The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, John Boyne

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Well, considering that the next text I have to read is Romeo and Juliet, it certainly seems like I am in for a depressing weekend. I’ll be glad to get back to work on Monday! But emotional instability aside, it’s time to take a more critical look at this harrowing piece of literature.

The Overview

Bruno returns home one day to find his maid packing up his room, and his whole family relocating to the remote and unfriendly ‘Out-With’. Whilst he hates the idea, he eventually resigns himself to living in a house of only three stories (his last one had five) when he meets a friend – the mysterious boy in the striped pyjamas. Their secret friendship develops over the period of a year, and its tragic ending is an indictment of war, anti-antisemitism and ignorance, all at once.

The Verdict

I find it hard to believe that schools are teaching this novel to Year 7. I’m a grown adult and it reduces me to tears and is emotionally traumatising. I have seen the film previously, and I think I may have read the book and then decided I was never going to want to read it again and given it away, as aspects of the narrative were really familiar to me.

Boyne writes from the perspective of a nine year old boy, and occasionally a twelve year old girl, with skill and finesse, despite using the third person narrative. Simple techniques such as ‘Out-With’ and the ‘Fury’ for well known words immediately draw the reader into Bruno’s world of ignorance. Boyne’s skill in story telling is well honed, and the reader embarks on Bruno’s journey as if they are alongside him.

Boyne writes a difficult subject with sensitivity and honsety. Too often we try to hide from children how violent and horrid the war was, but it is important that people feel uncomfortable when they read Holocaust literature. It’s like the opening to Saving Private Ryan, it’s only so memorable and effective because it’s so believable and gruesome. Boyne doesn’t try to hide from the reader that horrible things went on. Any ignorance we maintain is only because, as a child, Bruno can’t give us the information because he doesn’t have it himself. I really respect Boyne for sticking to the honest truth of the Holocaust.

The characters are well thought through, and again, as they are described from Bruono’s point of view, they are necessarily two dimensional. Only Gretel is really released from Bruno’s bias, and that in the final chapter, where she is seen to mourn his absence from her life. Otherwise, Bruno is loyal and looks up to his father, is coddled a little by his mother, sees the ‘bad soldiers’ as separate to his father and Shmuel as his friend. Their lack of in depth character development is necessary, however Boyne does address this by saying things like ‘Gretel was going through a phase – Mother’s words – and tended to keep out of his way’. Through his perception of events, we can fill in the blanks and follow the character changes.

Bruno himself does not seem to change much. He is delightfully ignorant, yet I feel awful saying that. So many of the atrocities of WW2 happened because we were ignorant and closed our eyes to them. But Bruno is only nine. His ignorance, his friendship with Shmuel and his rose tinted view of the world, remind us of the innocence of children. It is only through the development of this innocence that Boyne is able to shock the reader with the death of the two boys at the end without coming across as hateful.

Overall, I’m a little worried about teaching The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas because it is such an upsetting and harrowing novel. But I appreciate that we are not shying away from the horrors of war, and agree that ignorance is no excuse.

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Labyrinth, Kate Mosse

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It’s been a while since I read any historical fiction, and always this departure from my more common picks was recommended by my boyfriend, who decided that I had read too much teaching theory and far too many curriculum texts and needed a break! Since I have now started my teacher’s training, it has taken me a while to get to the end of the novel, and then a few days to actually get round to reviewing it, but it’s Saturday and I’m procrastinating, so is there ever going to be a better time?!

The Overview

The story follows Alice Tanner as she discovers cave containing two bodies whilst volunteering on an archaeological dig in France. She is surprised at the anger and intrigue that surrounds the discovery, and quickly realises that the place she has discovered is familiar, although she knows she has never been there before. With many factions vying to use the cave and call on its power, Alice must solve the mystery before it’s too late.

The Verdict

This was a really enjoyable novel. It was described to me as similar to Dan Brown, and I would agree in theory. There is a search for the grail, protected by a secret sect, and the power the grail provides can be utilised for good and evil. Its protection is paramount to the survival of mankind. But Kate takes such a different story line to Dan Brown that it does her a disservice to compare the others beyond the initial concept.

