Gatsby, Hawthorne, and Being Sixteen


This post was originally featured on, the blog site of the PA Writing and Literature Project. To continue reading, follow the link at the end of the post.

One of the last books I read in 2014 was Gabrielle Levin’s delightful novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.  At one point, the main character—a somewhat odd and sometimes churlish bookseller named A.J. Fikry—tells his daughter to remember that “the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.”  He adds, “Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time.”

Many years ago when I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, I didn’t like it very much. I remember listening to a classmate gush over how much she loved the book. “Gatsby,” she gushed, “The way he could change his entire life to win Daisy over? It’s soooo romantic.” I didn’t get it. I’d read the same book but I didn’t have the same reaction. In fact, it wouldn’t be until years later, when I was taking a graduate course on the Lost Generation, that I would come to appreciate not just the tragedy of Gatsby’s love for Daisy, but also the stunning beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose.

I think of Gatsby whenever I hear my students say that they don’t like something we’re reading in class. Just last month, as we were finishing up Much Ado About Nothing, a student admitted, “I know this play is supposed to be funny, but I haven’t laughed at all.” I was puzzled. Here was a student who volunteered to read every day in class and who seemed to genuinely enjoy the play. Seeing my puzzled expression, he added, “I mean, I like the story. But I think this would have been better written in modern English.”

Continue reading…

There’s a movie? Let me read that book.

Gayle Forman’s YA novel If I Stay has been sitting on my bookshelf for months, maybe even a year (it’s part of a continuously growing stack of books on my “to read” shelf; I admit, I have a sickness). The book reviews were generally good, and it was on NPR’s best books for teens. So I purchased it, along with a dozen of other YA books, to add to my classroom library.

But I didn’t actually read the book until this past week. So why now?

Because I saw the movie trailer.


I didn’t read it because of the trailer itself (which seems interesting enough, though not extraordinary). The fact there’s a movie, period, is enough to get me interested. After all, someone clearly found the story compelling enough to go to the trouble. And if someone in Hollywood was interested, then the book has to be pretty good, right?

But there’s a flaw in this logic.

Just because a book is “good enough” to be made into a movie doesn’t actually mean it’s a good book.

What works in film doesn’t necessarily work on paper and vice versa. For example, take the Twilight series. I tried to read the books. Several years ago, when the first Twilight movie was about to be released and my students debated Team Edward or Team Jacob, I wanted to find out what the fuss was all about. I got to about page 35 and had to put the book down. I couldn’t get passed what was (in my opinion) a stilted and awkward writing style.

(But the movies? I’ve seen all four. And I’m only a little bit ashamed to admit I enjoyed them.)

The same thing happened with the Divergent series. Many of my students were reading it, and yes, I saw the fancy “soon to be a major motion picture” sticker on the cover. So I tried it. I got to about page 75 with that one and put it down. The issue? Like the Twilight novels, the style. I just couldn’t get into the narrative.

That said, I have to admit that I often decide to read novels if I know there’s a movie version coming out.

In fact, I read the entire Hunger Games series the same week that the first movie was released. I’d already been interested in the books since many of my students raved about them, but it wasn’t until the movies came out and you couldn’t get through a school day without hearing kids debating Team Gale or Team Peeta (Team Peeta, of course!) that I finally decided to enter District 12.

So maybe it’s not because some Hollywood director liked a book that makes me interested in reading it. Maybe it’s the buzz that a movie generates. The act of reading is a deeply personal, solitary activity. But as anyone who’s read a good book knows, the first thing you want to do when you finish reading is to talk about it: argue about a character’s decisions, gush over your favorite parts, and of course, debate the ending. Movies add an extra layer to that discussion, because now you’re not just talking about the book, you’re talking about the book in relationship to the movie—were the characters as you expected? what was different in the movie? did the director get it right?

It’s that discussion that is often one of the most animated among my students. I had a class last year that, at the slightest mention of Percy Jackson, could not hold down their anger at how different the films were from the books. In short, they loved the books, thought the movies were terrible, and could launch into a tirade cataloguing all the reasons why.

