Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ethical Lessons from 13 Year Old Boys

Last night, with one chapter left to go in Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, I made myself stop reading it.  I was afraid that if I finished it, I would never get to sleep because I'd have so many thoughts about the story swirling in my head.  However, if I knew I'd be able to read the last chapter in the morning, I could try to "sleep fast"** to get there.

The main character in BSG is Jason Taylor, a 13 year old boy growing up in rural, but upper middle class, England.  Jason has a stammer, which he explains is different from a stutter.  Taking place over the course of a year, Jason's social status fluctuates, with him being a king for a few precious days, and a pariah for most of the others.  He is tormented by bullies, but finds the strength to get through. 

Jason's relationship with his family is also strained.  His parents are going through a rocky patch in their marriage, and his sister is getting ready to go off to college.  The inability of a family to communicate with each other is one of my favorite themes, and Mitchell conveys this tension like one who knows it well. 

I have three favorite quotes from BSG, all from the chapter titled "souvenirs".

First is this, where Jason is talking to a woman in an antique store:
Jason:  "You don't know my parents"
Woman:  "The question here is, 'Do you'"
Jason:  "Of course I do.  We live in the same house."
Woman:  "You break my heart, Jason.  Oh, you break my freakin' heart."

The second is Jason, after watching his mom stop shoplifters in her store: 
"I noticed a new need that's normally so close-up you never know it's there.  You and your mum need to like each other.  Not love, but like."

The last is Jason, immediately after deciding that he likes his mum:
"Good moods're as fragile as eggs."
"Bad moods're as fragile as bricks"

As I was reading BSG,  I was really liking it, but it was reminding me of another book that I had read, and I just couldn't place which one it was. Finally, it came to me - The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt.

The Wednesday Wars is a children's book, which won Newbery Honors.  I first read it to my son when he was in 4th grade.  My son loves it when a book that I am reading to him makes me cry, and Wednesday Wars did a couple of times.  It's strange though, that Black Swan Green would remind me of a children's book.  My sister bought BSG for me, saying that it was one of her favorites, and her taste is generally (and in all things) much more sophisticated than mine.

Black Swan Green is set in rural England, in 1982, the year of the war in the Falkland Islands.  It is the story of one year in the life of a 13 year old boy, Jason Taylor.  Jason secretly writes poetry and is terrified that his "friends" will find out and make fun of him.  Jason's friends already make fun of him because of his stammer, which sometimes keeps him from saying certain letters.  Adults reach out to Jason to encourage his poetry and give him hope that the bullies won't win in the end.  Jason sees hypocrisy in the adults, including his parents, who want to keep gypsies from settling in their area.  Jason lives with his parents and his older sister.  Through the story, his parents' marriage disintegrates, and his relationship with his sister shows signs of strength.  The author has said that the story is semi-autobiographical.

The Wednesday Wars is set on Long Island, in 1967-68, during the Vietnam War.  It is the story of one school year in the life of a 13 year old boy, Holling Hoodhood.  Holling secretly acts in a Shakespeare play, and is terrified that his friends will find out and make fun of him.  Some kids in the school already bully Holling, and he is singled out for being Presbyterian in an otherwise Catholic and Jewish town.  Adults reach out to Holling to encourage his love of Shakespeare, and to compensate for a lack of attention paid to him by his parents.  Holling sees hypocrisy in adults who are mean to Vietnamese refugees.  Holling lives with his parents and his older sister.  Through the story, his parents' marriage shows signs of cracking, and his relationship with his sister becomes a lifeline to them both.  The author has said that the story is semi-autobiographical.

So, what makes one of these a critically acclaimed children's book, and the other a critically acclaimed book for adults?  The line is really not so clear.  I read Wednesday Wars to my son when he was in 4th grade, and to my daughter when she was in 6th.  The Typical Book Group also read it, after so many of us were talking about reading it with our kids.  Now my son is 13 and in 8th grade, and I think he's ready for Black Swan Green.  He is definitely mature enough for the content, but I'm not sure that he's ever read a book set in England with so many British phrases.  It might get frustrating for him to not know that "nick" means "steal" or that "snogging" is good, but he is very close to being ready for it.  Ready for reading the book I mean, not for snogging.

In both books, the 13 year old boys face ethical challenges that would be difficult for adults to manage.  The boys show their character, and do what is right, even when they really want to do the opposite. 

I guess my point is, if you liked Black Swan Green, and you have kids who are in 4th-7th grade, buy them The Wednesday Wars.  If you read The Wednesday Wars with your kids and you loved it, you will also love Black Swan Green.  I loved Black Swan Green, will add it to my Favorites list, and am looking forward to reading Cloud Atlas by Mitchell, which my sister also gave to me.

My favorite quote from The Wednesday Wars is this:
After Holling's sister returns home after a failed trip to California
Dad, to sister, very sarcastically:  "Did you find yourself?"
Sister, unbelieving: "What?"
Dad:  "Did you find yourself?"
Holling:  "She found me."

I can only hope that some day, my kids who fight daily over issues of such importance as who gets to sit in the front seat, will find each other too.

**My mom used to tell me to "sleep fast" when I was little.  I know right?  How does one sleep fast?  It usually meant that something great was going to happen in the morning, and that I needed to get to sleep quickly in order to get enough sleep to wake up early in the morning to enjoy it.  Like "we're going to Disney World in the morning, sleep fast!"  I also always thought that it was a wish that the night would go by quickly so that the morning could come sooner.  I tell my kids to "sleep fast" now, and they know what I mean.  It's strange, the things you do, that your parents did, that you never planned to do.

One more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge!

Next up:  March by Geraldine Brooks

Still Listening to:  Following Atticus by Tom Ryan


  1. I haven't read Wednesday Wars, but reminds me of Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, and Boy's Life by Robert McCammon. I'll have to read Wednesday Wars

    1. Interesting! I haven't read either of these yet. I'll have to look for them!

  2. I have taught this book with high school juniors for seven years. It is amazing to me how much they love it. It's not an easy read, but they are often as passionate about the novel as I am myself. On one of my favorite pages: "Human beings need to watch out for reasonless niceness too. It's never reasonless and its reason's not usually nice" (72). I have never entirely trusted charming people.

    1. Jan, I am so glad to hear that you are teaching this book! One of my big complaints about my son's high school class readings is that every book they are reading was published before my parents graduated from high school. As if nothing great has been written in 50 years!


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