Listeners: how do you talk to your students about the special love that exists between a woman and a Sasquatch? Or between an insect and a robot-powered building? And where and how do you determine which texts are appropriate to give to students?
On this episode of the podcast, I’m joined by Sarah Birgé, a lifelong Vermonter and English lit teacher in the Montpelier-Roxbury district. We’re talking about Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, by author Kelly Barnhill.
We’ll share our favorite moments from Barnhill’s collection as well as other collections of stories we’ve used with students, and our love of low floors and high ceilings. Come for the mysterious love affairs, stay for the power of short stories and how they can help students find entry points for talking complex concepts and issues!
I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is #vted Reads. Let’s chat.
Jeanie: Thanks for joining me, Sarah. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Sarah: Thanks, Jeanie. Glad to be here. My name is Sarah Birgé, and I’m a Vermont native. I was an English teacher for about a decade. I’ve also worked at the Agency of Education as our State English Specialist, and I’m currently an instructional coach at Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools, and a lifelong reader. So happy to be here.
Jeanie: I love talking to readers, and this is my favorite question to ask. What are you reading right now?
Sarah: I thought about this on the way in, and it’s a slightly longer answer because yesterday I just finished a book called The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was lucky to get advance copy. It’s not coming out till the end of the month, which made me feel very special. It’s a crazy book that combines historical fiction and sci-fi. Strongly recommend! A very powerful book.
Then yesterday, I started a new book which is part of the Rivers of London series, which is another wonderful, fantastical detective fiction by a guy called Ben Aaronovitch, who used to write for Doctor Who. Very much having like a fantasy, sci-fi moment of my reading.
Jeanie: Thank you. Let’s talk about this book! I don’t know that I would call it fantasy, but it’s on the ghosty side.
Sarah: I mean some of the stories are a little sci-fi here and there. It’s definitely a genre mishmash.
Jeanie: It’s a collection of short stories with one novella at the end, full of really unconventional female characters, even the title, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories clues you into that. This was a title you selected, and I’d like to know why. What do you love about this collection?
Sarah: Well, the thing that attracted me to the book was the title. I was like, “Dreadful Young Ladies, that sounds like Victorian.” I’m like, “What’s happening?” It’s going to be interesting, and about female characters. I had actually never heard of Kelly Barnhill, who is pretty famous YA author. And I love the cover! I know you shouldn’t judge a book by it. But as soon as I started reading, I was hooked because like you said it’s unconventional female characters.
I love things that play with genre, and this is really like a lot of the stories you think you know where you’re going, and then it takes a sharp left turn. I think I read it if not in one sitting then very quickly. It’s a really engaging book.
Jeanie: Let’s talk about some of the really unconventional characters in this book. It’s hard with short stories because you don’t want to give too much away.
Sarah: I know.
Jeanie: I feel like we can give *a little* away, though. I’m going to start with one of the stories I fell for was called “Open the Door and the Light Pours Through”. It begins as letters between two characters, Angela and John. I think John is off “at war”. Angela has left the city to go to his mother or something. It’s not entirely in letters, right? Because there is a letter and then there’s what’s going for real, which is so intriguing because they are love letters and then there’s the stark contrast with reality. Shall we read a little piece of that?
Jeanie: It starts on page 33, but you can choose any selection from that story. I’d love to get a letter and then also what’s really happening.
Jeanie: Hmm… There are so many layers to this story. I thought of it as the perfect mentor text for students to write short fiction that is letters? And then what’s really happening.
Sarah: I loved the — I think I’m going to pronounce this right — the epistolary novel. I was a big Victorian literature person in college, so I love any idea of a novel that’s letters and the reliable narrator. This took it where you have some *unreliable* narration and some reliable narration. I think it would be a really good mentor text, also, for things like point-of-view and author’s voice, and even the idea of a narrator. I could see that.
Jeanie: Meaning that in this story, we have two narrators in their letters and then we have this…
Sarah: Like the omniscient narrator.
Jeanie: The omniscient narrator as well.
Jeanie: Three different points of view in the story.
Sarah: Also, how do you trust the narrator? Who do you trust? When it’s letters, I think we’re so used to just generally like the omniscient narrator is pretty common in a lot of the books that we read and the kids read, but when you get a letter, you have to remember that people don’t always tell the truth.
Jeanie: It turns out John’s not entirely being faithful. Our Angela is not entirely drawn from accuracy either in her letters, right?
Sarah: Which I think you would need a kid who had either a solid understanding of narration and point-of-view and things like that, to understand the author is playing with that here. I think it would might be a challenging text for somebody who is already maybe shaky or didn’t have a grounding in some of those things. I don’t know. Or would you just let a kid jump in? Even if you didn’t know if they really understood what it meant to be a narrator?
