5 Questions: Feed by M. T. Anderson

1. Tolkien wrote that successful fantasy writers must construct “secondary worlds,” settings enough like our own to be recognizable but sufficiently different to generate amazement. The same can be said for the setting of science fiction novels. Discuss the setting created by Anderson. Is it successful?

Anderson’s Feed is primarily set on Earth, with early chapters that have characters travel to the moon.  While futuristic Earth has many recognizable features (houses and gated communities, schools, shopping malls, farms, weather, cars, destination vacations, wild parties), there are some significant differences.  Homes are under bio-domes to protect the inhabitants from various bio-hazards and one travel from one house to another through tubes (reminds me of hamsters)..  Schools — or SchoolTM — are now privatized and run by corporations, teaching kids how to be better consumers.  There are malls and salespeople, but your every move is tracked so advertisements are immediately adjusted to your shopping patterns and perceived wants/needs (p. 96).  Farms aren’t growing animals — they are growing and harvesting filet mignon from tissue (p. 142).  Of course, there are flying cars and trips to the moon, and parties don’t end up with drunk teenagers, but teenagers high on “going mal”.  For the most part, Anderson was highly successful in creating a world that is at once futuristic and at once familiar;  I could easily see our society heading in the state that he paints.  My only complaint about this book is that he set the initial chapters on the moon, with mentions of anti-gravity/artificial gravity, etc.  It just seem like the whole moon bit has been done to death (“It’s the future!  We can vacation on the moon!”), and Anderson does such a good job painting a futuristic Earth that he doesn’t need the moon.

2. This novel has much say about the future (and present) use of information technology. Think deeply about how technology is used in this novel and debate whether or not Anderson’s view of the future is plausible. Try to connect your answer in a personal manner to your selected career and perhaps to some of the concepts you have covered in other classes in this department.

While I was reading Feed, I kept thinking about recommender systems we learned about in IS 567 (Information Network Applications), a technology that allows companies to take user purchase/browsing patterns to make better, more personalized recommendations about future purchases.  The algorithms used might be different from company to company, but the main purpose is to convince customers they need the product/service.  Over time (and I would say it doesn’t take long), customers come to trust — even depend — on these recommender systems, and the system can even “sneak in” or “push” certain products/services outside of the consumer’s purchase pattern.  As Violet points out, in the name of personalizing purchases, recommender systems can actually drive everyone to conform.

Feednet also reminds me of our 567 discussion about social networking and how this information technology has affected the way we interact with others, as well as ramifications on our privacy.  Though everyone is constantly connected in Feed, Titan and his family rarely interact directly or physically…this is true in our Facebook/Twitter reality too.  Because information is always accessible and at the ready — whether that’s status updates or other people’s blogs or debates on Fox/CNN– we have become mere consumers of information, rather than creators and critical thinkers…instead of actively participating in life, we become passive (but opinionated!) spectators.  In a strange way, social media has created egocentric voyeurs out of all of us, or in Violet’s words, “a nation of idiot.  Ignorant, self-centered idiots” (p. 113).

3. Anderson’s use of language is his most brilliant vision of a dismal future. I have noticed that for some middle schoolers, the ability to distinguish between formal language (the type you need to write a paper or email a professor) and informal language (the type you text-message or write on Facebook) has all but disappeared for many of them. Think about the language—not only the abundant use of profanity but also the slang and the short phrases with simple words—and consider the implications of a future whereby language is largely reduced to monosyllabic phrases. Do you think Anderson is right about how technology is influencing language?

When I was a graduate student in Linguistics 12 years ago, I remember a sociolinguistic professor asking us this exact same question — how do we see technology influencing language?  At the time, the Internet was still in its toddler-hood — web pages are just coming out of their monochromatic and hyperlink-only phase and email and ICQ were the newest way to communicate.  Even then, our professor had noticed that his incoming undergraduates were turning in papers without punctuation and littered with abbreviated words.  Many sentences were run-on sentences or incomplete, reflecting the “new” way teens and young adults were “speaking” online.  This trend has continued to this day…except seemingly at a higher rate.  As Nicholas Carr’s Google article and NPR interview on The Shallows point out, the Internet has trained us to read and process short pieces of information, skim and scan, and to expect many distractions in the meantime.  It’s taught us that in order to retain the attention span of our audience, we need to keep things short and concise.  I think maybe this is how a lot of us, especially younger people who were born into the digital age — come to write like that.

