Sunday Salon: Ponyboy and Johnny and Dally

Reading is a creative act.

This is a controversial idea, one that many people resist strongly, one I resisted when I first learned about it.  But, over the years, I’ve come to appreciate it as an adult reader.  That young readers are creative agents is apparent to me and to probably anyone who has spent more than a few years working with them.

In her acceptance speech for the Newberry Medal, which she won for her novel The Giver, Lois Lowry talks about this.  She refers to a young reader, a fan of her Anastasia Krupnik series who wrote to her once as follows:

“I really like the book you wrote about Anastasia and her family because it made me laugh every time I read it. I especially liked when it said she didn’t want to have a baby brother in the house because she had to clean up after him every time and change his diaper when her mother and father aren’t home and she doesn’t like to give him a bath and watch him all the time and put him to sleep every night while her mother goes to work…”

Ms. Lowry then points out that none of what this reader describes actually happens in the Anastasia books.  What this reader has done is to find a place for herself in the Anastasia novels.  “She has found a place, a place in the pages of a book, that shares her own frustration and feelings.”  I imagine she already felt so close to the Anastasia character that she could easily add these little personal details to the story making her own identification with Anastasia even stronger.  I argue that this is a creative act, one that is necessary if one is to become immersed in a work of art.  Ms. Lowry won the award for The Giver which is famed, in part, for the openness of its ending.  What actually happens to Jonas and Gabriel is anybody’s guess.  It’s totally up to the reader.  At least it was until the sequels came out.

There was a young man in my first graduate seminar back in 1990 something who insisted, in spite of all our arguments to the contrary, that Kate Chopin’s The Awakening had a happy ending.  We don’t know that she has drowned, he claimed.  We see her enter the water but we don’t know what happens after that.  She could very well have had a change of heart and returned to shore alive.

Why not?  The author doesn’t say otherwise.

All of which is a long-way-round introduction to my annual post on S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders which I’ve been teaching to my 7th graders for nearly two decades now.  The Outsiders is God’s gift to the 7th grade.  It never fails to touch them, to move them in ways books have not moved them before.  Friday one student happily told me that she got her very own copy for her birthday along with S.E. Hinton’s other books. The last time I saw a student so excited about a birthday gift it was tickets for an upcoming One Direction concert.

This past October S.E. Hinton spoke about The Outsider’s, something she doesn’t really do all that often.  A reader asked if there were any romantic feelings between the characters of Johnny and Dallas.  She forcefully said no, there were not. She wrote the book and she ought to know.  (You can read more about this here.)  She insisted that there is no textual evidence to support this, either.  They are simply friends.

Young readers, the ones I work with at least, are not concerned with textual evidence.  I suspect that few people outside of literature classes, some book blogs and maybe a few book clubs really are.  Young readers will find what they need to find in the books they read.  Young readers who need to find a love like their own will find it where they can.  Some of them may even go so far as to write it in themselves if needed.  Check out the many fan fiction sites on-line for the growing body of examples.

Back in graduate school I learned of something called Reader’s Response Theory.  This was a school of critical thought which argued that there were three agents involved in creating the experience of a poem: the poet, the text, and the reader.  Together these three created the poem.  Poem here, can stand for any work of art in my opinion.  Along with many students in the class, I resisted this idea. Our professor had her work cut out for her.  Some she won over, some she did not.  Plenty of adult reader agree with S.E. Hinton–the author’s word is final. What she says goes.

I don’t agree, not anymore.  Once a book is written and published, the author’s opinion is no longer of much use to me as a reader.  Sometimes, not as often as you might expect, it can be interesting to now what an author thinks, but how I interpret the text is really all that matters to me.  As a teacher, I insist my students come up with textual evidence to support their ideas.  This is what makes for a good and proper essay.  But as a reader, if I say she drowns in the end, then she drowns in the end.  If I say she lives, then she lives.  The better my experience of a book is, the stronger I feel this way.  Passion in defense of our interpretation is a testament to a book’s quality.

