It’s August, which means we’re almost done with summer, but it is not too late to steer your teen away from screens and toward reading. I have a soft heart for parents of teens. I have two kids and know well the battle parents wage relentlessly to engage their teens with anything other than their devices. (Truth…we parents have an addiction as well…which is why tackling this issue is so tricky!).
But why even fight? Why fight the powerful riptide that sucks our kids into the digital universe?
I interviewed reading specialist, Dr. Marnie Ginsberg, who focuses on training teachers of early readers and has two teenagers of her own. Even she is familiar with the struggle! This is what she says about teen reading…
“Good teen readers read hundreds of hours more each year than average readers. As a result of this reading practice, they keep developing their reading achievement. And reading achievement is strongly correlated with so many positive outcomes for teens and their future selves that one can hardly count them all…”
Dr. Ginsberg’s list included these: “Higher reading achievement leads to…
- better school achievement–in all subject areas, including math
- stronger oral and written language knowledge and skills
- better job prospects
- higher wage earnings
- better health; and even better life expectancy!
- Besides these long-term benefits, time spent reading helps in immediate ways, too, such as mood regulation and stress reduction.”
Yet, Dr. Ginsberg said that most teens today are not reading enough to enjoy these varied benefits of high reading achievement. Multimedia usage instead, soaks up most of the typical teen’s day–upwards of 8 hours a day.
If you are an educator and want to learn more about how to better teach young readers the skills that will help them succeed at reading, check out her website. ReadingSimplified
Discovering Great Stories Your Teens Will Love…
The challenge for parents and teachers is to help the teens in their life discover great stories. Our kids still love stories, but they tend to take them in via the screen. Stranger Things, the Netflix hit is my case and point. That series has become a must see event for most of our teenagers. It seems to be as important as any of the Avengers blockbusters. All that to say, stories still matter to our kids. Let this be your best ammunition as a parent. If you work hard at finding good stories in the books you are putting in front of their faces, your kids have a much better chance of sitting down and reading.
There are many compelling stories waiting to be uncovered by you/your teen, but how do you find them? Try going to Goodreads (book review site) or googling something like The Top 10 New Novels for Teens. Also, follow the lead of your teen who might have a favorite author or genre. I would advise heading to a library over a bookstore when looking for the right story because librarians are golden.
A great librarian is like a matchmaker. Librarians read enough to know the answer to a question like this…What is the best Middle Grade book with a female protagonist who isn’t an orphan that is under 300 pages. A great librarian will be able to give your teen one or two books that fit that description.
However, if you’re in a hurry and a little stuck, check out reviews on my website (not all are teen appropriate), but here are a few I would put forward that are teen appropriate.
All these books except for AMERICAN BORN CHINESE are speculative fiction or sci-fi.
- FEED, by MT Anderson. To buy the audiobook, click here.
- THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, by Nancy Farmer. To buy this audiobook, click here.
- DOGSBODY, By Dianna Wynne Jones. Click here to buy.
- DESCENDER SERIES (graphic novel series), by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen (See below for links to purchase)
- AMERICAN BORN CHINESE (graphic novel), by Gene Luen Yang. Click here to purchase.
In addition to finding the right stories. Here are a few strategies that will encourage teen reading
- Take a road trip where screens are forbidden in the car and listen to an audiobook that everyone has agreed on. Bonus…if you pick the first book in a series (and there are many of those out there), your teen might pick up the subsequent books on his/her own.
- Make it a summer tradition (or an all-year tradition) to read aloud together as a family before bed each night. I know a few families that practice this habit and their kids cherish the time. Think of it in a similar category as watching television together…
- Don’t despise the graphic novel. There are sophisticated stories, characters and lengthy dialogue to be had in the modern graphic novel.
- Go on a phone-free, screen-free vacation where every member of the family gets to take his/her own book of choice This NY Times article gives tips on how to best unplug in case one phone must come along.
The List…Quick and Clean.
- FEED, by MT Anderson. This is still one of my favorite YA books. Anderson writes what I think is one of the best first lines in YA literature. We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck. Click here to read my review of the novel. It might be a book worth reading with your teens if you are a parent or teacher. (It’s not a long novel). If you are a teen reading my website…read this book, hand it to a friend and have a discussion afterward. The story raises great questions around how connection to our devices might be more problematic than we comprehend. Read this if you want to have that discussion.
- HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, by Nancy Farmer. For my no spoiler review, read here. Superb story and if you and/or your kids like this book, there is a sequel in the same world called, the OPIUM KING. This book raises interesting questions about cloning. I have written about that here. This book is not exactly scifi, but deals with futuristic ideas about science. It falls under the speculative fiction category.
