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WIHWT: Red Rising

Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Red Rising by Pierce Brown

This Wish I Had Written That (WIHWT) post is about my own connections to reading. In 2009, I participated in my first Puget Sound Writing Project, via the National Writing Project. One of the requirements (or labor of love in my case) is a full-blow lesson, complete with all the lesson-y trimmings. I created, from scratch, an original lesson I titled Voices from the Grave, in order to serve the wonky 8th grade curriculum in my district: social studies does World History/Ancient Civilizations, and since I taught an 8th grade Humanities at the time, wanted to serve multiple standards. I had never heard the term ‘role playing’ but that is essentially what the unit is: you draw a character from Ancient Rome, be it a Proctor, Legate, even Obstetrix and Emperors. There were slaves, legionnaires, gladiators, eques–all types and manners of rank, privilege, jobs, and avocations. There is even a mosaic artist. The purpose of the unit is multi-layered: by immersing oneself in an ancient world, and seeing life through the eyes of the past, we can deeply learn about culture, politics, and society as well as learn content (academic and content language/knowledge). Some of the best work I’ve ever read was from a struggling student who became a legionnaire: down to his hob-nailed boots and a description of his death. He became this foot soldier, and I know he will never forget the transference of skills and knowledge: soldiers move nations, for the generals and the emperors.

I switch from Humanities to ELA, and the the Box of Destiny was born: become a Greek god/goddess, and present in original voice “your” story. This novel is replete with Greek/Roman influences, and its plot structure hangs on a hierarchal, archetypal mythic proportions. To see an 8th grade girl transform herself into Athena or misunderstood Medusa is truly sublime.

Good stuff.

“Matched me with a little girl. I tried to kill her softly … but she wouldn’t die.” Pollux grunts something and claps me on the shoulder. He tries a sour chuckle. “We’ve got it raw, but at least we’re not Reds, you register?”

Brown, Pierce (2014-01-28). Red Rising (The Red Rising Trilogy, Book 1) (p. 371). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Now: combine all of that, a hefty nod to Hunger Games, and a flawed hero, and you have one of the best monomythic tales: Red Rising. I just finished it, and began its sequel, Golden Sun. The potential for rich conversations about class, wealth, power, human nature, politics, love and war. And how legends are created, and destroyed. Just looking at through the lens of lies and control would be enough.

He ignores me. “They heard her song and they call her Persephone already.” I flinch and look over at him. No. That is not her name. She is not their symbol. She doesn’t belong to these brigands with trumped-up names. “Her name is Eo,” I sneer. “And she belongs to Lykos.” “She belongs to her people now, Darrow. And they remember the old tales of a goddess stolen from her family by the god of death. Yet even when she was stolen, death could not forever keep her. She was the Maiden, the goddess of spring destined to return after each winter. Beauty incarnate can touch life even from the grave; that’s how they think of your wife.”

Brown, Pierce (2014-01-28). Red Rising (The Red Rising Trilogy, Book 1) (p. 64). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Questions of trust: from our most personal relationships to our relationships with government and institutions. After reading this novel, I wish I was teaching 8th grade (it does have some implied references to some grittier concepts). I would pair it with Voices from the Grave, and add the element of power and control. And a lot more questions.

Back to the mines.

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WIHWT: How It Went Down

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, 2015
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, 2015

This Wish I Had Written That (WIHWT) moment comes to us courtesy of a wonderful librarian.

This librarian loves books. I love books. We get along.

This past spring, she had time to come to my classes and do some book talks. Several of these piqued my interest as a means to update/refresh some thematic units. (Units do need to be polished and updated now and then, and then summarily tossed when no longer speaking to any part of the human condition.)

What Happens:

A racially charged shooting reveals the complicated relationships that surround a popular teen and the neighborhood that nurtured and challenged him…..As each character reflects on Tariq, a complex young man is revealed, one who used his considerable charm to walk the tightrope of life in his neighborhood. Magoon skillfully tells the story in multiple, sometimes conflicting, voices.


These damn kids. They never learn. As a black man, you have to keep your head down. You have to keep yourself steady. You have to follow every rule that’s ever been written, plus a few that have always remained unspoken. How hard is that to understand?

Magoon, Kekla (2014-10-21). How It Went Down (p. 42). Henry Holt and Co. (BYR). Kindle Edition.

Why It Matters:

All we need to do is say the synecdoche of “Ferguson” to understand how this novel fits with our national conversation about race, poverty, incarceration, and racism.

Ideas and Questions:

The chapters are titled by each different characters’ points of view. Each character brings potential for a personal connection as well as demonstrating the importance of connections (positive and damaging) within communities.

My heart, at the moment, is racing away from me, in hot-pink sneakers, looking both ways before crossing each street, like she’s supposed to. The knot in my chest eases when Tyrell catches up with her. He holds her hand, and she lets him, which is a bit of a surprise. When he talks to her, she answers. I keep my distance.

Magoon, Kekla (2014-10-21). How It Went Down (p. 319). Henry Holt and Co. (BYR). Kindle Edition.

It’s about choices, and those choices reflected by our character and surroundings. What we most want, and what we can’t have.

I can’t— I won’t— believe Brick when he says that kind of thing. I knew T better than anyone. He would never … My heart flutters, unexpectedly flooding me with doubt. He would, though. T always stepped up, never back. If it was me who had died, Tariq would lead the charge for revenge, I know that much. He looked out for me. No boundaries to that devotion, at least none I ever saw. So, would he want me to do the same? It’s the least I can do, isn’t it? Brick holds out the knife. I imagine it slitting my throat. Severing my spine. Stabbing through my heart. But I move anyway. I don’t know who Tariq really was— if he was the way I see him, or the way Brick does. But I know who he would want me to be.

Magoon, Kekla (2014-10-21). How It Went Down (p. 308). Henry Holt and Co. (BYR). Kindle Edition.

The pacing is fast: there is some language; if students are 13+ and if granted parent permission, it should be rated PG-13. Some sex implied. Discussion moment: does the author’s use of ‘language’ help or distract from the main message of the story?

The novel provides opportunity for discussion on statistics: how do statistics inform our truths?

Seventy-five percent of black men in Underhill join up. If Tariq was in, then it gives me that much more chance to stay out. If Tariq wasn’t, then he’s still the guy I thought he was, but it makes it that much more likely that I’m gonna cave, now that he’s gone.

Magoon, Kekla (2014-10-21). How It Went Down (p. 274). Henry Holt and Co. (BYR). Kindle Edition.

The narrative lends itself to ambiguity (it doesn’t answer all questions, just like ‘real life’). No spoilers, but this is not a murder mystery. It lends itself to discussing how the media influences each of our own perceptions and truth, and how we reflect back to each other. The plot structure is simple and direct, and for some characters’ paths that lead are truncated, and others move onto the endless horizon: why and how does the plot structure affect our understanding of its themes?

I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

Postscript: “Almost Another Dead Black Male: Remembering a Traffic Stop That Got Ugly”

Next on the list:

(Realistic fiction = character focused)

(Journey of the Hero: focus on quest, and there is usually a map at the beginning!)

(Historical Fiction: time and place)

Red Rising by Pierce Brown (thank you, Mr. Crew!)

The Vault of Dreamers by Caragh M. O’Brien

The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters



Tiny thinking bubble: I learned what ‘metonymy’ is, too.

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