Jeanie: Hm. Those are good questions because you could take it either way. It’s discovery, or it’s scaffolding. It reminded me when I was a school librarian, a lot of students really love ghost stories. Many of these have that supernatural or mysterious element that a good ghost story has. It made me think of Mary Downing Hahn, who’s written so many books that kids love, that you’re like… it takes a while for the reader to figure out what’s happening. Then I also thought of Neil Gaiman’s book, The Graveyard Book .
Sarah: The Graveyard Book. It’s a graphic novel and a written novel I think, right?
Jeanie: You are probably right. I’ve only read the written novel. It was one of my very favorites and one of my students’ very favorites for a long time. But I love that it could be available in graphic novels as well.
Sarah: I think The Graveyard Book would actually be something you could use as a primary text, potentially. I think ghost stories, everyone loves that. Like, that’s what you tell around the campfire. They’re fun. And it’s also a safe way to be scared, you know? It’s scary, but it’s a book. You can put it away or you’re reading it in the daytime in the classroom with you teacher. I’m a big proponent of things like that for kids.
Jeanie: So many times I thought of that when I was reading this book. They’re not quite ghost stories, but there’s a little magical realism. And there’s a little supernatural element. There’s a little quirk, a little turn of the screw, if you will, that makes you think a little. That makes you think differently.
Sarah: I’d love to know what are Kelly Barnhill’s top ten stories that she loves, or top ten favorite authors. I don’t know if I always think that when I’m reading something, but here I was like: I wonder what ghost story she likes. What do her bookshelves look like?
Jeanie: Listener, we are going to tweet at her. We’re going to find out. We’re going to find out what Kelly Barnhill likes to read. And we’re going to talk further about her as a writer, but let’s dig into these a little more. So, another story that I found myself really smitten with was “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch”. Mrs. Sorensen becomes a widow and she takes up with this Sasquatch in town. The animals, all the animals flock to her, so she goes to church with a whole pew full of animals. And the narrator, in that case, is the minister.
Sarah: Yeah, he’s like the kindly, old priest of the church that she’s bringing these animals to.
Jeanie: And people are drawn to her and perplexed by her. And she seems to like it that way.
Sarah: As it went on, you’re talking about unconventional female characters. She’s described as very beautiful. She’s the pretty widow. She’s so talented. She smells really good. And all the men love her. Then as it goes on, she realized that some of her qualities are other-worldly. Like, she’s not just pretty. She’s not just interesting… she can talk to animals, maybe. Again, with a lot of these stories you start off and you think it’s one way, and then as it progresses, it’s another way.
But because it’s the narration of the priest, you get to see all the different range of reactions to her because some people really don’t like her. There’s these three sisters who are busybodies, and they really *dislike* her. It made me think. So I’m an animal lover. Anytime someone says they don’t like animals, you rarely hear that. To me, that’s a big red flag. The story is about the opposite of that, like what happens when you really, *really* love animals to the extent that you fall in love with the Sasquatch.
Jeanie: Right. As absurd as that sounds.
Sarah: And my favorite detail there is that the Sasquatch, he wore shirts but not pants. He’s very furry so that’s okay. And the fact that he’s not wearing pants horrifies people. That’s the kind of detail that I can see really being very funny for an older kid.
Jeanie: It felt to be a little bit like a fractured fairy tale and that it was a bit Beauty and the Beast-ish, but the beast stays a beast. She loves him for who he is. Very playful and serious at the same time. I had a hard time sometimes knowing whether I was allowed to laugh or not! And then I just did. Then there’s another story, a longer story, [“The Insect and the Astronomer: A Love Story”], where the main character is an insect who wears a waistcoat.
I guess there are two main characters in that one. And the other is an astronomer, who may or may not be alive, who builds automatons, including the whole building is an automaton.
Sarah: Right. I thought that was the weirdest story in the whole collection. I think the first time I read it, I just read it purely. And I was attracted more to the other stories. Then when I reread it in preparation for this, I was thinking through that lens of: well, how would you use it with students? That’s one that I maybe wouldn’t necessarily use with students because it was so out there. It’s a love story, kind of, between a grasshopper and a maybe-robot.
That one to me, that was definitely set on an alien world, right? The other ones are in maybe a world like ours where there’s a maybe little magic or this or that, but that, the grasshopper and the astronomer was definitely an alien world. It was just — it didn’t resonate with me as much. What do you think about it?
Jeanie: I think I thought of it as a fairytale world. I think where it really hit me that it was a fairy tale is when the grasshopper is on this pilgrimage. I actually am not I thought of him as a grasshopper. Is it called just the grasshopper? The Insect.
Sarah: He’s just the Insect.
Jeanie: The Insect and the Astronomer, but he has wings. We know he has wings tucked under his waistcoat. He’s a very proper insect.
