Astonished That Eighth-Graders Like M. T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing? Hear It in Their Own Words

BookendsCindy: My middle-school, eighth-grade, advanced English Language Arts classes just finished a lit circle project. The teacher shared the student feedback surveys with me so I could learn what the students thought about the books we used. I rounded up a list of books and booktalked them to the classes, and then they were asked to rank the three books they liked best. The students were grouped in lit circles of four students and all were assigned a book that they had ranked among their top choices.

I begged to differ then, and I have some added proof now.

Astonishing Life of Octavian NothingHaving served on the 2007 Printz committee that selected M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: v. 1: The Pox Party as one of our Honor books, I was delighted with the responses from the students who chose that title. How many times that year did I read on listservs and blogs that no teen would read this book? It was an adult book, the naysayers said. I begged to differ then, and I have some added proof now. Certainly, this is a challenging book that is better suited to high-school students, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be used with middle-schoolers seeking a challenge. These were the replies we received when we asked whether this book should be used again next year:

I would totally recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the period of the 1700s—Boston Tea Party era. Also, a caution would be there is very difficult vocabulary and some confusing patches.

Yes. It is a harder level book for higher level readers. It also opens up new ideas about freedom and equality.

Yes, this would be a good book because it has more challenging vocab and a very intriguing plot line that could start a lot of discussions.

It was really interesting to me to see how different people interpret the same book in a whole different way. So, my favorite part was seeing each person’s perspective on the book.

One student admitted that the biggest struggle was “from thinking too much about what I was reading. Instead of just reading, in the beginning, we all focused a lot on the vocabulary instead of the book.”

Another student, from the group that read Sold by Patricia McCormick, didn’t struggle with the nightly reading, or the vocabulary, but the eye-opening content:

I struggled being able to think that a lot of girls under the age of 18 are being enslaved to have sex with other human beings in order to survive, and here I am in a clean home with parents and things I DON’T need but have!

Regardless of the books they were assigned, all of the students appreciated the opportunity to discuss their nightly reading with the small group that had just done the same reading. Some students were confused by what they read and needed help with comprehension; others said they really enjoyed getting to have deeper discussions about their reading.

The other books we used included:

The Land, by Mildred Taylor

Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow

Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork

Nation, by Terry Pratchett

New Found Land: Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery, by Allan Wolf

Samurai Shortstop, by Alan Gratz

The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Troy, by Adele Geras

The Watch that Ends the Night: Voices from the Titanic, by Allan Wolf

White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean

Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials, by Stephanie Hemphill

My favorite comment? One of the students who read The Watch that Ended the Night, a verse novel about the Titanic, said he wouldn’t recommend we use it again next year. Why?

” . . . because the story is already known. The ending isn’t very surprising and because you know the story you know what eventually will happen.”

Gotta love eighth-graders.

What books would you recommend using for lit circle discussions? Our seventh-graders have really liked Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese. When they get to that mind-blowing ending, they don’t know what to do. Please leave a comment sharing the books (including grade level) that you’d recommend.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

Post a Comment