Some linguists will call this language decay/deterioration, but others will say this is a natural part of language change (Old English scholars probably consider even the most proper of modern English an abomination).  In his Ted Talk, “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”, John McWhorter calls this development of a whole new language a linguistics miracle.  His main points are that 1) writing and language (speech) are two very different things, and 2) whereas before we could “speak like we write” (for example, when we read from a prepared speech), modern technology today has allowed us to “write like we speak”, with the “writing” that emerges resembling the loose, unstructured patterns that linguists observe in natural, casual speech.  He adds that texting has come to develop its own set of rules too, so it, in fact, follows conventions and has complexities like any other language. On whether this is evidence that technology is causing the decline of the language, McWhorter shows several examples from scholars from as early as 63A.D. lamenting the fact that the language was in dire straits, since the youngsters at the time could neither spell nor punctuate.  These problems existed long before the emergence of technology!

(Personally, I find this subject fascinating coming from a linguist background.  Check it out for yourself at http://www.ted.com/talks/john_mcwhorter_txtng_is_killing_language_jk.html)

4. Discuss your preconceived notions about science fiction, especially that written for young adults. Did this novel change your opinion of science fiction? In essence, did you enjoy the book? Why or why not?

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a reader of science fiction — that is, I don’t go out seeking sci-fi titles when I’m browsing in the bookstore.  That said, some of the books I remember loving in high school/college have been sci-fi titles: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham, A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, 1984 by George Orwell, and essays on dystopian societies (I remember reading a couple in second-year sociology classes but can’t remember the titles).  In recent years, I’ve enjoyed Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, Lois Lowry’s The Giver series, and Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me.  So in that sense, the book did not change my opinion of sci-fi — it’s reminded me that I do like them and need to check out more titles.

As for Feed specifically, I enjoyed it quite a bit after some initial reservations (I really did not enjoy the moon setting, and had to get used to the language.)  My friends and I have frequent discussions about technology and its effects on our world and our kids, and the dystopian world Anderson paints is exactly one we fear could happen, where technology and rampant social media has overtaken the most basic and personal of interactions and forced everyone into isolation and disconnection.  In a way, it’s happened already (minus the flying cards and the trips to the moon), and Anderson’s message/warning about technology/consumerism comes through loud and clear in this satire.  I especially loved the last few chapters…hard to read, yet very touching.

5. On Anderson’s satirical conclusion about teens and consumerism…

Anderson’s views about teens and consumerism reflect my concerns in my magazine/movie project, that whether we realize it or not, advertisers are targeting our teens purposefully and  relentlessly.  From articles/videos we have viewed earlier (e.g. Frontline’s Merchant of Cool), companies are banking on the fact that teens are big spenders, and can influence their parents to buy.  Magazine ads and other forms of advertisement teens see today seem subtle compared to the ones in Anderson’s world, but with the rise of recommender systems such as the kind Amazon.com employs and the “promise” of Google Glass, the type of marketing — incessant, instantaneous, and personalized (according to individual shopping/browsing patterns) — is not at all far-fetched.

Violet’s observations on page 97 are especially wise/grim:

Everything we do gets thrown into a big calculation.  Like they’re watching us right now.  They can tell where you’re looking.  They want to know what you want….  They’re also waiting to make you want things.  Everything we’ve grown up with — the stories on the feed, the games, all of that — it’s all streamlining our personalities so we’re easier to sell to.  I mean, they do these demographic studies that divide everyone up into a few personality types, and then you get ads based on what you’re supposedly like.  They try to figure out who you are, and to make you conform to one of their types for easy marketing.  It’s like a spiral: They keep making everything more basic so it will appeal to everyone.  And gradually, everyone gets used to everything being basic, so we get less ad less varied as people, more simple.  So the corps make everything even simpler.  And it goes on and on.

As depressing as this picture is, are we not headed that way already?  (Some might even say that we are just one Google Glass away from that reality.)  What is scarier to me — and Violet points this out — is what this will do to our ability to think for ourselves and to discern what we really need/want vs. what “the Corporation” tells us we need/want.

5 Questions: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Bowing to pressure from outraged parents and after inquiries from the Daily News, the principal of Public School/Middle School 114 announced the book was no longer required summer reading. ‘It was like “Fifty Shades of Grey” for kids,’ said Kelly-Ann McMullan-Preiss, who refused to let her son read the book.

Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/queens/nyc-sixth-graders-longer-read-racy-article-1.1414308#ixzz2b0ZJ4Ij4

REALLY?!?  This book is about many things, but the last thing it is is “Fifty Shades”…nor is it about masturbation, or teen swearing.

Anyone who has actually READ this book knows that it’s about growing up, racism, alcoholism, poverty, friendship, family, love, hope/desperation, courage, finding your identity, and many, many more. This was my favorite book this summer. Yes, it contains f-bombs and references to sex but it is not used gratuitously, I promise!  You can like or dislike the book — everyone is entitled to that — but let it not be because a) you haven’t read it or b) a word you didn’t like was mentioned a few times.

Below is my reading response for the book, written for my YA course this summer.

Favorite part/scene of the novel….

I loved Alexie’s use of humor to offset the hopelessness and desperation Junior (and those living on the reservation) feels.  This is often seen in the cartoons Junior draws, which serve as lighthearted commentary on the important events and people in life.  They are full of sarcasm (e.g. p. 51, 107, 124) and keen observations (especially portraits of Junior’s family and friends: those of his parents on p. 12, of his sister on p. 27, and of his grandmother on p. 69).  The narrative contains many funny moments too.  One of the saddest part of the book – when the reservation held a wake for Junior’s grandmother after she was killed by a drunk driver – was filled with laughter:  Billionaire “Ted” had shown up for the wake with a long-winded, affected story about how he came to be in possession of Grandmother Spirit’s dance outfit, only to be told that she was never a dancer, and that, contrary to what his expert had told him, the beadwork and design looked more Sioux than Spokane.  And just like that, the tone of the chapter turns from somber to light:

Two thousands Indians laughed at the same time.  We kept laughing.
It was the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.
And I realized that, sure, Indians were drunk and sad and displaced and crazy and mean, but dang, we knew how to laugh.
When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.

To me, this passage (p. 166) is a perfect summation of the tone of this book – a marriage of light and dark, laughter and tears.

How did the book make you feel and what thoughts did it make you have…relate to personal experiences…

I am especially drawn to the theme of duality in this book, the duo identity that Junior grapples with.  I loved the cartoon on p. 166 — one side of the face laughing, one side crying — but also p. 43 — the signage pointing one way to REZ/HOME and one to HOPE/??? – and p. 57 – a split drawing of a white boy on one side and an Indian boy on the other.  The white boy has labels such as “a bright future”, “hope”, and “positive role models”, while the Indian boy has labels such as “a vanishing past”, “a family history of diabetes and cancer”, and “bone-crushing reality”.  This struggle for identity is also shown on p. 182, in the cartoon showing Junior playing basketball.  On the one where he was playing on the rez, he is depicted as the devil or “white-lover”.  On the other side, he is playing at Reardan and is depicted as an angel.  In both pictures, he is thinking, “Who am I?”

Junior and many other characters in the book frequently have to contend with duo-identity issues (his sister Mary, Rowdy, even his parents, who go back and forth between sober and drunk).  Do they stay on the rez knowing that they’ll be stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty, drunkenness, and hopelessness?  Or do they leave, knowing that they’ll be considered traitors?  Even after Junior makes the decision to leave, he struggles with who he really is and where he truly belongs.  Being an immigrant myself, I often wrestle with the same question, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that there’s no good answer – one just ends up feeling pulled in all sorts of directions.  I loved Junior’s epiphany near the end of the book (p. 217):

I realized that sure, I was a Spokane Indian.  I belonged to that tribe.  But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants.  And to the tribe of basketball players.  And to the tribe of bookworms.
And the tribe of cartoonists.
And the tribe of chronic masturbators.
And the tribe of teenage boys.
And the tribe of small-town kids.
And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.
And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers.
And the tribe of poverty.
And the tribe of funeral-goers.
And the tribe of beloved sons.
And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends.
It was a huge realization.
And that’s when I knew that I was going to be okay.

Consider whether or not this novel would appeal to today’s teens. If so, why and to which group? Think about where the novel fits into the YA spectrum. Middle school? High school? Boys? Girls? Reluctant Readers? Only fans of certain genre? 

I believe this book would appeal to today’s teens, since it addresses many issues that teens deal with today: alcoholism, poverty, abuse, racism, etc.  According to Alexie’s 2011 Speakeasy article, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood”, he has met with many young readers who found solace and hope in reading Part-Time Indian.  Boys might be especially drawn by the sports references in the book and the male characters/friendships.  That said, boys and girls alike who have dealt with identity issues as well as those mentioned above will find themselves in these pages.  This book might appeal to reluctant readers and fans of graphic novels/cartoons (the art adds volumes to the text).  Reviewers recommend this book for middle-schoolers and up.