Sarah: They described his body a lot, or hers. There was a lot of wings and the waistcoat, and how he puts clothing or an insect body.
Jeanie: The thorax, the various parts. The Insect goes on this pilgrimage to find the Astronomer. He’s feeling called to the Astronomer. The Astronomer’s calling. I guess that’s why he called it a love story to the Insect. When the Insect arrives in the town, a farmer feeds him lunch but then scatters off. “Here, you can have my lunch, but I want nothing to do with your kind,” kind of thing.
And then the Insect is taken into the house of this old couple. And it started to feel a little Hansel and Gretel-ish. I will say no more, but there was this moment of, like, “Oh, we’re in a fairy tale!” That’s when it occurred to me, “I’m in a fairy tale.” Instead of an alien world.
Sarah: I went to like, “Well, this is clearly sci-fi,” like I’m visualizing the world. You’re right, it is more of a fairy tale.
Jeanie: It’s the waistcoat, really.
Sarah: It was the waistcoat, yes. It also felt like a love story to me. I was like, “This is an unconventional love,” but in keeping with the unconventional female characters. There is a lot of unconventional love in this. I think I’d be fair to say that that’s a theme of the collection. I think that’s also great for kids because how many love stories are just a boy and a girl, and a boy and a girl, and a boy and a girl and to explode the notion of what love or what romance can be is I think good for all kids to see.
Jeanie: I love that. A relationship between a maybe-robot astronomer and an Insect is–
Sarah: It’s also fine.
Jeanie: — is also fine.
Sarah: Or, a woman and a Sasquatch.
Jeanie: So, let’s dig a little deeper into all of those exploded notions about the norms of being a woman. And so this story, which is early in the book, just intrigues me. I love this notion of not only exploring with kids the different ways you can be in love, through story, but also the different ways you could be male or female, through story. On page 65, the story begins, “It was easy enough to lose a child by accident. To do so on purpose turned out to be nearly impossible.”
What an intriguing beginning, right?
Not only does she want to lose a child, which flies in the face of all things we think about being womanly and motherly. And so I’m wondering what other stories or even how *that* story helps to explode or explore some assumptions that we make about gender, about humanity.
Sarah: Yeah. Well, I think that also goes back to the fractured fairy tale metaphor that you drew. Sorry, Audrey. I’m going to do that over. I think that goes back to the fractured fairy tales analogy that you drew, where there’s some women in this collection who are evil, they’re bad. They’re the witch. They’re the wicked stepmother. But then there’s women who have those powers who aren’t evil, who use them for good.
Then you have women who might not be evil *witches*, but they’re not necessarily good, or they’re not maternal and it’s an explosion of these really standard tropes that we still see all around us, all the time. And so even though if you’re going to explode those stereotypes, you’re going to get some bad women out of it. So it’s almost like this shows the whole range of the way that women can be instead of saying, “Well, this is an old evil crone, and this is young mother. This is the romantic figure.” You get everything. You get the whole range of the way that people can be, especially around motherhood. I thought that was really interesting.
Jeanie: They’re complicated, messy characters. In these really interesting ways.
Sarah: And kids need to see that. Kids need to see characters who aren’t so black and white, or so obvious. I think even younger kids, they can grasp the nuance that like, “This person maybe made a bad decision, but they’re still an interesting character.” Even the story you reference, the woman who wants to get rid of the child, she’s not sympathetic but they do explain the rationale.
Jeanie: Right. Her sister. Her sister?
Sarah: I think this one, it’s her boyfriend’s child. And she doesn’t like the child.
Jeanie: But when she was growing up, she was babysitting her sister. Her sister, well, she was busy making out in the corner, just flew away!
Sarah: Flew away.
Jeanie: ‘Why won’t this kid just fly away? Why can’t I lose this kid?’
Sarah: I think some kids could read that and they could just talk about that. This is a character who might have had some trauma and then they made a bad decision, but they’re not totally evil. Then I think someone else could read it and they could get into the ambiguities of like, “Well, did the sister fly away? Is there really magic in the story, or is there not magic?” I love magical realism but almost more than that, I love stories where you’re not sure if there is magic or not.
Jeanie: I think… a lot readers are like me? And we want surety. What I love is that you’re letting me know one way that we could really use these stories is to explore the ambiguity, is to interpret it in all the possible ways and find all the possible… trajectories, of the story, if you will.
Sarah: I taught primarily middle school. And I remember my students getting so frustrated when I’d show them the multiple ways you can interpret a story. And a lot of people are like, “No, there’s just– what happened? I want to know what happened. I don’t want to be unsure.” Which is in a lot of stories you’re not and that’s totally fine, but I like it when you really don’t know. To me, that’s a much harder trick as an author: to leave the reader wondering at the end.
