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Brain-bending books

Lately, I’ve read several books that blew me away with their beautiful and sometimes anarchic originality. I’ve written before about the creepy dreaminess of the almost-song We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, and I was equally bowled over by the lyrical oddity of The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, which seems to be part magical realism, part historical fiction, and part myth.

I sank into Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang (who always overwhelms me with his creativity), as I went over the beautiful panels showing Little Bao and Four-Girl on either side of the Boxer Rebellion in China. And I still have no idea what to think about the coming-of-age meets praying mantis science cautionary comedy Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, except that it was unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

I loved the experience of each of these, but I was dismayed to find myself having the same knee-jerk reaction, thinking I had no idea how I’d teach with these texts. I found myself thinking that I wouldn’t know where to put them in terms of genre because they don’t totally conform. Or that it could be tricky to figure out how to handle a two-volume piece like Yang’s. Or that I wasn’t sure where a science-like tale might fit in my typical ELA classroom.

After some thought though, I’ve decided it was totally uncreative of me to react that way. Maybe it is these books’ originality that makes them exactly the ones I should find places for, either with full classes, small groups, or individuals. If I’m teaching genre conventions, an example that pushes the boundaries could be just as useful as one that meets all of the typical criteria. Or maybe a topic we don’t usually cover could give us a new insight into literary analysis or I could use two volumes to contrast different perspectives in some fun way I haven’t tried before.

Maybe my typical teacher categories have caused me to react too narrowly to these very cool and interesting books. So I’m on a mission to be more creative myself — I’m going to stop reacting that way and see what opportunities books like these offer to teach new and interesting ways of thinking about text. So, I’m wondering how other folks have thought about this. What genre-benders and other tough-to-classify books have people found to use in classrooms, and how did students react?


Christina Dobbs About Christina Dobbs

Christina Dobbs is an assistant professor of English Education at Boston University. She is a former high school teacher, literacy coach, and reading specialist, and she studied adolescent literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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