None of y 7th graders have ever brought up the subject in regards to The Outsiders.  As far as I know, they all agree with S.E. Hinton, they are simply very good friends.   But there’s actually a fair amount of textual evidence to support the idea that Dally has a crush on Johnny who has a crush on Ponyboy.  Why does Johnny agree to run away with Ponyboy when he really has no reason to join him? Why is Dally willing to let Johnny boss him around so easily?  Maybe they are just very good friends or maybe there is something more.

My point is that it’s not really up to S.E. Hinton any longer.  The young adults who continue to find meaning in The Outsiders will find the meaning the need to find.  A good friend or someone like them in a way may not yet be ready to talk about.

In any case, reading is a creative act.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

file_001-2This review may have spoilers.

Three lovable misfits spend their senior year together, trying to survive life in small town Tennessee where misfits are not exactly welcome, no matter how lovable they are.

The Serpent King is actually a very dark story.  The lead character, though the narrator’s focus will shift between all three, is Dillard Wayne Early, Jr., the son of a snake-handling Pentecostal preacher currently in prison for possession of child pornography.  The town wants nothing to do with Dill because of his father; the members of his father’s church want nothing to do with because he refused to take the fall by claiming the pornography found on the preacher’s laptop was really his.

Dill’s fantasy loving friend Travis lives which his abusive alcoholic father and his mother who is still grieving the loss of Travis’s older brother who died in Afghanistan.  Travis dresses like a wizard, carries a staff he carved himself and spends most of his time re-reading his favorite fantasy series.

Lydia, the third member of the group, has a wonderful set of liberal parents who encourage her interest in fashion which she has parlayed into a successful web-blog. Though her success has led to considerable fame, it only serves to further alienate her from her local peers who envy and despise her.

Halfway through the novel things go horribly wrong.

I expect some readers will give up on the book at that point since it does come out of the blue.  Arguably, it’s not needed at all dramatically. There is plenty in the plot already to give the story drama without it, plenty to provide a catalyst for the romance to develop between Dill and Lydia. I admit it, I was tempted.  I think The Sun is Also a Star may have spoiled me a bit.

Tragic events, when they happen in real life, happen without warning. I understand that that is the point here.  Lots of people live through events like this before leaving high school; but lots of people don’t.  It’s my feeling that there was plenty in the The Serpent King for the reader to feel bad about already.  Mr. Zentner didn’t need to go there.

But he did, and he handled the events pretty well. Except for a few passages of dialogue that didn’t quite ring true to me, and a slight over reliance of the pixie-girl saving the boy plot line, I enjoyed The Serpent King and I think the young readers the book is written for will, too. Travis, Dill and Lydia are people many of us would have liked to know back in high school.

It was nice getting a chance to spend time with them in fiction.

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

There’s a good chance that I’m just a sucker for romance.

Somewhere in the middle of The Sun is Also a Star the lead characters Daniel and Natasha stand facing each other on the streets of New York City.  They lean in, their heads touching.  Daniel’s long hair falls forward forming a curtain around their faces shielding them from the city.


I fell in love in a little bit.

I’m probably a sucker.

The Sun Is Also A Star is something of an IT book among YA readers this year, but for those of you who may not have heard of it…. Natasha is a high school senior hoping to become a data scientist.  Through no fault of her own, she is about to be deported to her native Jamaica.  Daniel is a Korean American high school senior facing an entrance interview for Yale where he hopes to be pre-med.  Again, through no fault of his own.  The two meet through a series of chance events,–she on her way to an immigration lawyer; he on his was to the interview both of which are taking place in the same building.  They end up spending the day together, falling in love, hoping to have found something that will last a lifetime against all the odds.

This may seem like an outrageous coincidence but anyone who has ever lived in a big city can tell you they are really small towns.  Eventually you end up in a circle of people who all know each other through friends of friends.

And coincidence is one of the themes in The Sun is Also a Star.  There’s always a series of events, encounters, that lead us to meet each other.  If you hadn’t missed the bus that day, if the woman at security hadn’t taken so much time with your backpack, if you hadn’t decided to stop for coffee before the show…

There are so many things I loved about The Sun is Also a Star, this play with coincidence and the train of events was just one.  I loved both characters.  They bring a point of view I have not encountered before, which has become something I value very highly in my reading these days.  Both are from troubled but intact families.  Both are successful, basically good people.  Some might argue that they are wish-fulfillment on the part of the author, but I didn’t mind.  They were a wish I enjoyed having fulfilled.

