Book Groups

One of my favourite parts of my job is running our book groups. We have three reading groups here at school: on Mondays, for years 7 and 8; Tuesdays, for years 9, 10 and 11, and half-termly for staff and 6th formers.

These groups mostly involve book-related discussion and, especially with years 7-11, many imaginative conversational tangents.

With the year 7 and 8s we tend to follow book awards such as the Red House Book Award. Each pupil will take one of the shortlisted books out and then we discuss what we have read during the reading group. We also have a bank of book related questions which we use to focus the group when conversation goes slightly awry! These are things like “where is the strangest place you’ve ever read a book?” and “do you ever re-read books?”

With the year 9, 10 and 11 book group we tend to follow the Carnegie award or do themed reading, such as when we had the author Matt Dickinson visiting school. At the moment, we have selected some books from the long list for them to read (the longlist is so long this year that it would be almost impossible to use all of them!) However, somewhat inevitably, the conversation often ends up returning to its default “Harry Potter” setting.  We also have a majority of boys in this reading group, so computer games and zombies are also recurring conversation topics.

I have learnt that, when confronted with a group of teenage boys who won’t speak due to impending Maths exams, all you need to do is mention zombies and they will perk up almost immediately. An important life lesson!

The staff and 6th form reading group takes on the more traditional reading group format, whereby we choose a book, all read it and then discuss it during our next meeting. Choosing the books tends to alternate between staff and pupils and takes on a loosely democratic form – a few books will be suggested and the most popular will be chosen as the next book. This half term we have been reading “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. We buy lots of cake and treats for this book group, which always adds to the general enjoyment; cake and books go together incredibly well, I think.

Does anyone else run or attend book groups?

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The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

sky

The Sky is Everywhere is a book about Lennie, a seventeen year-old Wuthering Heights fan/band geek who has recently had to deal with her older sister’s sudden death. She finds that her grief leaves her feeling both devastated but also, unexpectedly, more alive. Suddenly, she is noticing boys in a way she never has before and finds herself in a confusing situation when she becomes involved with not one but two boys: her sister’s ex-boyfriend, Toby, and the new boy at school, Joe.

What I really liked about this book is that it portrays the messiest parts of grief; the parts that make you do stupid, messed-up things just because you don’t know how to make yourself feel normal, don’t even know if normal is ever possible again. Whilst I found myself frustrated by Lennie’s behaviour and did find myself sympathising with Joe (sweet, charming Joe), I can also completely understand how the situation became complicated and subsequently escalated. I understand that losing someone you love can leave you feeling utterly bereft and hopeless, and it makes sense that Lennie would get her feelings about Toby confused: on the one hand, he is her sister’s boyfriend; on the other, he is connected to her in grief in a way that nobody else is. I like that Lennie is flawed and doesn’t immediately do the Right Thing. She makes mistakes and learns from them. It isn’t always easy to read, but I thought it was handled very well. I did like Lennie. Toby and Joe are also both brilliant characters and contrast really well with one another – through them Nelson deals with Lennie’s feelings about her sister; remembering and forgetting, death and life, staying the same and moving on, and all on its own, the concept of love.

Nelson writes beautifully – story aside, the descriptive sentences are gorgeous.

Some of my favourites:

“Remember how it was when we kissed? Armfuls and armfuls of light thrown right at us. A rope dropping down from the sky. How can the word love and the word life even fit in the mouth?”

“I know the expression love bloomed is metaphorical, but in my heart in this moment, there is one badass flower, captured in time-lapse photography, going from bud to wild radiant blossom in ten seconds flat.”

“…Because Gram’s right, there’s not one truth ever, just a bunch of stories, all going on at once, in our heads, in our hearts, all getting in the way of each other. It’s all a beautiful calamitous mess. It’s like the day Mr. James took us into the woods and cried triumphantly, “That’s it! That’s it!” to the dizzying cacophony of soloing instruments trying to make music together. That is it.”