- BINTI, by Nnedi Okorafor. This book is a novella, the first of a trilogy of novellas, so if you or your teen are reticent to tackle a thick novel, take this in hand. It’s an easy read in one sitting and flows as a story. The protagonist is also dark-skinned and female. (The above two books feature great female characters, but the protagonists are male) To read my review of BINTI click here. I have only read the first book and deem it PG-13. Okorafor indicates that she did not intend the novellas to be for the YA audience, but I found the first to be a compelling tale for teens…a coming of age story. I cannot yet speak for the final two.
To purchase these books, click:
To purchase all three novella’s at once, click
Caution: A few spoilers in this post…
Non-humanoid aliens are a challenge for writers…hopefully, established in my previous post on writing dynamic non-humanoid aliens
- If the alien doesn’t look or act like a human, it will be difficult for the audience to comprehend its character and motivation
- If it doesn’t speak in plain human lingo, along with not looking like a human being…it will be near impossible to draw in the typical audience. The alien will remain “the other” and may never transcend its designation of foreigner/alien.
The honest sci-fi writer knows that if a first contact event were ever to take place in the real world, the likelihood of an alien looking like a human being and/or speaking or thinking like a human being is slim to none.
Therefore, the imagination must soar and novels like Embassytown (China Miéville) and short stories like Arrival (Ted Chiang) come into the canon. These are stories that give the audience an alien we might never have imagined. It’s worth looking at both examples. In this post, I will focus on ARRIVAL, the short story and the film. Both were excellent and if you haven’t already consumed these stories, do so and do so before you read on. Here is my non-spoiler review of the film, ARRIVAL Otherwise, I forge ahead with analysis and spoilers. You’ve been warned.
How did Ted Chiang and Eric Heisserer (screenplay writer) pull off portraying an alien that was both non-humanoid, with no human language and still give it/them so much character that went beyond “the monster” designation?
- They reveal the alien through the eyes of Louise Banks, the main character and the linguist who is trying to communicate with the creatures/entities. The story is told from Louise’s point of view. That makes a big difference in how the audience sees all that transpires in the narrative because Louise comes to the aliens as a learner, as curious and though the creatures are powerful and instill fear in most of the humans who encounter them, Louise is not overcome by fear. (Note: Louise is a fantastic hero, but she is no Ripley, of the Alien franchise. It’s likely she would have been an early snack for the buggers on that vessel. Louise is fierce in her dedication to her academic discipline, but unlike Ripley, my guess is she would not be as ready to use a gun to blow their brains out if they had revealed themselves to be monsters).
- The writers give the aliens agency, first by showing their power. These entities that have arrived on Earth are powerful, there’s no doubt about that and showing their power is not a difficult writing task. It is accomplished in a variety of well thought-out details. For starters, the vessels they have traveled in are massive. Also, these entities have traveled through space to find another sentient species, which reveals how their technology is superior to human tech. In addition, the mystery of where they have come from, their beautiful language, their form…all create an aura of their power, and I would add, their dignity. The fact that humanity is freaking out (especially the military) is another clue about these aliens and their power. We learn about them by watching how others react to them. This is a classic writing tool, especially when a mysterious character presents itself. The audience takes its cues from the group surrounding the mystery.
- The writers reveal alien character by showing us how those aliens use their power. They show us by showing us the alien actions As ARRIVAL progresses, the audience begins to form an opinion about the motives of these characters. They are characters with personality. First, the audience recognizes what the aliens have not done. They have not blasted the planet to shreds, started a war or abducted any humans. In terms of what they have done, the aliens are trying (trying hard) to communicate. They readily engage when Louise begins to learn their language. The most important scene in the narrative that reveals their goodness is the moment the entities warn Louise about danger, then save the lives of Louise and her counterpart when a bomb, planted by one of the freaked-out military men, explodes in the cave-like room where they have been making slow progress on communicating. The contrast becomes clear. We see humans who are fearful and violent. We see aliens who are steadily revealing themselves and using their power to save lives.
To close this second of four posts, I’ll nerd out a little on words.
