Of Texas, Angels, Faith in American Culture, Romance and Other Subversive Classroom Discussion Topics

I honestly have no idea how many classrooms use my Dreaming Anastasia series (click here for a link to the on-line discussion guides) or The Sweet Dead Life. TSDL does have a Common Core educator’s guide coming, supposedly when The A-Word releases. (Soho Press, May 2014) It’s a great guide that I’d love to present to you here, but it is currently somewhere in the hands of someone within Soho Press/Random House getting prettied up from my original draft. What I can tell you is this: As I wrote the The A-Word, which is the sequel to TSDL, it became apparent to all of us that there really were numerous wonderful areas of discussion and thought to be had in the duology.

The intro I wrote last summer included this:

Part mystery, part angel book with a Texas twist, Joy Preble’s SWEET DEAD LIFE series is at its core a Vonnegut-esque sibling story of love, loss, faith and belief, of what it means to be good and the inherent human failings that cause us to fall from that.

Through the eyes of its young teenage narrator, Jenna Samuels, TSDL presents its readers with an epic battle of good and evil set in the modern wasteland of the Houston suburbs. A fifteen year old girl and her not-so-angelic guardian angel brother find themselves fighting a global conglomerate that has weaponized memory drugs with the real potential of controlling human society. (All against the backdrop of mall culture, fast-food tacos, and Texas high school football.)

So yeah— a lot of serious stuff, right?

And some of it is sort of subversive and tricky, which as a former high school English teacher I find is the best of the serious stuff, you know? The things that make readers think and re-evaluate and wonder and ponder how they feel about all this. Because if your editor has started saying your writing in the books is ‘Vonnegut-esque’ well, you better dig deep and root around for what it is could actually be discussed in classrooms or libraries or books clubs. Of course there’s always the surface stuff: the plot and the characterization and the setting and in The A-Word there’s Jenna’s first love relationship with Ryan Sloboda set against the back drop of a bunch of failed romances for everyone else around her.

But there is also that business of angels and the potential to research their literary history from Milton (or before that) to modern day. And a great opportunity to read various non-fiction cultural commentary on Faith in America Culture. And bunches of possible novel/film pairings to analyze American suburbia and its effect on us and on culture. We can do the same with the issue of families and death. And numerous possible musings on humor and parody and how we use these in books and film to approach those difficult, often soul-wrenching topics.

So yeah. Not just a comedic riff on a girl’s stoner brother turned guardian angel with very human bad habits in tact. You can see how thrilled I was when one of my favorite YA authors, Michael Northrop, recently blurbed The A-Word with this: “The earthbound angels are as authentic as the down-to-earth people in The A-Word, but where the book really spreads its wings is in the interaction between the two. Resourceful teens and heavenly beings team up to get to the roots of a very modern mystery, and the big questions of the universe share space with first dates and football games. The result: a smart, original (and slightly celestial) mystery with a distinctly Texan flavor.”

And why in my Educator’s Guide Author’s Note (this is only an excerpt and again, I have no idea how much of this will actually make it to the final copy), I’ve pondered this:

I could not envision Casey and Jenna’s story anywhere else but Texas. As the epigraph of book 1 says, quoting Davy Crockett, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” In THE SWEET DEAD LIFE, this is exactly how I see Casey Samuels, the most unlikely guardian angel ever—a Texas boy through and through. Rough-hewn and far from perfect, but with a solid heart and an inherent urge to do the right thing. Which of course is why Management has chosen him…

TSDL does not connect its angel theology to any specific faith group.  This is a purposeful choice on my part. In fact, main character Jenna is far from devout, making her the perfect narrator since she has no preconceived notions – save for a generic idea of angels with halos and harps—of what a heavenly being would actually do or say. I enjoy using her sharp-tongued innocence to both comic and poignant effect. Of course, Jenna’s guardian angel sleeps in the room next to hers and shares her bathroom and doesn’t clean up after himself.

Like the characters in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” few humans in the series other than Jenna have any understanding of what they’re actually seeing. So my sense was that even without Management’s  ‘Damage Control’ techniques, the good citizens of the northern Houston suburbs would continue to be oblivious, even when they are subject to Casey’s angelic powers. His girlfriend Lanie falls into this category, as do the neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Gilroy, among others.

Will classrooms use this material? I really hope so!


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