But no matter how the film adaptations turn out, here’s the thing about them: they get people to read.

When the Hunger Games movies were released, the books saw a sharp 55% increase in sales as compared to their original publication. When the Great Gatsby trailer premiered—a full year before the actual movie was released—according to Publishers Weekly, the book jumped to #27 on Amazon’s bestsellers list, a 66% increase.  In the days leading up to the May 2013 release, the book spent time at the #1 spot on Amazon’s list, and by the end of the year, it was one of the top selling books of 2013 (not bad for a book almost 90 years old!). In that same year, other books such as Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, also enjoyed the “book to movie” bounce. With the success of Marvel Studios filmseven comic books have enjoyed renewed interest and resulting sales.

It’s a paradox, but movies can get people to read. I know this is true of me, and it’s certainly true of my students. Young adult fiction sales have been increasing at the same time that more young adult novels are being turned into movies. Walk into any Barnes and Noble and you’ll find a table themed, “At the Movies” or “From Book to Screen,” covered in books with movie adaptations like The Fault in Our StarsThe Maze Runner, and Divergent.

the-giverSo while it may not be the best way to decide what to read, choosing a book because “there’s a movie” has led me to some surprisingly enjoyable reads. And If I Stay was definitely one of them. In fact, I enjoyed the novel enough that I immediately hopped on over to Barnes and Noble to pick up its sequel. While I was there, I couldn’t help glance over at the “At the movies” display table to see what was coming-soon-to-a-theater-near-me. That’s when I decided to finally pick up a copy of The Giver, a classic I’ve always wanted to read but never have. . . . yet.

I finished The Giver and Forman’s If I Stay duet in just three days.  Three great reads I may have never experienced had it not been for Hollywood.

And if you’re like me and would like to follow the book-to-movie-trend, Common Sense Media has a great list of books coming soon to a theater near you.

Meet Your Next Favorite Book

Looking for something good to read? Below are just a few links to get you started!

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 11.42.44 PM

Great sites to get recommendations:

 “You Should Read This!” Lists:

Award Winners:

Find more reading recommendations here. 

a summer, reading

It’s the middle of July and here I am, sitting by the pool, reading.  I know, not surprising for an English teacher, right?  But at least I’m outdoors in the sunshine while my kids can splash and swim.

I’ve been on a mystery and young adult literature run lately. In the last two & half weeks, I’ve read six books and currently working on a seventh. I’m definitely what you’d call a binge reader. I go long spells without reading anything (books, that is), and then binge on a dozen or so books to make up for it. I read a mix of genres to keep myself from getting bored or burned out by any one in particular.

So far, I’ve read a mix of mystery and young adult (YA) fiction. I purposely chose these two genres because they’re so immediately satisfying in terms of plot/story.  Mysteries keep me engaged and I’m always looking for YA books to recommend to my 9th graders especially. I know that it might disappoint some students (or even fellow English teachers) that I’m not at home delving into War and Peace or Anna Karenina, but after several months of doing in-depth analysis with my students, my brain needs a break.  I guess you could say that I sympathize with students who say they need something light to read for the summer. I get it. And typically the summer reading we usually assign is anything but light. So save that for August (that’s what I’m doing… saving my “more literary” reads for then).

This is my side table:

Day 184 summer reading

(Yes, that’s a first-generation Kindle on the top! I’m feeling very 21st century!) So far from that pile, I’ve read:

Down River by John Hart

Genre: mystery. I picked this up because it won the Edgar award for best mystery novel a few years ago. Plus, the premise sounded interesting: Young man found innocent of murder five years ago now returns home after receiving a mysterious phone call from a childhood friend. When he gets home, a series of attacks begin again and the townspeople, not surprisingly, connect the crimes back to him. Not necessarily the best writing, but the plot kept moving and the characters were interesting. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Broken Harbor by Tana French