The Etymology of Our Other-Worldly Friends/Enemies
In English, the word alien is derived from the Latin, alius, meaning other, and alienus, meaning belonging to another. The al in these words comes from the Proto-European root (it precedes Sanskrit), meaning beyond. Its root is different from the English word, foreigner, whose Proto-European root is the word dhwer, meaning door. The senses of the two words are different based on the roots. The foreigner lives outside one’s door, the alien is from somewhere beyond. I key into the fact that the word precedes Sanskrit. The labeling of the other is incredibly old. Human psychology is fundamentally tribal. Those outside our door or from beyond are automatically suspect. The film ARRIVAL is about this tribal fear and our inability…not just to communicate with strangers/aliens, but to communicate with one another. In the film, this becomes a large issue and almost leads to disaster.
One other term for the sci-fi consumer…E.T.
The term extra-terrestrial was coined in the modern era. It was first documented in 1953 or 1956 depending on who you believe. The initials, E.T., was made famous by Spielberg’s 1982 film.
Rating: PG-13 or thereabouts. This series was made for television by USA Network. There are a couple of steamy sex scenes in season 1, but no explicit nudity. In the photo you see here, the nudity is not explicit and is also relevant to the story.
COLONY, particularly the first season, is a methodical and painful study of society fracturing under the strain of a foreign occupation. The occupiers happen to be a technologically advanced alien invasion force, but for whatever reason (this is not fully explained in the first season of COLONY), those aliens have decided to rule through human governors.
The first season of this series portrays how human survivors figure out ways to continue life following a traumatic takeover of the globe. Writers, Carlton Cuse and Ryan J. Condal, draw in the audience and give their viewers a window into the psychology of the various groups of people as they cope. (Note: regarding the writers, I have tried to give credit to writers who are on the team. It’s important for students, in particular, to know that television often utilizes teams of writers to keep the story going and flowing. Those writers will get credit for their episodes. They are named below, episode by episode.)
For youths studying the Holocaust and other historic occupations, like the Belgians in The Congo, The USSR across Russia and Eastern Europe and the Roman Empire across much of the ancient world, just to name a few, the opportunities for discussion come with each episode.
To order the first season dvds, click here.
Cuse, Condal and the rest of their writing team don’t shy away from giving a few more obvious discussion starters, like the gas chamber scene in episode 2. It’s horrific and frightening as it should be, but what should be just as frightening is seeing weak and fearful human beings turn so quickly against one another. Watching COLONY has the potential to draw out more reflection in those who might be bored by a history they think they understand in full. Most youth (and to be fair, most adults) do not comprehend what it was really like to live in Nazi occupied Holland for example, where some courageous citizens hid Jews and/or helped them escape. Everyday people performed heroically even though their actions endangered their lives. Their families also assumed huge costs. I know of one family that sent their youngest children away, out of the city, to protect them from any retribution that might come if they were discovered. Those children were raised by relatives, their family life shattered not just by the occupiers, but because of the choices their parents had made to do what they understood as right and just. This family also had to kill a neighbor who was about to turn them into the authorities.
We all like to think we would be heroes, but what would it really feel like to pay the costs and resist an occupying power? COLONY gets under the skin and forces the viewer to think about these questions.
Here are a few potent questions that emerge out of COLONY…episode by episode…to get the discussion juices flowing. (Warning: spoilers written in this next section)
Episode 1…Pilot written by Carlton Cuse and Ryan J. Condal. This episode juxtaposes Katie with Will. Will Bowman, after a failed attempt to find his son, decides to collaborate with The Transitional Authority. What convinces Will to work alongside the collaborators? What lengths would you go to in terms of collaborating with the occupiers, if you or your family were directly threatened? Katie decides to go a different route, which will involve her spying on her husband. What do you think of her choice?
Episode 2…Written by Wes Tooke. Being sent to The Factory has been mentioned a few times. This episode culminates with the gas chamber scene. How do the occupiers use fear to ensure order? How does fear impact normal citizens in the LA bloc? Do you fear people in power in our society? Who? How does that impact you?
Episode 3…Written by Daniel C. Connolly. In this episode, Katie takes part in the hijacking of a supply truck, in which civilian and Resistance lives are sacrificed to determine drone response times. Do you think the Resistance has a right to sacrifice these lives for the greater good? Why or why not?
Episode 4…Written by Anna Fishko & Dre Alvarez. In this episode Broussard, a key friend to Katie and Resistance member, executes Phyllis (one of the heads of Homeland Security) and her bedridden husband. They do this to send a message to Homeland Security and to the Transitional Authority. Strange sacrifices are made by those living under occupation. Why do you think Phyllis pleads for Broussard to shoot her husband when she knows she is about to die? What does that say about the living standards under the occupation, even for those who are most elite?
Episode 5…Written by Carlton Cuse. Watch the interrogation scene that starts around minute 15. Does the Transitional Authority understand who is on its team and who is rebelling? If you were living in this world, would you resist and if so, how?
