Notebook Prompts

In some entries I’d encourage you to consider the book you’re reading through the lens of adolescence as a socio-historical construct. To do so, you might consider responses that examine the book from these questions or viewpoints:

  • What does this book say about what’s “normal” for teens? Is this a fair representation? Are there any problems with the way adolescence is represented in this book?
  • Where do you see the author imposing views about teenage years, teenage issues, etc. on the reader through this text?
  • What are the political implications of adults writing for teens as illustrated by this book?
  • How does the representation of adolescence from this book contribute to or challenge these “confident characterizations”?
  • How do portrayals of teens and teen concerns shift over time, as reflected in the books we read?

The prompts below are arranged by individual title on the required reading list. You may choose to respond to one of these prompts for your notebook or, of course, go your own direction. These are only possible topics that you might want to consider.

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton

  • The title of this book was carefully chosen. While it’s likely a reference to the Socs and their standing in the community, can you think of other ways the title might connect to the content of the novel (including characters and themes)?
  • Given the work we’ve been doing looking at adolescents/ce, what do you think appeals to teen readers about Hinton’s book?
  • How does this book hold up over nearly fifty years? While it was a sharp departure from the young adult literature of its time, has it become dated? Consider not just the setting but also the characters, their viewpoints, or the themes of the novel.

Bomb by Steve Sheinken & Trinity by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

  • Some argue that non-fiction is more “relevant” to readers than is fiction. How might a book like Bomb or Trinity support that argument? What conclusions could you draw from comparing these books to a work of historical fiction set during the same period and capturing the same events?
  • What narrative techniques do Sheinken or Fetter-Vorm use in relating these events and describing these people? How does one or the other blur the lines between storytelling (fiction) and traditional techniques of non-fiction? What effect is achieved by doing this?
  • A common critique of non-fiction is that the writer often has an agenda or hidden biases that color the way information is portrayed in the work. Do you sense an agenda on the part of Shienken or Fetter-Vorm in sharing the information they do?
  • Reading these two books together provides us an important opportunity to analyze the way the medium of a message influences the message itself. Compare the traditional prose telling of Sheinken to Fetter-Vorm’s use of a primarily visual medium to convey similar information. What are the strengths of each approach? How is your experience as a reader different in each medium?

Witness by Karen Hesse

  • Katherine Patterson, a writer of historical fiction for younger readers, once comments that “History becomes a pair of spectacles to focus our visions on the chaotic present.” What does Witness help us focus on in our present?
  • Who is the moral center of the novel? Is there a character who best embodies/reflects the change the whole town experiences?
  • How is the meaning of this novel strengthened and/or weakened by the choice to cast it in free verse?

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

  • How does this book differ from the titles you’ve read so far this semester? Do those differences, in your opinion, mean that this book might be less appealing to young readers?
  • A common characteristic of young adult literature is its hopeful tone, and many adults consider this an important element of work for readers of this age. In thinking carefully about this book, do you see elements of hope? If you do, what are they and how are they communicated to readers. If you don’t, what value might there be to teen readers to be exposed to work like this?

Kit’s Wilderness by David Almond

  • What do you make of the game of death? What role does game and gameplay (e.g., playing house, playing school, playing cops and robbers, and so on) have in the development and lives of young children? How might the game of death be fulfilling a similar role in the context of this book and these characters?
  • Why is the story of Lak so significant in the course of this book? What commentary on storytelling or art in general do you think Almond is suggesting in the role we see for Kit’s fictional story?

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

  • This book uses a very different narrative style from those we’ve read before. What makes Unwind distinct in this way, and what effect do you think Shusterman achieves through this choice?
  • How does the society in this novel view and define teenagers? What value does it see in this age group? Are there parallels to our current society? And what might Shusterman be exploring in these connections?

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien

  • This book falls more squarely in the category of post-apocalyptic literature rather than dystopian (like Unwind). How does this genre differ from dystopia and what does this specific choice allow O’Brien to explore?
  • How does this story play around with gender roles and expectations?
  • O’Brien seems to be making some Biblical allusions throughout the book. Identify some of these allusions and explore their significance. What are some possible interpretations these suggest for the book?

