Jackals and Spies

I was in high school the first time I read Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal, a rollicking adventure about a shadowy hit man’s attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Fast paced, groovy, and allegedly adult, the 1971 novel ticked all the boxes those tomes I was reading in Mr. Shinkle’s English class did not. This was no Scarlet Letter. Ethan Frome couldn’t put together a sniper rifle. 1960s Paris looked and felt nothing like Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge.

DAYOFTHEJACKAL1I was a solid student; no one would have described me as a reluctant reader; give me Turgenev and I would read Turgenev, but the truth of the matter was that ever since I’d left The Hardy Boys behind somewhere before my twelfth birthday, the books I read tended to be for class. The Day of the Jackal changed that, at least a bit, and I realized that reading could be fun again.

Two decades later, when I found myself teaching a reading intervention class, I remembered that hit man, and the value of giving students choice in what they read really sank in. Mine were not students for whom Melville held any cachet. Heck, Jack London bored most of them and he wrote The Sea Wolf! When they had the opportunity to select books that they wanted to read, however, they were more willing to put in the time to actually read them.

It was a lesson I brought to my other English classes, where we still read books together (no one should be forced to go upriver in Conrad’s Congo alone) and I built opportunities for student choice.

In a twelfth grade world literature class, where we traveled around the globe continent by continent, students could choose any book length text from a bank of authors given to them at the start of a unit. As we were reading poetry and short fiction from Africa together in class, for instance, the list of possible authors for their out of class reading might include Ayi Kwei Armah, Chinua Achebe, or Nadine Gordimer.

At the end of the unit students wrote about their own author and book, making connections to what we’d read in class, and then, as a culminating activity, they gathered in book groups based on what they’d read. At one table a group of students who had each read a different book by Haruki Murakami might discuss commonalities they saw in his various works. To hear students have expert discussions juxtaposing Sputnik Sweetheart and The Windup Bird Chronicle was energizing, and just as rich (if not more) than our shared conversations on Virginia Woolf or Mark Twain.

As adults, those of us who read most often chart our own literary course. That high schooler I was, quietly enjoying The Day of the Jackal, graduated and moved on to other adventures. In college I read the classics, voraciously to be honest, but still found time for more popular fare.

Perfect SpyJohn le Carre was one on that pop fiction list. I enjoyed the efficiency and sense of Cold War era certainty of Tom Clancy (who a friend of mine once described as writing “novels … very liberal in nature. Consider: Clancy’s characters, whether in the military, politics, or intelligence, are capable, hard-working, well-intentioned, and intelligent. It’s like reading a political fantasy, where everyone has the good of the nation at heart, is competent at their jobs, and sincerely wants what is best for the country as a whole, not just themselves”) and I dug the palpable tension of Stephen King, but it was le Carre’s A Perfect Spy that showed me that popular fiction could include books of consequence. A Perfect Spy was never a book I assigned as a teacher, though I have no doubt that with its complex narrative voice and poetic sensibility it could have supported discussions as rich as any in my high school classroom.

Perhaps it’s because of my own affection for pop fiction that I’m a fan of bringing academia out of the ivory tower. Part of a teacher’s role is helping students see their world critically, and one way of supporting this is to give them freedom and choice.

By that I not only mean freedom to choose the books they’re most interested in, but also freedom from the judgement that one work is regal while another’s gold foil makes it cheap. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale started out on the bestseller list before it became a staple of high school reading lists. Mass market paperbacks can (and sometimes do) hold more than simply mysteries or romance.

handmaid's taleCertainly there are degrees of litr’y merit, but an acceptance that literature can live in a supermarket magazine aisle strikes me as a positive quality not an indictment of taste.

I still want to explore Heart of Darkness in the company of fellow adventurers, but along the way I’d love to hear about their own travels to worlds less dark.