Episode 6…Written by Ryan J. Condal. More and more, Will is disillusioned with the Transitional Authority as Katie is with the Resistance. In COLONY, what is portrayed is a broken system on either end of the spectrum. There are good people trying to make sense of the world who are collaborators. There are bad people, trying to overturn the system within the Resistance. The world is complex and it forces choices on human actors at every turn. What do you think would be the most difficult choice for you if an occupier took over your city/state/country and why would that be the most difficult choice?
Episode 7…Written by Sal Calleros. An insidious character, introduced a few episodes before, is the Bowman’s personal tutor, Lindsey. Lindsey is a true believer in the occupation. She understands the coming of the aliens as an answer to a prophesy, associated with a religion promulgated by the alien invaders and the collaborators. Why do you think Lindsey believes and why does she try to convert the Bowman’s daughter, Gracie, into this belief system?
Episode 8…Written by Wes Tooke. Betrayal at the top of the Resistance. The episode drives home the truth that in an occupation, even the rebels have a messy house. Those who collaborate with the occupiers and those who resist must watch their backs. Information becomes a commodity for both sides. How do you respond to the betrayal of trust by Quayle? If you were to have a conversation with him before his betrayal, how would you try to convince him to remain true to the Resistance?
Episode 9…Written by Ryan J. Condal. Loyalty is a confusing maze in the case of the occupation What do you value? Who is most important to you and what would it take for you to betray that person? At the first anniversary of the alien invasion, those who remember it are persecuted, those who rebel are at risk by one of their own and those who collaborate understand that their positions of power are always in question. In a situation such as this, who does one trust? Who would you trust?
Episode 10…Written by Carlton Cuse & Ryan J. Condal & Wes Tooke. One might get lucky…friendship and loyalty might make a difference…In the case of Will Bowman and his relationship with the collaborator, Snyder, this might be the case. In the case of Will and his relationship with Jennifer (the Homeland head) will friendship make a difference? In the case of Katie and Broussard, how will it all shake out? There are many questions emerging in this season finale. Katie and Will epitomize the conflict regarding loyalty. Both want the same thing…the recovery of their son, Charlie, but they take different tacts. Does their loyalty hold when everything is on the line? What does loyalty mean to you? Is there someone in your life you would be loyal to even if it meant you might die for that loyalty?
The Perfect Discussion Starter for Public Policy 101
AN EXCESS MALE showcases governmental abuse of big data, but also, the one child policy…perhaps the most disastrous public policy of the modern era.
>Warning: this book contains sexual content. I do not recommend it for the Middle Grade Reader<
Do your students know the term public policy?
To order this book, click here.
A societal problem presents itself and a governmental entity decides on laws, regulations or funding priorities to solve the problem…you know, make a policy, for the public. You can find a number of sites that attempt to give a definition of public policy. I appreciated this Audiopedia presentation:
Even with the above intro, public policy is still a complicated concept for the average youth who has not paid great attention to politics.
Shen King’s, AN EXCESS MALE tells the story that will enable a reader to study public policy through a microscope, by getting to know a fictional family and the impact a few particular policies have had and will have on them.
For background and history, have your student read one or two articles on China’s One Child Policy. This piece from National Geographic is a good one.
The summary: China feared overpopulation. China had historically been unable to grow enough food to feed their entire population. Their solution to this immediate societal problem was to institute a public policy (a law that went into effect in 1979) that rewarded those who limited their families to one child. Public pressure kept some couples from giving birth more than once, but there were also incentives given, like tax breaks for those who chose to abide by the law. Unfortunately, those who did not conform were sometimes forced to have abortions or to hide their second or third child. Some women were forcibly sterilized. Families, when forced to choose between a girl or a boy child, wanted boys. Boys were prized more highly for their earning potential and for other cultural reasons. Girl babies were given up for adoption, abandoned or hidden away. Unborn girls were also aborted at a higher rate…all because of a public policy. The current problem facing China now (as written about in the article above) is that by 2030, more than 25 percent of men in their late thirties will not have a family of their own. There are not enough brides in China to match up with these excess males.
Starting points for discussion around the novel…
Read chapter 1 most carefully, then continue through the book to the end. The public policy instigated by the Chinese government to solve the problem resulting from the One Child Policy (too many men, not enough women) is presented most concisely in the early scenes of the novel.
