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Windows and mirrors | class #2 spring 2017

Please join the adolescent lit class at HGSE as we discuss two recent YA books for our second class on January 31. The students are required to comment on one of the readings, but we hope any of you who have read one of these will want to join our discussion.


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

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie tells Junior’s story with lots of humor but pulls no punches in depicting the brutal truths of alcoholism, poverty, and bigotry both on and off the reservation. In his article “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood”, Alexie talks about the importance of truth telling, and readers of the book have indeed responded powerfully to the book’s honesty. What are the different aspects of the novel likely to engage young readers, and what conversations would you want to have with them about this book? Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is a coming-of-age memoir in eloquent free verse. Consider how form and voice reflects the young girl’s discovery of self and the world around her.

Tell us what you think of the books, how they’ve gone over in your classroom, respond to a previous comment, or share anything else that might be relevant.
Lauren Adams
Lauren Adams
Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.
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Sarah Mintz

I really enjoyed reading both The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Brown Girl Dreaming. I appreciate the conversation above about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and how, despite being a work of fiction, it contains significant autobiographical elements from Sherman Alexie's life. I think that the book's autobiographical elements are part of the reason it works so well - Sherman Alexie's personal memories and experiences really make Junior's character feel real and believable. I was also struck by how both authors pushed the boundaries of their respective genres in various ways. As mentioned above, Alexie brings in a lot of autobiographical content into what ultimately is marketed as a work of fiction. Woodson, on the other hand, challenges the traditional expectation of what a memoir looks like by using free verse. Another aspect of Brown Girl Dreaming that I enjoyed was that despite the book being a memoir, Woodson explores topics and experiences beyond the scope of her own memory, such as the early poems about being born and life in Ohio. I think this would be an interesting topic to explore with students were I to teach this book in a class.

Posted : Jan 30, 2017 10:25

Nana Seiwaa Sekyere

I agree with what has been said so far about Brown Girl Dreaming. I haven’t had much experience reading books written in verse so this was a great way to see how stories do not always have to be told in the prose form that I am used to seeing. Ana raised a point about the possibility of verse and poetry being intimidating to readers. I think it’s because there are breaks where one doesn’t expect them- it takes some a few rereadings as Min mentioned to make sense of what has been written. For people who have taught, are books written in verse often included in the curriculum? Is writing stories in verse something students are taught to do in school?

Posted : Jan 30, 2017 09:40

Rebecca Hawk

I loved reading Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian! Many of my 7th grade students read this book as part of their independent reading. The above comments regarding genre and form and function make me think about how one might teach this novel. I wonder if it would be a useful book to use to discuss genre conventions and purposes or if that would feel confusing to students. Additionally, I have been thinking a lot about how a teacher might walk students through the books more profane parts gracefully. I think that the references to strong themes such as masturbation, alcoholism, and bullying are real and important for students to examine. I wonder if lessons that discuss these topics should be paired with health lessons or advisory curriculum. I also am considering how best to get families on board with books like this with such content in a public school context.

Posted : Jan 30, 2017 09:12

Uttara Pant

Bonnie- I completely agree- I was constantly laughing and then crying while reading Part-Time Indian. It really did read like a diary, full of all the feelings that young adults feel. Obviously Junior/Alexie's experience is specific, in that it is about an Indian boy who leaves the reservation and then goes to an all white school, and so reading about this experience, that might be completely different from your own experience is important. But there were so many "relatable" elements- as you mentioned the big role alcohol abuse plays in his life. The way those parts were written were so matter of fact and true to how it plays out in real life. I really REALLY appreciated this. Like Gardenia and MinHyun and several others mentioned, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Brown Girl Dreaming. It was absolutely beautiful. There was a moment in the book when Jacqueline describes trying to sell the magazine to the old lady who couldn't afford it and for some reason I was so moved by that description- I felt it brought together so many complex concepts of religion and giving and sharing and money and faith and was so amazed that this simple account could do so much.

Posted : Jan 30, 2017 09:10

Gardenia Xiaoyuan Ye

I read through the comments and agreed a lot with what have been said about the Alexie’s book. When I first looked at the title, I also didn’t expect that I could resonate with the struggles and the most vulnerable but strong feelings of the protagonist, although we are so different. But I have to say that I was more surprised by myself enjoying Brown Girl Dreaming just as what Ana has felt and mentioned above. I read poems, but I have never been caught by an autobiographical story told in verse so much. Different from what Min has felt, I read through the words pretty fast, but had to pause now and then to digest my own feelings. I feel the short pieces of poetry were super strong (especially the second piece Min has cited about Aunt Kay’s death) and spoke to me most. I love the point Bobby has made about the characters developing creative skills along the flow of the book. Especially for Brown Girl Dreaming, writing is (the start of) the book (of course!), and the growth of Jacqueline into a writer marks the ending point of the book. Along with the chronological order of the poems, the gradual discovery and development of Jacqueline’s writing skills enables me to “grow” together with her. One interesting thing about Brown Girl Dreaming when I connect it to the discussion we had last class is that Jacqueline often makes up her stories and “tells lies” according to her mom, which makes her a not-so-reliable storyteller. Although I prefer reading most of the stories as real, I am curious if there’s anyone who has a different interpretation of her stories.

Posted : Jan 30, 2017 08:43

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