (based on a story by Leo Tolstoy)
Author:  Jon J. Muth
Publisher:  Scholastic Press
Year:  2002
Pages:  32
Genre: Animal Fantasy
Themes:  Morality/Ethics
Age Range:  K-4th Grade 


Muth (Come On, Rain!) recasts a short story by Tolstoy into picture-book format, substituting a boy and his animal friends for the czar and his human companions. Yearning to be a good person, Nikolai asks, "When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do?" Sonya the heron, Gogol the monkey and Pushkin the dog offer their opinions, but their answers do not satisfy Nikolai. He visits Leo, an old turtle who lives in the mountains. While there, he helps Leo with his garden and rescues an injured panda and her cub, and in so doing, finds the answers he seeks. As Leo explains, "There is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side." (from Publisher's Weekly)


I am using this book as the children's story during a youth service at my church about "The Big Questions".  While the text is deceptively simple, the concepts behind the story are subtle.  The story has enough action to keep younger children entertained (plus pandas!), but older children will be able to discuss the lesson inherent in the questions that Nikolai poses to his animal friends.  The art is beautiful-understated, but detailed enough to engage a child's interest.  The story is moral without being preachy, and with older students you could compare the original story-which involves Russian politics-with the animal version.  Regardless, it is a lesson worth teaching.

Teacher Resources: 

Learning to Give Lesson Plans
Questioning Lesson

Thursday, April 14, 2011

School for Tricksters, Chris Galaver

Title:  School for Tricksters
Author:  Chris Galaver
Publisher:  Southern Methodist University Press
Year:  2010
Pages:  248
Genre:  Historical Fiction
Themes:  Racial Identity
Age Range:  7th-12th Grade

In School for Tricksters, Gavaler examines racial identity through the true, though fictionalized, lives of Ivy and Sylvester.  Ivy is an orphaned white girl trying to move up in the world, Sylvester is a black Southerner trying to escape the Jim Crow south.  Both end up at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania-a school designed for assimilating Native Americans into mainstream society.  Both of them are "passing" as Indian in order to escape their poor upbringing.  Through Carlisle they come into contact with some famous-or infamous-names.  Pop Warner, activist Angela De Cora and her husband Lone Star Deitz (himself passing as Indian to further his sports career) and future Olympian Jim Thorpe.  Told in alternating stories about each main character, the book shows the ultimate price for "pretending" to be someone you are not.

Gavaler takes on a shameful period in American history-the destruction of Native American culture through forced attendance and boarding schools-and turn it on its head.  This is not a story of Native Americans overcoming the threat to their identity, but rather the affects of defining people by race at all.  While the very idea of someone having to "pass" is abhorrent, you can't help but understand the impulse.  Our racial policies over the years have pitted groups against each other, causing people to act against their own long term interests to try and get ahead.  This book would be a great way to introduce the idea of passing and what that meant to people of different backgrounds.  Ivy and Sylvester are both written in a way that is promotes thoughtful discussion about character motivation and the narrative structure showcases a different way of thinking about storytelling.