- How are the various characters related to Wei-guo? Go down the list and describe the relationships in short sentences or if you prefer draw a family/relationship diagram using Wei-guo as the center. In your diagram and/or description include Big Dad, Dad, May-Ling, Hero, Husband One, Husband Two, MaMa.
- Based on your diagram, what constitutes a family?
- If you were to summarize this first scene, how would you describe what is taking place?
- There is a point of discussion early on around Advanced Families and China First along with a reference to patriotism. How would you summarize what it means to be patriotic in the eyes of Wei-guo’s dads?
- “Every man is allowed one child…” Why do you think that is?
- There are rules and expectations that order these unusual families that are forming as a result of public policy, some rules are dictated by the government, others emerge out of necessity. Begin a list of these rules as you read through the book. Some rules are subtle, not easy to pick up on. Others are more obvious, like “Every man is allowed one child…”
- In chapter one, the term Willfully Sterile is used to describe Hero. What do you think this means?
- Big Dad calls Husband Two a Lost Boy? What do you think that means? How does Hero, the matchmaker defend Husband Two?
- What are the Strategic Games?
- Why might they exist?
- What does Major Jung want from Wei-guo and his band of Strategic Games men?
- He states a statistic. What is the statistic? Doc tries to protest…but clearly, the government official is giving the orders and not allowing for any discussion. Why do you think that is?
- There is a reference in the book periodically to going the max. The meaning is not precisely spelled out. What do you think it means?
- What do you think the government would do to May-ling, Hann and XX if they declared in all honesty who they are and what they want?
- How do you think a government gets this kind of power over individuals…the power to determine what it means to be a man, a woman, a family, a patriot and control those definitions for an entire society?
- The idea of government power through censorship and spying on (keeping track of) their own citizens emerges as a theme and becomes prominent by the final chapters of the book. Do you believe that the government should be able to track you, trace you, know your habits, what you buy and eat and drink? In the name of keeping society safe, is their intrusion into your privacy something you would be okay with?
This is such an important discussion and not just for those living in places like China (where citizens have little say in what their government does)…but in the US and Western Europe and among other “free people”…how much power in the form of data do you want your government to have?
Wired has a great article on the intersection between Big Brother and Big Data This reality is nothing new for the scifi world…but in the past it’s all been make believe. Now science fiction is becoming reality…our reality. What kind of checks on Big Data in the hands of government ought to be put into place now, to avert the kind of situation the reader sees in AN EXCESS MALE?
This ought to be a large public policy debate and a topic discussed by citizens everywhere. How much privacy will we give up for safety and what if our governments turn on us and decide that watching us is a part of creating a better society, more order?
There is much to read and discuss on this topic.
This article from business insider gives another angle and more will be written in the coming years as the technology outruns our ability to debate every new policy.
Enjoy Maggie Shen King’s book. Read it for the love story and the thrilling climax, but pay attention to the under-carriage of this story. A sinister government maintains tremendous power over how society defines everything from sexuality, family and mental illness to patriotism…now that is a scary story…something dreamed up by writer…or something at our doorstep.
Educators, THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION provides a valuable and sensitive context for a discussion on genetics and cloning. To begin the journey, read the novel alongside your student(s). Next, discuss the science. There are a number of kid-friendly articles on cloning, I liked this one from Science News For Students
Finally, with an understanding of what cloning is, dig deep into the human story presented by Nancy Farmer in her deftly written account of a boy clone, Matt Alacrán.
To order HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, click here.
Here are a few questions to get the juices of discussion flowing.
- Who is Matt? How would you describe him?
- Why do you think others often treat him cruelly?
- How would you describe Celia?
- What does Celia feel about Matt?
- What does El Patrón feel about Matt? Why do you think he calls Matt “mi vida”?
- What does it mean to be owned by a person? (Tam Lin, Matt, Celia, and even Felicia…all of them tell stories that indicate they are owned and not free…owned by El Patrón.) How is it that El Patrón owns them?
- What is an eejit?
- How is an eejit similar or different than Matt?
- How would you describe Matt’s struggle with being a clone? Does it make sense to you? Why or Why not?
- Matt’s life makes a positive difference in the lives of many others in the novel. Make a list of those people.
- Do you believe the cloning of people will take place in our future? In no, why?
- If yes, How should clones be viewed by the society that creates them?
- Can you imagine a situation where you would choose to have a clone of yourself created or that of a loved one?