 

5 Questions: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

1. If you are not an experienced reader of graphic novels, describe/discuss your reading of American Born Chinese. Was it difficult to get used to reading a story in this format? Did you enjoy the experience?

American Born Chinese was my first graphic novel.  After hearing Gene Yang’s lecture at UTK I was intrigued and ran out and bought a copy.  I grew up reading Japanese manga and so the format/layout is not new.  I did, however, come into the experience as a skeptic…graphic novels might be fun to read, but surely, they wouldn’t be considered “literature”, right?  I was surprised to find myself thoroughly enjoying ABC, but at the same time, having a hard time understanding it during my first read-through.  How could that be, since graphic novels in my mind were supposed to be less literary and easier to read?  Subsequent readings had me paying more attention to the details in the illustrations and the interplay between the text and the drawings.  I loved Yang’s drawing style and the little inside jokes he hides within the panels.  I have since then tried a few other graphic novels and my opinion on graphic novels have definitely shifted!  I can see, as Yang discussed on “Comics in Education?!”, that this strong emphasis on visuals can be great for not only visual learners, but could benefit learners in general (Sones’ 1944 study showed that children given information presented in comic form had scored higher than children who were given the same information in text form), and graphic novels could motivate reluctant and ESL readers as well.

2. Teenagers often struggle with identity in its many shapes and forms—cultural, sexual, personal, etc. Please comment of the theme of identity and its importance to American Born Chinese.

I believe one of the biggest struggles for immigrants is with identity.  Yang explores this in American Born Chinese with great care, using three seemingly separate storylines (one with the Monkey King, one with Jin, and one with Danny and his cousin Chin-kee).  The Monkey King laments the fact that, even though he has mastered the four major heavenly disciplines, he is still seen as a monkey.  Even though Jin was born in the United States, he is still identified as “Chinese” and teased because of his heritage.  And it didn’t matter what that heritage is, he is automatically grouped together with Suzy (Japanese) and Wei Chen (Taiwanese).  Danny, a typical American boy, is plagued by his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee.  We eventually find out that Jin and Danny were the same person, which to me, is a brilliant treatment of the theme and shows that Yang truly understand the dilemma immigrants go through.  Immigrants — 1st-, 2nd-, even 3rd-generation — are first and foremost identified/judged by the color of their skin (this is true in Jin’s case).  People will ask my kids where they are from, and when they would reply “Michigan”, people would say, “But where are you from, originally?”  This would confuse them to no ends, understandably!   As Danny’s storyline show, we can try to blend in as much as we can, playing varsity sports and dying our hair blond, but the ugly stereotypes (as personified by Chin-kee) will always follow us…there’s no escaping them.

The relationship between Jin and Wei-Chen is interesting to me, since I remember a time where I was more of a FOB than an ABC, wanting and longing to become an ABC (but hating them at the same time for “betraying” or looking down at their heritage).  There’s a period where I was somewhere in the middle — having friends in both camps — and then when I shifted to more the ABC side, I remember wanting to distance myself from the FOBs — because they were often the target of teasing and racial slurs — but at the same time, wanting what they have (a stronger identity within their heritage).  Even today, as an Taiwanese-Canadian/American living down south, I (and my American-born family) struggle with this search for identity on a daily basis.

3. Racism also plays a major role in the overall theme of American Born Chinese. For me, Yang handles this troubling theme with genius. Please write a thoughtful paragraph about the theme of coping with racism in this novel.

Yang does a brilliant job shedding light on the issue of racism and how people cope with it.  Chin-kee’s character personifies every stereotype that is associated with a Chinese person — the Chinese take-out boxes, the buck teeth, the accent (the interchange of l’s and r’s), being loud, the grammar (no third-person inflections), being smart, slanted eyes, etc. — and this is something one can’t shed, no matter how Americanized one can appear to be (e.g. Danny, though he appears “white”, always has Chin-kee around to possibly mess up his life).  The only way to cope, I believe, is to figure out and make peace with your true identity, to embrace it, as Jin/Danny and the Monkey King realize in the book. Once you know who you are (and I believe we are all made up of a bunch of different parts) and what you are not, then the racial slurs/stereotypes will have lost their power to hurt.  Instead, they become something we can laugh about and defeat, as Danny did on p. 212.