I really enjoyed the parallelism of Alice and Alais, but I thought this was cheapened by their shared memory. It would have been equally effective if the story had simply been told as it is, without Alice passing out and having recurrent nightmares about Alais’ life. I never really felt like this was adequately explained, and alongside Sajhe’s eight hundred years of life, was extremely unnecessary in furthering the plot. Just the passing down of the traditions and stories would have been enough.

Labyrinth gets off to a bit of a slow start, and there are places where the descriptions could be cut down. But the action doesn’t take too long to begin, and as you journey with the characters, there was never a moment where I thought ‘NO I don’t care about him, what’s happening to her’ which means that Mosse structured her story really well and without too much unbearable suspense.

Overall, it was an interesting, historically accurate and well structured novel, with a driving plot, really well developed characters and excellent writing. Despite the obvious twist and unexplained nature of long life and reincarnation, overall it was an excellent story. I recommend reading it if historical fiction is your thing!

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.

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.

Private Peaceful, Michael Morpurgo

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Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful is a surprisingly beautiful eulogy to those WW1 soldiers who lost their lives, not to enemy fire, but to the death sentence.

I am only familiar with Morpurgo’s work through the film War Horse, and whilst I am aware that War Horse is a far superior play, and probably book, I have never got round to watching or reading it in those forms. Seeing Morpurgo’s name on the reading list surprised me – I suppose I’m a little out of date on books such as this which came out when I was 13, and so weren’t really considered valuable reading till a little later in their lives, and past when I would have read them for school. That said, I’m really glad that this was given to me as a ‘must read’ text and can see its value in many areas of teaching.

The Premise

Private Tommo Peaceful is waiting for something, In order too keep himself from the pain of what he is waiting for, he decides instead to relive each memory of his life so far, all the important points which have brought him to this moment.

Through the use of flashback, the reader experiences Tommo’s childhood, the traumas and joys of which culminated in him lying about his age and joining the army just before his sixteenth birthday. His experiences in the trenches, alongside his brother Charlie, all lead to the end moment, where his brother is shot for cowardice, after which Tommo goes back to war.

Value for Teaching

This is, of all the recommended reading I’ve done so far, by far the type of novel I imagined I’d be reading more of when I decided to become a teacher. Not only is is valuable in a literary sense, but it has historical and social content which will relate to other parts of pupils’ education. I believe that education must be taken as a whole; whilst our individual subject is important, nothing in our lives as adults is really separate from other parts of our lives. Pupils need to be allowed to connect across subjects and disciplines early in their academic career in order to not become fixated on one thing, and this novel allows that.

Private Peaceful, aside from its obvious historical content, contains within it a powerful philosophical debate. Should Charlie have been shot? Was Tommo responsible for the death of his father? Did Charlie shoot himself in the foot? The answer to the first question seems contained within the physical book itself; Morpurgo inserts a summary of his historical research and makes it clear that in November 2006 a conditional pardon was granted to all those soldiers killed by firing squad. This seems to imply that Charlie’s death was unjustified. However, an interesting debate can be encouraged to take place, encouraging pupils to verbally express their views, or perhaps views that they don’t actually hold themselves, in a safe space. I look forwards to the reactions to this novels from pupils, and the discussions that will entail.

From a literary point of view, it has plenty of technical aspects, such as the use of flashbacks, which can be analysed to further pupils’ understanding of the effect of such writing techniques. In the 100 anniversary of the battle of the Somme edition of the novel that I read, there are historical facts at the book, and a well written afterword which describes how Morpurgo chose to write in first person. This gives pupils plenty of information and an author’s insight into his technical choices which will only enhance their analysis of this and other texts.

Overall, this is the first novel I’ve read that I’m actually really hoping the school I get placed in teaches. Its content, and its development, hold a lot of rich and valuable fodder which pupils can run with to analyse, discuss and, most importantly, engage with.