Synopsis of the Cloning Story:
THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION is a Middle Grade/YA novel that follows the story of Matt Alacrán, one soul and his battle to find meaning and love in the midst of his genetic reality. El Patrón, a powerful drug lord who has an appetite for eternal life, has allowed Matt to be created as his clone, but the assumption is that Matt will not to live much past his adolescence. El Patrón’s long-term plans are to harvest the boy’s organs for himself. Neither the reader nor Matt know all of this initially. The reveal happens little by little. This is not a horror story in essence, though there are horrific issues to grapple with…Primarily, this story is about a young person figuring out who he is, learning day by day what it means to be human.
THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION
by Nancy Farmer
read by Raúl Esparza
8 out of 10
Highly Recommend! This listen is perfect for a family road trip because the novel is well written and engaging enough to capture the interest of a variety of story-lovers, young and old. The audio voices are well-performed by actor, Raúl Esparza (Ferdinand, Law & Order: Special Victim’s unit) and the story lends itself easily to the listening ear.
5 Reasons for such a strong review:
1. Initially, there are few characters to follow and as new ones are introduced, the listener can maintain a grip on who everyone is…including, there are a number of characters with accents and very distinct voices (performed well by Esparza).
2. The point of view is third person, it stays close to Matt. It does not jump around from character to character.
3. The repetition of little stories told mostly by El Patrón, work like anchors for the listening brain. I write about this in my review of the novel, THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION Repetition is a common story-telling technique, much like songwriters or poets will use a chorus or a repeated stanza to drive a point home.
4. The writing is top notch, which means, the dialogue is well written. The dialogue feels authentic, like real people talking.
5. Description of Opium takes place slowly and organically. The listener doesn’t have to absorb a huge amount of exposition, the describing of places, houses, rooms, plants, animals, people etc..takes place incrementally. Matt’s life starts out small and his view of Opium is narrow, but little by little, as he learns, the listener learns. Details are added that are important, but not all at once. It makes the audio format easy to follow.
For more on how to choose a good audiobook, see Part II The Rise of the Audio Book
Do you listen to audio books? I do (and my family does) and word on the street is, there are a lot of book-listeners out there.
Here’s what Forbes’ Media and Entertainment writer, Adam Rowe reported last year:
“In 2017, digital content subscription service Scribd’s fastest-growing segment was audiobooks. Primary audiobook subscriber numbers for Scribd grew by more than 20% in 2016. The rise isn’t unique to Scribd: Audiobooks are also up about 20% year over year across the publishing industry for the first eight months of 2017, according to the Association of American Publishers’ data reports from 1,200 publishers. In the same time period, print books rose just 1.5%, and e-books dropped by 5.4 %.”
Who is listening to audio books?
Commuters, the home parent who is cooking a meal each night, families on a road trip, dog walkers, endurance athletes who have to train for hours at a time, the gym rat with a literary bent…many are listening. There is evidence to suggest that those who listen to audio books are also avid readers and audio books simply allow these readers to consume more books than their average number, but I suspect, some folks who don’t like to sit still in order to read are consuming books anew, like they haven’t since college or high school.
Where do you fall on the spectrum?
I confess, I don’t often listen to audio books while walking my dog, but use it as a time to be quiet and enjoy nature, but on a long road trip, whether alone or with family, I’m huge fan of audio entertainment, books and podcasts. I live in the Western US, where getting places often requires a long car voyage. A visit to my parents and brother, 12 hours. A visit to my son at the university he attends, 8 to 10 hours depending on traffic. If my daughter decides to go to grad school, we will drive 15 hours to help her move. These are all one-way trips I’ve delineated, so double the car time and I end up with a whopping number of hours spent in a car.
That’s a lot of productive time…or entertainment time…or time to check one or two books off your to read list. You will find that the hours it takes to get through a book vary, but on average, 12 hours will get you to the final chapter. The roundtrip to my daughter and back, for example, is at least 30 hours of drive time, that is about a 2-novel voyage…or we could take on something very long, like Herbert’s DUNE.
That’s the math for the road tripper, but what about the gym rat?
For the gym rat: 5 hours per week, for 4 weeks…that is about one extra book per month.
For the commuter in urban America, the average car time or train time to work is 30 minutes. That is 1 hour per day, 20 hours per month, about 1 to 2 extra books consumed per month.
If you are a business person, imagine reading one dynamic leadership book per month for a year and how that might impact your career. This becomes a fairly compelling model when one thinks about taking in new information that could improve your life coupled with entertainment.