Genre: mystery/crime fiction. Broken Harbor is the fourth installment in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. I first came across French’s work a few years ago when I noticed that her debut novel, In the Woods, won an Edgar Award. As you can guess, her novels take place in Dublin, Ireland, and I enjoy seeing a certain Irish style come through in her writing.  Each novel in the series follows a different member of the Dublin Murder squad, which makes it a little different than other mystery/crime writers who follow a single protagonist.  This was probably my second favorite among her novels, with The Likeness being my favorite.  In some ways, I felt like this particular book was the literary version of Law & Order (just the investigation, not the trial part). 4 out of 5 stars.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

eleanor and parkGenre: YA. I’m slightly ashamed to admit this, but… oh, how I loved this book.  My snobby, English-teacher self is yelling at me right now, but this book was such a wonderful surprise. Is it high, literary fiction? No. Is it somewhat cheesy and nostalgic? Yes.  But I don’t care.  Two “misfit” kids fall in love on the bus as they argue over comics and listen to the music of XTC, the Smiths, and U2. Did I mention that the novel takes place in the 1986? And since I grew in the 80s, this just makes the book that much more awesome.  I think I even liked this book better than that other beloved YA book Fault in Our Stars (I know, blasphemy, right?).  Dialogue was spot-on and the relationship that develops between the two characters was both sweet and realistic at the same time. Just loved. If you’ve read this, please let me know so we can ooh and aah about it (unless you didn’t like it, in which case, I don’t know you). 5 out 5 stars.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Genre: YA. This book has been on my “to-read” shelf for a while now, and I’ve had several students read and love it.  The premise was compelling: protagonist Clay Jenson receives a mysterious set of tapes. As he listens to the first one, he recognizes the voice of Hannah Barker, a student at his school who committed suicide recently. Every side of each tape is dedicated to a person who was in some way responsible for Hannah’s suicide, and because Clay has received the tapes, it means that he is on one of them.  Like I said, very compelling premise and deals with some serious issues about teen suicide, bullying, gossip, etc.  Maybe it was because I read this immediately after Eleanor and Park, but I don’t think it was quite as good as I either expected it to be or wanted it to be.  While the narrative structure was interesting, the style itself wasn’t anything remarkable, which makes me appreciate YA writers like John Green, Rainbow Rowell, and Melina Marchetta that much more. Still, I realize I’m probably being nitpicky in my review, so overall, I would still highly recommend it. 4 out of 5 stars.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent

Genre: mystery. Reminded me of a grown-up version of To Kill a Mockingbird. I picked it up because it won the 2014 Edgar award (yes, there is clearly a pattern here) and I wanted another mystery to add to my summer reading list. It wasn’t the fast-paced, plot-driven novel I was expecting with the genre and that was a good (and wonderfully surprising) thing. It took a little while to get settled into the book and even though I could predict the ending about 2/3 of the way through, I enjoyed the novel and thought it was well-written. Some really beautiful lines, especially those regarding the nature of faith and forgiveness. 4 out of 5 stars.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

Genre: YA.  I wrote a little longer review on this book over on Click on over to read it if you like. While you’re there, feel free to “friend” me on Goodreads, too!  If haven’t heard of Goodreads, it’s basically a Facebook for book lover nerds where you create online bookshelves of the books you’ve read, share books, post reviews, see what your friends are reading, etc. Fun!  Oh, and I gave this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Right now, I’m about halfway through another Jay Asher YA book, The Future of Us.  In the novel, it’s 1996 and two friends, Emma and Josh, log into her computer for the first time to find their future Facebook profiles. Definitely an interesting idea: after all, if you could see your Facebook timeline 15 years from now, would you want to? And then if you discovered that you could do things today to change the future (and see those changes reflected on your FB page), what would you do? How much of your future would you want to know and how much would you try to change? I think I’ll move to some of my more “literary” books on my list, probably Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah next (Adichie is also the author of Purple Hibiscus, which we read in world literature). After that, depending on how dense that read is, I may need something lighter. I guess we’ll see… and with a few more weeks of summer left, I’ve got lots of days by the pool to keep binge-reading. If you’re reading anything right now, I’d love to hear about it. 🙂 And in case you’re interested, here are the other titles on my “to-read” list this summer: