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Reading: Endangered but not Extinct

By: Leah Sycoff

A new district initiative recently aimed to facilitate the love of reading in middle schoolers and grants great insight into the mind and practices of a Harvard University graduate. The esteemed writer and literary professor, Eliot Schrefer, authored Endangered, the district summer reading choice. When we read, how often do we delve into the life and practices of the authors who create the fantasies and realities into which we immerse ourselves?  Reading for academic pursuits often demands that, as students, we check the credibility of the source and author, yet many of us take for granted the rich background and motives of the authors who create the storylines to which we all cling. Words comprise conversations, passions, and connections; words yield process and experience and stimulate distinctive ideas and ideals, yet many of us take them for granted. We have been obliged to read and document minutes from the first years in school.  Reading has become a contest of how many pages our young minds read, but do we truly understand and become vested in the words that serve as our formation? The depth and breadth of the answer depend on our personal and academic motives. As one of the devoted editors of The Thunderbird Newspaper, I value the words and great minds who gather and reassemble them into meaningful text. Here is my story of one memorable afternoon with Chicago Native award-winning Eliot Schrefer, author of Endangered, whose witty and thoughtful words offer insight that every student should embrace. 

The literary device, terminology, that all HHH and most middle and high school students know all too well, could be the bane of existence or highly useful when writing. When asked how he incorporates literary devices, if he plans the use of these elements when writing, or includes literary device as a natural outcome of effective storytelling, Schrefer offers an insightful answer which alludes to the importance of the process of learning and identifying literary elements and rhetorical strategy. This results in our ability to write and incorporate analysis in a distinctive way as we, as a writer, develop our unique voice. “As readers, we need to be invested in the storyline in order to continue and to personally connect with the literature. [Planning] literary device feels like a freshman English class. As a writer, that feels a little too cold and academic for how to build a book instead there is something called the Objective Correlative [for which] T.S. Elliot coined term. If characters are in a scene feeling a certain thing … then the physical objects in the scene will start to take on for the reader that emotional weight.” By Schrefer relaying a simple message using T.S. Eliot’s idea of the objective correlative, he maximizes his lesson for our students because the principle of objective correlative actually incorporates many of the literary devices we study from symbolism to metaphor to pathos without having to give more than one example. For me, as the interviewer and as an aspiring writer, I realize the level of his knowledge and intellect. 

As a reader, we often judge level as per the leveled books that we read as young readers in elementary school, the same ones we were required to tally as part of the “which class reads the most” contest.  In essence, we are probably misunderstanding the critical thinking and interdisciplinary skills, technical savvy, and preparation necessary to be able to write a successful book any level, even the most fundamental one. I asked our chosen author about one of his most simplistic books so that I was then able to build upon what I believe to be the levels we must pass through to develop our own unique writing voices as we become more aware, more experienced, and more educated. As Mr. Schrefer eloquently answered what he was not expecting to hear from high school interviewer set to delve into the book that our district chose for a district-wide middle school initiative, Schrefer maximized the opportunity to share his passion of live research.  In order to write The Lost Rainforest, our esteemed author traveled to the Peruvian Amazon with a guide along the Amazon River in order to encapsulate the traits of his main characters. Upon meeting and greeting a capuchin monkey (named by the way for the capuchin monks who invented our beloved Cappuccino), a Macaw bird, and an Amazon Tree frog, he was then able to incorporate realistic personality traits into their character development. This practice, of course, would allow for the readers to become personally vested in the characters, while they were subtly introducing the theme of conservation, one of the main concepts which run throughout his books no matter the level. 

Schrefer is a considerate writer who values his reader and his reader’s experience, thereby being cognizant at every turn not to preach to his reader. “Since I don’t want to have the reading experience of being lectured to, I try  not to.” As we are all well aware, so many of us have had reading become an obligation to satisfy a school assignment demanded by the needs of our current educational system rather than the pleasing experience it has been since the dawn of the written word. I, for one, long to have time to read for gratification, indulgence, and simple relaxation, yet the demands of quotidian assignments halt my passion. I wonder how many others feel this way and are consoled that the professionals of our district English Department carefully chose not only a book, but also an author who could once again rejuvenate the pleasure in reading. 

Pleasure in writing certainly takes the second seat for many of us because of the necessity to carefully analyze and regularly revise our writing for school.  Many students dread this process and might also deem it an unnecessary frivolity. I beg to differ and was pleased to elicit a most unexpected answer when asking “What was your favorite book series as a child?  Do you continue to read your contemporaries’ works as an adult?” Mr. Schrefer shared that he has a broader connection to a group of contemporaries writing their manuscripts. This reminded me, of course, of our common practice of shared reading in English Class. We all gain greatly by the insight of my peers as they listen to/ read one another’s writing; who does not like a positive critic and critique, at that? But when it comes to editing one’s own work, it is a perpetual favorite to shirk the obligation. Mr. Schrefer offered, however, integral insight from which we should all learn when he emphasized: “I probably spend about twice as much time editing a book as I do drafting it.” The message is strong Half Hollow Hills: proofread, edit, proofread, edit!

Photo Courtesy of Leah Sycoff