What I probably liked most about the book was the way the alternating narrative, Daniel speaks, then Natasha speaks, was broken by the voices of the people they met along the way and by the occasional bit of background information. Natasha is late to her appointment with an immigration official who refuses to see her as a result because the woman at the security screening station takes too long with her bags.  Afterwards, this woman is given three pages to tell her story, what was going on in her own life that led her to take so long.  We are all players in each other’s drama, we just don’t see the full impact of our roles.

None of this is original, I know.  The mismatched lovers who spend one day together goes back at least to Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. (A movie you must see before you die by the way.  Trust me.)  The alternating narrative structure is as old as Charles Dickens at least.  The digressions into the lives of minor characters along the way is not new either.  That bit about the hair forming a curtain was new to me, but the moment on the rooftop looking out at the city, seeing each other through the crowded streets, being a witness to a humiliating moment with parents, rushing after someone leaving a subway car.  Cliche, cliche, cliche.

But sometimes the cliches align themselves in just the right way, and it all works.

You can call me a sucker but it all worked for me with The Sun is Also a Star.  


Homecoming by Cynthia Voight

Homecoming by Cynthia Voight is the story of four children on their own. The oldest, Dicey Tillerman who is still young enough to pass as a boy when she needs to, leads her three siblings on a cross country journey in search of a home.  They must face this journey alone after their unstable mother abandons them in a car outside of a large shopping mall while on the way to the home of their great aunt.  She never returns.

It’s clear that Dicey has been covering for their mother for some time.  She immediately takes charge of the situation, keeping the younger children in line, dividing tasks between herself and her brother James who’s just a year or so younger than she is.  Dicey hopes that their mother will return as soon as this latest spell is over, but she also fears that the police will find them and separate them.  She wants her mother back, but even more than that she wants to keep her family together.  So when it begins to get dark and her mother still has not returned, she decides to abandon the car and walk to their great aunt’s house, though it’s a trip that will take several weeks and they have just over ten dollars between them.

What follows is a terrific survival story.  Ms. Voight knows what she is talking about here.  The details of how the children survive, earn money, get food, find shelter and eventually find their great aunt’s home are completely realistic.  (If you had to run away from home with only a few dollars to you name in 1981 when the book was written, this book could have been your field guide.)   There are no flights of fancy here, no unexplained or surprise rescuers, no helpful coincidences that appear out of no where to save the day.  Dicey is simply too determined to fail.  Her siblings recognize this and stick to her side through thick and thin.  She does not disappoint them.

Homecoming is more or less officially a young adult novel, but it should be seen as a young adult novel in the same sense that To Kill a Mockingbird is a young adult novel.  Put a more sophisticated cover on it, take off the references to the Newberry Medal and you have a novel about children written for all audiences.  Ms. Voight never talks down to her audience, never makes things easy for them, but she does write a compelling tale.  All of the characters, even the minor ones, are as richly drawn as any you’ll find in an “adult” novel.  Motivations are complicated here.  People try to do the right thing by each other only to find both the giver and the receiver of charity are too complicated to make even the most generous act go smoothly.  It’s not that no good deed goes unpunished, but no good deed is easy to swallow.

One thing that sets Homecoming above other novels like this is that once the children find a home, their great aunt’s house, they also find that it is not really what they were looking for.   Most writers would end their stories at the doorstep of their destination with a happy and satisfying reunion.  Ms. Voight could have done so and still had an excellent novel.  Instead, Dicey, her sister and her brothers find they have such a difficult time fitting in that they must consider taking to the road again, this time to look for the grandmother they never knew, one whom their mother rarely had a kind word for.

Homecoming is the first of a series of six books about the Tillerman family.  I don’t know how I managed to teach middle school English for almost 20 years and never read it, but I’m certainly glad one of my student book clubs finally gave it a chance.  The girls who read it are glad they did, too.  They plan on reading the next book later this month.  I’m looking forward to it.  Homecoming by Cynthia Voight comes with our highest recommendation.


I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. some years ago.  Unfortunately, neither I nor my students ever got around to reading the second book in the series.  That said, I still give Homecoming my highest recommendation.

Sunday Salon: Catching up with This Week’s Reading and Lionel Shriver Wears a Funny Hat.

screenshot-2016-09-24-at-6-53-02-amThis post is more of a ramble than a rant, so don’t worry.

It’s been a busy week, getting ready for the 20th anniversary party C.J. and I threw yesterday, so there have not been many posts here lately.  I’m hoping to have a good amount of down time today, enough to relax and get a bunch of robo-posts ready for the week.

Some I’m going to do one of those multi-book posts today right off the bat.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading with my students this year which I’d fallen away from for some reason.  Between this week and last I finished three books.

img_1356The first was Crystal Allen’s touching comic novel about a young bowler’s rivalry with his basketball star older brother How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy.   This is the current favorite of one sixth grade teacher at my school.  I’ve a connection to it in that the author’s agent was once my student teacher.  She was a great teacher, too.  Sorry we lost her to publishing, but it’s certainly a been a boon for children’s books.

Next, Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt who wrote one of my favorite YA books in recent years The Wednesday Wars.  Orbiting Jupiter is a good book, I’ve no qualms about it’s quality, it’s characterization or anything really, except the ending.  I liked that the story presents a positive tale of foster parents.  I’ve several friends who are foster parents. The things they have done with the children they have known, the sacrifices they have made for their foster children make them heroes of the highest order in my mind.  I’m sick to death of “bad foster parents” being used as shorthand to explain why a img_1357character is sad and lost in life.  Rant aside, Orbiting Jupiter has a tragic ending that I found gratuitous.  A happy ending would have worked just as well.  So, I won’t be passing this one along to the boy in my class who just got a terrific new foster dad after all.

Lastly, I read Chew on This, Eric Schlosser’s kid version of his best-selling Fast Food Nation.  Though I suspect his co-author Charles Wilson did most of the work for this version.  Chew on This was selected to be our first school-wide book, probably in January if the school board approves.  At our department meeting Wednesday, one of the teachers expressed some reservations about the book, so I went home and read the whole thing.  I think it’s fine, but we’ll see what happens.  I did read Fast Food Nation back when it first came out; even stayed away from fast food for several months afterwards.  Last month by blood test came back pre-diabetic so no more fast food for me, probably forever.  Except for an occasional trip to In-and-Out.  What’s the point of living in California if you never ever go to In-and-Out.  img_1358

Chew on This will probably have a lot of appeal to our middle schoolers.  It’s non-fiction which the Common Core loves.  Each chapter focuses on one topic that will interest the kids–french fries, sodas, meat production, obesity, the history of MacDonald’s.  We’re hoping the math and the science departments will take a chapter or two. There’s plenty in it that applies to P.E. as well. The teachers new to our school who have used it before say it was a big hit.  There are some graphic sections about meat processing and a few other issues, but I did not see any red-flags.  We’ll see what happens.

I did read another round of short stories this week.  Patrick Ryan’s new collection The Dream Life of Astronauts has been struggling through my little tournament.  I’m a big fan of Mr. Ryan’s work, since I stumbled upon his first collection Send Me several years ago.  He also writes wonderful YA novels under the name P.E. Ryan.  Mr. Ryan did an interview, one of my favorites, with me back in the day when we all did author interviews as a regular thing.  But I had not fallen in love with his current anthology until this round.  In his story “Miss America”  the narrator gives us this paragraph about her step-father who is about to leave her mother after many years together:

The thing is, I guess I do love Roger.  My real dad died when I was a baby (he had a rare cancer, my mother told me, but she doesn’t like to talk about it) My first concrete memory of my mother is of her pitching a fit–I mean, screaming her head off–in the checkout line of a grocery store because the cashier wouldn’t take her coupons. She was always pitching fits when I was little. Then Roger came along when I was seven, and they got married, and she calmed down some. We moved into a new house, I got a bigger room, and we started buying real trees at Christmas. So I love him for that. But I don’t miss him, not really.  Maybe that makes me a cold person, or emotionally wounded, whatever a psychiatrist would call it. I don’t feel wounded, or like I need to choose sides. Roger was never mean to me, never once yelled at me, never even scolded me that I can remember; he was always just there: calm and reserved and focused on some inner thought, like the most patient man in the world waiting for an elevator that would take him to some other floor–and then the elevator arrived, and he got on.

