Friday, March 20, 2015

Slice of Life Story Challenge - What I Know For Sure - The Complexity of Children's Literature and The Giver

     It's Day 20 of the Slice of Life Story Challenge, started by Two Writing Teachers.  I am writing around the theme topic of "What I Know For Sure." (See Day 1 for a full explanation.)

     My 6th graders are reading and writing around the theme topic, LIBERTY, right now and just got finished with their dystopian small group books.  My read aloud for this literacy contract cycle is The Giver by the great Lois Lowry.   You may question my decision to choose the dystopian genre and this read aloud for 12-year-olds.  The books we are reading are all categorized as young adult literature, which is more for 14 and above.  However, I know these kids very well.  These 58 kids have been identified gifted in reading, and I've been teaching them since 4th grade.  I feel like we've read practically everything together for these 2 1/2 years - books about civil rights, social injustice and responsibility, poetry, mystery, science, humor, novels in verse, fantasy, picture books, graphic novels, memoirs, and I could go on and on!  I know they are thinking about things like suicide, bullying, ISIS, kindness, happiness, family dynamics, etc., because they are writing about these topics in their Slices of Life.  They are thinkers.  They are readers.  They are writers.  They are a special group. They were ready for The Giver.

     I'm not quite done with it, but I've read through "the chapter" in which Jonas and the reader finds out exactly what's happening in this futuristic, seemingly perfect, world.  The gasps, then stunned silence, then the eruption of discussion that followed that chapter will go down as one of those memorable moments of shared reading experience.  I have two sixth grade classes, and both times, chills ran up and down my spine and tears threatened as I read that chapter.  I think everyone suspected that something like that was going on in this dystopian world, but Lois Lowry describes it with such finesse, that they were still shocked and dismayed. 

     I followed up that chapter by talking about how The Giver is one of those books that has been banned in schools often.  After the initial shock from them that books are ever banned in schools, we talked about why that might be.  Their answers were spot on, but then they started the defense.  They defended the book by listing things that dystopian literature teaches us: it's a warning, sameness should not be desired, imperfections are actually perfect, differences are good, we have to experience grief to experience joy, colors make life interesting, life is to be valued,  we need to be careful with technology, we need to be kind, we need to guard our freedom, kids can right wrongs, and on and on.

     In the same conversation about children's literature that Libby and I had the other night (I wrote about it here), we talked about the complexity of topics in many children's books.  Because she is reading picture books and intermediate/young adult literature as a college student, she's realizing how good children's literature really is.  She loved reading as a kid, of course, but it's not until later that you fully grasp what complex themes, vocabulary, and topics are woven throughout those books.  Excellent children's authors don't shy away from serious stuff: fear, divorce, historical tragedies, civil rights, survival, grief, death, homosexuality, genocide, hope, goodness, kindness, family, faith, love, etc.  Our kids are exposed to these in life all the time.  How can anyone think that banning books is okay when we need to be talking about these topics, writing about them, trying to figure them out?  She was incredulous that some of the students in her college class were shocked that kids would read things with such sophisticated material.  (Libby was pretty sure they weren't voracious readers as kids.)

     Of course, I think there is a time and place for all books.  We need to know our kids and communities well enough to know when to put a book into a child's hands.  I have a place where I keep classroom books that are a little more mature.  My 6th graders know where they are, and an occasional 5th grader. I've made mistakes in my liberal attitudes towards books - just ask Libby.  When she was younger, I tended to ban t.v. shows and movies often, but would occasionally give her a book that maybe she wasn't quite ready for. ;-)  She would even tell me: "Mom.  Don't you remember such and such a part?!  (Me: Um, oh yeah - oops) I'm not ready for this!"  Ha.  Okay.

     But this I know for sure:  Kids are often underestimated. That's why they love dystopian literature so much - dystopian authors don't underestimate kids. They need literature that delves into difficult issues just as much as they need humor and light entertainment.   Good children's literature handles grief and death just as well as laughter and hope.  To be fully literate, empathetic, and thoughtful citizens, we need to read, write, and discuss all these issues.  Dystopian literature warns us all: if we ignore emotions - grief as well as joy, memories, colors, differences, and the capacity of humans to do harm or good, we are missing the boat.

Student Slices of Life on The Giver:
Gabby  Brynna



  1. You truly have the best job ever - discussing literature and life with gifted sixth graders.

  2. miss that scene with my 7th graders. Moving them to the bigger themes, challenging, but very rewarding. I'm bookmarking your post to share in a few weeks with my grad students...this book will forever be a personal favorite. xo

  3. This is so true! I'm a very liberal mom when it comes to letting my sons read. They are good about putting something back on the shelf if they don't feel ready.

    Sometimes that bites me in the classroom, because occasionally a book I choose gets raised eyebrows or actual parent emails. It doesn't happen too often, because I'm careful about what book I pick for what group.

    What you said about the power of dystopian lit is so true. Even with the anxiety and awful things that happen, it gives us the chance to have some powerful discussions through the lens of a story. Keep up the good work!

  4. I agree that serious issues have a place in the classroom, where they can be discussed safely and in ways that expand critical thinking. YA Lit is a great way to introduce or more deeply explore these issues. The whole topic of banned books is an interesting one for students that age to reflect on.

  5. Holly, I'm often very surprised at the books that have been banned and why. I think you made a good decision in reading this book :)

  6. I have mixed feelings about The Giver. I think it's a good choice for some kids, but not all. I have a gifted 5th grader who reads everything. He read the whole Hunger Game series. He picked up The Giver and I didn't stop him. Actually, I couldn't stop him. I gave him a ziplock to keep it in, though, because my only copy is well worn and is SIGNED!
    Personally I have a problem with dystopian literature, but I give this disclaimer to my students and let them decide. Your post makes me feel better about the freedom I give my students with reading.

  7. So true.."Good children's literature handles grief and death just as well as laughter and hope. To be fully literate, empathetic, and thoughtful citizens, we need to read, write, and discuss all these issues."

  8. Strange question. I was talking with one of our 6th grade teachers and she said they had to read the book and they were only allowed to spend 2 weeks on it. Seems to me with the weight of the book and topics it could inspire 2 weeks would not be enough -- especially since it was assigned to all reading abilities. :-/