Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book Review: The Great Gatsby & Paper Towns (Classic & Contemporary Novel Pairing)

The Great Gatsby (Classic Novel)
Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald
April 1925
192 pages

Paper Towns (Contemporary Novel)
Written by John Green
October 2008
305 pages

Bibliographic Information
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1925). The great Gatsby. New York: Scribner.

Green, J. (2008). Paper towns. New York: Dutton Books.

Plot Description
The Great Gatsby
In this classic American novel, the narrator Nick Carraway moves to New York from the Midwest, becoming next door neighbor to the infamous Jay Gatsby. Throughout the course of the story, Nick gains insight into who the real Jay Gatsby is, breaking through speculated myths and gossip created by Gatsby himself and others. He must navigate through layers of deception, including rampant infidelity, shallow parties with raucous intoxication, questionable business dealings, and insincere friendships. As Nick uncovers more revelations, he learns that what is at first admired or dreamed about can become inevitably imperfect and fatally flawed when viewed and experienced up close. Still, in the end, Nick at least retains agency to choose to stand up for what he believes in, even as others around him fail to do so.

Paper Towns
The story follows the main protagonist Quentin, or "Q" and his understanding of next door neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman. Q and Margo had been forever bonded by a childhood experience of finding a dead man's body at a playground. Although, when the present action takes place, the duo are about to graduate from high school, and Q has been mostly admiring Margo from a distance since they now belong to different social crowds. Q is thus caught off guard when Margo pulls him into an all night adventure and then disappears the very next morning. For the rest of the book, Q pieces together mystery clues as he and a few friends search for Margo. Through this process, though, more than even learning about Margo, Q gains deeper insight about himself.

Quantitative Reading Level
The Great Gatsby
Lexile: 1070L
ATOS: 7.3

Paper Towns
Lexile: 850L
ATOS: 5.4

Qualitative Reading Analysis
The Great Gatsby (High for Grades 10-12)
Fitzergerald is celebrated for his lyrical writing, and particularly once immersed in the story, readers may appreciate his use of language. For contemporary readers, though, the language may be challenging it since may seem quite foreign in terms of word choices and sentence structure. Also, for the typical high school audience, the knowledge demands are complex since it may be difficult to relate to middle aged, social elites who lived during the 1920s. To provide scaffolding, a teacher may want ensure that students are familiar with history about the Roaring Twenties and its juxtaposition between World War I and the Great Depression. Additionally, while the ATOS level is only 7.3, parents may be concerned middle school students reading the book due to the subject matter, which involves alcohol use, marital infidelity, a gruesome automobile accident, and murder. Understanding the meaning of the book also relies heavily upon decoding themes beyond simple comprehension of plot elements. Fitzgerald uses a great deal of symbolism and motifs that may require guidance to identify and interpret.

Paper Towns (Medium for Grades 10-12)
Although the quantitative ATOS level is only 5.4, the book is qualitatively geared toward an older, teen audience. The main characters are graduating seniors in high school, and their activities and language reflect this older age. While the Lexile rating of 850L more closely matches the qualitative level, even some middle school parents and educators may be wary of students reading the book due to the more mature content, including the topic of suicide. Beyond appropriateness, there are rich opportunities for more complex textual analysis by older audiences. The story calls upon higher knowledge demands with references to literature from Walt Whitman, Charles Dickinson, Herman Melville, and more. There are also cultural references that could be explored to provide greater meaning, including those to Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Woodstock. Furthermore, the themes of self-identity, self-representation, and levels of understanding oneself and others would definitely resonate well with a high school audience.

Content Areas
  • English Language Arts (fictional narrative, themes, symbolism, geographical motifs comparative analysis)
  • The Great Gatsby: History-Social Science (1920s, economics and social class, American Dream, capitalism, migration)
  • Paper Towns: English Language Arts (allusion, mystery and foreshadowing)

Content Area Standards
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.2: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.3: Analyze the impact of the author's choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.9: Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.
  • History-Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools > 11.5 > Students analyze the major political, social, economic, technological, and cultural developments of the 1920s. 

Curriculum Suggestions
  • Compare and Contrast - When both books are read together, students may compare and contrast the two books. For instance, with The Great Gatsby, they can look at the Roaring Twenties and subsequent Great Depression and then pair this with the pseudovisions from Paper Towns. What are similarities and differences that can be drawn between the books' themes? Other areas that may be compared include identifying character pairs from each novel that are similar, the idea of how we come to know people, and the role of setting.
  • Adaptations - Since both books have been adapted into feature films, students could watch the films and then discuss the adaptations. How were the novels adapted? What changes were made, and why might these decisions have been made?
  • False Identity and Feminism Mini Unit (Young Adult Literature Wiki by English Education Students at Grand Valley State University) - Includes discussion questions and links to additional resources.
Great Gatsby
  • Fiction as Commentary - What messages may be derived from reading the book with regard to the 1920s? With Fitzgerald, it is also interesting to research his personal life in order to gain insight into his perspective as an author. Students may conduct research about Fitzgerald in order to suggest further interpretations regarding commentary that comes across in the novel.
  • Color Symbolism - Students may trace the use of color throughout the book, tracing how the colors reflect the situations, illustrating the mood or underlying feelings. Then, students may practice applying this to their own creative writing, incorporating the use of color to help illustrate themes in their own personal stories.
Paper Towns
  • Literary and Cultural References - Have students research references from the book. For instance, students may read the prominently featured Walt Whitman poem "Leaves of Grass," locate the Woodie Guthrie photo, or learn more about the history of fake towns like Agloe. Upon deepening their understanding of these references, students may suggest how this additional information deepens their understanding of the text and themes.
  • Wikipedia - Many students are familiar with the basic functionality of Wikipedia, but may not have a deeper understanding of what they can learn by viewing the revision history and discussion pages. The Omnictionary featured in the book opens up this discussion so that students may look into the inner workings of how knowledge is collaboratively formed. This can touch upon the idea of authority, accuracy, and participatory communities.

Subjects and Themes
  • Symbolism and allusion
  • Personal identity and relationships
  • Internal versus external representations
  • Traveling, searching, and seeking
  • Economic growth and decay
  • Illusions and disillusionment
  • Perspective and understanding

Achievements and Awards

Great Gatsby
Paper Towns

Links to Supporting Digital Content

The Great Gatsby
Paper Towns

Personal Thoughts
I give credit to a list I found on the web that suggested pairing the two novels. I hadn't read The Great Gatsby since I was in high school, now over twenty years ago; and, while I have read some other John Green novels, I had not yet read Paper Towns. Thus, I thought this was a good opportunity to read a YA novel that I'm sure my students will be familiar with since there was a recent movie adaptation, and to also brush up on an assigned novel that students read in class each year. I read Paper Towns first, and like with Green's other novels, I was drawn in right away. It was a quick read, but I liked that it touched upon deeper themes such as how we have so many different versions of our selves that we project and experience. With that in mind, reading The Great Gatsby was an enjoyable follow-up. In fact, I would suggest reading the novels in this order if assigning both. Since The Great Gatsby is likely to be less accessible, it is helpful for students to be pulled in by the echoed themes and other connections.

Reviewed in conjunction with San Jose State University's School of Information Fall 2015 INFO 237-10 School Library Media Materials course. Fulfills "classic/contemporary novel pairing for middle school or high school" for Subject Area Blog Assignment.

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