Ostrich Boys, Keith Gray

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I had never heard of Ostrich Boys prior to attending placement days in my school were I’ll be starting work as a trainee teacher in September, but on hearing that I would be teaching it to year 8 in the first half term of teaching, it became quite the priority to read. Keith Gray was also a mystery to me. A quote from The Herald on the back of the copy of the novel that I’ve read said ‘one can’t help thinking that if there were more writers like Keith Gray more teenagers would read’. I can’t help but think that it’s quite an accurate statement, as towards the end of the novel I was turning those pages as fast as I was the first time I read Nancy Drew.

The Premise

Blake, Sim and Kenny, disappointed by the funeral their best friend Ross received, decide to steal his ashes and take Ross to Ross, a small village in Scotland. Their spur of the moment decision results in them being immediately chased by Ross’ family as they head to the train station, and eventually being chased by the police. What should have been a simple train journey with plenty of supplies turns into a bit of a nightmare when Kenny loses his back, which contained not only all his cash but also his train ticket. The boys do what they can to continue heading north, from getting a lift with young men with a taxi, to bungee jumping to stealing scooters. As they travel, more is revealed about Ross and the role that each of them played in his death, which is later revealed to be a suicide. Angered by Ross’ sacrifice of life, Sim abandons the mission, but Kenny and Blake succeed in taking Ross’ ashes to Ross, leaving a part of him there as their final farewell.

The Verdict

Ostrich Boys far exceeded my expectations. Instead of the normal, sugar coated reality that teen fiction often portrays, this was a brutally honest portrayal of life, death and mourning. The first person narration of the smart, overweight and straight forward Blake meant that the reader didn’t discover all that had happened to Ross straight away, or from a removed third person perspective. As Blake came to understand his own part in his friend’s suicide, the reader slowly came to realise that the perfect painting of a life that his friends put forwards was far removed from the truth. Each member of the group played their own part in Ross’ death, and whilst they struggle to come to terms with that, it is obvious that they had no idea how bad the rest of his life was or how difficult he was finding it. The first real indication to me that they were ‘protesting too much’, to paraphrase Shakespeare, was when they talked about a story that Ross had written about a boy being torn apart by his parents’ different expectations. Up until then, I believed, along with the boys, that it was just the driver making up stories to assuage his guilt, but it became more obvious that Ross was actually a very troubled character. Gray doesn’t sugar coat any part of the suicide, or the boys’ reactions to it. It is a very real, very raw and emotional scene when they discover the truth.

The tried and tested trope of boys going on a physical journey that runs alongside their emotional journey is a little over done. Each barrier that they face physically is matched by an emotional one. Whilst for a young person reading the novel this might not be quite so tiresome, for me it was a little too much parallelism. However, it worked for Tolkein, so I supposed I can’t complain too much.

Overall, however, I can see how this is a valuable text for study by tweens and teens. Whilst the subject matter is quite challenging and heart-wrenching, actually it could be used as a therapeutic way of teaching them about suicide, friendship and depression. I’m a little stuck on how I would teach it, I’m going to have to put a lot of thought into it over the next couple of weeks. We’re often told as teachers to ensure that pupils know the story first before we teach it, but I don’t think I actually want pupils to read it with the knowledge that Ross committed suicide, as the revelation is quite important to how you review the story after you’ve read it.

Gray is an exciting author for young people, and I’ll definitely be looking out for others books by him to read. I’m looking forwards to teaching this novel, although I am going to go and read something a little happier in the meantime!

The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

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I saw The Woman in Black performed by a two man drama group many years ago, and whilst I remembered a lot about the dramatic techniques used etc, I could remember nothing of the story! So when I discovered that The Woman in Black is on my reading list, I was pretty eager to read it to see where that drama had come from. I do feel as if I’ve had to read it quite quickly… partly because the third and final Tearling novel is burning a hole in my bookshelf, and partly because there are so many other curriculum texts to read also sat on my bookcase. But it was good to read this and get a real sense of the original text.

