Ten kids’ books you should read (if you want to be an English teacher)

This week, we welcomed a would-be PGCE student to our department for some experience of the wonderful world of English teaching. One of the things which struck me was how far removed recent graduates are from KS3, and the kind of books you want to be encouraging KS3 students to read. She mentioned the classics, but probably you want to teach these; a huge part of being an English teacher is encouraging students to read widely and for pleasure.

With this in mind, I recommend just ten wonderful books you can read and pass on to your future year 7, 8 and 9 students.

The Fault in Our Stars

Ok, if you haven’t heard of John Green you’re about to spend the next six weeks reading everything, and then wishing you’d gone slower (probably). The above is already a classic, and promoted Green to the stratosphere of great writers for young people. Green’s protagonists are often preternaturally wise, and alongside a brilliantly expressed story you can often glean interesting factual snippets. The characters are also both real and unreal at once; an unusual feat.

The Book Thief

I always despair when a popular book is turned into a film, because students start to tell me they have seen the film and therefore don’t want to bother to read the novel. Luckily, the adaptation of this was not as good as it could have been, and so I’ve found students largely receptive in reading this. An amazing creation in terms of perspective, this novel is narrated by death and takes students through the trials of surviving in Nazi Germany.

The Giver

This novel is a teaching staple in some classrooms (notably American ones, I’m reliably informed), but I’d not come across it until recently. A sci-fi look at a dystopian future where colour has been forgotten along with many aspects of freedom and experience we take for granted means this novel raises some thoughtful questions and issues for its young readers.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

You will undoubtedly be familiar with this, if not from the hugely acclaimed novel itself, at least from the stage adaptation. Seeing the world through the lens of an autistic boy is masterfully done by Haddon, and this is a brilliant book for year 9 (or even 8) students to read to help them to empathise with those different to them.

What is the What

Eggers is an epic story-teller, and each of his novels feels so distinctive I wouldn’t be shocked if you told me they were penned by different people. This one is definitely the most student-friendly, telling the true story of a young man’s plight in leaving war-torn Sudan.

The Knife of Never Letting Go

Though really, anything by Patrick Ness will be fabulous; he really is one of the foremost children’s writers today. I wrote about A Monster Calls here, but Knife was the first of his books I read, and it is the one I have most successfully managed to pass on to reluctant readers, chiefly due to the opening’s inclusion of a talking dog.

Looking for JJ

A sympathetic exploration of a child who has been re-assigned a new identity having committed a horrific crime. Written with bracing pace, and guaranteed to raise some moral dilemmas of interest.

Chains

Laurie Halse Anderson is another one of those authors who writes a wide variety of generally excellent novels for young people; Speak is similarly excellent though entirely different to the above. Chains explores aspects of American slavery and racism, so will often complement the kind of “civil rights” explorations in English many schools now offer at KS3.

We Were Liars

A year 10 student recommended this one to me, but I think most year 9s could handle it. This novel is engagingly written, with one of those shocking-twist endings that will stay in a student’s mind and have them coming to tell you they’ve reached it. Doesn’t everyone love a mystery after all? I really enjoyed this book too for its allowing me to live vicariously through rich, pampered young people with nothing much to do and their whole glorious lives ahead of them.

Wonder

I’m not sure there is a better children’s book out there, but I’d love to hear what others think. This book stayed with me long after I read it; I read the first gripping page to year 7 and year 8 during assemblies last year and I have lost count of the number of students who subsequently read it and let me know they had read it. The book tells the story of a boy with a disfigured face, exploring society’s expectations and making us question the extent to which we are hopelessly superficial. About halfway through this book I cried like a small child. Luckily, the ending is uplifting.

If you’d like more recommendations, I’ve blogged previously about reading lists:

And I would also definitely recommend looking at the Carnegie prize website for further inspiration:

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Reading aloud

I was not a confident reader in school. Fortunate enough to begin school knowing how to read, my abilities stalled mid-way through, and I couldn’t seem to move beyond the very simplest texts. I did not read much, with the exception of some truly trashy American “series” books (Sweet Valley High; The Babysitters Club). I do not recall at any point having to read aloud in front of a class.