Jeanie: Well, it certainly doubles the half-life of the story in your brain. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the stories from this book, because so many of them are open-ended or could be interpreted — like you said about the insect and the astronomer story — either in a fairy tale world or on another planet, the science fiction setting. That leads me to ask: you’ve taught middle school. How would you use short stories in a middle school classroom, or in a high school classroom? I think so often we want kids to read novels, but what does it look like to use short stories in the classroom?
Sarah: I think you’re right that people mostly want to use novels. And I would really push people towards a mix, in part because there’s so much to teach out there. And especially for kids who are not the speediest readers, which we all know has nothing to do with intelligence or how much you love a text. But some people read more slowly, and that’s fine. Saying, “I have to do these five books this year,” can sometimes really hamstring us.
I know that I’ve had books that I’ve taught that I’m like, “Ugh! This book is going on and on and on.” And short stories can be a great way to either supplement or sometimes replace — because I think especially sometimes stories like this, you can get the same level of text complexity. You can get the same themes. You can dig in. It’s also a lot easier to differentiate teaching with short stories? Than teaching with a novel by and large.
I’ve heard writers say that it’s much harder to write a short story, than a novel. Because you really have to pair everything down. I think they offer a lot of opportunity for play. This particular one? I would definitely be very choosy with middle schoolers and these stories. I think a lot of them, there’s some sexual content, most of it implied or off-screen, so to speak. But, you know, you want to be careful about what you’re exposing kids to. But there’s others stories in here that I would definitely teach with kids.
Some of them I might want to do that as a whole class. Something I love to do is to say to a kid, “Hey, I think you’d really like this. Will you give it a whirl?” And help kids choose texts that they might fall in love with. I think saying, “Hey, will you give this short story a whirl?” is a much easier ask for some kids. You also reference mentor text I think would be so interesting to this as part of the unit on mythology, or gender, or families, or any number of things. And just keep it in your teaching toolkit.
Sarah: Oh! That’s interesting.
Jeanie: I want to go back a minute because you said so many things that were so interesting and I didn’t want to interrupt, but I am thinking about both differentiation and choice. I’m thinking about what might it look like to give students a range of stories to choose from, so that kids have a choice, right? Maybe they selected small groups, but maybe some kids read a story all on their own.
I’m thinking about that differentiation piece too. That we can choose stories of different interest, but also different reading levels, or different complexity, in order to plan for student readiness. And then I’m wondering about formative assessments. Thinking about it in a proficiency-based system, it’s so much quicker to read a short story and then understand if your students are identifying a theme, or able to summarize a story, or able to pick out imagery, or whatever it is you’re aiming to do with students in a shorter text so you get whether they’re getting it before you dive into a longer text.
Sarah: That’s a great point. You guys can see what I’m nodding really emphatically at all of these. The first part of what said about choice and differentiation? I think that it’s really important to remember that you want to differentiate and you want to give different levels of text complexity, and make sure that kids are reading at a comfort level.
But sometimes you come across something that you just know a kid is going to be so interested in? That it’s okay for a kid to choose something that might be out of their quote-unquote “level” because they love it. I love reading YA! I can read it a much higher level than that, but sometimes I love to read YA.
Jeanie: Oh, me too!
Sarah: Right? I remember I had a Roald Dahl short story that involved cars. I had a student who was an emergent reader and he loved that story that was really not “at his level.” I think choice is so great to remember when we’re talking about differentiation. And short stories are a great way to do that. Then also like you said in the proficiency based system with formative assessments, which I’ll talk about that till the cows come home. *laughs*
You’re right. It’s much easier to say: I need to figure out if this child can identify theme. It’s possible to do that in a short story. It’s much harder to do it with longer texts.
Jeanie: Yeah. It’s a bridge. I love what you’re saying about reading levels because I do not believe in them. I think they can help us find a text that works for a kid sometimes, but we should not limit kids to their “reading level” or their… no. No.
Sarah: I almost think it’s almost more relevant outside of the English classroom because let’s say you’re in science and you need kids to understand, you know, the geology of a volcano. If they’re reading for information, they should be reading at “their level,” but everybody’s different. And if it’s a topic of interest, who cares what your reading level is?
Jeanie: We’ll all work harder. Let’s think about some of those story collections or stories you might use with students. So, I had one that I read recently that came to mind for me, which was Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America, by Ibi Zoboi? Which is a collection of short stories by writers of color. And a lot of them are about: what does it mean to be Black? What are all the ways to be Black? I think like this book explodes some conventional thinking or some stereotypes in really interesting ways.
And there’s so many great stories in this collection! There’s one by Jason Reynolds that was so simple and lovely that I just fell head over heels for it. But just thinking about race and ethnicity through that lens of short story, I thought was really interesting. It could be a really interesting book to use with a class. On identity.
