Do you remember my lamenting about finding a book exciting and engaging enough to hook a big group of 5th and 6th graders? Okay. Take that, add a few years, lots of growing up, and about 2x the homework. Also, sports practice. And Early Morning Latin. And you’re left with the impossible task of finding a book so good, 7th and 8th graders will take a break from their busy lives to sit down and read.
One thing I remember from my teen years is that everything felt like the end of the world. This got me thinking – what if we talked about the real end of the world? Feedback from students showed that they wanted a book that was scary, thrilling, and left them seriously spooked. If you’re looking to go end-of-the-world scary in young adult fiction, there’s only one real choice – the books from Susan Beth Pfeffer’s mega-popular The Last Survivor series. When an asteroid hits the moon and knocks it significantly closer to the Earth, things suddenly start to change. The moon looks hauntingly large, cell phones aren’t working correctly, the power goes in and out. Miranda and Alex, main characters of Life as We Knew It and The Dead & the Gone, are worried about missing school and sports practice. But as time goes on and the moon’s altered orbit truly starts to change the Earth – think tidal waves, earthquakes, and thousands of suddenly active volcanoes – they realize that life will never be the same. Will they survive? Will there be anything left to survive for?
I sat with colleagues, waffling between the two titles. Should we read Miranda’s point of view from her family home in rural Pennsylvania? Or Alex, waiting for his parents to return home to him and his younger sisters in New York City? Then a genius coworker suggested – why not let them decide? Students can choose to read either book, and we’ll get together and discuss them both.
Yesterday, we gathered in the library to share our experiences with Life As We Knew It and The Dead & the Gone. The group sat in the sunshine, eating pizza, discussing first the major plot points of the two stories, and then delving deeper. What would we miss if our world were suddenly to crumble? Would we ever be able to get together to share literature and time together like this again? What would you do to help your family if they were starving? If you could only save a small handful of objects to represent your life, what would they be?
As usual, students amazed me with the depth and thoughtfulness of their answers. They stated that they would miss feeling carefree, spending time with their loved ones, knowing their daily schedules. They would hate not returning to school and being afraid to go outside. We discussed the role that religion plays in the book, the way that people change when they are scared, and the way that we felt while reading about Alex and Miranda’s turmoil. We shared great conversation and I left with a head full of questions and a heart full of gratitude.
One seventh grader spoke about her experience towards the end of the meeting. “I read this book over Thanksgiving break,” she began. “It was kind of crazy reading it with all of my family in town, while we were preparing and eating all of this food, celebrating. It made me so thankful for everything I have.” As she spoke, I looked around the room; at all of the staff members that volunteered their time to join the discussion, the students that chose to spend their lunch period in the library talking about books, the sunshine streaming in through the windows, the welcoming library space warm and big enough for us all to share the moment together. She finished her remarks by saying that the book made her want to hug her family and friends and say a few extra thank-yous. And I knew exactly what she meant.
Thank you to the staff and students that came together for this engaging and thoughtful discussion. Many of our participants read not just one, but both of the books – a total of more than 600 pages!