4. Yang delicately balances the difficult themes of coming of age, the search for identity, and coping with racism with humor. Please locate and list five panels (with the page number) which you personally find humorous. Of these five panels, which is your favorite? Why?

  • p. 30/36, where Jin and Wei-Chen are being introduced.  This is probably my favorite since, as a Taiwanese-American family, first meetings and introductions can often be awkward and confusing.  I am an immigrant like Wei-Chen, and people, whether for lack of knowledge or just convenience, usually assume I’m from China.  My husband and daughters, all born in Michigan, frequently experience what Jin experiences — because they look Asian, they are also automatically assumed to be from China.  If they say they are from Michigan people often rephrase their question, “But where are you originally from?”  Either we repeat themselves and receive blank stares, or we resort to lengthy explanations which can end in humorous confusion as well: “We are actually not Chinese…our families are from Taiwan” is always followed by an enthusiastic “Ohhh, we just love Thai food!”

  • p. 48, where we are first introduced to Chin-kee.  I loved Yang’s use of detail — his luggage are Chinese take-out boxes.  This is such an Americanized stereotype; if you travel to China, HK, or Taiwan, you probably would have a hard time finding those kind of take-out boxes.  The drawing of Chin-kee and the representation of a stereotypical Chinese accent is on the spot too.  I don’t know if this is Yang’s intent, but to me it pokes fun at the people who would put on these accents.

  • p. 111-113, where Chin-kee answers every question correctly.  Here’s Yang addresses another stereotype — that all Asians are super smart — with humor.  But there is a rather dark side to that truth.  Growing up, so much of our self-worth is based on how smart we are and how many A’s we can get, and that’s all adults ever talk about or seem to care about.  It’s interesting what that does to children/teens.  Those who do excel in school work live under constant pressure; those who do not excel constantly feel like failures.

  • p. 148-149, where the Monkey King watches Wong Lai-Tsao being speared and skewered and barbequed by demons and finally accepts his true identity and helps.  It’s funny that he waits this long, and that during all of this Wong Lai-Tsao still has the energy to philosophize/lecture the Monkey King.

  • p. 226, where Jin tries to order off the Chinese menu and points to “Cash Only”, thinking it’s a dish.  On the one hand, Jin was born and raised in America, so he shouldn’t be expected to know the language, and yet because he looks Chinese, the waitress automatically identifies him as such and assumes he would.  I can see this happening with my daughters, who can’t speak or read Chinese.  As the only person who can speak Mandarin fluently in my family, I am always urged to teach my American-born daughters the language.  I struggle with it.  On the one hand, they shouldn’t be expected to, but on the other, I look at my brother’s kids who do and I think maybe I’ve failed somehow by not teaching them.

5. Identifying the audience and determining age appropriateness are two difficult tasks when building a graphic novel collection for teens. Who do you think the audience (the teens most likely to read the book) for American Born Chinese is? What age group do you think the book is most appropriate for?

I think anyone who’s ever experienced an identity crisis or been a target of racism or other forms of teasing based on their appearance or background, anyone who’s ever gone through the immigration experience, whether through their parents or themselves, would appreciate this book.  Chinese-Americans would enjoy the retelling of Monkey King, a classic that every child has grown up with, and other inside jokes as well (Wei-Chen’s “Robo-Happy” shirt is a great detail…Chinese/Taiwanese people love wearing shirts with English on them, even if they don’t make any sense).  Yang’s use of three interconnected characters, and especially his use of Chin-kee, really brings to light the ugly stereotypes that so many people carelessly throw around and their ill-effects.  That said, while I think Chin-kee might be a humorous way to talk about such hard topics as racism, I am concerned that younger readers might misunderstand Yang’s purpose altogether, and think it’s okay to use those stereotypes, accents, etc. (especially since a Chinese author is doing it himself, in a published book!).  (The three interconnected stories might pose some confusion to younger students as well.)  Even though the book has a low reading level (AR 3.3; Scholastic 5, according to CLCD), I would  recommend this book to middle-schoolers and up.  (Amazon recommends this book for 12 and up; CLCD has age recommendations ranging from 12-, 13-, 15- and up, depending on the reviewer).

Is Technology Killing Language???

Just read Feed by M. T. Anderson.  Here’s one of the questions our instructor raised about Anderson’s views on technology and how it has come to influenced language, followed by my response.  Coming from a linguistics background, this is fascinating stuff to me!