I reread The Day of the Jackal and A Perfect Spy this year, curious how my adult self might see them, and was pleased that I enjoyed both as much as I remembered liking them in my youth. I’d never consciously thought how much less silly le Carre’s book was than Forsythe’s, and noticing it now I chalked one up in the favorable column of growing older.

Rereading was a choice, and a good one, not like supporting those students who pick up a paperback because they think they’ll like it. Reading can and should be fun too. Along with travels to Wessex or Yoknapatawpha County, it’s healthy to encourage readers to spend a little time with jackals and spies.

Hit It

057-moon-knight-26-bill-sienkiewiczI was in middle school when Moon Knight #26 hit the comic book shelves. A seventh grader who liked reading Edgar Allan Poe in Ms. Sarver’s English class, but honestly not too much beyond what was assigned to me at Parrish Junior High, I remember picking up the comic and being confronted with something more relevant, more real, and at least as literary as “The Black Cat.”

I happened on the comic book again a couple of weeks ago, buried in a bankers box in my parents’ garage. Captured again by the artwork on the cover, I opened it up and re-read it with the eyes of the middle school principal I’ve become.

What struck me as I read was how important stories can be during the transitional time that is middle school. Beyond Roald Dahl and not yet ready for Shakespeare, though both authors sometimes make it onto the middle school reading list, students in middle school span a large range of maturity and reading levels. Recent decades have seen dystopian literature flourish, catering to the sense of fairness in our tweens. Vampires, unreliable narrators, and steampunk have all found or lost popularity.

For me, as for so many boys, reading in school meant reading stories I wasn’t really interested in. The twelve year old I was fixated on justice as much as kids today, but Dickens and du Maurier didn’t yet strike a chord. Jack London? Maybe. Poe? A bit.

Moon Knight? Heck yeah.

Written by Doug Moench, the Moon Knight story pictured on the cover is titled “Hit It.” It’s set against a jazz motif, which I most certainly didn’t appreciate as a youngster, but dug as an adult, and follows a man assaulting people on the streets of New York. Flashbacks told through Bill Sienkiewicz’s striking drawings show the man’s own childhood abuse and dare to equate the caped hero Moon Knight, at least through the man’s eyes, with his abusive father.

As an adult rereading the story, I realized just how much the story was an indictment of violence in contemporary society. Riffing like jazz musicians within the established structure of a superhero comic book, this author and illustrator pushed boundaries and challenged readers to face something serious.

Crazy, daring, unlike anything I’d read before, in twenty pages Sienkiewicz and Moench were able to shatter the expectations of a comic book, or any story a twelve year old like me had read. This was contemporary, morally challenging, and took on a grown up subject matter.

And it did so with (literary) style.

The result was the result good literature can provide: broadened understanding, new perspective, and a memorable story.

In retrospect, “Hit It” may have been the best 75 cents I ever spent.

As I talk with readers at Diegueño Middle School I love seeing them excited about the stories that they love, from oddball detectives to anime. Their teachers, gifted as my own Ms. Sarver was -though less constrained by textbooks and tradition- inspire them to engage with the texts, ask meaningful questions, and think critically about the world around them. They aren’t limited to reading in class; our library does a brisk business in YA fiction, and it’s common to see kids carrying novels around on campus.

The students I talk with read beyond books as well, pages and pages of print on portable devices, volumes of text (well, texts), and paragraphs of information online that relate to their own lives. I don’t worry that kids don’t have enough to read, or really that they don’t read enough. Our world has become a more literate one (in its own way), even as Dickensian sentences fade away like the images on thirty-five year old newsprint.

mk1As I closed the cover of that comic book, and tucked it away until my own son is about twelve, I sent a quiet wish out to Khonshu, or whomever the kids today think of as a literary deity. I hope that every young reader, male and female, finds her or his own “Hit It.” I wish them all a Ms. Sarver to inspire them in class and a Moon Knight of their own to help them love reading and thinking about what they’ve read outside of class.

It’s not always easy to know what the perfect story is for any one middle school student, but they know when they find it. It’ll hit them.