 In secondary school, my reading repertoire remained limited. Winning a prize for English in year 9, I spent the money on The Diary of Adrian Mole, which I’d heard was good. The Head of English was appalled. I recall my first brush with Shakespeare – a valiant year 8 teacher having us perform “Pyramus and Thisbe” from Midsummer Night’s Dream. I hated it. I don’t have any memory of reading this play in front of my peers, though it seems likely I did.

Moving into year 10, my memories of reading begin to crystallise. This was the time when anxiety entered. I was, for the first time, becoming truly excited about books, prompted by a teacher of unparalleled excellence. I was also painfully aware of my shortcomings: I’d read a lot, but it tended to be extremely straightforward. Furthermore, where I’d learned new words, I’d learned them by sight, with no idea how to pronounce them. I can’t manage to forget being picked up for saying “guess-ture” for “gesture.”

Reading texts I was challenged and absorbed by in class was balanced with abject fear: would I be asked to read aloud? If so, how could I possibly make sure I was pronouncing all the words right and reading at a decent speed and putting enthusiasm into my voice? It seemed impossible. Conversely, I loved reading plays – the shortness of the lines and the space around the text lessened the fear for me.

In short, on becoming an English teacher, I had read approximately twenty-five pages of text aloud to a classroom of students in my life. Surprisingly, this did not seem to be a problem. I was advised during training that students would benefit from “guided reading,” where they sat in groups and read to each other as I circulated, checking students were on task and understood. The painful exception was my first year’s 10 set 5, who were studying To Kill a Mockingbird, and seemed unable to read this alone. I valiantly attempted to breathe life into the text, but my shoddy reading skills (among other things) meant disengaged students. (When I finished, a marathon 287 pages later, they applauded. From relief.)

As the years went on, I’d found reading aloud becoming easier – if I’d taught a text before, for example, I would feel more confident and could put more energy into the reading. Yet mere familiarity was not enough. Last year, I decided I needed to do more. Over the course of the summer, I practiced reading aloud daily – poems, short stories, newspaper articles – whatever I happened to be reading at the time. I rehearsed. I improved.

In September, with my year 10 class I’ve written previously about, this exercise was invaluable. With reluctant readers, I found for the first time that I could engage them with the sheer entertainment of me reading. I found myself putting on voices, dramatically pausing, and even walking around the room at the same time as reading (and, most impressively I feel, at one point crawling around the room, while simultaneously demonstrating a narrator’s slide into madness in “The Yellow Wallpaper”).

Then, last week, something amazing happened.

I hadn’t asked year 10 to read aloud in front of the whole class. They had done some reading in pairs, but in an extremely limited way. I had felt happy enough “modeling” good reading for them.

But last week, as I read, a student chimed in with me. My first thought was that she was mocking me, as this class so often does (this is a common theme among many of my classes. I’m easily mocked). I paused, unsure of what to do.

And the student carried on reading.

She stopped at the end of the paragraph, and I picked it up. And then a second student chimed in. I stopped. She kept reading.

It’s the strangest and in some ways most beautiful thing I have experienced, and I hope my words here do the moment justice. In this week the class has transformed itself from one where I did all the reading, to one where students are themselves choosing to publically read, and even actively asking me if they can read aloud. I’ve never put any pressure on any of them to do this, and wouldn’t want to put them on the spot – after all, I have first-hand experience of feeling terrified of this in front of peers. But I couldn’t be more delighted that they have taken matters into their own hands.

Teaching tough texts in a world of “Twilight”

Last week, I outlined my experience at TLT and the fantastic sessions I attended. This week, I’ll outline my own session and some of the thoughts others shared.

I opened by exploring the idea of “rigour”: this seems to be one of a few educational buzz-words du jour. With the new “reformed” GCSEs in English, in particular, we are being forced to do away with such “non-rigorous” texts as Of Mice and Men (about which I have written before) in favour of more rigorous texts – which seem to be defined as nineteenth century, English composed ones. With tougher vocabulary. Along with this new rigour comes a new balance of language and literature; with progress 8 double-weighting the qualifications, no longer will schools prioritise language – a joy to English teachers everywhere.