My library doesn’t own a copy of Feed. I still recommend the book to mature 8th graders and tell them that they can find a copy at the public library. Perhaps I am a wimp but I don’t want to see the headline “Book with 3,657 F-Bombs Found in RMS Media Center” in the local paper. Yet for me, Anderson’s use of language is his most brilliant vision of a dismal future. I have noticed that for some middle schoolers, the ability to distinguish between formal language (the type you need to write a paper or email a professor) and informal language (the type you text-message or write on Facebook) has all but disappeared for many of them. Think about the language—not only the abundant use of profanity but also the slang and the short phrases with simple words—and consider the implications of a future whereby language is largely reduced to monosyllabic phrases. Do you think Anderson is right about how technology is influencing language?

When I was a graduate student in Linguistics 12 years ago, I remember a sociolinguistic professor asking us this exact same question — how do we see technology influencing language?  At the time, the Internet was still in its toddler-hood — web pages are just coming out of their monochromatic and hyperlink-only phase and email and ICQ were the newest way to communicate.  Even then, our professor had noticed that his incoming undergraduates were turning in papers without punctuation and littered with abbreviated words.  Many sentences were run-on sentences or incomplete, reflecting the “new” way teens and young adults were “speaking” online.  This trend has continued to this day…except seemingly at a higher rate.  As Nicholas Carr’s Google article and NPR interview on The Shallows point out, the Internet has trained us to read and process short pieces of information, skim and scan, and to expect many distractions in the meantime.  It’s taught us that in order to retain the attention span of our audience, we need to keep things short and concise.  I think maybe this is how a lot of us, especially younger people who were born into the digital age — come to write like that.

Some linguists will call this language decay/deterioration, but others will say this is a natural part of language change (Old English scholars probably consider even the most proper of modern English an abomination).  In his Ted Talk, “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!”, John McWhorter calls this development of a whole new language a linguistics miracle.  His main points are that 1) writing and language (speech) are two very different things, and 2) whereas before we could “speak like we write” (for example, when we read from a prepared speech), modern technology today has allowed us to “write like we speak”, with the “writing” that emerges resembling the loose, unstructured patterns that linguists observe in natural, casual speech.  He adds that texting has come to develop its own set of rules too, so it, in fact, follows conventions and has complexities like any other language. On whether this is evidence that technology is causing the decline of the language, McWhorter shows several examples from scholars from as early as 63A.D. lamenting the fact that the language was in dire straits, since the youngsters at the time could neither spell nor punctuate.  These problems existed long before the emergence of technology!

What do you think!?!

Here’s Nicholas Carr’s Google article and NPR interview:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127370598

To see John McWhorter’s Ted Talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/john_mcwhorter_txtng_is_killing_language_jk.html

Booktalk: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

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Title: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Author: Marjane Satrapi
Publication Information: New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.
Age group: Upper grades, high school and up
Topics: Iran, Iran-Iraq War (or First Persian Gulf War), Middle East history, Islamic Revolution, cultural revolution

Notes: 

  • Persepolis was the 2004 winner of YALSA’s Alex Awards, given to books written for and marketed to adults that have special appeal to young adults 12-18.

  • Earlier this year, there was talk that Persepolis might become banned from the Chicago Public School system for content that might be “age-inappropriate” for kids younger than 7th grade (graphic scenes of people being tortures/killed; explicit language; sexual references; defiance of authority; etc.).  ALA promptly filed a letter of concern.

  • Students who liked the book may want to watch the 2007 animated movie adaptation directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi herself.  The movie was nominated for numerous awards (including an Oscar) and won several (20).  Curiously, even though the film is filled with violence, sexual references, and language, it was rated PG-13.

Summary: In Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, she describes what it is like to grow up in Iran from ages of six to fourteen.  Daughter of outspoken Marxists and descendant of one of Iran’s emperors, Marji witnesses gross human injustices, her people’s struggle to overthrow an oppressive government, and many senseless deaths.  When she becomes rebellious herself, her family sends her to Vienna to keep her safe.  In writing Persepolis, Satrapi wishes to dispel the stereotypical images that Westerners ascribe to Iranians based on “the wrongdoings of a few extremists” (Introduction to Persepolis).

