My first year of teaching seventh grade English was every bit as much a disaster as I imagine most peoples’ experience was- ranging from wondering what in the world my professors wasted my time teaching me in college to treading water just barely keeping my head above the surface. I remember trying to prepare myself for the students who hated reading and who would be the ones that I would need to try the hardest to reach, but was vastly unprepared for the number of students who made it to middle school hating English class and everything about reading books in general. At the beginning of my second year of teaching, I took a poll of my students, assuring them that it would not in any way affect their grade or my opinion of them. I asked them how many-by show of hands- hated reading books and would never read independently if it was not a graded assignment. More than 50% of my seventh graders fell into this category. In all my time teaching, before then and in the years since, I am not sure I have ever been as disheartened as I felt that day. How could I, who has loved reading since I was a child and who would stay up all night reading if given the chance, change the minds of over half of my students when they had spent so many years hating to read?
Rodman Philbrick’s The Last Book in the Universe was the answer. What better choice of book than a story about a future world in which no one reads anymore? In Spaz’s world, after the “Big Shake” has obliterated almost everything and what is left of the land has been split up into “latches” where gang bosses rule, all of the old knowledge of the past has been forgotten and everyone is using mind probes- to put the images of virtual reality into their brains. Spaz can’t use the mind probes because he has seizures, so his memory is still strong enough to remember some stories about books and libraries. This impresses an old man they call Ryter, who Spaz meets when he is sent by the local gang to “bust him down”. Ryter gives Spaz all of his belongings except for a pile of papers that he tries, at first, to hide. When Spaz asks about them, Ryter explains that he is writing what is probably the last book in the universe: his life story. Later that night, Spaz receives bad news about a family member far away, and he sets off on a journey to find and help her, accompanied against his wishes by Ryter, who insists that this will be his one last adventure, to help him finish his book.
The story is action-packed, and Philbrick is a master at ending chapters with cliffhangers. In my classroom, these were great opportunities during read-aloud to leave my students hanging until the next week. I started to find more and more of my “book haters” groaning and begging for just ONE more chapter! The English teacher in me also loves how Ryter makes references to authors and characters from the past such as Robert Frost, Yeats, and Odysseus. Woven into the story is a message that writers have a kind of immortality through the words in their books, so long as there are people in the world who value them. Most of the citizens of the Urb have long forgotten the past and the knowledge that came with it. This has dire consequences for Spaz’s sister; if they cannot find a cure for her somewhere, she could die. Spaz and Ryter even venture to Eden- a city for genetically improved people (proovs), to search for a cure, even though they fear there may be nothing anyone can do now that the knowledge has been lost.
Without wanting to give away too much, there are several twists and turns in the last half of this book that makes it almost impossible to put down. Lanaya gives a speech to the people of Eden that still gives me goose bumps every time I read it. There is a revelation that has caused a collective gasp from every class I’ve ever read it aloud with, and the power behind the last words has left every group I’ve taught begging for more. In five years of reading this book aloud to students who both loved and hated books, I never once had someone at the end say they didn’t like the book. (A couple were mad at the ending, but admitted that they loved the book overall). Now I use The Last Book in the Universe as a “gateway book” for my reluctant readers, because it opens up a whole genre of dystopian literature that I know many of them would love. In many ways, this was THE book that set me down the path to “book whispering” with my students- it was the book that helped me learn that it IS possible to change the minds of kids who think they hate to read, if you can find a book that lights up a spark inside them. Imagine if everyone gave up on these kids, and we ended up going down a road where there ever COULD be a last book in the universe.
Jada Parr is a seventh grade English teacher in Smithfield, VA. She is also the mother of a very precocious 3 year old who keeps her busy, but never too busy to read a good book. She decided this summer to join the Book Whisperer Movement and may need an intervention soon because she cannot stop reading and buying books for her class library. In addition to reading and mothering, she loves to learn how to create new things (she recently taught herself how to make purses out of duct tape!), and you can follow her journey at http://craftyjada.wordpress.com.