At KS3, though, we might be mindful of balancing rigour with freedom and, dare I say, fun. Without ever losing sight of the qualifications we need to prepare students for, we also might wish to think about ways to engage and delight students in tough texts. I shared my own school’s current KS3 curriculum, with an unapologetic literary focus: we teach language through literature, and there are no “writing to inform” units or “media exploration” studies. Yet with such a tough curriculum comes a caveat: I don’t want my students to be passive recipients of literature, but rather literary critics.

Next, I shared one of my year 7’s paragraphs on poetry:

H lovely parag

Although this was meant to be an analytical essay, I couldn’t help but be proud of her. She really seemed to have engaged with the purpose and importance of poetry, even though this wasn’t something I’d ever explored with the class. Such engagement, I hope, will stand her in good stead for the tough qualifications she has ahead of her.

I didn’t want to denigrate Twilight, a book I actually really, really loved (and have written about it here), and used this as a springboard to explore personal reading. Noting the Matthew Effect (the word rich are often set to become word richer; the word poor poorer) I feel we, as English teachers, have an obligation to close the gap in our students’ experiences of literature. I cited the reading assemblies I have shared before on this blog as examples of my quest for students to take up the gauntlet of personal reading, and referred to Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and some of the ideas I’ve explored before here. While Miller’s entire curriculum revolves around personal reading, how much should we be taking from this idea? How central should personal reading be in our practice? This formed the start of our conversations in the session, and I was interested to hear the thoughts of the lovely attendees and their fabulous ideas.

One mentioned some students simply don’t know how to pick a book, and explained her students tended to look at the books without even handling them, and then said “I can’t find something” – she had to model flicking through and reading the blurb for them.

Chris Hildrew mentioned his school had set up a “media frenzy” around some high quality texts, leading to students picking these up, reading them and discussing them in the way they had The Fault in Our Stars in response to the worldwide media attention this book has drawn.

In order to create literary critics though, we need more than just readers. I explored what makes a text suitable to teach, and shared some strategies I’ve used in the past for making these texts accessible. I then asked attendees to think of a student they were struggling to engage with reading and/or literary criticism, and formulate a plan of action for engaging that student. Some excellent ideas arose from this, many of which I will be taking and trialling myself – so thank you!

Once again, I will say that I had a fantastic time at TLT. During this last week of term, I have been more full of hope and energy than ever before of that particular week, and it can only be as a result of that day of meeting, sharing, learning.

Teaching tough texts in a world of Twilight

Easter reading

About one year ago, I attempted to go on holiday. After a day of biking around Central Park feeling smug, I contracted some hideous vomiting bug which had me laid up in bed for the full duration of the “holiday”, thus making that week the longest and most expensive lie-in ever. On the upside, I used my bed rest to write my first two blog posts (here and here), so beginning my foray into writing about books. Although I have strayed far from the tangent, I return today, partly for the sake of nostalgia, to some book thoughts.

I’ve gone about holidaying in a different way this time round. After six solid days of planning, marking, strategising and the obligatory running of many intervention sessions, I went on a holiday. One of those you might normally expect to occur in the midst of July or August, of the beach variety. On a beach holiday, I have two aims: one, spend as long as possible in the sun; two, read as many books as possible.

The Cuckoo’s Calling

I began in the airport, where all good holiday reading begins, with J.K. Rowling’s latest, written under a pseudonym (explained in more detail here). A colleague, who is also our department’s lead Harry Potter champion, recommended this and I’m delighted she did. I’m not normally a fan of crime fiction, but this is crime fiction sexed-up; with a massive dash of celebrity intrigue. It’s like crime meets the Daily Mail Showbiz website. Like The Casual Vacancy and Harry Potter I enjoyed this tremendously, perhaps in an intellectually uncommitted and vacuous way. That said, I do wonder if in a century’s time we might look back on this writer and concede her genius in the way of an Austen or Eliot, in holding up a mirror to our society and making it a rollicking good read.

I am Malala

This is a book for all of my year 11 to read (perhaps not yet – revise first ladies). Malala, also in year 11, has accomplished more than most of us will accomplish in a lifetime, and she is driven by a burning desire to promote education for all. Through this biography, I also learned lots about Pakistan and the Swat Valley, through nuggets of personal anecdote and news-worthy fact which made me hanker back to my pre-teaching days of reading The Economist and generally knowing what is going on in the world. A life-affirming, mission-confirming book.