I’m usually buying a science fiction audio book when I listen, but every now and then, a great non fiction book like THE POWER OF HABIT, gets onto the listening list. It turns out, habits do impact a writer like me, sort of a no-brainer, but the book lays out what happens in the body and brain when we establish positive (or negative) habits of life and work. I’m glad I listened to that book. I listened with a group that was on a road trip. My husband, a couple of college-aged kids and I were driving down to pick up my son from college. We ended up engaging in great discussions around the topic of habit that lasted the entire weekend…all while picking up a kid from college and helping him move back home for the summer…a time when college kids can fall into habits, good or bad. Am I a scheming parent to have thought of this? No…We really just stumbled upon the book.
So…it’s important, if you are choosing a book for the driving/riding community, to think about the character of the group that will be listening. Do aim for a book pleasing to all, but also, provocative. Spur those discussions that will happen at In n Out Burger or Grandzella’s or wherever you end up pausing for a meal.
This is part I of a two-part post.
See my post, The Rise of the Audio Book. Part II where I explain the appeal of audiobooks and perhaps entice the skeptic to try them out.
The art of a good question is always to draw out the thoughts and feelings of the one being questioned…(and for the most part…to avoid yes/no answers).
Here are 20 questions to get your student chatting up a storm (of course the student must have read the book closely in order to answer them, so you’ll find that out too.)
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- What is Milo like in Chapter 1. How would you describe him?
- Would you want to be Milo’s friend, the Milo of Chapter 1? Why or Why not?
- When Milo sees the mysterious gift, he makes a pretty big effort to put it together (the tollbooth) and then decides to use it. Does this surprise you? Why or Why not? Would you go through all the trouble to put the tollbooth together and use it?
- In Milo’s initial travels, he gets stuck in the Doldrums. Who helps him get out? What does Milo have to do to get his car moving again?
- How would you describe Dictionopolis?
- In chapter 6, we learn about two Princesses. What are their names and how did they get banished?
- Milo starts thinking about the idea that he will rescue the Princesses. Where are the Princesses being held and what hardships will Milo face if he tries to rescue them?
- How would you describe the banquet in Dictionopolis? Did any of the foods make you laugh? Which one(s)?
- Chapter 9 introduces us to a boy called Alec and the idea of Point of View…How would you define “point of view” based on the discussion Alec and Milo have?
- In Chapter 10, the chapter that features Reality, Milo realizes “…the many times he’d done the very same thing; and, as hard as he tried, there were even things on his own street that he couldn’t remember…” What was Milo’s mistake? How has he made the same mistake people in Reality made long ago?
- Alec tells Milo in Chapter 11: There’s a lot to see everywhere, if only you keep your eyes open. What do you think Alec means when he says this to Milo? What is Milo supposed to see?
- Are noises and sounds important to you? Which ones and why? What do you think it would be like to live in a place where there was no sound?
- Milo steals a sound from the Soundkeeper…How does he do it and what are the results?
- Is the Island of Conclusions a good place to jump to? Why or why not?
- Who helps Milo reaches Digitopolis (see Chapter 14)?
- How does Milo outsmart the Mathemagician?
- What does the Demon of Petty Tasks and Worthless Jobs, Ogre of Wasted Effort and Monster of Habit ask Milo, Humbug and Tock to do?
- What are the demons that protect Ignorance? Come up with a list of the demons in this book, to the best of your ability (hint…end of Chapter 16 to middle of chapter 19)
- Which demon scares you the most and why?
- Look back to your Chapter 1 answer…How has Milo learned from his adventure? How would you describe him now? Would you want to be Milo’s friend, the Milo of Chapter 20?
THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is a Gateway Book for Digging into a Values Discussion with your Children or Students
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This post is especially (but not only) for folks who have kids or teach kids. I loved my re-read of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. Here are four reasons why you ought to read this book with a child today (or tomorrow if the child is already asleep). And, for the record, this story does NOT fall into the category of sci-fi…more aligning with fantasy than science fiction.
- The story introduces ideas that unearth values we have (or need) about education and learning.
- The main kid character starts out flat and plain, but makes simple choices that thrust him into hero status…In many respects, he reacts to problems in a childlike way…he is very relatable…he also wants to do what is right. He discovers that doing what is right will require courage. He relies on his friends to accomplish the heroic task. These are all important values put forward by THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH.
- Imaginative play on words characters that you can discuss with your child, thus leading to more thorough discussions on everything from friendship to politics. This is a timely story for our kids. (No, really…you CAN talk with your kids about politics after reading this book…In fact, you should!)
- Lovely illustrations by Jules Feiffer scattered throughout.
Now for the longer review and musings about stories that provoke discussions…which is a very old way to teach deep lessons.