Sarah: And like we said earlier, grappling with something scary, be it a ghost story, or challenging your perceptions about race, doing it in a text is a really great way to do it. Because you can do it at your pace and you save space and you can discuss. Is Jason Reynolds also an educator? I feel like I’ve seen him on ed Twitter. Maybe he is also an author, but I recognize that name from ed Twitter.
Jeanie: Oh my goodness. We love Jason Reynolds here at #vted Reads. He is the author of so many books. Mostly for middle grade students. Some of them also for more young adult audiences and high school audiences. He wrote Long Way Down. He was a co-author on All American Boys. He’s an African American writer extraordinaire. And a huge proponent of diverse and inclusive literature for young adults and middle grade students, and just one of my heroes. I’ve seen him speak and I just adore him.
Sarah: It’s so important. Like, I love the canon. I was an English lit major, but I’m also all for exploding the canon especially in a state that is so ethnically homogenous. Even in schools where there are no children of color, we still need to be reading diverse texts because that’s a reflection about most of the world looks like.
Jeanie: Yeah. Absolutely. What other texts might we explore in this way?
Sarah: I’ll mention two that I wrote down. I actual referenced one of these earlier, the story about cars. Roald Dahl, everyone’s favorite creepy children’s book author, also wrote short stories for adults. I’ve taught with a couple of them. There’s a variety of collections. Some of them are definitely not appropriate for children, and maybe even some adults would be pretty weirded out by them.
He has a couple that I really like to teach in part because they have pretty complex themes. The one with cars is called “The Hitchhiker” (.pdf) There’s no violence, no sexuality or anything like that, and the vocabulary and plot is pretty simple? But the themes are complex. I really love that it was like a low floor, high ceiling for kids. I also love “The Hitchhiker“ because it talks about class. If you can tell what class somebody is because of the way they speak, I thought that really resonated with a lot of our kids. He has a couple of other ones, so I’d encourage you to check out his short stories for adults. And A lot of them are very short, so you can really use them in one class period.
Jeanie: I wonder if you could, for our listeners, for whom it might be new? Talk a little more about that concept of “low floor, high ceiling”.
Sarah: Sure. This is one of my favorite things. I say it all the time. Low floor, high ceiling — I do not know who came up with this idea but it wasn’t me — it’s the idea of arranging activities, or units, or lessons, or anything you do such that anyone can enter the lesson? But you can make it really challenging.
It’s almost like we’re not just going to differentiate, we’re going to have a full spectrum in our lessons.
A concrete example might be [“The Hitchhiker”] where most kids, even if you were a couple grade levels below in your reading, you can understand the story, which then allowed you to talk about extremely complex themes because we have brilliant kids who might struggle with reading, and a lot of the time they’re cut off from talking about the interesting stuff because they’re reading less complex texts.
I also really love teaching Shakespeare, and I’ve taught Macbeth more than any other text. That would be one where I could have kids who could watch the movie and really understand what was happening… And then discuss complex themes. The low floor easy entry point, high ceiling, it can get very complex very quickly.
Jeanie: What I love about that is that the complexity is not dependent just on decoding.
Jeanie: So I think a lot of times when we read whole novels with kids, some kids get behind. Then we’re discussing things they haven’t read yet and they can’t enter into the conversation and so even just by having a shorter text, we’re lowering the floor, right?
Jeanie: While we are still able to delve into that complexity.
Sarah: Yeah, you’re maintaining rigor. I don’t want to dump on novels. Like, please read novels. Read novels with your students! But consider other ways, too. Do that low floor, high ceiling. Because too often we equate reading ability and intelligence. And those two things don’t always go hand and hand. I had students who were, like I said, emergent readers who were capable of really complex, critical thought. And they should have access to those conversations.
Jeanie: Right. Decoding and comprehension are two different things. I found the audiobook support for students in reading novels to be crucial for kids who had learning disabilities that made decoding really hard for them? But they were so into audiobooks! And so when I was a school librarian, part of my role was to expand the number of audiobooks we had, so it could support student readers. And to put them on iPads and iPhones and devices so that kids had access to them.
Sarah: Right. I think we get really hung up on like, oh this kid needs to read, and yes, they do, but you really want to make a lifelong learner. If you turn out adults who are listening to audiobooks on their drive to work every day, that’s success. That’s a great way to keep people engage in literature. At the end of the day, you don’t read To Kill a Mockingbird so you can recount the plot blow by blow. You read To Kill a Mockingbird, so you can talk about complex themes. And that’s the end goal.
Jeanie: To develop empathy.
Sarah: To develop all these. Yes, all the things.
Jeanie: Peter Langella was on the podcast last year and we talked a lot about reading as a strategy for increasing empathy. We definitely need more empathy in this world.
