Saturday, August 9, 2014

Seventh Grade Common Core Novel: A Long Walk To Water

I was dreading reading  Linda Sue Park's A Long Walk To Water for a couple of reasons. Part of it is that it was presented as a book dealing with refugee issues. I was dreading reading what I was anticipating as a NPR-style presentation of refugee problems from the eyes of an American middle-class perspective. Something akin to, "These refugee problems are terrible. And I could barely get cell service at the camp!" Describing the issue without living the issue. I was happily surprised by this book, but unfortunately also very disappointed.

The good aspect of the book is the perspective of the character of one of the two narrative strains, Salvation. His journey after his school is attacked by rebels is harrowing and terrifying. You get a genuine sense of how dangerous his life was, wandering throughout war-torn Northern Africa. That part I appreciated greatly. No citizen of America can read something like that without saying, “There but for the grace of God goes me."

The problems with the book though are many, and this is what makes me question this novel as an addition to the Common Core. The first is that it's a very thin book, only 120 pages of text. That is an appropriate length for a slower to average reader, but any seventh grader who is skilled in reading would blast through this book in a couple of hours. I don't think length means better, but if I'm going to be spending an entire unit on a book, I expected something meatier.

I have an issue as well with the narrative voice. I'm going to quote the book some to give an example:

Salva wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. He could see the bushes; they did not look too far away.

Uncle reached into his bag. He took out a tamarind and handed it to Salva.

Chewing on the sour juicy fruit made Salva feel better.

I think the scene itself is fine, but the voice is filled with quick, choppy sentences. Some of that is okay, but after a while (I wondered why the beaks were even there considering that we were still on the same action.) that seems intrusive. It creates a odd narrative flow, especially with the very short paragraphs. That combined with the odd lack of contractions make the text stilted.

Plus, Salva is traveling through what for kids in America would seem like an alien landscape. Unfortunately the details are relatively few. When we read about Salva's thinking about his family on the same page to make himself feel better, we don't get any scenes with his family to enlighten the reader about what that might look like. This would fill in details about Salva's life that are missing but also make that moment more powerful. The missing details get even worse later in the book where the story makes leaps of several years. I understand it doesn't want to spend much time with Salva's life in refugee camps and focus more on his transitions between places, but those gaps were abrupt. I needed to hear more about the poor conditions in the camps to make the transitions more meaningful.

There's a second narrative in this novel which takes place many years after the first. It's the story of Nya, a girl who much spend much of her day fetching water for her family, which is where the book gets its title. Again, the story is self is a compelling and interesting one, but the storytelling spends so much time with that twice-daily journey Nya must make that it neglects giving the reader a better sense of what her life is when not making that journey. I understand that it by necessity must address this one aspect, but the story doesn't give much of a payoff in terms of what that water means. Yes, it's water, but how does Nya's family use it? Tell me more and give that journey a greater value.

Overall I think this book is a good book to read but with caveats. With the Common Core Curriculum so focused on close text reading, I wonder why EngageNY is spending time with a book whose close text leaves much to be desired? I don't know a better book that deals with the same idea, but this one makes me wonder. I'll have more to say on it as time goes on.

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