Countdown by Deborah Wiles

  • Bucher and Hinton, in their textbook on adolescent fiction, state that “Even historical fiction is a reflection of the time in which it is written as well as the time it portrays.” How is the novel a reflection of the fears and preoccupations of our current era (i.e., the one in which Wiles is writing from)?
  • Pam Cole, a noted expert on young adult fiction, said: “Historical fiction situates people among history-making events, coupling history with human responses, revealing neither completely good or bad people, or right or wrong situations, but rather the complexity of human behavior.” Does Wiles accomplish this with her portrayals of characters in Countdown? How does she or where does she fall short of this?
  • One scholar of historical fiction noted, “And the very best of historical fiction presents to us a TRUTH of the past that is NOT the truth of the history books, but a bigger truth, a more important truth–a truth of the HEART.” What is the “truth of the heart” that is revealed in the story of Countdown? (Perhaps there’s more than one.) How does the historical setting help reveal this truth?
  • This text relies heavily on illustrations, clips from songs and speeches, and other paratextual objects. How do these inform the narrative in Countdown? What purpose do you think they serve? How do you respond to them as you read the book?

Running Loose by Chris Crutcher

  • What role do sports and athletic activity play in this novel? How does Crutcher use these to further his themes in the book?
  • Does this book challenge young readers the way coaches challenge athletes (as Crutcher himself advocates in the article you read by him)?  In what ways? How might it fall short?
  • How would you answer Lipsyte’s four questions for this book? (See the questions below, but also revisit Lipsyte’s article for explanations of these questions.)
    • Does the protagonist know why he’s playing the game?
    • Is bullying and player health dealt with realistically?
    • Are the moral and ethical issues at least mentioned?
    • Will the reader be led into the larger world of literature?
  • How does this book treat the concept of manliness? Does it reinforce or challenge typical definitions, especially those that might dominate for teenage young men in our culture at our time?

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

  • Fantasy novels often involve a hero setting out on a quest; often the quest is to “save the world” through defeating evil. Who would you say is the hero in this book? And what is his/her quest? How does this relate to the epic kinds of quests that we see in fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings or similar series?
  • Sophie’s magical powers seem to come from her language or the use of words. What broader interpretation about language might you make from these abilities and the way Sophie develops and comes to understand her abilities?
  • Fantasy writing often has much to say about evil. Who is “evil” in this novel and what is “evil” in Sophie’s world? How is evil portrayed or commented on over the course of the story?

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

  • What attitude does the book (and its author) take towards history? What value is there to the history that Ms. Volker tries to share in her obituaries, what about the history that Jack reads about in his books, and what about the history of a town like Norvelt?
  • What about this book fits in with the descriptions and characteristics of middle grade fiction that we discussed in class? What might appeal to a middle-grade reader in this book? Does it hold any appeal for older readers?
  • How are family relationships depicted in this book in comparison to other books that we’ve read this semester? How much are these relationships perhaps influenced by the historical setting? How much by the fact that this is a quasi-autobiographical work?
  • This is also a work of historical fiction, and so some of the same questions we explored with historical fiction apply here. What is the light Gantos shines on current concerns and preoccupations by writing about this historical period? What is the bigger truth that Gantos gets at in this historical piece?

Mexican White-boy by Matt de la Peña

  • As you read, take note of scenes where the imagery is particularly strong. How does de la Peña use this imagery to establish a strong sense of setting and atmosphere? How do these efforts contribute to a certain mood or tone in the novel?
  • Why does de la Peña choose to narrate the book in the third person? What advantages does he gain from this choice and what limitations does it introduce?
  • We’ve spoken often about adults and their portrayals in young adult literature. Focus on the adults in this book: How do they fit with typical patterns in other books you’ve read? How is de la Peña using adults differently in this book?
  • How might this book serve as a mirror (for youths in similar situations as Danny and/or Uno)? How might it serve as a window into these circumstances for those who don’t share similar experiences? Is there anything problematic, in the context of reading this book, about the idea of windows and mirrors?

