Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I Heart Scott Westerfeld

Yup, I admit it, I've become a fan girl. I always expected it to happen in high school or junior high or maybe college, but I missed all the crushes on Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio and even now, I can't really think of someone whose looks would make me swoon, or blog at least.

But Scott Westerfeld, now, he's da MAN.

It's a bit of a round-a-bout story. I teach 7th grade, which means access to bookfairs. It also means that the Gremlin does a lot of her Christmas shopping at the Dec. bookfair, which is how a copy of Uglies ended up under the tree that cold morning. I read it, enjoyed it, passed it to the Gremlin, who started it, then asked her teacher to read it to the class, which she did, and they loved it, so when I got it back, I read it to all my 7th grade classes. (Yes, 13-yr-olds like to be read to, just not by their parents.)

I've shared several books with my students over the years. Most of them appeal to a certain group: just the girls, or just the boys, or the high level kids, or the low level kids, or just the Hispanics, etc. Uglies is the first book I've shared that every kid, without exception, loved. That puts Westerfeld in a catagory all his own right there.

What was the appeal? The concept, about a world where everyone gets plastic surgery at 16 and becomes gorgeous, is intriguing. The details, like tricks and hoverboards, appeal to kids. Anything that has teens beating the adults is going to be popular with students, but Uglies has the added bonus of presenting the adults as an intelligent threat--it doesn't offend the adult audience by portraying them as idiots. So when Tally succeeds, it is a greater success.

But I think Westerfeld's real genius in the book is his structure. He knows exactly how and when to end a chapter. Writing guides will tell authors to end a chapter or scene on a sort of cliffhanger so the reader wants to go on. It's the "little bit further" syndrome that cost me so much sleep in high school and college (and after). Westerfeld is the finest example I've seen of putting that advice into action. Hardly a day went by that students did not beg for another chapter--please, just one more chapter--and when time allowed, I wasn't opposed to indulging them. After all, I wouldn't read the book aloud five times if I didn't love it.

Some students bought or checked out their own copies of Uglies and followed along (and read ahead). Others not only read ahead but then checked out Pretties from the library so they could really be on top of things. I haven't seen such literary enthusiasm among teens since Harry Potter hit the shelves--except that I think Uglies and Pretties (And Specials, which I haven't read yet) will last longer. These are books that teachers will want sets of so they can read and discuss them and get the students thinking about utopias, beauty, and how we see ourselves and our world.

My hope for Specials, along with a continuation of excellent plotting and storytelling, is a real rescue for Shay. She's had her life so messed up. Of course, so has Tally, but Tally seems to have more control, while Shay is swept along in her wake, whether either wants that or not. However it goes, whatever happens, I am confident it will be an excellent read.

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