I had two issues with this book, and I think both of them are probably due to the fact that I am quite a bit older than the target audience. The first was the poetry scattered around the book. I really liked the fact that this was all tied up in the story at the end, it was a nice touch, and it did contribute to the sense of the grieving process, I just think that there was perhaps a little bit too much of it. I do, however, think that seventeen year-old me would have loved this part. My second issue was one that I find fairly often when reading teenage fiction: the cultural references and interests of the characters. In this book, Lennie’s friend Sarah is really into existentialism and has a car named “Ennui”, Lennie’s favourite book is Wuthering Heights and her grandma gives her e.e. Cummings poetry instead of lunch because “some nourishment is more important”. I work with teenagers, and this does not ring true. I find the same issue in John Green’s books, even though I think he is also a fantastic writer. The characters seem a little too old and worldly to me, and whilst I still loved this book, I did let out a groan when I learned the name of the car (and then I went on holiday to Berlin and hired a bike, only to find that it was called, actually labelled, Simone De Beauvoir and felt like the Universe just knew).

Despite this, I did really like The Sky is Everywhere. It’s a book about grief, yes, but also about growing up, falling in love, and all the other good things about being alive.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I’m still trying to figure out how that could be.

perks

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one of my all-time favourite books, so when I heard that a film was being made based on it, I had very mixed feelings. And when I say “mixed”, I mean that I was primarily appalled whilst managing to also be slightly intrigued.

I am not going to talk too much about the film here, aside from to say that it was a good adaptation. I liked it. I am glad Chbosky directed it, but I do not think it was better than the book. I am, however, very grateful to the film for making kids interested in reading the book again.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an epistolary novel consisting of letters written by Charlie to an unknown person about his life. He writes to this person in particular because “she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have”: it becomes clear from very concise, short descriptions such as this one what sort of a person Charlie hopes exists in this capacity and, indeed, why this is important. Charlie is a kind, sensitive, likable kid who goes through a lot:  the novel deals with grief, suicide, mental illness, homophobia, drugs and sex in a serious, complicated, subtle way, without ever being so heavy that it’s other messages are lost; the ones about the about the hopefulness, awkwardness and joy of being alive, the connection of true friendship & being young and having everything to play for.

There are so many reasons why I love this book. The main one is probably how simply and eloquently it describes how it feels to be a teenager. I think that it is definitely the sort of book you should read for the first time when you’re about fifteen (although if you’re older than fifteen, I would still recommend it).

Charlie is a brilliant character; his struggles, whilst not shared by every teen, are I think universal in the sense that everyone feels awkward and shy and alone sometimes, even if they aren’t a “wallflower”. He makes mistakes, gets confused but ultimately grows up a lot in the novel, and you find yourself really rooting for him. The supporting characters are brilliant too. Patrick is especially vivid and I found myself wondering if everyone knows a Patrick growing up (I certainly did). I think his story is a particularly interesting one.

My favourite bits:

“If you listen to the song “Asleep,” and you think about those pretty weather days that make you remember things, and you think about the prettiest eyes you’ve known, and you cry, and the person holds you back, then I think you will see the photograph”.

“It’s kind of like when you look at yourself in the mirror and you say your name. And it gets to a point where none of it seems real. Well, sometimes, I can do that, but I don’t need an hour in front of a mirror. It just happens very fast, and things start to slip away. And I just open my eyes, and I see nothing. And then I start to breathe really hard trying to see something, but I can’t. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it scares me”.

“As we were approaching the tunnel, I listened to the music and thought about all the things that people have said to me over the past year. I thought about Bill telling me I was special. And my sister saying she loved me. And my mom, too. And even my dad and brother when I was in the hospital. I thought about Patrick calling me his friend. And I thought about Sam telling me to do things. To really be there.

But mostly, I was crying because I was suddenly very aware of the fact that it was me standing up in that tunnel with the wind over my face. Not caring if I saw downtown. Not even thinking about it. Because I was standing in the tunnel. And I was really there. And that was enough to make me feel infinite”.