Holes, Louis Sachar

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I vaguely remember sitting in front of Disney Channel when I was younger and watching a movie based on this book. I remember nothing of the content of the movie except that there was a hot, sandy camp and the boys there had to dig holes. That was my introduction to this recommended reading in preparation for teaching, and it wasn’t hugely inviting, I have to say. I’m not really sure how Sachar managed to sell this novel on the premise alone (as I’m sure he must have done), but someone must have seen something in him and agreed to publish his book.

And, whilst it doesn’t even break the top ten of my favourite novels, I can see how it would benefit a class to study it.

The Premise

Stanley Yelnats comes from a family of bad luck, and his being in the wrong place at the wrong time results in him being sent to a correctional facility for 18 months, in spite of his innocence. Whilst digging holes to build his ‘character’ alongside 6 other boys, Stanley discovers his familial connections to Camp Green Lake and his unlikely friendship with Zeor (AKA Hector) leads to the breaking of the generations old curse.

Alongside the story of Stanley’s punishment, runs the history that has led him, Zero, the warden and his family to their current situations, thus making the final overcoming of the curse (if it even existed) far more exciting for the reader.

The Verdict

Sachar does a good job. Whilst most of the characters are two dimensional, Stanley is well developed as a flawed but genuine boy. His relationship with Hector experiences the ups and downs of any relationship for teenagers. Sachar does a great job of creating a realistic figure, overweight and bullied and sent away. He doesn’t so much seem to have a grasp of the genuine correctional processes or the legal process when it comes to children without parents… but as this makes for good reading and ultimately saves Hector from the camp, this can be forgiven.

The setting is potentially the most effective part of the book. Sachar does an excellent job of forming the arid landscape the camp is based in, using sand and cold showers and the endless sun to create a tired feeling of desperation. I could close my eyes and really picture the landscape, better than I could picture any of the characters.

I am a little less forgiving towards the adults in the novel. Parents who won’t hire a lawyer to help save their son, camp counsellors who discuss killing boys at risk by being stung by poisonous lizards and camp directors who withhold water, a basic human right, as punishment. The only adult character I garner a little sympathy for is the warden, Miss Walker, and that is simply because of her passing comment that ‘even on Christmas’ she had to dig holes to try to find the ‘treasure’ that was buried somewhere in the dried up lake. However, her almost comical poisonous nail varnish, and lack of humanity mean that sympathy is outweighed by hatred. It’s the same problem I’ve had with most of the boys at the camp – there’s just no real character development there. According to Amazon, this is a novel written for teenagers, and I think Sachar should have given them the benefit of the doubt that they could understand more complex characters.

To Teach or Not To Teach

I have less of a problem teaching this than I do Great Expectations. It’s not a GCSE text, it’s aimed at younger teenagers, and as a result it’s shorter, more manageable as a whole class text – I would expect a class to read this in a few short weeks (I have literally read it in a day…).

The simplicity of the other characters allows a real focus on Stanley and his character development. Pupils will be able to study other characters in relation to Stanley, giving them an idea of how to compare characters in literature and discuss the impact of each actions on one person.

The novel is packed with simplistic but effective descriptions, and the language used is analysable by younger years.

The story itself, whilst seeming lacking to me, should hold the interest of a class to see what happens, and the use of male protagonists means that boys should engage with the text with special interest.

Finally,  the use of flashback and story-within-a-story techniques give openings for discussions and essays written about their use and how effective they really were.

All of this means that Holes, whilst not a work of literary greatness, is a great text to teach and should engage pupils of a variety of ages and walks of life.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

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I remember doing an Independent Research Project in my second year of university on Dickens… and I’m embarrassed to say I just had to look up what novels I used, as I barely remember writing it! Turns out, this must be my third or fourth Dickens novel, as I wrote on Nicholas Nickleby and Hard Times previously and I’m 90% sure I read Oliver Twist at some point in my past. A Christmas Carol doesn’t really count as it is just a short story, and by far Dickens best work of course (thank you Muppets!).

So why is it that I have found the novels that I have read so forgettable, and why have I struggled so much to get through Great Expectations? And most importantly, since this is a GCSE curriculum text, what are my views on teaching it? Rather than analysing the story a bit, as I normally would, I’m going to focus on these points of discussion, as for me at the moment, they seem much more relevant.

