About 10 years or so ago, I had the luck to work with an awesome librarian that had a fantastic idea- book an author to come and speak with the students, and make sure every kid had been exposed to one of his novels. To my everlasting delight, she scheduled Mr. Neal Shusterman to come and talk to our students about writing, characters, and his novels in general. In preparation for his visit, the 6th graders read Downsiders, the 7th graders read The Schwa Was Here, and the 8th grade read Full Tilt. I taught 8th grade at the time, and thus was my luck to draw Full Tilt as my class novel.
Genius. Just pure genius.
Action, adventure, a little bit of fear, a teenage male protagonist, magic, and a quest to save souls. Who could ask for more?
My kids ate it up, and so did I. I taught hero’s journey alongside it, we tracked it through the novel, and my kids began to see it in their favorite movies and in other books they had read. It was everything a literature teacher could want for an experience with a novel. Even better, when he finally came to speak with our students, some of them asked him if he meant to write a hero’s journey. He stopped, thought about it, and said no, he didn’t mean to do it, but explained to them how that story is ingrained in us all as a culture. He basically defined an archetypal story without using the term. It was AWESOME.
After that experience, I became a Shusterman devotee. I had, of course, read all three books that we used…and LOVED them all. Then I got my hands on everything else he had written. Later, I began to teach Unwind in my 8th grade classes. Talk about an eye-opener. Kids who never engage in discussion could not stop talking. They were debating, and discoursing, and using text evidence to back their claims. On their own. It was because the question this book poses is elementally important to that age group- Are teenagers really as bad as society makes them out to be? And if so, how severe should the punishment be for rebellious and disrespectful behavior? It was an argumentative gold mine!
During the summer, I read a few of his other novels. They are all so different that it is like wandering into a flea market of ideas, not knowing what gems you will uncover, when you open each book he has written.
Then, I read Challenger Deep.
WHOA. Mind. Blown. You have to understand how my brain works a bit to understand how I build lessons for my students. I get inspiration from the weirdest places. Let me try to illustrate:
Read Challenger Deep. Figure out what it is REALLY about. Start wondering how you can use this in the classroom (what grade level, what to replace, etc.). Realize that this would pair perfectly with Winnie the Pooh (stay with me). Also realize that you always need engaging research lessons, and kids would probably think researching different mental illnesses is cool. Also bring in works from famous authors and poets who are notorious for their mental instability (i.e. Sylvia Plath, Lewis Carroll et al.). And VOILA! I have an entire quarter of lesson plans flying around in my brain based around a Neal Shusterman work.
He inspires me. He knows what kids want to read, and he’s not afraid to really go there. He’s all in. He’s honest, even when it’s not pretty. He respects kids. You can just tell from the way he crafts books.
Can you feel the fan-girling happening here?
Anyway, I know that many literature teachers out there are aware of his greatness, but on the off chance you aren’t, I felt it was my duty to enlighten you. You’ll thank me, I promise.