Support from Educators
TWISTED received a flood of support from educators. Here is one of the most detailed explanations for why the book deserves a place in the high school curriculum.
Excerpts from a statement defending the use of TWISTED in the classroom by James Blasingame, Associate Professor of English, Arizona State University, a former high school English teacher and principal:
“My personal interest in Twisted, however, goes far beyond just appreciating it as one more great book from Laurie Halse Anderson. Twisted was my pick for the best book of the year, and so it appeared on the English Journal Honor List in September of 2008, which I and Drs. Alleen Nilsen and Ken Donelson create each year. I selected Twisted for two reasons: (1) It helps to teach right from wrong, and (2) It is ideal for improving students’ English language arts skills and for helping them to exceed state educational standards. Please let me explain why, and remember that, as the Federal Courts decided way back in 1933 when James Joyce’s book, Ulysses, now considered a classic, was banned from U.S. shores, “a work must be judged as a whole and not on the basis of its parts.” For this reason, please be sure to read all of Twisted before you pass judgment. I believe most parents would want their children to read it and learn from it if they would only read the whole book themselves.
Twisted has a highly moral message at its heart. As the novel begins, Tyler, the protagonist (aka “Nerd Boy”), has never been popular or invited to any of the “cool” kids’ illegal and highly dangerous drinking parties. Over the summer, however, Tyler has packed on pounds of muscle from doing hard manual labor, and he catches the eye of the social queen of his high school, Bethany Milbury, a young woman of less than perfect character. The moral climax of the novel comes toward the end when Bethany invites Tyler to one of those “the parents are gone for the weekend and their house becomes a drunken orgy” parties. In a state of total inebriation, Bethany leads Tyler into a bedroom and attempts to coerce him into having sex with her. He is tempted, but he decides that this would be wrong, something he would not want to live with for the rest of his life, and he refuses. He leaves the party with his conscience and character intact.
As the book ends, Tyler has weathered the storm of social fallout from his “uncool” decision and returned to his real friends who love him for who he is, a smart kid who has a conscience. I wish more books would warn kids about these unsupervised parties. As a high school principal, I sometimes saw lives irreparably damaged by the foolishness of a moment at parties like this. We need this book, and we need to get it into the hands of our young people. I do not mean to be preachy (although I am a former Sunday School teacher and Boy Scout leader), but there’s nothing wrong with having some of the books we have kids read in school center on a little good old-fashioned morality. To the folks who leafed through the book and saw a dirty word or thought the beer party was inappropriate, I have to say, “Oh, my gosh! You are really missing the whole point of this novel! Please read the whole thing.”
The academic potential for teaching Twisted is extremely high; in fact, it is a sure thing for getting kids to raise their literacy levels. Please, let me explain; I am on the committee that wrote the Arizona Department of Education State Standards for the English Language Arts, as well as the committee that is rewriting them to align with the modern expectations of universities and the workplace as outlined by the National Assessment on Educational Progress (NAEP), and the Common Core Standards for College and Career Readiness Initiative from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in partnership with Achieve, ACT and the College Board. Let me share a passage from those national core standards, which may very soon be adopted by your state and all states. This passage refers to what students need to have read by the time they graduate from high school in order to be “college and career ready.”
B. Quality: The literary and informational texts chosen for study should be rich in content and in a variety of disciplines. All students should have access to and grapple with works of exceptional craft and thought both for the insights those works offer and as models for students’ own thinking and writing. These texts should include classic works that have broad resonance and are alluded to and quoted often, such as influential political documents, foundational literary works, and seminal historical and scientific texts. Texts should also be selected from among the best contemporary fiction and nonfiction and from a diverse range of authors and perspectives.