Primary Colours

Believe it or not, before finding my “calling” in education, I previously worked in politics and sought to make that my life’s work. This novel reminded me of all the dirt and glory that comes with political intrigue. A thinly-veiled portrait of a couple closely resembling the Clintons (I wonder why it is anonymous?), this novel also prompted me to question the “real right” – not political, but moral. The central candidate has catastrophic personal flaws and human failings bordering on the obscene; yet his is absolutely driven by a central aim to make America a better place for its human inhabitants, and an absolute genius in his understanding of policy, strategy and governance. Do we need to care what our leaders get up to behind closed doors? I’m definitely undecided on this one.

The Wasp Factory

 I’m not sure why I read this, other than a feeling that the zeitgeist is normally right about “great” modern writers. For me, this novel felt like Faulks’ Engleby without the humanity. I wasn’t invested in the characters, and the whole climax of the novel fell flat for me. Undeniably, however, this book is beautifully written, and I do believe I have missed something in my underwhelmed response.

Divergent

This novel is known as the poor cousin to The Hunger Games, and with good reason. It rattles on, pure plot, for nearly 500 pages, including almost no characterization. Despite this, I enjoyed it hugely, partly because I’m a sucker for a kids’ trilogy and partly because I enjoy books which are pure plot, especially on holiday. The book is bizarrely almost all scene-setting, with the last 50 pages clamoring to an unexpected conclusion. Will I bother with the second book? It depends how “lite” I want my holiday reading to be.

Next term is short and vital. All term I have found it nearly impossible to read anything that is not about education, be that a piece of non-fiction, blog or child’s exercise book. It has been truly lovely to vegetate my brain with some froth.

 I felt painfully guilty about leaving during the “crucial holiday” for an entire week, but was greatly comforted (as happens so often) by my line manager’s wisdom: “next term is short. But we can do a lot in a very short time. Rest.”

Why students should read more: an assembly

Last Thursday was “World Book Day.” As Head of English and self-proclaimed “reader”, it was my responsibility to be all over it.

I really wasn’t.

I’ve been shamed by looking at the amazing things schools did on Twitter, and I have no excuses other than: 1. There’s absolutely no way I am dressing up as a book character and therefore I can’t really mandate other people to, and 2. It took me by surprise.

I feel like September was about fifteen minutes ago, when I started the year thinking about all the wonderful and exciting things I was going to implement in my department to do with reading. In our Middle Leaders CPD, I chose encouraging reading in the school as my project, and in November when I touched base with the CPD leader she gave me some inspiring ideas for this World Book Day thing and I became really excited about it.

And then, all of a sudden, it was next week and I had to give out some tokens; oh, and could you do an assembly?

Realising I had entirely missed the World Book Day boat, I tried to pull together the best assembly of my life (not hard – I have delivered precisely one assembly, albeit delivered four times).

The assembly begins with this image, which I stole shamelessly from Tessa Matthews, for students to glance at during the time they file into their seats.

tessa reading

I began by introducing myself, and this has proved to be a valuable aspect – I really ought to have done an assembly sooner, as the number of students who asked me what happened to the previous Head of English and why did I steal his job (he has been promoted to Deputy Head) has been incredible. Even some of my own students came up to me later that week asking: “are you really the Head of English?” which I felt was a bit of a title-fail on my part.

I then said that my opening gambit was that every book will teach you something, and I reeled off a variety of lessons I had learned from books. These were: amazing vocabulary from Woolf’s Orlando, about the Napoleonic Wars in War and Peace, how it feels to lose someone you love from Looking for Alaska and form Lord of the Rings that I don’t like that kind of book – but that’s ok, because you won’t like every book, you just have to read them all to find that out!

The initial image was then shown again, and I explained that it makes me think of all the things I don’t know, and all the things I haven’t done. I then listed some of the things I haven’t done:

  • Been to California
  • Lived in the Victorian era
  • Married a prince
  • Been elected to office

and explained that, through reading (The Grapes of Wrath, Middlemarch, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Audacity of Hope) I could experience all of these aspects, even if I will never experience some of them in reality.

For what I don’t know, I showed a slide with just an ellipsis, and waxed lyrical on how we don’t know what we don’t know, complete with Socrates’ famous quote.