The Premise

After the death of Mrs Alice Drablow, Arthur Kipps heads to Eel Marsh House to sort through her papers and begin to sell her property. He is surprised to discover that the residents of Crythin Gifford are reluctant to even discuss the reclusive deceased and even more surprised when the sole mourner at her funeral disappears without a trace. Arthur tries to hold onto his logical beliefs, but they are slowly eroded by the few, repetitive manifestations that plague his visits to Eel Marsh House. Will they lead to his greatest tragedy, or can he escape the curse of the Woman in Black?

The Verdict

I was surprised at how un-scary this was as a text. From the hype that the Daniel Radcliffe film received, and my vague memories of the play I watched, I would have thought there was a lot more suspense and action. Because ultimately, Arthur survives 3 days before he becomes too afraid to return, and the ultimate death of his family is recorded in an after-note following the main story.

The first person narrative does help to build tension as the use of foreshadowing points to the more sinister aspects of the story, but it didn’t really do much for me in regard to the Daily Express review on the front of my copy… ‘heartstoppingly chilling’.

The story was quite basic, and the writing simplistic. I’m not really sure of the value in studying it in school. That said, for pupils a little more afraid of 20th texts that they are unfamiliar with, perhaps the ease of the reading is a nice introduction for them to unfamiliar reading. The story is intriguing. We’ve been learning about ‘Whooshes’ today in lectures, I can see how I would utilise that technique to revise the story, though I wouldn’t want to ruin the ending of course!

Overall, whilst I was disappointed with the text as a whole, I can actually see the value of teaching it. I think I’ll look into more ways of teaching in online, and reserve my judgement till then.

Definitely a classic, and as a result a must read, I’d recommend this for an easy read and prepare yourself for disappointment!

An Inspector Calls, J.B. Priestley

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Another curriculum text under my belt, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually really engaged with this play, despite year 8 ruining the ending for me unexpectedly! As is commonly the theme at the moment, I read it for the purpose of potentially teaching it during my training experience, but I have come to like it in my own way.

The Premise

Eva Smith has committed suicide, and Inspector Goole is determined to lay the blame at the feet of the Birling family. He questions each member of the family individually, guiding them to see their culpability in the death of a young girl with no where to go. But who is Inspector Goole?

The Verdict

Priestley writes with a social conscience that cannot be missed. His anger at the class divide, and his passion for responsibility, are clear through his mouthpiece – Inspector Goole. He condemns the rich for their blind existence and their thoughtless actions, and pities the poor for their lack of a way out. I have found it really interesting to consider who Inspector Goole is. My favourite idea is that is Eva’s brother who, on finding her suffering and knowing there was nothing he could do, went to those responsible to prepare them to take responsibility for their actions. However, Priestley muddies this water by questioning whether it was the same girl they all treated that way, meaning that any solution, however plausible, is never totally proved.

Sheila is the character who undergoes the most development through the play. From her doe eyed, childish attitude, she seems the only one capable of effecting real change. She owns up to the impact of her attitude and entitlement, and whilst it isn’t clear whether this is lasting (with other characters suggesting she’ll forget in the morning, and her never truly ending her relationship with Croft), she does hold onto the lessons she has learned even after it is revealed that Goole was, in fact, not an inspector and no girl had committed suicide.

I find the conclusion to the play fascinating – the phone call informing them that a girl has just been brought into the infirmary and that an inspector is on his way to take their statements. It opens up the play to so much more interpretation, as it’s never explored any further.

Overall, I can see why pupils love this play (which has been fed back to me by several teachers and a university lecturer). It helps them to question themselves and society, to look at it and debate whether the world has changed from Priestley’s perception of 1912 to the present day. Priestley uses cultural references to place his characters’ attitudes on a spectrum which allows the audience to make their own judgements. I look forwards to teaching this play and seeing what it can bring out.

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.

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.