The Great Struggle

Dickens is a fantastic story teller. His characters are full of life, flaws and honesty, and his endings are far from fairy-tale products churned out time and again. Much of our preconceptions concerning Victorian England, and London especially, come from Dickens’ portrayal of the county and the industry within it.

I love the story lines of his novels, and the fact that we are still producing new and innovative media from them, such as BBC’s recent show Dickensian which took hold of characters before their stories truly start in Dickens’ writing and showed you their implied histories.

So why has it taken me weeks to read Great Expectations? I believe the answer is simply this: we don’t write like that anymore. We don’t even talk like that anymore. Take the Wheel of Time series, for example, that I am currently taking a break from. Each book is far bigger than Dickens’ novels, and yet I haven’t struggled to get through them. We just don’t write like Dickens anymore, and as a result we don’t have the patience to persevere.

It seems to me that Dickens will use 20 words where one would suffice. He takes his time describing every inch of a room, or a street, and his characters are thoroughly described from the outset, rather than allowing the reader the process of getting to know them themselves as the novel progresses. Take Mrs Joe Gargary, for example, who within the first few pages is shows as ‘bringing up by hand’ Pip, and who doesn’t change except for a massive bump on the head which totally changes her personality. Dickens tells, rather than shows, what people are like and as a result I find it harder to connect with them, because I haven’t been allowed to form my own opinion. With these basic story telling ‘faults’ (I use the word ‘faults’ cautiously, because perhaps it is more a fault of our society that we can’t stand to read like that anymore than a problem of Dickens’) is it any wonder that I have spent weeks trying to read this, and each chapter was a struggle?

But the story is beautifully crafted and moving. Pip’s progression up society, the bumps in the road that lead to his illness, the side stories of Miss Havisham, Estella and Joe, all form a beautiful narrative that shows both the best and the worst in society. There are no characters that are truly one sided, except for possibly Compeyson, whose destruction of Miss Havisham and manipulation of Magwitch are the source of the wrongs that throw everything into turmoil. This variety and development of the complexity of human nature really add to the story, making this a classic well worth reading.

Teaching?

I’m in two minds about addressing Great Expectations as a curriculum text.

The Problems

I struggled reading this novel. How on earth am I supposed to motivate a GCSE class with 10 other subjects, 15 poems to remember as well as Shakespeare plays and modern drama, to read an entire novel of this density? How many hours of class time am I supposed to dedicate to simply reading together to ensure that all pupils have read the novel? How can you teach such a tapestry of writing from just extracts, if you are not going to read the entire thing, and hope that pupils will engage enough with the story to be able to remember huge chunks of it for examination? What about those of a lower ability, who will struggle simply with Joe’s manner of speaking, let alone anything more complex? I skimmed over anything Joe had to say because I just couldn’t find the energy to try to translate it. And it’s just so long… it will literally take pupils hours and hours to read, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable teaching such a complex piece of literature from extracts alone. All of these problems, and that before the pupils get bored, struggle with the language or just the complexity of the story line. Yes, there are movie versions and BBC adaptations to help, but it’s English… it’s the English literature heritage… if we’re going to study it, we should be reading it.

It total opposition, however, are the characters, the story and the complexity (both a blessing and a curse!). Just take Miss Havisham: victim or perpetrator? eccentric or reasonable? Exploring her motivations, her desires and her upbringing of Estella is going to be full of rich discussion. Great Expectations is a novel that will allow you take sides, to form firm opinions and be able to back them up. There is a character rich cast to choose from, there are incidents and twists to discuss. If a class has the ability to retain the information, the quotes, and put it all together, then Great Expectations is an ideal text for an exam.

So, I both dread and look forwards to the opportunities of teaching it in the future. I suppose, since I’ll be going in as a trainee teacher, if my school does have this on the reading list then I will take from the expertise of my colleagues and learn from them the best way to handle such a classic, difficult yet beautiful text.

Only time will tell…