I segued from this to say that it wasn’t only “really cool English teachers who love to read”, but that people slightly more famous than us also do. I used three examples, all of whom were white and male (and two dead), thus undercutting my own preference for an inclusive representation in all aspects of life – in my defence, I made the assembly at high speed. I spoke about Steve Jobs, who loved William Blake; Phil Knight (founder of Nike) who has a library in his house and makes his guests take their shoes off before entering (books before shoes!) and Winston Churchill, who accomplished many great political things but has a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the assembly came when I used Maths to back up my arguments – our kids seemed to love the facts and figures. I showed the following charts from the National Literacy Trust and talked the students through what they were showing – the more you read, and the more you love reading, the more you will achieve:

table 1

table 2

I also stole this image from someone on Twitter, but now don’t know who to thank:

why can't i skip

This image had a massive impact, and I enjoyed saying “one million eight hundred thousand words” about seven times in the course of the assembly.

All of which led to my final argument: the more you read, and if you enjoy reading, and the more you read great books, you will be smarter, happier and more successful.

I’ve had a lovely response to this assembly, including some warming comments from staff members. The best outcome is undeniably the number of students who I’ve not had any dealings with, coming up to me in corridors or in the lunch hall and telling me what they have read, what they would recommend to me, or asking for a book recommendation.

All in all, World Book Day came and went and I hang my head in shame; but I hope that my message of reading will live on regardless. Now: to plan next year’s reading assemblies!

Reading assembly

What I want from an education in English

I write to think. It has always been this way.

It’s coming to the end of what most teachers would say is the longest term; certainly any NQTs and Teach Firsters out there will find this term longer than any other. Students are tired. Staff are tired. Things that would leave you unruffled in September, and even November, now cause undue stress and anxiety. You can’t smooth over disagreements with cheeriness. There is no cheer left.

These are the dark days of teaching, both literally and metaphorically. We wake up in the dark, get into school in the dark, leave school when it is dark, walk down dark roads to dark homes. I have a tendency toward very painful headaches at this point in term, normally on Monday and Friday evenings, so there are several times when I sit in the dark. It’s a gloomy old time.

I’ve found myself this week feeling like I don’t have a vision. I don’t know where I’m going, or why. I am a product of Teach First and Teach for All’s sessions, which have shaped me, and I truly feel that without a vision I am purposeless; anchorless.

You can’t go into school every day just to pick up a paycheck. Teaching is too hard for that, too demanding, too exhausting. I’m finding I seem to know more and more people who are leaving the exhausting and frustrating world of state education for what seem to be Elysian fields of private schools: a curriculum they have control over, a trust concerning their professionalism, shorter school years and higher pay.

I’m writing to think today, and I’m trying to think out this “vision” business.

I can start with my students, because when all else fails they are my bright shiny beacon of hope. I’ll start with the students who miss a lesson and track me down to pick up the work. They brighten my day endlessly.

Because I want my students to be independent. I’ve loved Lucy Crehan’s post on Canadian schools here: our students should be encouraged and led towards this level of independence and motivation. At the moment, there are 35 students in Year 11 who are on a D or below in English. All of them could be on a C. What is missing is not intelligence, but motivation.

And then there are the students, and I usually find this out when I call home or meet parents at parents evening, who “are always talking about English.” They love it. They enjoy it.

I want my students to have joy in reading, and joy in exploring texts. Of course I want them to achieve high levels and high grades, but I definitely don’t want to drag them across the level 4 threshhold or D/C borderline kicking and screaming. I want them to drift there naturally, as the cumulative result of reading and enjoying their learning; wanting to do more and go further.

The students who bring a book to detention, and it is one I have recommended. The students I see reading while queuing outside their next lesson. Even the students who I catch reading when they should be doing their task.

If my students don’t love reading when they leave me, I will have failed. And I’ll admit that every year I fail many, many, all too many, students in this respect. It is something I need to work harder and smarter at, because too many students leave secondary school and never pick up a novel again.

What does that mean?

  • Students who are self-motivated and want to succeed.
  • A love of learning.
  • Education not as a means to an end, but a joyous end in itself.

There is another aspect of this vision business, which I alluded to earlier. It is contentious among my friends and colleagues. All children, they contend, deserve an amazing education. I have to agree.