Booktalk:

What does freedom mean to you?  Does it mean being able to eat whatever you want, dress however you like, stay out however late with whoever you want?  To some of you, it might mean being able to wear makeup, drive yourself to places, go to parties, listen to punk rock, dye your hair blue, get a tattoo or pierce your ears (or bellybutton, or tongue, or eyebrows), right?

Well, freedom means something entirely different to Marji and her family in Iran.  They want a bit of what you want too, but they also desire something that you and I sometimes take for granted here in the United States — the freedom to speak, the freedom to think for themselves, and the freedom to question their government.

Under the rule of the fundamental right, ordinary citizens — even young girls and boys like Marji and her friends — are often chastised for the the slightest offenses — like not wearing their veils or speaking against authority or daring to attend or organize demonstrations.   Punishments can range from a scolding, a slap across the face, detention — if they are lucky — or, for those less fortunate, arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution.

What do you think it’d be like to live in a world like that?  Hard to imagine, right?  And yet, for young Marji, this is her reality and her norm.  In our country, we often discuss the Middle East in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism, but Marji wants us to know about the Iranians she knows and loves: those who were tortured or killed in defense of freedom, and those who had to leave their families behind in order to escape wrongful imprisonment and prosecution.

To read more about Marji’s childhood in Iran and how she grew up under the blood and terrors of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, pick up Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.  It will open your eyes to this very important part of the world and change the way you think about the people of the Middle East.

Personal Comments: I read Persepolis earlier this year, the first graphic novel I had read.  It is safe to say that it has forever changed the way I view graphic novels.  I was shocked how the format, art, and the text worked together to make a topic that I had absolutely no previous interest in so fascinating and so emotionally-wrenching.  I think that’s what a great book can do — to dispel previous prejudices about something — graphic novels, Middle Eastern culture/people — or at least open up our eyes to see something from another point of view.  Though Persepolis contains mature themes that might be disturbing to readers, it is a worthwhile read.  Students who enjoy this book can read the sequel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, chronicling Marji’s life in Vienna, her return to Iran, and her search for her identity.  Students can also read Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale, a biographical graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about surviving Hitler and the Holocaust during WWII.  For a more light-hearted fare, read Gene Leun Yang’s American Born Chinese, also an autobiographical graphic novel.

Booktalk: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publication Information: New York: Philomel Books, 2011.
Age group: Middleschool and up
Topics: labor camps, World War II, holocaust, survival

Notes: 

Summary: On the evening of June 14, 1941, Soviet secret police tears through the door of the home of  fifteen-year-old Lina and promptly arrests the family without reason.  Separated from her father, Lina and her mother and younger brother are shoved onto a truck, and later, a train car marked “Thieves and Prostitutes”. They make their way to a Siberian labor camp, witnessing death and NKVD’s constant attempts to squash the prisoners’ spirits and forced to live under harsh, inhumane conditions.  Lina, an aspiring artist, fights for survival and vows to document the injustice that her countrymen is subjected to and the strength and hope they display.

Booktalk:

Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?

How much would you give to spare your son, daughter, wife, husband, brother, sister, or parent from certain death?

Fifteen-year-old Lina is just a regular girl — a lot like you and your friends — who is ready for the summer to start.  She can’t wait to put on pretty dresses, makeup, and go on her first date, and is applying to art school to become an artist.

Lina is just a regular girl, but all that is about to change.  World War II has just started.

Here’s an excerpt on the night her entire world collapses:

(Read from Chapter 7)

They were taking Jonas.  My beautiful, sweet brother who shooed bugs out of the house instead of stepping on them, who gave his little ruler to splint a crotchety old man’s leg.

“Mama!  Lina!” he cried, flailing his arms.

“Stop!” I screamed, tearing after them.  Mother grabbed the officer and began speaking in Russian — pure, fluent Russian.  He stopped and listened.  She lowered her voice and spoke calmly.  I couldn’t understand a word.  The officer jerked Jonas toward him.  I grabbed on to his other arm.  His body began to vibrate as sobs wracked his shoulders.  A big wet spot appeared on the front of his trousers.  He hung his head and cried.  

Mother pulled a bundle of rubles from her pocket and exposed it slightly to the officer.  He reached for it and then said something to Mother, motioning with his head.  Her hand flew up and ripped the amber pendant right from her neck and pressed it into NKVD’s hand.  He didn’t seem to be satisfied.  Mother continued to speak in Russian and pulled a pocket watch from her coat.  I knew that watch.  It was her father’s and had his name engraved in the soft gold on the back.  The office snatched the watch, let go of Jonas, and started yelling at the people next to us.

Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?  That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.

Lina and her family get to stay together…for now.  Read Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys to see how they manage to keep faith in the travesty that is committed towards them and their people.

Personal Comments: Students who are interested in WWII, labor/prison camps, and the holocaust can read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2007), about a young girl living outside Munich during WWII and how she manages to learn to read and share stolen books with her neighbors.  Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps by Andrea Warren  (2002) describes the Holocaust from the point of view of a boy survivor…might be interesting to note differences between a) boys and girls during WWII, b) Holocaust vs. labor camp experiences, etc.  Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust by Allan Zullo (2005) is a non-fiction title consisting of a collection of true survivor stories.  Due to the subject matter, all of these titles are suggested for middle-schoolers and up.

Booktalk: Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwar Wolff

Audio Version: http://sisdrupal.cci.utk.edu/jlin21/sites/sisdrupal.cci.utk.edu.jlin21/files/booktalk_makelemonade.mp3

Title: Make Lemonade

Author: Virginia Euwer Wolff
Publication Information: New York – Henry Holt & Company, 1993
Age group: Ages 10 and up according to publisher, but I would recommend this for middle-schoolers and up
Topics: teen pregnancy, teenage mothers, single parent famillies, inner city poverty

Notes: Novel in verse form might appeal to reluctant readers; stream-of-consciousness style also makes text easy to read.  On several Best Books lists (YALSA, Kirkus, ALA, etc.) and winner of the Golden Kite Award, 1994.

Summary: Fourteen-year-old LaVaughn’s goal is to be the first person in her 64-apartment building to go to college.  She sets out to save for college and applies for a job babysitting for Jolly, a seventeen-year-old high school dropout with two kids by two different fathers.  When she sees the broken-down building (even worse than her own) and the disorderly and stinky apartment, LaVaughn is unsure how much she can help.  She takes the job anyway, and the two girls work alongside each other to reach their separate goals and build their own futures.

Booktalk (print version):

What do you do when life gives you lemons?  Make lemonade…right?  But what if your life is so bad you don’t even get lemons…in fact, what if you are handed only a few lemon seeds, and no matter how much you water them, talk to them, and give them sunlight, nothing grows?

Jolly’s life is bad like that.  In fact, she lives in a broken-down, smelly apartment, crawling with roaches and covered in grime and dirt, rotting banana goo and dried up creamed spinach.  She is sexually harassed at work and gets fired for it, so now she doesn’t even have money for the basics, like heat, electricity, food, and toilet paper.  Oh, and get this — Jolly’s only 17 and has two babies by two different fathers, both gone, and no, she can’t afford any diapers either.

This is how she describes her life (read from pages 107-108):

You know how the astronaut up there in space

he might have to go outside the rocket he’s in?

Like to make repairs or something?

Like they radio him up there

from down in Florida, they say he’s gotta go outside

and fix something?

Well, he’s hooked by his cord,

Like a big belly-button cord.

Right?  

Well, spose the hatch closes while he’s out there.

By an accident.

It cuts his cord.  Slices it right off.  He floats away.

See?  He floats out there.  Just out there.  You know?

Just out there, on and on.

See, even if they wanted to send somebody after him, they wouldn’t know

where to look.

He ain’t connected.  See?

Sounds pretty desperate, doesn’t it?  And it is, until Jolly meets LaVaughn, a fourteen-year-old girl who dreams of being the first person in her whole 64-apartment building to go to college.  She answers Jolly’s babysitting ad so she can save up for school, but what do you think she does when she shows up and meets Jolly and her sticky, screaming kids?  Will Jolly’s mess derail LaVaughn from her plans for the future?  Or will the two of them somehow get those lemon seeds to sprout?   You’ll have to pick up this book — Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff — and find out for yourself.

Personal Comments: Make Lemonade is the first book of a trilogy, followed by award-winning True Believer (2001) and This Full House (2009).  Readers who enjoyed the first will want to read the rest of the trilogy to see what happens to LaVaughn.  Another book about teen mothers and poverty — Janet McDonald’s Coretta Scott King Award for New Talent winner Chill Wind (2002) — tells the story of 19-year-old Aisha, a high school dropout with two kids, find her way to support her family in New York City.  McDonald also wrote Spellbound (2001), which tells the story Raven, a teen mother living in the housing project, studying for a spelling bee that could lead to a four-year college scholarship.