Sunday, July 15, 2012

A discussion on difficulty in reading YA lit disguised as a book review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

 From Goodreads:
Before Briony's stepmother died, she made sure Briony blamed herself for all the family's hardships. Now Briony has worn her guilt for so long it's become a second skin. She often escapes to the swamp, where she tells stories to the Old Ones, the spirits who haunt the marshes. But only witches can see the Old Ones, and in her village, witches are sentenced to death. Briony lives in fear her secret will be found out, even as she believes she deserves the worst kind of punishment.

Then Eldric comes along with his golden lion eyes and mane of tawny hair. He's as natural as the sun, and treats her as if she's extraordinary. And everything starts to change. As many secrets as Briony has been holding, there are secrets even she doesn't know.

So I'm a hypocrite y'all. For the past few months, I've been kind of turning my nose up at reviews that aren't written completely by the blogger. I've lately been of the opinion that if you're going to write a book review, write the whole thing; don't take the easy way out and let the publisher write the summary for you. But here's the thing: I had such a hard time with this book, that I wouldn't even know where to begin to write the summary myself. Thus, I had to take the easy way out today. So yes, I am now eating my words.

Then why review it, you ask? Well, because there's a bigger issue here that I want to discuss under the guise of a book review. So this post is not so much a review, but I hope it will result in those of you who are reading to share your own thoughts about this topic.

Okay, so for the record, I did not care for this book in the slightest. I could not picture myself in Briony's world and to be honest, I had a very hard telling what world she lived in. She talked of London on occasion, but then she also referred to this otherworldly place known as Swampsea and at first I had a difficult time envisioning the world Briony created for her readers. I eventually had to do a little research and discover that the book takes place in England around the turn of the twentieth century. For a while there, however, I was almost questioning whether it took place on this earth, that's how confused I was.

So despite my dislike for this book, much of that I truly feel had to do with my lack of understanding of what was going on. For this reason, I think it would be a great selection to assign for a high school English class because of the challenge some will inevitably experience while trying to follow the story. The entire time I listened to the audiobook all I kept thinking to myself was how much I really wanted to read this for a book club because I needed to talk about and work through what was going on with other people.

The challenge this book poses while reading also helps make a case for putting books written for teens in classrooms rather than only teaching Classics. So often I hear teachers (incorrectly) lamenting that YA is bereft of any sort of literary sophistication and therefore it's important for students to learn the Classics. Let me just say that even though this book was written for a teenage audience, there is nothing lacking in the sophistication department when it comes to the literary merit of the writing. It was beautiful and poetic, but it was so sophisticated that I, a 32-year-old TEACHER OF LITERATURE, had trouble following the story and could have benefited greatly from a group discussion of plot elements and literary devices used by the author. I am not ashamed to admit I had trouble with this story because I think teachers need to liberate themselves from this notion that we're supposed to know everything. 

When it came to this story, I knew very little and lacked any sort of expertise as a reader so I would love to sit down and talk to other teachers, librarians, and teenagers who connected with the story, or maybe even had trouble with it like me, to gain a greater understanding for what was going on that I was somehow missing. As I'm currently reading the book The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau for a class, I'm starting to realize this front teachers put up for their students that they're supposed to be expert readers, but what if we allowed them to see our confusion on occasion? What might that do to their confidence as readers? It might show them that it's okay for reading to cause you confusion and that "right answers" (or even answers period) don't just always come to you; sometimes they take work.

There are so many people who mistakenly believe that YA lit today is all fluff and no substance, but this book (along with so many others, I could make a list of them - maybe I will!) proves the naysayers wrong. So despite my frustrating reading (listening) experience, I longed to discuss my confusion with some group, any group of readers, be it students or teachers.

So tell me what you think, either about the book or about this idea of sharing your reading confusion with your own students or just of your frustration with people's attitudes about the lack of sophistication of YA lit. I'd love to hear (read) your thoughts.

Chime by Franny Billingsley
Published: March 17, 2011
Publisher: Dial
Pages: 361
Genre: Fantasy
Audience: Young Adult
Disclosure: Audiobook checked out from library


  1. I've not read this book, but I can tell you a little about book discussions in my classroom. I love our "circle discussions" and some of the best moments have come when my students have brought up a point of view on a piece of literature or shared an insight that never even crossed my mind. I have no problem letting them know they've prompted me to think or beginning a discussion with, "you know what confused me . . ." This allows the students to see that learning is a process and one that is never without mistakes and questions. It would be great if you could find a few of your students who had read this book and ask them what they thought, I think they'd love that!

  2. I didn't realize this bothered people. I don't write my own synopsis for a view reason - the first being I'm afraid of spoiling something. Another reason is that I think the publisher summary is elaborate enough without giving anything away. As a blog reader, I always skip the summary anyway (especially if it is a book I've already heard of) and just get to the "meat" of the review. When people write their own summaries I end up skipping over it haha.

    1. Maybe it doesn't bother people... maybe it only bothers me. And maybe "bothers" is the wrong choice of words. I'm just very choosy about the reviews I read. I have a very short attention span and someone has to really hook me to keep reading and I've just found that the reviews I read the most are the ones from people who write the whole review, summary and all. Professional reviewers write their own summaries so I guess I look at it as a challenge to myself if I want to be taken seriously as a writer, then I better put forth the effort of writing a professional quality review.

      I realize it's a hobby for most people so I try not to make a big deal of it, but my personal preference is reading reviews where the person writes the whole review, summary and all.

  3. I love your points you make here about literary merit in YA and how discussion can help clarify thoughts. Also, I completely agree that we as teachers need to let students see our confusion or difficulty with text, and then model how to work through it to deeper understanding. I would also love to see you do a post with your list of literary titles!

  4. I think it's good to let your students know that sometimes you as a teacher don't understand a passage in a book, because that makes you appear down-to-earth, and students don't feel so bad for not understanding it themselves. That said, if you as a teacher don't understand what's going on in the book I wouldn't recommend teaching it to a class. It's probably not a book your students would enjoy either, and there will probably be nothing earned from either side from discussing it.

    1. And yet, Sheridan Blau argues in The Literature Workshop that's sometimes what students need to see: their teacher struggling. We can't always put up the facade of expert reader when things give us trouble. If students think they're supposed to "get it" on their first read through, how is that helping them to learn patience and stamina? Blau actually suggests bringing in texts to the classroom, sight unseen, and struggling through them with your students.

      This idea was also brought up in a class I took last year called "Literature for Teachers" that teachers need to remember what it's like to struggle with a text to have empathy for their students. It's the same idea with writing. We need to show our students our messes so they understand it's a process. If we only show them our successes, they will always be daunted and intimidated by writing.

      Does that mean I should go into every book I teach not knowing what's going on? No, but at the same time, my philosophy is to teach readers, not books. I'm not a teacher who wants to come in and be the sage reader and therefore you must listen to everything I say because it is sacred. Sometimes "most experienced learner" in the room is a better way to approach teaching instead of "expert."

      If students can read a book and tell me what they think is happening, imagine what that can do for their self-esteem as readers, and also for helping them to remember what they learned. Lecturing tends to only make one person in the room learn anything: the teacher.