Sarah: We do. And there’s a lot of research backing that up, too. It’s really important. You do need to understand every single plot point and decode every single word perfectly to develop a sense of empathy.
Jeanie: To walk around in somebody else’s shoes for a little while.
Jeanie: So let’s talk about some other shoes we might walk around in! Let’s see. I thought there’s a great story collection by Ellen Oh of #diversevoices, it’s called Flying Lessons & Other Stories that I thought I would add to our list. It’s great for middle school. It’s perfect for middle schools, a perfect text collection of short stories that might be of use to our listeners and their students.
Sarah: I’ve never heard of that. What’s it about?
Jeanie: I’m not sure that there’s a common theme except that they’re diverse authors. So stories from a variety of others that create this middle grades collection from diverse voices.
Sarah: That’s awesome.
Jeanie: Yeah! Right?
Sarah: The collections are nice, too. It’s nice to have a collection that’s all by one author. When you get collection that’s by a set of authors, it makes it even easier to help students pick or really tailor a story to what you’re working on in a classroom. And then I have one more, which is Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. She is wonderful. I think her short story, “Any Further West”, I believe was one of the first short stories I taught with kids, and one of the first short stories I taught that was maybe not explicitly for kids, but it had really complex themes and also dealt a lot with poverty, which I think is important.
When we talk diversity, being on the stream a lot but it’s important to remember the class diversity we have here in Vermont. When we say people should see themselves reflected in texts, we shouldn’t shy away from stories and books that deal with people in poverty.
Jeanie: Listeners, you can’t see me smizing at Sarah, but that’s what we call it, smiling with my eyes. I’m nodding my head in agreement.
I love that as a way of talking more about the lived experience of our students and having them see themselves in literature. I’m also just really taken with this idea when we take a short story that’s intended for adults and say to the kids: this is for grown-ups, but I think you guys can handle it. This was written for adults, but you guys are awesome. I think you’ve got this, right? The motivation that brings out in kids.
Sarah: It’s huge! Something I would also add on to that when I would do this with the kids. I’d say, “This is for adults, so if you don’t understand 100% of this, that’s okay. i don’t expect you to.” Freeing kids up to kind of be okay with not completely comprehending a text. Leaning into that confusion or discomfort.
Because I think children internalize the expectation that when they read something, they have to understand it perfectly or it doesn’t account. I really want to encourage everyone to read things that are hard and challenging, that they don’t get 100%. I think there’s a lot of value to bringing in stuff that might be for adults. Although another thing I thought as I was reading this is you want to be sure that it’s appropriate.
Like, you can definitely read things that are for adults, but there are stories in here that I would not do in a middle school classroom and would maybe even be cautious about doing it in a high school classroom.
Jeanie: Yeah, you need to be choosy. I agree with that. But I love that idea of like, you’re not going to understand all of this, but you’re going to read it and understand what you understand and then we’re going to figure it out together.
Sarah: That’s okay. You know, it’s not an arithmetic problem. There’s not necessarily a right answer to what the theme is, or whether you’re in a fairy tale or on an alien planet. You can have multiple interpretations, and that’s great.
Jeanie: Yeah, it’s art!
Sarah: It’s the mark of a great piece of art if everybody agreed on what it was about would be incredibly boring.
Jeanie: When I was a school librarian, one of the big hits still, maybe it still is, was The Hunger Games. I always thought we should be reading that with “The Lottery”. That that short story–
Sarah: It has the Vermont connection, too.
Jeanie: Right. There are so much about the premise of The Hunger Games that seems built on the premise of “The Lottery”. And I just thought that would be such an interesting pairing to discuss with students.
Sarah: I remember there was a lot of pushback around The Hunger Games where people were like: this is too violent, kids shouldn’t be reading this. I remember giving a high school or the graphic novel Watchmen because I thought it would be really up his alley and he wasn’t much of a reader. The parents were not very happy because there was *one scene* of drug use.
Of course, I apologized because they are the parents and that’s their decision. But I remember thinking: what if the first time your 15-year-old child encountered the concept of drug use, it was a drawing in a book? Like The Hunger Games, like that violence in there and all the intensity and all the tension, like: encounter it in a text where you can really grapple with it. If the first time you see that stuff is not in a text but in real life, you’re going to be much less equipped.
Jeanie: These issues exist and our students know about them. They need help thinking about them and exploring them safely.
Sarah: Yeah. And in a way where there’s an adult who’s guiding them and they can talk to them because again all these students have the internet. So there’s always that.
Jeanie: I think you want to highlight another story from Dreadful Young Ladies. I want to talk briefly about the novella at the end as well.