But I also have to work with students who might not have the advantages that others grow up with. Because it is a cruel and unusual thing that students will go further the better off their parents are. It is undeniably wrong that the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots is refusing to close. I adored Stuart Lock’s post about why he wants to be a head; I would echo all his sentiments, which are too eloquently put to summarise here.

Education needs to become the equalizer. For all the talk about what a teacher is not, and the reasonable expectations of a human doing a job and having some kind of life, I accept that there are times when teachers have to play the social worker, the state, the parent even. We have to pick up the responsibility, even if it is not our responsibility, because it is the right thing to do.

There are children who will leave school without qualifications, who have despised their education, who will never fulfill their potential. And I will work every day to make sure that that doesn’t happen for one less child.

It’s definitely not a vision yet, what I have written above. I write to think, and I am grateful you have read.

The Book Whisperer

Before I took on the post of Head of English at my school, I knew that the main thing I needed to do was get children reading for pleasure. Six weeks in, when mock Ofsted came into our department, that was one of very few recommendations made for our improvement: get children reading for pleasure.

So, why haven’t I?

Partly it is because starting at a new school, in particular in a new role, is so exhaustingly difficult it’s hard to move beyond fire-fighting. And partly because every mistake I have made so far (and believe me, there have been many) has been linked to my tendency to make decisions too quickly. This is something I want to get right. I am taking my time.

Actually, I felt as if I’d almost cracked it when I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer about a week ago, and then I had to do some more thinking. The subtitle is “Awakening the inner reader in every child”, so I knew before I opened it that I would love it.

It is, without a doubt, inspiring, in the vein of Rafe Esquith and KIPP stories from the US. Teachers going above and beyond, but also around and in a peculiar swirly motion we’re not sure will work – but, yes, it does.

Miller’s initial prompting to decide her students should read forty books in an academic year is not grounded in evidence based research, but rather a moral certitude that this stuff if good for them. She glosses over some radically improved test results, but doesn’t make a song and dance about the improvement in the data – that’s not what this is about. Miller wants her children to be readers. And I would guess around 100% of English teachers want the same for their students; not to mention parents.

The problem is: how do we get there? It’s fair to say that the curriculum in the UK, while far from perfect, is a very far cry from the mish-mash of methods going on in American classrooms, where many teachers (if you go by the popular education literature) seem to be able to not only set what they are teaching but also decide how it is assessed. There are few schools I have visited that would allow teachers to go ahead and do what they like in the sanctuary of their classrooms.

Miller lets her students start from where they are, reading what they like. Through careful use of feedback, including surveys, she nudges them towards ever harder and more challenging tomes which will suit their interests. She doesn’t seem to ask them to write analytical essays on these texts, however, it is all about the mighty book review.

This is fine, perhaps, at KS2; I am finding it hard to see how such an approach would work, or is in fact right, at KS3 and beyond. Yes, I want my children to be readers, but more than that they need to be literary critics. Engaging with literature critically is a great joy, and no amount of reading can shake my belief in that.

That said, Miller has given me so much food for thought I cannot but recommend this book for English teachers.

Among ideas she has prompted are:

  • How much class time should I set aside for personal reading?
  • How should this change between years?
  • How far should I try to influence or control student choice of reading material?
  • Should I see reading a class text as something different from private reading?

I’ve written before about teaching Dickens to Year 7 (here). That first term was blissful, but we didn’t study full texts. This term, “A Christmas Carol” is markedly harder. The students are enjoying it, but if I’m honest mine aren’t really getting it. I mean, they understand the words, but there isn’t the time for that understanding and that critical evaluation, unless I want us to use the entire academic year to read the thing properly. Year 7 read slowly. Therein lies the rub.

A fabulous colleague of mine has come up with a lovely compromise, and I’d appreciate any thoughts English teachers have: give them the text, give them two or three weeks. During those lessons they read. During their homework for those weeks, they read. They read the entire text. We perhaps do some kind of writing or literacy activity one in every four lessons, to catch those who really do need to spend time on writing skills. But then, after they have read, we go back and select passages, and teach the critical and analytical skills then.

I feel like in not allowing students to just read, I’m pretty much wasting their time in a novel-teaching unit. But I’d be delighted to hear what other schools do.

To conclude, The Book Whisperer is inspiring and thought provoking, and not completely right. Well worth a read.

book whisperer