Please note that these standards call for students to have read both the classics and “the best contemporary fiction . . . from a diverse range of authors and perspectives” by the time they graduate from high school. Getting those students to engage successfully with an award winning author like Laurie Halse Anderson and an award winning book like Twisted will be easy. Getting students to engage with a novel written hundreds of years ago, however, and about characters and situations that students cannot relate to can be very difficult. As scholars of adolescent literature point out over and over, young adult novels like Twisted can actually help students understand the classics. This instructional approach, which is mentioned in my book but is more deeply explained in From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges Between Young Adult Literature and the Classics (Herz and Gallo, Greenwood Press, 2005), pairs classics with modern young adult novels so that students can use the modern story and characters as a bridge to their interpretation of the older story. Some examples of these pairings include John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) with Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising (2000), Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) with Gary Paulsen’s Soldier’s Heart (2000), or another pairing which has been used successfully around the country after two professors created a great unit called “Deceit, Despair, and Dejection centering on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (1999) (take a look at Brigid Patrizi and Judith Hayn’s unit Deceit, Despair, and Dejection, which was composed when they were professors in teacher preparation at Loyola University in Chicago).
Please let me return to the Common Core Standards for College and Career Readiness and refer to two specific standards. Students should be able to:
- Draw upon relevant prior knowledge to enhance comprehension, and note when the text expands on or challenges that knowledge.
- Apply knowledge and concepts gained through reading to build a more coherent understanding of a subject, inform reading of additional texts, and to solve problems.
If a more appropriate book than Twisted exists to help students learn to draw upon their “prior knowledge,” recognize when that knowledge is expanded on or challenged in a book, or to “[a]pply knowledge and concepts gained through reading . . . to solve problems,” I don’t know what it is.
In his landmark study of 974 students in 64 middle and high school classrooms in 19 schools in five states, Arthur Applebee and his research cohort from the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement found that what genre of literature students read was not the determinant of how much their ability to perform complex literacy tasks improved. They could read young adult literature, modern popular fiction, or the classics, but the genre was not linked to the growth of their literacy skills. What mattered most was what they did with their reading in and outside of class: “discussion-based activities in which the students were invited to make predictions, summarize, link texts with one another and with background knowledge, generate text-related questions, and interrelate reading, writing and discussion” (p. 693). Of course, this requires books that they can read for themselves, relate to and engage with.
No young reader can read Twisted and not have thoughts and opinions about it. It feels too real, too much like the world he or she lives in, with all of the associated hopes and fears, to brush aside. As any good English teacher knows, if you can find something students are interested in and harness that interest, you can get them reading and writing, and discussing, and striving to be as articulate and mechanically correct as they can. I once gave a learning disabled middle school student the assignment to write a monthly fishing column for the school paper, and it turned him from barely literate to highly literate in one year. He loved fishing, and he wanted the rest of the school to understand his passion, so he rose above what he thought he could do and grew to meet his need to communicate. This educational approach works.
Again, when it comes to dealing with literature, successful, veteran teachers know that young readers can’t engage with texts they don’t understand. They can read the Cliff’s Notes (online Sparknotes, now), and they can regurgitate what a teacher said in a lecture on symbolism, but they can’t really make meaning of a text they don’t understand. As adolescent literature scholar, Nick Karolides puts it: “The language of a text, the situation, the characters, or the expressed issues can dissuade a reader from comprehension of a text and thus inhibit involvement with it. In effect, if the reader has insufficient linguistic or experiential background to allow participation, the reader cannot relate to the text and the reading act will be short-circuited” (p. 23).
Let’s not stop there, however. What sort of writing will students need to be able to do when they go to college? As Director of the Central Arizona Writing Project, I ask our top professor of freshmen composition to come to our summer institute every year and give a presentation to our K-12 teacher participants about what college writing really is. College writing is not a five paragraph essay that repeats the literary analysis found in a textbook or a lecture. College writing, as per Dr. Sarah Duerden, and as found in the ASU Writing Programs Mission Statement, entails the following:
- to engage the ideas encountered in academic and serious public discourse,
- to develop complex ideas and arguments through serious consideration of different perspectives,
- and to connect their life experiences with ideas and information they encounter in classes.
- exploring what others have written about issues,
- using their readings to expand their notion of what counts as an appropriate position,
- exploring the multiplicity of any topic,
- and realizing that multiple stories or interpretations exist.
You can’t accomplish these goals by teaching Moby Dick at the high school level, no matter what a great piece of literature it is, but you can do it by teaching Twisted. This returns to our discussion of Twisted as a moral tale, one in which a character takes a stand, a stand which the reader is left to support or question. Discussion, essays, and journaling about this book begins with very fertile ground, ground that teenagers need to plow and plant and determine what they know is right.”