Tag Archives: young adult literature

Rereading My High School Classics: Killing Mr. Griffin

I received this amazing grant from Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation, allowing me to stock my classroom library with an awe-inspiring number of books my kids will actually enjoy reading. While perusing the catalogue, I noticed that Lois Duncan’s Killing Mr. Griffin was among the options. KMG is one of those books that evokes an instant reaction for me: flashback to early high school (or maybe late middle school). I was a binge reader, so I probably was in the process of reading every book Duncan had ever written by that point. I was most likely splayed out on my bed while my grandmother was most likely telling me to do something (most likely to wash the dishes or pour the food up after dinner) and I was unable to tear myself away from the book. I passed much of my youth like that.

During this particular time of year, when life threatens to speed up and have its way with me, I start to read for comfort as a way to reorient

0440945151

Killing Mr. Griffin: Nearly As Good Now as It Was Then

myself. This type of reading is my self-care, I reckon. I might reread a book or two that I’ve enjoyed (cue Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed), a lot of young adult literature, some poetry…I don’t want to veer too far outside of the familiar because I need a place to stand (or read, if you will), that is comforting. That’s why I wanted to reread KMG. Would time stand still the same way? Would I feel those little creepy thrills at the mystery? Would I be as enmeshed with a text in the ways I was when I was a teenager?

Essentially, yes. The quick premise of the book: Mr. Griffin is a high school English teacher who pushes his students to be excellent. He doesn’t take late work, doesn’t accept mediocrity, insists that students think critically. Wait. Am I Mr. Griffin?! I hope not, because four particular students decide to play a prank on him and scare Mr. Griffin into becoming a nicer teacher. Of course, given that Duncan wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, this intention was going to go awry, and it did. The kids kill Mr. Griffin.

I’m relatively sure that when I read it as a teenager, I would have been all caught up in the social structure of the killer kids: they lure in a nerdy junior (the majority of them are seniors), they make her feel that she belongs, they complain about the teacher being too demanding. I would have totally gotten behind their cause (well, up to a point), allowing myself to get caught up with the momentum of the story. I would not have paid any attention to Duncan’s attempts at Mr. Griffin’s backstory, choosing instead to consume myself with how Murder Inc. was going to either hold or fold as more people began to find out what they’d done. I did feel some anxiety at moments around the actions of the one kid at the center who orchestrated everything. But, yeah. I would have spent all night reading it, going back to wherever I got that book the next day (be that the public library if it were a Saturday or the Thrifty Bookworm if I could get a ride there to trade it in) to keep reading something along those lines.

Fast forward to nearly 25 years later. Here’s what I noticed reading KMG this time:

  • Lois Duncan had some great lines of prose, particularly when it came to description. A line I wrote down to use as a mentor sentence: Susan turned to see David Ruggles running toward her, the slightness and delicacy of his bone structure giving him the framework of a kite with his blue Windbreaker billowing out beneath his arms, the wind seeming to lift and carry him (3).
  • All I could think about this time was how similar my teaching philosophy was to Mr. Griffin and how, IRL, if you’re a tough teacher, you’re often not considered a “good” teacher by students until years down the road. I also thought it was so sad that he truly loved his students and working with them and all they were concerned about was their grades. So, they killed him. Yipes. And he and his wife were expecting a baby?! NOPE.
  • I was less forgiving of plot holes. Characters came and went, then reappeared (or didn’t) with little rhyme or reason. Again, I notice this now but then? Such discrepancies wouldn’t have bothered me much. I was also not satisfied with the (relatively) tidy ending.
  • There are some fantastic allusions to Macbeth (the Murder Inc. kids make a reference to the line about the old man “having so much blood in him”) and there are several to Hamlet. The English teacher in me cheered.

In sum: Grade then: A; Grade now: B+

Reading one of my classics was a delightful experience. While I’m sad about how things ended for Mr. Griffin, I do think the experience of reading the book was as positive now as it was then. I also have had a series of great conversations with colleagues about rereading the books that mattered to them as young people and if they held up to our grown up eyes. Wouldn’t that be a wonder to share with our students? But, oh, it was simply joyful to sit in a restaurant this afternoon and read, and read, and read and not care what time it was, or who needed me. For those moments, it was me and my book. And that was all that mattered.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Literacy, Reading Lives, Teaching Texts

Finding My Way Back to YA Lit: Aristotle & Dante

The best measure for me to determine if I’m reading a book that is weighty and meaningful (and please keep in mind that these terms hold various currency at different times in my life, dependent on what I’m supposed to be doing or attempting to ignore) is if I’m unafraid to read and cry on the subway.

I’ve read several titles that had me weeping, furtively wiping my eyes, wearing my sunglasses UNDERGROUND because I was overcome with something emotional about a text. I admit that I hope people don’t think I’m insane, but, when a book takes you, you don’t really quite care enough about what people might say. All that matters is, well, the book.

In this frenzied summer of teaching writing with high schoolers and literacy to preservice and new teachers, I have also been attempting to help all of them broaden their understandings of what it means to read and write. The teachers participate in a book club in hopes of remembering what real readers do (funny, they tend to want to impose all of these arcane rules on students that they would never do to themselves. I constantly remind them that, if they don’t want to complete particular activities after doing something,  then students don’t want to either). Given that the class is a mix of elementary, middle and high school teachers, of all subjects (no comment on how much of a challenge this is, but I will say that thoughtful, flexible groupings make everything better), I provided a list of books along the grade-level spectrum.

One of them was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Now, as much as this is a young adult novel about two Latino young men discovering who they are, falling in love, and being loved by such wonderful parents (oh, I wanted their parents to be my parents or to be parents of kids I taught, or just, I don’t know, hang out with them or go bowling or just be in the same room with them…) it is equally as much a book about literacy. The boys read to each other, share poetry, draw, write letters…I wonder if this is caused because the setting is late 1980s El Paso, Texas and how much things would probably be different (I had a moment when I wondered, why don’t they just text, which sent me rereading for the actual year), but I am so grateful that this novel is set in the time before technology changed everything.

Image

Aristotle & Dante: Two kids you should get to know

This, too, is a story about boys who love each other. Machismo aside, they cry, they hug, they are true to each other. While one boy’s father is struggling to be demonstrative with his love around his son, the other boy’s father is loving, gentle, kind in ways that encourage his peer to do the same.

It’s a wonderful model for what friendship might mean between two boys who love each other on multiple levels, and who want to be who they are within and without the confines of societal expectations, regional (mis)understandings, and, for lack of a better word, the universe. Don’t we need such nuanced stories, particularly when it’s so easy to think of young men as hard, as uncaring, as ones who definitely don’t cry?

Now, I’m back on the YA lit train and I can’t get enough of it. It’s been years since I really was able to immerse myself in the genre. It’s so well-written, so evocative, so important for young adults and the folks who try to understand them and who value them.

I’m ordering a few copies of Aristotle and Dante (side note: and I’m also happy the Printz award committee selected this book–let’s hear it for diversity!!) and I can’t wait for kids to say to me, “Dr. P, can you believe it when…?” and I’ll nod, and we’ll dig in to those conversations about loving texts, and young folks who figure it out, and who we love as much as if they were real people, too.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reading Lives