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
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
Nancy Farmer’s first of of three novels, following the life of Matteo (Matt) Alacrán, is a story worth reading to or with your kids. The primary moral challenge centers around cloning, but there are many other ethical questions that will arise in the reading. Farmer’s writing creates real characters, despite the fantastical nature of the world. She takes on complicated relationships. power dynamics, and even religion as she draws the readers toward an inevitable reckoning. She stays close to the child, Matt, who grows up in the oddly luxurious world that is Opium. Matt is a young child at the start of the narrative, a teenager by the end. The story is told in close third person.
Matt is a clone of the wealthiest drug Lord in the world, an elderly Mexican man who dragged himself out of poverty to become one of the wealthiest men in the world. He is known as El Patrón. El Patrón is well over 100 years old. He rules his nation through fear and raw power and on its land he produces enough Opium, legal and illegal, for those who need the product. The land of Opium is both a place of horrors and an ecological oasis. Nothing is simple in Opium, as the reader will slowly discover.
THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION deals with extreme wealth versus extreme poverty as well as power, ecological degradation, leadership, friendship, loyalty, religion and meaning. All of this subject matter is delivered in an impactful way to the young reader through relatable characters.
Farmer uses a style of writing that does not explain too much too early, but for those details that are difficult to fathom, they get repeated many times throughout the book, almost like a chorus. For example, the story of how El Patrón’s siblings perished, is told and retold. The story reveals the condition of poverty endured by his family, his town, his people and how desperately powerless he had been at one time. El Patrón is an old man…of course he would repeat himself again and again, but there is more to that story. The tale is part of the legend and a defining trauma in the life of the old man. The story also reminds the reader that Matt, though he is an exact replica of El Patrón on a cellular level, his life experiences will have been completely different. That memory of losing his family is El Patrón’s, but not Matt’s. The nature versus nurture debate looms in the background of this narrative and is worthy of a hearty discussion with your child.
Many other issues are introduced in THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION There is more great storytelling and ethics to unearth as the narrative progresses. Nothing is black and white in Matt’s world, but this is why I would recommend the book. Farmer has put forward a character and a world with the kind of complexity that leads to memorable discussions. My next post will cover a short audiobook review of THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION.
To buy THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, click here.