Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Several years ago, my book club read SNOW IN AUGUST by Pete Hamill. The book, a fable, is set in Brooklyn in the mid-1940's. The main character, Michael Devlin, is a twelve-year-old Irish Catholic immigrant, whose father died in World War II. Michael becomes friends with a Jewish rabbi, also an immigrant, from Prague. The antagonist in the book is Frankie, a twenty-ish punk who terrorizes the neighborhood, beating up Jews and destroying their property, with seemingly no ramifications. Good and evil come face to face again and again. I love historical fiction, and thoroughly enjoyed this book. At the same time, I found it a very difficult read. I had to draw on my background knowledge, and kind of fill in a lot that I didn't know. Most of the people in my book club felt similarly. 

In August, my fourteen-year-old son will start high school. Last spring, the school issued a summer reading list. Ninth graders have one book, SNOW IN AUGUST. I'm bound and determined that Isaiah will start high school on a good note. To that end, we started reading SNOW IN AUGUST about ten days ago. I'm reading a chapter a day aloud. Afterwards, we give the chapter a title, and note important events. We are on chapter ten, and should be done in plenty of time. 

At the same time, I am feeling more than a little frustrated.  I know some people would say that high school should be rigorous, but I wonder why the school would choose such a difficult book as a welcome. Zay doesn't have the background knowledge to read and understand the book himself, so I'm reading it to him, and scaffolding, and helping him make connections. I'm hoping our notes will help him to carry on coherent conversations when he gets to high school this fall.  I think about Zay's friend, Eddie, whose mom speaks mostly Spanish, and wonder how he will ever get through the book. Another friend, Justin, probably won't read the book at all, or will start the night before school begins. What will happen to kids who don't read the book?

The book is chock full of beautiful writing and description. It moves way too slow for my son's tastes. At one point he said, "We've read three whole chapters and nothing has happened." Today, we read a fourteen page chapter, most of which described Prague in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. With so much good YA literature, couldn't they have chosen something a little more interesting and engaging, a little quicker paced, for summer reading?

I also wonder what they are going to do with the book. Is it the basis for a study of WW2 or immigration, or good vs. evil, or heroes? A genre study of fables? Are the kids going to take tests, and need to remember lots of details, or will they write essays about the book? A statement of purpose would have been really nice.

Sometimes it's hard to be a parent and a teacher. 

No comments: