Book Snap #116

Title: Roxy

Authors: Neal and Jarrod Shusterman

Date Read: August 3, 2022

Two Snaps!

There are four stories woven into the Shusterman’s brilliantly conceived novel, Roxy. Brother and sister, Isaac and Ivy Ramey, are accompanied as narrators by two anthropomorphized drugs: Roxy (OxyContin) and Addison (Adderall). The siblings recount their experiences with prescription drugs while Roxy and Addison unfold the tales of themselves and their party-going friends who frequent an exclusive club that pits them in a competition to get their ‘plus-one’ into the VIP Lounge.

I very much loved this book, and contend that it is essential reading for teens. North Americans are in the torment of an opioid crisis. Among people aged 12 or older in 2020, 3.3 percent (or 9.3 million people) misused prescription opioids in the past year and opioids were involved in 68,630 overdose deaths in 2020 (74.8% of all drug overdose deaths).1 Until recently, the term “drug use” typically referred to illegal substances like cocaine, heroin or crystal meth. Today’s teens are more likely to get hooked on prescription medication, especially painkillers. Most often teens receive opioid prescriptions after dental procedures and sports injuries. Similarly, adolescent abuse of Ritalin and Adderall is largely driven by the belief that these drugs can improve academic performance. This is more urban myth than reality; it is true that stimulants will heighten energy and focus in the short-term, but after the brain adjusts to the presence of such drugs, these effects are weakened and become more elusive.2

This pervasive problem is addressed in both the dedication: “For those in the throes of addiction, may you find the strength to fight off the demons who pose as gods“; and in the authors’ opening note that reads in part: “It is our hope that everyone who reads Roxy will leave the story with a clearer understanding of how insidious, seductive, and dangerous these drugs can be.”

Isaac and Ivy have relatable teen lives and plausible experiences that lead them to be prescribed opioids. Isaac receives Roxy (OxyContin) after a painful soccer injury, and Ivy takes Addison (Adderall) to help her focus on increasing her failing grades so she can graduate on time. With a popular post-modern nod, we begin at the end: “They tag your toe with the last name on your ID, and your first initial: Ramey, I.”(4) and then flash back through time unravelling how this pivotal moment came to be. Who dies: Isaac or Ivy?

Roxy introduces herself with confident self awareness : “I am so hot right now. And everyone knows it. It’s like I own the world. It has no choice but to yield to my gravity” (16). You enter the party with her, where: “Al greets [you] at the door, a glass of champagne in each hand… Al’s older than the rest of us,” Roxy amiably explains, “been around longer, but he carries his age well” (16). At the bar, you can catch a glimpse of Addison: “He’s dressed in a conspicuous style, like he belongs to a yacht club that his father owns. All prestige and privilege” (17). Also spotted: Molly, Mary Jane, Rita, and the Coke brothers, Charlie and Dusty. Each of them act predictably, like the drugs to which their names nod, and readers get a multi-sensory tour of how they work. For example,  we find Addison sitting at a piano recital with his older sister, Rita, comparatively ordinary next to their cousins: Crys, and the twins, in their “white silk suits and flashy jewelry, lounging in a private booth like they own the world, making the party come to them” (33) they instead, calm kids, help them focus– play the piano flawlessly, or as Rita points to her own ward in the audience, sit still through a performance.

The book is awash in delightful craft moves. There are six character-titled “interludes”, each matched with their molecular formulas (you can Google them– they are hyper-linked in this post for your convenience) and explore further the chemical literature of the National Library of Medicine‘s entries for each compound: Mary Jane (C21H30O2); Dusty & Charlie (C17H21NO4); Lucy (C20H25N3O); Phineas (C17H19NO3); Vic (C18H21NO3) and Hyde (CH2O). On their own, they provide poignant personified snapshots of marijuana and it’s legalization and medical use; cocaine, who boasts of his long historical significance, including once being the key ingredient in Coca-Cola (until replaced by caffeine); the powerful taunting of an acid trip; morphine as the Prince of Palliative Care, vicodin (Roxy’s brother) and even formaldehyde, the final drug used, when the character is embalmed for their funeral.

The chapter headings are a form of cryptic poetry, readers find new words using just some of the letters of a longer word or phrase. Like: Naloxone (alone); Roxy Can’t Contain Herself (oxycontin); or Psychopharmacologisticexpialidocious (malicious). Hyde’s final interlude is written as a poem, straying from the story-telling of the others, and has within it a well-known verse. Not a book for Audible.

This is a must-have title for the shelves of high school teachers and for parents who want to start conversations with their young adult readers at home.

1 Centers for Disease Control and PreventionNational Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2022

2The Right Step | A Promises Behavioral Health Company | Drug Addiction Treatment Centers Texas, 2022

Book Snap #113: The Anthropocene Reviewed

My last post was a year ago. That seems likely, and also sort of sad. It was a long, drawn-out, painful year.

We went back to school hopeful: cheeks shining from summer’s kiss– masks firmly affixed over mouth and nose. It paled in comparison to the promise of the new year: a jumble of in-person learning, quarantines, lock-downs, sickness, and even a strike. My desire to read dwindled in lock step with my depleted energy and my To Be Read pile lay dormant and dust-covered. (1 star).

I, optomisitically, agreed to participate in a book relay hosted by our district literacy leads, but more often had to pass the novel onward at deadline before making it completely to the end. I repeatedly fell in bed exhausted after reading Isaac his bedtime stories, (I could review and recommend a multitude of Gordon Korman’s novels for fourth-graders!) neglecting the books calling to me from my own night stand. However, one of the books offered in the relay was John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. I just purchased a copy, because, like many of the relay titles, I didn’t get to finish before the deadline. But what I did read, I loved! And thinking about it again inspired me to write this post, a year since my last.

When it first arrived in school mail, I had been setting my students up to write reviews of their own. We had been exploring all kinds of mentor texts: we read reviews of songs and albums; video games; movies and TV shows; sports plays; and books. This has always been one of my favourite pieces to write with my students. Two reviews that remain my past-all-time-favourites include one that analysed Matthew McConaughey’s performance in Dazed and Confused. The essay begins with the perfect hook: All right, all right, all right. And second, the review of Steph Curry’s basketball acumen where I first discovered what a G.O.A.T was; and the criteria with which to evalute one. Green cracked open yet another realm of choice and I couldn’t have been more excited to share these ideas with my students.

I had noticed the title in passing (it remained on best-seller lists and was promininetly displayed in many book-selling venues), and wondered: “what the heck is an Anthropocene?” Green explains: “The Anthropocene is a proposed term for the current geological age, in which humans have profoundly shaped and reshaped the planet and its biodiversity” (p.6). Green imparts that having been employed for several years at Booklist, reviewing hundreds of books, he became well-versed in the style and format of a review (they specifically hold a tight word count of 175 words or less.) He then started to notice that “everyone had become a reviewer, and everything had become a subject for review” (p.7). Indeed. I often seek out reviews of: restaurants (hello, Yelp!); vacation ideas and accommodations (hmmm, TripAdvisor?)… A small gripe: 1 star for the review in the Fodor’s guide of Japan (print edition from forever ago when I was there) that recommended (and convinced my genki companion and I) to “slide down” the volcanic ash of Mt. Fuji, which turned out to be terrible, awful, dreadful advice. But I digress. Of course, Facebook and Twitter have become platforms for all kinds of verciferous reviews — of products, services, businesses, opinions, politics, behaviour– everyone is a reviewer and everything is a subject for review!

Green walks through what he knew and what he discovered about review writing, which was powerful in helping my students create strong reviews themselves. When he reviewed books, “I” was never in the review: How many times have students also been told to use this disinterested observer stance? Too many. And the result is wooden writing. It was his wife who {thoughtfully} surmised: “…in the Anthropocene, there are no disinterested observers; there are only particpants… when people write reviews, they are really writing a kind of memoir— here’s what my expereince was eating at this restaurant or getting my hair cut at this barbershop” (p.8). And so, amidst a global pandemic, Green wrote about songs, comets, scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers, Diet Dr. Pepper, teddy bears, air-conditioning, the Internet, sunsets, CNN, whispering, Kentucky Bluegrass, Googling strangers, and so much more of what the anthropocene has to offer. Each essay embodies Green’s quirky vibe, lots of thoughtful details and compelling support, and a final 5-star rating. I highly reccommend you listen to my favourite essay (from what I have had the opportunity to read so far), “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” on John Green’s podcast: The Anthropocene Reviewed; my students and I read this together to inspire our writing. They wrote thoughtful and passionate reviews on all kinds of artifacts from the anthropocene, including: soccer shoes, french fries, napping, roadtrip-playlists, movie scenes, and more!

I offer you my own Anthropocene-inspired reviews using the tight Booklist word count! (A fun quick write exercise for students (or playful writers) too):

This Morning. I was fully prepared to do Teddy’s morning walk: I had a podcast cued up and earbuds charged; a tank top and joggers, left conveniently, on the floor next to my bed– ready to wear collection. But, Teddy-the-adorable-fluffy-personal-trainer is in high demand! He trotted off with Ben before I could get my feet on the floor. Awake, and rested, and presented with new possibilities for the morning, I hopped on my yoga mat. Delicious stretch! Deep, centering breaths. Letting (more) go. Enjoyed a hot coffee with my Starbucks Almond and Oat Non-Diary Caramel Macchiato Liquid Coffee Enhancer (that name is so gob smackingly pretentious, but it’s so delicious!). Got the Wordle in three tries: impressive! Overall, I’d give this morning a solid 4 and half stars (for the missed the walk in the woods!)

Beach vacation. Sand flats, flip-flops, tide is high, salt water, time off, barefoot. Northumberland Strait, lobster rolls, read and fetch, Tomohawks, bonfires, freckles. Marshmallows, peaceful place, reading books, swimming. Breathe the air! Sea glass, local brews (Tatabrew & Leo), poker-face, Isaac’s omlettes, hose your feet, Jerk chicken, tired doggy, lighthouse! Birthday lunch, old friends, haskap berries, sweet earth, doodle duo. Beach vacay? 5 stars! (Writer’s craft move: all evidence, unexplained: A list of what makes a perfect 5!)

Walks with Teddy. It has been scorching lately– 39 degrees Celcius (literally, in the shade.) That calls for a leisurely walk through the woods so as not to overheat Teddy (or me, for that matter), but he is only minimally slowed by heat. Slow walks are for flip-flops instead of sneakers– I like barefoot, or as close to it, as much as possible, all summer. I listen to a podcast (Arm Chair Expert is my clear favourite), moving slowly and feeling part of the conversation. I breathe more deeply; inhaling fresh air, earth, flowers. When coaxed to (finally) slow down, Teddy gets busy sniffing it all in too! Walking with Ted is always 5 stars, although accumulated evidence may vary by season, weather, or location.

Lunch with a special friend. I needed to connect with someone special in person yesterday, because texting doesn’t give hugs, and sometimes you really need them, and I have really missed hugging, and it was truly lovely. The day sizzled but we were cool ladies in sundresses (love an excuse to get a little more dressed up on a summer day!) the waitress complimented us as we arrived. We had a nice umbrella-ed table at The Lighthouse, with a view of the Wolastoq, enjoyed a Tickle Fight and savoured every last morsel of lunch; watermelon salad and flatbreads. We shared recommendations for documentaries to watch and podcasts to listen to. We connected, we talked, we hugged. A blistering hot 5 stars.

Snapshot: Pandemic Teaching


I am sad. They have officially cancelled school for the remainder of the year.

I feel lost. My identity is very much wrapped up in my teaching. I love what I do.

I miss my students and colleagues, I miss the excitement of interacting with people everyday and exploring their curiosity and ideas. I miss being able to commiserate with my friends. Moving online with my team and students is not the same as being together in our school. People are anxious and overwhelmed and not sure how to best move forward.

It could be any day of the week, as we have lost all of the markers that delineate one day from another. It’s like living in the movie GroundHog Day. I believe today is Tuesday, because Mommy School was up and running, the emails from school have not stopped and I think Isaac might have an online piano lesson this afternoon.

There are many lessons that will come with this time, I hope we will be better able to see them as we try to move forward through this quagmire. I will try to write through the successes as we continue through.

I did want to link this article from Edutopia, as it has lots more great YA Book Recommendations, that might be just what you (or someone you’re spending your days with) needs right now.

“22 Young Adult Novels to Help Students Process the Pandemic (or Forget It for a Bit)” Check it out here. Order online from your local book store!

Book Snap #65

Title: The Testaments

Author: Margaret Atwood

Date Read: October 5, 2019

Two snaps!

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop wrote in a scholarly essay a powerful metaphor for books:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 1(3), ix–xi.

This metaphor speaks to me so deeply. I often ask my students about the books that they have read and when they have found windows, mirrors or sliding glass doors. These can be fascinating and illuminating conversations.

I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time when I was seventeen years old. It was a terrifying plot that offered no hope to a young teen about to head off to university the following fall. I accepted that this book was only a window, even a sliding-glass door, into a world that Atwood had created– absolute fiction, not possible, especially not in my lifetime. (Read this timely essay by Atwood about the novel in the time of Trump.)

I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale last summer, and it suddenly looked much more like a mirror. The book, if you are unfamiliar, is classified as a dystopian novel set in a totalitarian regime called Gilead, and centers around a handmaid named Offred. Her name derives from the possessive form “of Fred”; handmaids are forbidden to use their birth names and must echo the male, or master, whom they serve. The Handmaid’s Tale explores themes of women in subjugation in a patriarchal society and the various means by which these women attempt to gain individuality and independence.

Many of the central plots of the novel are playing out simultaneously on the news. The book no longer seems fictional.

Women, and their bodies, are the objects of men in the book; likewise, in today’s political climate, rights over women’s bodies are argued over by (primarily) old, white men in government. Gilead came to be because the government instilled a fear of “others” in the masses. The same is now happening in much of the world. Aunt Lydia, the woman tasked with brainwashing the future Handmaids to perform their government-ordained duties, repeats part of a Bible verse to them over and over: “Blessed are the meek.” Offred points out that she never finishes the verse: “…for they shall inherit the earth.” Although not officially government-ordained, much of the opposition to homosexuality that exists in the world today — and especially in America— is supported by certain Bible passages. In Gilead, women are brainwashed to believe that any sexual assault they may have experienced was their own fault; a result of their dressing or acting a certain way. When female survivors of sexual assault attempt to report their attacks, now, in real life, more often than not they are questioned about what they were wearing or how much they drank.

The Testaments picks up fifteen years later in Gilead. One of the key players is Aunt Lydia– who tells the story of how she became a high ranking aunt and what she is prepared to do with that power. We also get the stories of two new young women: Agnes, who has grown up in Gilead and is preparing to be married to the Commander; and Daisy, a young woman who was smuggled out of Gilead and into Canada. It is a thrilling exploration of Gilead from within and outside of its borders, one many readers have long awaited. It is also immensely more hopeful, and in that way, it rests easier to be a mirror of our experiences. If you were left bereft as the van door slammed on Offred, pick up The Testaments and go back to Gilead with Margaret Atwood.

Book Snap #54

Title: Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities

Author: John Warner

Date Read: July 10, 2019

Two Snaps

This title drew me in– it tackles a problem I have wrestled with myself as an English Language Arts teacher. Discussion of the book had a lot of traction on Twitter amongst many people in my personal learning network. I had to read it.

Warner, a college writing professor, posits that much of the writing we ask students to do are simply imitations of writing. Writing is a skill. It is also a process that allows us to think and to respond to the world at large. It is a struggle, and it is difficult. But, as Warner argues: “[We] should also operate under the assumption that every student needs to prepare for the long haul of life as a writer because in truth, these days, everyone is a writer” (139).

The crux of Warner’s thesis is that the greatest barriers in the way of building better student writers are systemic. These include ingrained practices like the misguided fixation on grades– which intensify poor student mental health, add intense stress, provoke anxiety and heighten depression; a panoptic surveillance of student academics and behaviour realized in unrealistic “real-time data” portals; the standardization of testing that favours memorization and regurgitation; educational fads and misuses of technology.

For so long, school has been about performance divorced from learning; so it’s difficult to find value in anything other than an A.

Warner. p.41

He offers a thorough examination of these and other disincentives that manufacture an unappealing atmosphere, a grind– a place where teenagers, especially, are bound to affirm, “school sucks.” Devoid of curiosity and engagement, personal autonomy and motivation… is it any wonder that students don’t risk and experiment to build their skill as writers?

Warner contends that writing makes us better and more contented humans. Through writing, we can develop a capacity for empathy. It is an essential skill for our students because it enables them to act with more personal agency. And so, he devotes the last half of the book to providing examples of valuable writing experiences and approaches to help writers develop their skill– while still tackling further systemic barriers in a new framework.

Like many of the writers tackling educational issues I care about, Warner maintains that grades are antithetical to learning. He had me at hello on that one. He further claims that they are also demotivating, unfair, and maddeningly imprecise. They fail to reflect what a student has actually learned and they incentivize cheating and plagiarism. He, likewise, advocates for grading practices that emphasize self-reflection and agency. I thank all of my colleagues in the English department who have conspired with me on our own journey tackling this very issue. I hope this book validates your hard work.

Moreover, writing is a process, not a product. It takes patience and time. Let’s take the time.

Students who feel accepted and empowered, who are given a voice in their community that is heard and respected, are more engaged with school, more committed to learning, and more giving of themselves to those they are surrounded by.

Warner, p.240

Read Warner’s essay: “Kill the 5 Paragraph Essay.”