This is Mr. Ryan at his best.  He gets at the heart of three characters giving us a clear picture of how they relate to each other and just how complicated what looks at first like a simple relationship really is.  I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

But this means the very good stories in The Pinch will go back on the TBR shelf for now.  I’ve enjoyed this literary journal from the students at The University of Memphis.  They’ve won me over to college literary journals in general.  I’ll be looking for more.

Finally, hasn’t Lionel Shriver been fun this week? As RuPaul would say, “Girlfriend, Please!” I posted links to her speech on the perils of “cultural appropriation” and to the response to it last week, scroll down to find them, but I had no idea she was wearing a sombrero while she spoke.  After fifteen seasons of Project Runway and eight seasons of Drag Race, I like to think I would have walked out on her to protest her bad taste in fashion.

While I do love a literary kerfuffle, at this point I think she should exit the stage as gracefully as she can.  Go write another book, that’s what you do best.  We Need to Talk about Kevin  proved this. You can read her latest comments in the New York Times which struck me as mostly wrong.  There’s also another response in the Washington Post from the book critic who started all this by not liking Ms. Shriver’s new book dystopian novel The Mandibles which sounds awful.   I try not to comment on books I have not read, but I also try not to read “literary authors” who dabble in science fiction and I’m on a break from dystopias for the next couple of weeks.  I think Jia Tolentino writing in the New Yorker does a very good job with this topic and with Ms. Shirver.

A common lesson in every fight about cultural appropriation is that no one appears to be changing anyone else’s mind. Shriver wanted her detractors to be less touchy, and instead she reinforced their position. The Brisbane Writers Festival’s response to Shriver will, in turn, underline her conviction that free expression is being stifled. On this topic, as on most, audiences self-sort after every flare-up; opposition convinces us, over and over, that we are right.

Opposition convinces us, over and over, that we are right.  Unfortunately, the longer I live the more this seems to be true.  Still, from a reader’s perspective, a good literary battle is a good thing to have once in a while.  I still miss Gore Vidal and Truman Capote who two champions.

But I do hope we can all agree to stop it with the funny hats.

We Are The Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

imageWhat if you like a book in general, but there are some things that bug you about it?

Do you always end up with one of those weighing the scales reviews? List the pros? List the cons?  It’s so difficult to do that without being wishy-washy.

There is a lot to like in Shaun David Hutchinson’s YA novel We Are the Ants.  The story is about Henry Denton, a Florida high school student still getting over his boyfriend’s suicide.  Henry lives with his single mother and his older brother.  He is estranged from his best friend Audrey and sort of seeing the much more popular Marcus. Seeing is not really the right word.  He and Marcus meet on the sly to fool around, but Marcus still makes fun of Henry in public, to keep up his straight boy status.

Enter a couple of aliens.  The first aliens literally put Henry’s finger on the button.  They abduct Henry every so often to do experiments on him and to ask if he wants to push the button.  Pushing the button is the only thing that will save the world which is set to end on January 29.  Henry alone has the power to push the button that will save everything. Does he want to push it?

The second “alien” is a boy named Diego Vega, who transfers into Henry’s school where he stirs things up both at school and in Henry’s life.  The two fall hard when they fall in love.

We Are The Ants takes the form of Henry’s journal. Science buff Henry tells his story interspersed with theories about the various ways the earth could end. I liked this science side of the book.  It reminded me of Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds where the mutations produced by varying degrees of radiation stood as a metaphor for how the world affects people’s lives.  Here the metaphor’s meaning is not quite so clear, but it was still effective.  How will the world really end matters when your world has already figuratively ended the way Henry’s did when his boyfriend took his own life.

You can’t fight gravity. Gravity is love. Love requires us to fall.

