Chasing the Stars, Malorie Blackman

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It’s a week before I commence my teacher’s training, and my brain is taking a break from the intensity of the books I have been reading, and so when I stopped off at the library to kill time before getting my hair cut and saw this sitting on the top of a bookcase, I just had to take a look.

It’s been years since I read Malorie Blackman. To my mind she was a one-trick-pony – I read Noughts and Crosses, thought it was alright and have somehow never seen anything else written by her since. Turns out, according to the mini biography at the back of this novel, that she’s written over 60 books, this one in 2016. So there’s a world of Blackman out there that I haven’t explored, but this was a good place to start.

The Premise

Vee and Aiden are only eighteen, but for the past three years they have been travelling through space on their own, after the death of the crew of their spaceship from a deadly virus.

Nathan has been abandoned on a small planet which has been attacked by their enemies, the Mazon, and only 22 of the hundreds of other settlers survive when Vee and Aiden rescue them.

Vee’s solitude is broken by the arrival of the settlers, and she falls head over heels in love with Nathan, agreeing to ‘join’ with him (equivalent of marriage) after only a few days. But there is a murderer loose on the ship, and both Nathan and Vee have secrets that they would rather leave hidden. Can their relationship survive the tumultuous months it will take to get everyone to safety?

The Verdict

It’s a guilty pleasure of mine that I do really enjoy reading books written for teens. Everything is so simple – they meet, they fall in love, they marry… their considerations are so much smaller than they should be. Vee is the captain of a ship but she basically loses interest because she meets a boy. Nathan is a ‘drone’ – an outcast from society – with more to think about that this relationship but, again, it doesn’t matter. They don’t even take into consideration the fact that they are heading for different places. There is something eternally reassuring about this optimism and spontaneity that makes a book enjoyable on a simplistic level that I really relate to.

Blackman does a good job of making the book about more than the romance. She follows the couple down a difficult path of distrust, dishonesty and disillusionment. Their spontaneous relationship undergoes more trials, and their reactions are more human and realistic than often found in teenage novels.

The supporting cast, however, suffers. The first person narrative really narrows the focus to the two narrators, leaving everyone else out in the cold. I suspected there was something wrong with Aiden right from the beginning, as I think Blackman expected, but a lot of what I considered clues may just have been sloppy writing, because everyone took such a side seat. Characters weren’t well thought through and multi dimensional, but rather had their one ‘thing’ – the ex, the gardener, the protector, the commander – and stuck to it. Whilst Vee and Nathan do grow, the rest of the cast do not, which I think is a real shame.

The imagery throughout is stunning though. The descriptions of solar systems, ion clouds and other space based phenomenons were effective and well drawn. Blackman clearly does her research.

The Verdict

Overall this was a fun, light read that I read over the course of a day. It develops its protagonists well, follows the standard structure of teen romance stories but ends in a much more realistic and gritty way. Whilst flawed for an adult, I can see how this novel would attract teens as interested readers.

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How Children Succeed, Paul Tough

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I can”t quite believe that I have spent the last few days devouring a book whose basic conclusion is that if children receive adequate parental care, a good education and develop character, they are more likely to succeed. But Tough explores these issues in an intelligent and sympathetic way and his meta-analysis of years of data and research, provides strong biological and psychological arguments that can help to turn around the lives of even the poorest and most delayed of children. Tough’s book focusses on the American education system, something I have had little to no exposure to, but has far reaching consequences, especially when I am soon to be working in some of the most most disadvantaged schools in the UK.

Poverty and Education

Tough suggests in the final chapter that the political discourse on poverty and education has rolled into one, whereas in the 60s they were two very separate issues. Educational disadvantage is extremely difficult to distinguish from poverty because that simple lacking in early life leads to less successful schools. But Tough explores more than simply that.

Tough suggests that poverty leads to far more than just disadvantages in education, and in fact isn’t necessarily the primary cause: ‘It wasn’t poverty itself that was compromising the executive-function abilities of the poor kids. It was the stress that went along with it.’ (p. 20) His discussion of ‘Executive-function’ highlights the deeply biological nature of stress, and how we deal with it, and his in depth discussion of the ‘licking and grooming’ rats experiment takes the growth of Executive-Function back to the childhood management of it by parents.

Most importantly, however, Tough explores the research on developing ‘character’ – whether that’s 24 point character report cards, or 7 simple characteristics for success, he explores and analyses the literature and research that claims that ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ and ‘perseverance’ are stronger indicators of success that GPAs or exam results. Whilst Tough doesn’t dwell on opposing research, he does touch upon it enough to create a convincing argument for his point of view.

Personal Stories

Tough’s book is based upon the collection of personal stories he hasdeveloped from the researchers, and the workers on the ground. The charm and the easy reading nature of the book come from accessible figures (chess teachers, teenagers in programmes, teacher telling of their successes and failures) who tell their stories, the ups and the downs, with a brutal honesty. This helps to put even the less successful interventions in a positive light, and has really made me strongly agree with his hypotheses. There seems to be the empirical evidence held within the book to back it up, but I would be interested to read further around this topic before making any firm judgments.

Wider Applications

Whilst Tough focusses on the stories of children, and the success of children, the book also contains a lot of research into how to improve character traits such as ‘self control’ and gives some level of advice on how this can be managed. This was part of why I enjoyed this book so much, because not only did I learn a lot of ways and techniques to help struggling pupils, but I also learned some things that I can apply to my life, even now as an adult. The research that Tough explores and summarises has wide reaching applications.

The quote on the cover of my version of this book says ‘every parent should read this book’. I wonder whether it was a bit dense for the newly expectant parent, or those caught up in raising multiple children. However, I certainly can see the value of having such knowledge as this in raising children, and would strongly recommend it for a teaching – audience. We can never know enough about the psyche of children and how to adapt our teaching and education to improve their learning experiences.