Sarah: That sounds wonderful. This is the story, and I think it was my favorite? I think it’s also potentially the story that I would read with students. It’s “Notes on the Untimely Death of Ronia Drake”. I don’t want to give too much away, but I think it is pretty age appropriate. And I also love it because at the heart of the story, there’s this woman, Ronia Drake, and she is no longer with her husband. I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers. And what I love is that she’s okay. I’m just going to find the passage and flip to it.
Sarah: The section i’m going to read is not actually about Ronia missing her husband. It’s about now that she is not with her children 100% of the time because she and her husband are no longer together in what she does to fill her time. It’s on page 133. The story is Notes on the Untimely Death of Ronia Drake, which is a little bit of a spoilery title.
“Then Ronia Drake did not miss her children. She painted, she worked, she ran long runs along the river or the creek or from one end of the city to the other. Sometimes she ran for hours without tiring. She felt unfettered, faceless, and unnamed. Lost, yes, but there is a freedom in being lost. There is a freedom in abandonment too if you thought about it right.”
There’s so much going on there. It’s so beautiful. Also, this is not the traditional narrative of the divorced woman who’s sitting there sad. I really like that. She seemed to me Ronia Drake, she’d be one of my favorite characters in the entire book.
Jeanie: One of my favorite characters is from the end of the book in the novella. One of my favorite characters is from the end of the book in the novella. The novella is called The Unlicensed Magician. The main character in the story is Sparrow.
Sarah: Already that title, you want to read it!
Jeanie: Right. Why is the magician unlicensed?
Sarah: Who’s giving these licenses?
Jeanie: What does it even mean to be an unlicensed magician?
Sarah: So intriguing. Sparrow is a great character.
Jeanie: Sparrow is a young woman, maybe a middle school age, really. She lives in this world where there’s a comet, the Boro Comet I think it’s called, that passes by periodically. During the time of the Boro Comet, the women who are pregnant, some of them give birth to magical children. The minister — he’s called the minister of the Harry Potter variety. The minister, like the head of government.
Sarah: It’s a very 1984 world. That’s what I thought about when I read this short story.
Jeanie: George Orwell’s 1984, yeah. The minister collects the magic children to magic himself a tower to reach the comet. But Sparrow eludes the minister. I’m not going to say much further than that, but I will say that I just adored Sparrow. Because. She reminded of all that kids are capable of.
One of my key values or beliefs in the world is that kids are capable of *so much*. They’re so good and they’re so powerful, if only we get out of their way. I love this section where Sparrow’s in the church unseen. She’s often unseen, but occasionally she is seen because she’s hiding, right? She’s hiding from the minister.
Sarah: She sort of spends her life in hiding.
Jeanie: She had a couple of allies, like her father. Do you want to say something about her father?
Sarah: I just loved her father. He’s one of those flawed characters. He has, I think I can say it, he has something of a drinking problem. He loves Sparrow and shares that love with her. Again, when I was reading that, I was like, “I think a lot of kids might have someone in their life who’s not perfect. But you can still love that person and they can still love you.” Sparrow’s father, the Junk Man, is great.
Jeanie: And then her other ally in the world is Marla? And she’s the Egg Lady. She sells eggs. And Sparrow’s magic has a really positive effect on the village, but I’m going to read one instance of Sparrow’s magic in action, starting on page 202.
“Martina Strange, two rows up starts to cough. The cough tears through her chest and sends rhythmic waves coursing over her back, no one responds. She’s been coughing for years and she is old.
It’s only a matter of time. The Junk Man’s daughter stands up. She snakes through the pews, no one notices. She lays her hands on the old woman’s back. The girl is standing so close to the man sitting behind Mrs. Strange. She is practically in his lap. He doesn’t notice. The Junk Man’s daughter feels a pleasant heat between the skin of her hands and the coat of the woman.
She feels the coat, thin, and gave way and the flannel shirt and the thermal underwear and the thin jersey that probably belonged to the old woman’s husband years ago. She presses until she is skin-to-skin. There is, the girl notices, a cancer wedged in the lung, black and twisted and oozing. The heat on her hands is so hot she can feel her fingertips start to blister. She closes her eyes and doesn’t move.
The woman shudders. She lurches. She gasps, clasps her hands to her mouth and coughs so hard, the sound might have come from the center of the earth once, twice, and at that third cough out of her mouth lies a bird, black and twisted and angry, oozing pustules for eyes, talons gripping something bloody. The congregation gasps. The bird hovers in front of Mrs. Strange all rage and malevolence, spirals four times inside the four walls of the church. And with a tremendous squawk shatters the third window on the east side and flies out of sight.”
Sarah: It’s so good.
Jeanie: I love Sparrow so much. She’s constantly feeling love for her community. And she loves them so much sometimes it hurts her. This is a big good, right? She like, cures this cancer. But she does all these little goods, too. She makes people’s hens lay more eggs. She has this subtle positive impact on a community. I think about our young people have the potential to have *great* positive impact in their communities.
Sarah: I mean she’s doing random acts of kindness. Sometimes it’s deliberate, like what she does for this woman in the church, which parenthetically just the bird and the pustules. It’s so dark, too, which is great! As she walks around, people’s apples are shinier and no one can see her. And I think our kids moving through their communities, and they’re smiling and they’re helping someone. They’re picking up trash, and you can really draw a lot of parallels even if you don’t have incredible, awesome magic.
I think you can still be that sort of, positive force of kindness. I’ve certainly known many children like that. So. I think the novella is also really great. And teachable for kids, right? That’s a kid-level novella. It made me think of The Girl who Drank the Moon.
Jeanie: Let’s talk more about that. I didn’t realize this and I am ashamed of myself, not really, but I’m a little bit like, “Hey, I’m a librarian. I should have known this.” Let’s talk about Kelly Barnhill’s other work.
Sarah: I also didn’t know, but I found this book at a conference for English teachers years ago where all this stuff was being given away. I said, “What a cool title. I’ll take it.” I had no idea. I read The Girl who Drank the Moon after reading [this collection]. I felt like there were a lot of parallels, like there’s magic. The magic is forbidden. There’s benevolent yet flawed creatures who helped a magical girl. A key component of her magic is that she spreads kindness. That’s a great message because it helps to have magical powers, but you can also just spread kindness as a normal, boring, unmagical human.
Jeanie: Thank goodness.
Sarah: Yes! I know. Have you read The Girl who Drank the Moon, or what do you know about it?
Jeanie: I haven’t. No, I haven’t. The cover is really familiar. I know it won the Newbery Award, so it’s going to go on “to be read pile.”
Sarah: It’s great. It’s just a delicious, little confection of a book. Like the stories in here, it’s not just perfectly sunny Pollyanna, Disneyfied fairy tale. There’s darkness and there is complexity. I think kids really respond to that because that’s what the real world is like.
Jeanie: Well, that’s what the original fairy tales were like, too, right, a place to explore the dark side a little bit. It occurs to me that one of these stories from Dreadful Young Ladies could be a great companion text if you were to read The Girl Who Drank the Moon in a reading group or in a class…
Jeanie: … or as a read aloud.
Sarah: I think kids are, if you look at a lot of famous and beloved children’s literature, there’s elements of darkness. I was a huge fan of Green Gables‘s fan as a kid. And that story hinges on the main character being an abandoned orphan. Kids want to see texts that reflect the real world in some ways.
Jeanie: I was in Prince Edward Island this summer. And we listened to Anne of Green Gables as we drove around the island because it’s set there. And as we were driving around listening to it, I heard it in a different way than I had as a kid. I heard the trauma. When I was a kid reading it, I heard the joy of it but I could feel Anne’s pain a little more this time.
Sarah: I think a pivotal plot point is that she’s not sure if the family who have taken her in are going to keep her or not, which is… dark. I’ve read every single thing that that author has ever written. A lot of them are really scary and sad, but that’s what I wanted to read as a kid. You know, I wanted to read stories about kids who experienced real things.
And I think that’s, like I said, I think that’s what kids respond to is texts that reflect the way the world really is and maybe with a little gloss of magic over, but don’t cover up the dark parts.
Jeanie: Harry Potter wouldn’t be Harry Potter if his parents hadn’t been murdered by Voldemort.
Sarah: Harry Potter is very dark. Hunger Games. What are some of the other? I mean some of the other big YA, like all the dystopian fiction which is a whole other conversation. That’s what interests people, that’s why we love ghost stories and fantasy.
Jeanie: Listeners, we want to know: are you reading short stories aloud or with your class in some way? Are you giving your students a range of short stories to explore? How are you using short stories in the middle grades classroom or in the high school classroom? Let us know. Give us a holler. Send us an email. We want to know more about what that looks like.
Sarah: I’d also love to see if there’s any short stories or collections you love that we somehow didn’t touch on today, what those are? I always want new stuff to read and new stuff to share with educators.
Jeanie: Excellent. Or, are you sharing stories written for adults with your readers, with your learners? Let us know. Sarah, thank you so much for bringing this glorious book to my attention and for taking the time to talk to me about the mystery of it and about low ceilings and… I’m going to say that again, Audrey. Sarah, thank you so much for bringing this glorious title to my attention and for taking the time to talk to me about the mystery of it and also about low floors and high ceilings. I really appreciate it.
Sarah: Thank you so much. This is a great experience and I’m glad we got to talk about this book.
#vted Reads is a twice monthly podcast hosted by Jeanie Philips. Each episode talks about books for, with and by Vermont educators. Subscribe to #vted Reads on iTunes, Android, Soundcloud, or wherever fine audio entertainment is vended.