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

  • A “problem novel” is a novel where a social issue (teen pregnancy, drug abuse, mental illness, etc.) dominates the book and carries the story. Would you say that the issue of depression dominates this book in a way that clouds the story or the rich development of characters? Why or why not?
  • A feature of realistic fiction is to have a character face authentic challenges and develop the means for overcoming that challenge. Identify a challenge that Francesca faces in this book and explore how she overcomes that challenge. What does she gain in the overcoming of the challenge? How might this be connected with issues of adolescent development?
  • How does this book in particular reinforce and/or challenge some of the steretypical deficit views of adolescents and the adolescent experience?

Finally, here are other possible considerations for responses in your notebook. These would be appropriate for any of the books we read (including those titles that you choose for yourself).

  • Find a way this book challenges your thinking about some previously held concept–this could be a concept explored explicitly in the book itself or it could be a broader concept, perhaps about the definition of young adult literature, about some aspect of literature, about a notion of human nature, etc. Explore the way the book challenges your thinking and how your thinking is evolving.
  • Consider the structure of the book as a whole–the way it’s broken into chapters, perhaps the way multiple narrators are used, perhaps the way the plot of the narrative is conceived. How is this structure used to further the meaning of the book? What other significance can you find in the structural decisions the author made?
    What is the most significant event in the book? Explore the significance of this event and its connection to broader themes or meanings of the book.
  • Find something in the book that you absolutely despise–it could be something concrete in the story (a character, an action, a moment) or it could be a choice made by the author (to have something happen, to phrase something a certain way, to introduce a conflict). What is it you despise and why? What does your emotional reaction say about you? About the book?
  • Likewise, find something in the book that you absolutely adore. Go through the same exploration and analysis.
  • Read the book through a specific critical lens (feminist, Marxist, post-colonial, etc.); apply your understanding of that lens to what you read and consider how doing so changes your interpretation of the text.
  • Look for your self as you read. What elements of you and your experience do you see reflected in this book? How does that influence your reading or response to the text?
  • Consider the genre (or supposed genre) of the text. What traditional elements of the genre do you see reflected in this text? How does it, perhaps, deviate from conventions in the genre? Do you learn something unique about the genre from reading this text?
  • Conduct some research about the author of this book–especially if it’s not a required text. Read whatever you can–a Wikipedia bio, publisher’s page, interviews with the author, etc. What insights does the author’s life or comments he/she has made give you into the text? How does knowing something about the author shape your interpretation or response to the text?
  • Consider the audience this book might appeal to. Who is that? Why would it appeal to this audience? How or why might reading this book be a valuable experience for an individual who is not part of its intended audience?
  • Connect this text in a meaningful way to the readings or discussions we’ve had in class. For instance, you might consider our discussion about bleak literature to a Cormier book or any other book that might fit (or explicitly not fit) that category. Or you might consider how a text (or group of texts) provides examples (or non-examples) of the characteristics of YA literature that we discuss in class. What insights about the text do you glean from making these connections? What insights about the broader issue under focus (e.g., bleak literature, censorship, search for identity) do you gain from this book?
  • Respond to this book as a parent, try to read the book through a parental lens. How does doing so shape your interpretation or response to the book? What do you notice or respond to as a “parent” that you might not otherwise? What does this say about young adult literature, about its role in teens’ lives?
  • What questions do you have after or while reading this book? These might be questions about the text/story itself or, more importantly, they might be questions spurred by the act of reading the text and what the reading has caused you to think about.
  • In Koss & Teale (from the beginning of the semester) we read, “Reading allows teens to play with their identities in a safe and controlled manner, and to explore who they want to be in the ever-changing world” (p. 569). How do you see this allowance playing out in this book (or in a series of books)?
  • Humor is a relatively common feature of young adult literature, and its use can play different roles. How is humor used in this text or what patterns do you see emerging in a set of texts as to the use of humor?