Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A thoughtful portrayal of cancer

"And before it was all over, we saw just one more thing: a man dancing with his wife at the water's edge to music only they could hear. He put a hand where her right breast had been as he bent to kiss her. Johanna was behind us at that moment, bundled in a huge sweatshirt. She slipped behind me and Matthew, putting her arms around us and pulling us tight. "Cancer can't ever touch that." -Notes From The Dog

Hopefully this excerpt displays the power of this novel effectively. Gary Paulsen's Notes From The Dog is a perfect example of young adult literature that is very engaging, but also covers a depressing subject (Cancer) in an extremely powerful way. The main character Finn (Huckleberry reference) is somewhat of an outsider who is disengaged with the world. He is a reader of many books, and lives withing his own boundaries as he opens the novel with the immortal line: "Sometimes having company is not all it's cracked up to be". This withdrawn character is very popular in these type of books, perhaps because young readers can easily relate to an individual who is somewhat guarded. For most of us, the whole high school experience involved us having to protect ourselves from the individuals around us-- not because they were all bad-- simply that the teenage years are the ones where we are most likely to feel vulnerable to the world's complexities.

I loved this book. The simplicity, use of emotion, strong characters, topicality, and general accessibility (a mere 129 pages) stood out above all the other books I have blogged on this semester. Paulsen is something of a legend in the YAL world, and his ability to connect to younger audiences is something I greatly admired.

Johanna (Finn's neighbor, a breast cancer sufferer) fits many of the archetypal female characteristics of other YAL literature. She is sociable, active, and very much a go-getter in life. But what sets her apart from other female characters in the genre is her disease. As she has breast cancer, it is easy to sympathize with her and understand the emotional turmoil that she must be going through. Paulsen creates a character filled with optimism, and for me she was the highlight of this book. Finn himself I could definitely relate to. His introverted behavior was easy for me to connect to, and I also loved Dylan (his dog) who was thoroughly involved in the story and helped create some of the humorous situations that occurred.

I would say this novel is an essential read for future teachers, and it would also be very easy to bring into the classroom. Many kids will relate to the themes and topics here, and it deals with a very weighty subject in a very touching and engaging way.

Blogged by Stuart Millar


Amy said...

Amazing how the thought of "company" could be construed in so many different ways. Great first line to a book! I'm curious if there are any similarities between the Finn in this book and the Finn in Huck Finn?

Cancer is definitely a brutal topic. So many people are stricken with this disease at all ages. What age do you think this book is most suited for? From the sounds of it I would guess maybe younger, middle school students?

VCaste said...

I loved the opening passage of your blog! It really drew my attention. It seems as though this book covers a very powerful topic, in a simplistic way that can appeal to readers of all ages. Since cancer is such a traumatic, but unfortunately common, disease I think it is a great topic to be discussed in high school classrooms. Students may be suffering from the disease themselves, have parents, grandparents, relatives, or even friends who have been diagnosed with cancer. I think the message of this book could read a wide variety of students and would touch them all in an impacting way. Great post!

radcinbad said...


I am a big Gary Paulsen fan as well and was curious about the title, knowing his experience with and love for dogs and dog sledding. It is interesting to find out the dog serves as a sort of comic relief in an otherwise sad story of illness and recovery.
On another note, I enjoyed the comments you have made about young adult literature and the tropes and archetypes often used in the genre, and your discussion about these contrasting characters, withdrawn and introverted, sharing the same space in the young adult novel.

radcinbad said...

Where I wrote introverted, I meant extraverted.

Paige said...

Gary Paulsen is one of my favorite auhtors, and I think that his young adult novels are some of the best. I have read this before and really love the story, t stirs up strong emotion.