Mr. Hutchinson gets a lot right about relationships in We Are the Ants.  I liked this line comparing Henry and Marcus to Henry and Diego: Making out with Marcus had always felt like a race to the finish line, but with Diego I felt like I’d already won.  I think that’s very good, and I think I know what he means.  For the most part when I as an adult reader had issues with the way the characters behaved, I still recognized that they were acting the way most teenagers probably would.  It was a long time ago, but some things you never forget.  Alas.

However, some things bothered me.  First, both Henry and Diego have bad fathers.   I know there are people who have bad fathers, but it’s such an over-used trope in YA literature, especially YA literature about LGBT characters, that it’s gotten very old at this point.  Second, does Henry have to go from a boyfriend with suicidal depression to a boyfriend with anger issues brought on by severe child abuse?  Third, while I know bullying is a real problem, Henry’s high school life began to border on Hana Yanigahira extremes.

I’m not going to say much about the abductions, just to avoid spoilers.  I was more than willing to go along with them either being true or being simple in Henry’s head whatever they turned out to be in the end was fine with me, but I did find it a bit hard to believe that Henry could be absent for so long, days in some cases, without anyone putting him into psychiatric care right away.  I don’t have any children, but I imagine if I had one who vanished for over 24 hours, I’d do something pretty extreme even if he did show up unharmed in the end.

Still, back to my metaphorical scale, even with all of the above issues, I liked the book.  I enjoyed spending time with Henry and I was rooting for him throughout.  I’m glad he came to a happy ending, too.  And, in what I suppose is the ultimate test of whether or not a book has succeeded or failed, I would like to read more by Shaun David Hutchinson.


Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Adventure can rely on character.  Robert Lewis Stevenson demonstrates this in his classic novel Treasure Island.  There’s plenty of adventure in Treasure Island:  mysterious strangers arrive on stormy nights;  innocent people survive savage attacks;  abandoned ships drift out to sea;  pirates climb the walls of forts under the cover of darkness to attack sleeping innocents;  castaways, marooned for years, are rescued;  fortunes are found and lost again.

 But what the reader walks away from Treasure Island remembering is the books characters.  Long John Silver is the best known, but there are plenty of others, pirates and non-pirates alike.  It’s these characters that have kept readers coming back to Treasure Island generation after generation.  They continue to frighten, to intrigue and to entertain.

In fact,  most of what we know about pirates, we learned from Treasure Island.  Pirates have wooden legs and wear  eye patches.  They walk with a crutch, but in a pinch, they can transform their crutch into a deadly spear.  They keep parrots as pets and teach them to say “pieces of eight.”  When they get together, they can’t help but sing “Sixteen men on a dead man’s chest/ Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum!”  They are charmers, but they cannot be trusted.  They terrify us, but we can’t help but want to be like them.  And we’re always a little bit relieved when they get away in the end.

The menace and magic of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s pirates are both captured by N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations.  The elder Wyeth has been admired by illustrators for generations, and many consider his artwork for Treasure Island to be his best.  I don’t know enough about the art of illustration to effectively judge N.C. Wyeth, but C.J. and I have developed a few standards in  almost 15 years of shared museum going.  One is do we believe the figures in the painting existed before the moment of the artwork and will they continue to exist afterwards.  I think Wyeth’s do.  His illustrations capture parts of a larger moment.

 N.C. Wyeth is also a master of composition.  Notice this group of three pirates climbing the walls of the fort.  The viewer sees the two on the wall right away, but did you notice the third one who has already entered the fort’s shadow?  And look at the angle of the mast and the yard arm in the illustration above.  There is no steady, level place for Jim to hide in as he climbs the ship’s rigging to escape the pirate.  Everything is sharp angles and  dangerous slanted beams.  The only solid right angle in the picture is the horizon off in the distance.  Beyond that horizon, the safety of home.

 I can see why N.C. Wyeth is considered one of the best.  His illustrations create characters with lives outside the paintings just as a good author creates characters with lives outside the book they inhabit.  Wyeth and Stevenson are wonderful together.

This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B, back in 2010.  Since starting this new site, I have been slowly migrating all of my old reviews. I still have just over 150 to go.