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Windows and mirrors | class #2, 2018

This week in Adolescent Literature we will discuss two works of realistic fiction:

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

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie tells Junior’s story with lots of humor, but he 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 for young people. Equally frank and respectful of her readers, Angie Thomas takes on police brutality and systemic racism in her first novel The Hate U Give, a fictional story clearly drawn from real-life tragedy in our world today.

Which aspects of these novels are likely to engage young readers, and what conversations would you want to have with them? Where can they make connections with the characters, even if the circumstances of their lives are different?

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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Lucy Chen

Last Tuesday, in response to the question "As a teacher, would you choose books based on the make-up of your classroom", many classmates talked about a huge amount of adolescent literature is written by white writers for white students. This week's books touch upon the life of minority adolescents: Native American and African American adolescents. For me, these books would engage young readers, especially those outside these communities, as readers can at least have a basic understanding of what kinds of life that people elsewhere live might look like through the lens of local teenagers. It is like exploring a new world, where settings are very different from readers', yet young readers can still relate to characters on topics and worries that they share as adolescents. However, as an educator whose students in China have limited knowledge of racial issues shown in these books, I am also thinking whether these books truly and objectively depict the life of minority adolescents. For many Chinese students, they might not have the opportunity to interact with people from these minority groups their whole life and their understandings of these groups might largely depend on what books present, so as their teacher, I want them to know these groups without biases.

Posted : Jan 30, 2018 02:27

Sia B

Most people will not know this by looking at me, but my mother was born on the Mescalero Apache Indian Reservation in New Mexico, and my father is a Jamaican citizen. Because of this, I was particularly excited to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Hate U Give side-by-side. Both books speak to my childhood in similar. Both protagonists can relate to admitting that a white school would provide better opportunities, being viewed as an outsider in their own communities, and having family members or close friends who suffered from hopelessness and a destructive idleness. I immediately fell in love with both texts. While there is not one black narrative or one Native narrative, these texts were able to put complicated experiences into words that can seem, at times, racially universal. When Junior lists the rules his family has about fighting, I chuckled because those were also rules my family had about fighting even though our tribes share very few customs in common. When Junior gets into his first fight at Reardan and realizes that he did not know “the rules,” I felt transported to my ten-year-old self. Learning to interact with white people came with its own set of unwritten rules. And, while my unwritten rules seemed bizarre and off-putting to many white children, their unwritten rules seemed equally as bizarre to me. When Starr has dissonance about continuing to date a white classmate, I felt anxious and ill alongside her as she tried to process what that meant for her black identity. I’ve been there before. When Starr begins to show political awareness (posting a picture of Emmett Till, for instance), her white friends become distant. I’ve been there too. For the first time in my life, I’m reading books with which I can relate, and that makes me proud and sad at the same time. I am proud that my experiences are finally being discussed, but I am sad that it came so late in my life. I see promise in the future for books that represent students in all walks of life, even the ones that society does not regard highly. As a former high school teacher, I think about how excited my students would have been to read these books when I was teaching; however, because my students were older, they could either read these books in independent reading, as the books are not “challenging” enough for ninth graders, or I could use them in class directly through small excerpts to help foster discussion of a more challenging text. I would not have been allowed to read these books as a class. I am currently brainstorming what challenging texts I could use to help teach these two novels to fourteen-year-olds (and I would love suggestions). Also, if my students were to read these books during independent reading, I would want to give them much guidance, conduct numerous check-ins, and facilitate whole class debriefs. I think some of the issues addressed in these books cannot be swept under the rug, and adults must help teenagers work through questions, tensions, and misconceptions. I wonder if there is existing curricula to help me structure a class that reads novels such as these.

Posted : Jan 30, 2018 05:39

Sonya B

And Crystal Balls? It occurs to me as I'm reading through the additional posts, that maybe we could extend the "windows and mirrors" metaphor. (I do remember though, that Sarah noted Celeste Ng’s Little Fires has a critique of the term, and would love to learn what that critique so I can decide whether i actually want to adopt the term.) In the meantime, I think a crystal ball's symbolism as a object in which one can see their own or other people's futures, could address one of the other key areas that I strive to represent when choosing literature for students. That is, who is the creator of the story, what identities do they represent and what authority do they have to represent certain voices? In this case, not only would I choose both of these texts for their capacity to engage adolescent readers in the myriad ways and for the multifarious reasons everyone has mentioned, but also--connecting to what Lisa wrote about one's identity development and Sedef's focus on CulturalSocietal Expectations--for their ability to represent a students' possible future selves, as not only consumers of art, but artistic creators as well. I have increasingly pushed myself to choose novels in which the authors, themselves, also represent critical aspects of students' identities. This representation could make a powerful statement to all students, but especially students for whom the dominant cultural/societal forces narrowly define which roles they are expected to take on now and in the future. This certainly was my experience as an African American female. I'm guessing very early in my youth, it never occurred to me that I couldn't be a writer. However, as I grew older and made my way through a schooling experience where EVERY novel I was assigned until 12th grade was written by a European diaspora author, I learned that, of course, I could not be a writer. At least not one who wrote works of "true literary merit", like Shakespeare or Austen, that would be sanctioned by academic institutions. As, I mentioned in class, it was senior year that my English teacher assignment me Beloved by Toni Morrison, and it was then that I realized that, in fact, a black women, and therefore I, could be a writer. As you know, I'm not a writer; I'm a teacher, but it's always nice to have options! It is also important for students who represent dominant cultures to be able to envision students from non-dominant cultures in powerful roles. So "windows, mirrors, and crystal balls"?

Posted : Jan 30, 2018 01:25


I'm interested in both of these books particularly for the way in which they lend themselves to explicitly teaching social emotional learning skills. Both ATDPTI and "The Hate U Give" deal with the process of grieving, and the ways in which our grief can be confounded/amplified by the institutions/context we are embedded. I'm teaching ATDPTI as part of American Lit curriculum and I know that as a beginning component to our study of the text, I'll introduce my students to the social ecological model. In ATDPTI Junior is embedded in a very particular social ecological context both as a Native American living on the Rez and as a Spirit attending Reardon High. The interplay of these context influences who it is Junior will one day become, and the decisions he makes on his path to get there. The same is true for Starr in "The Hate u Give;" Starr has a very different experience living in Garden Heights than she does attending Williamson Prep. There is a process of code switching that occurs for both Starr and Junior; and both face difficulties manifesting their true selves as they navigate two polarized realities. I feel particurally in a book circle or a circle practice reading these two books would lead to insightful conversations with young people.

Posted : Jan 29, 2018 10:43

Lisa Wu

I assumed it would be hard for my high school students in China to relate to The Hate U Give, for the discussion of race is somehow not applicable in the country. But after reading Sedef's comment on ‘Cultural/Societal Expectations", I realize there is something universal in the topics. In terms of picking a book to address "cultural identity", I think my vote would go to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. As an overseas student myself, I found it refreshing when I heard people say "I was born somewhere. I was raised somewhere else. And I identify myself as..." It struck me as a surprise that we have multiple identities and we should have the freedom to choose whatever we most identify with. I think this is helpful for the youth who are struggling with finding their identities in an ever more complicated world. It might be a consolation to read about the evolving process of protagonist's quest for identity and his battle between two conflicting identities.

Posted : Jan 29, 2018 09:56

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