How does one discuss serious real-time issues with kids? Stories help a lot. I remember showing our children (and at a pretty young age) the Star Wars trilogy…at the time it was episode 4, 5 and 6. Star Wars is an archetypal good versus evil narrative. It features a character, Darth Vader, who though evil, still has the potential for redemption. This was an idea my husband and I wanted our 6 and 8-year-old kids to understand. The story raises the issues: What is evil? The Empire shows what evil looks like in a variety of ways. What is good? The rebellion shows us good and what it’s like when good battles evil. The force is a neutral entity in the universe, but seems to be used most powerfully (ultimately) by those who are good. Star Wars also raises this important question: Can a person be pure evil without the possibility for reform? This story tells us about Luke, Darth Vader and the deep power of love (sometimes love that costs us our lives, as it did for Anakin, Darth Vader) and how that love counters evil…(not to mention the sacrificial love of the friends, Han, Leah, R2-D2, C-3PO and Chewie.) This is a friendship story as much as it is a family story.
For me and my husband, the above ideas were important to us in particular because of our faith identification. We wanted to discuss the reality of evil with our kids, but also help them understand that people ALWAYS have the possibility of breaking free from the evil that grips them and as they do so, help themselves and others achieve goodness…much as (spoiler alert) Darth Vader does at the end of Return of the Jedi.
THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH is definitely less scary than Star Wars, but the reader still finds a good versus evil narrative. Milo, a boy, disinterested in life and education is our protagonist. This is how the reader sees him in Chapter 1.
“It seems to me that almost everything is a waste of time,” he remarked on day as he walked dejectedly home from school. “I can’t see the point in learning to solve useless problems, or subtracting turnips from turnips, or knowing where Ethiopia is or how to spell February.” And since no one bothered to explain otherwise, he regarded the process of seeking knowledge as the greatest waste of time of all.
Milo is given the gift of a magic tollbooth that takes him into an imaginary world, a place that will transform him. While there, he learns that words sustain life. He learns that numbers too are essential to life and he learns that the conflict between two brothers (the king of words and ruler of numbers or the Mathmagician) cannot be solved until he helps them bring back their sisters from banishment. They are the Princesses Rhyme and Reason. In the world Milo is visiting, there is currently no rhyme nor reason to anything that takes place and it that has caused much misery across both kingdoms.
Milo isn’t a bad kid…initially, he’s just bored and disengaged…In today’s world…Milo might be a tv junkie or video game addict, but in the 60s…he was simply lethargic, lying around and doing nothing because nothing seemed interesting to him. In the new world where he travels, he is confronted with an adventure that captures his passion. Milo then begins to appreciate and notice the world around him, including the importance of education and learning. Milo’s transformation is an example of a child who decides to be curious and walks toward/into an adventure. That little step opens him to a world of learning. He even gains friends along the way.
A key for Milo is that he figures out his purpose. He decides to rescue the two princesses. He persists until he achieves the goal, despite many challenges.
The evil characters (Juster calls them demons) in this story resonate with today’s evils and dare I say…some of our current events. The demons live on the Mountain of Ignorance and include monsters such as Compromise, Hopping Hindsight, the Gorgons of Hate and Malice, Overbearing Know-It-All, Gross Exaggeration and Threadbare Excuse. Each creature described on the mountain could spur a conversation about values. Parents, consider yourself primed for a discussion of politicians, ad agencies, media or news organizations and grownups, in general…We adults could all use a refresher course in the art of not being these demons.
Milo is a relatable kid character, even for kids today. He starts out bored and boring until he accepts the invitation to enter the tollbooth. His curiosity spurs him forward. He emerges into the new world and continues to be curious. He learns along the way that he must engage his senses and make friends. He slowly grows in appreciation of beauty around him and all the goofy characters he meets who are passionate about one thing or another. However, Milo’s own passion is not fully engaged until he decides to rescue the princesses. Then, his journey takes on a new vitality and without being fully conscious of it, he has stepped into the hero’s journey. His purpose, which has become his passion enables him to persist.
Somehow, Milo is healed of his boredom…At the close of the story, Milo grieves that he (spoiler alert) no longer has access to the tollbooth, but he notices that “…the sky was a lovely shade of blue and that one cloud had the shape of a sailing ship. The tips of the trees held pale, young buds and the leaves were a rich deep green. Outside the window, there was so much to see, and hear, and touch–walks to take, hills to climb, caterpillars to watch as they strolled through the garden. There were voices to hear and conversations to listen to in wonder, and the special smell of each day.
*For a suggested list of questions for teachers, see my post on THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, discussion questions for educators.