I am happy to participate in this new meme, recently started by the Styling Librarian 🙂
Yesterday I was asked to jump in and create an activities guide entry for one of his year’s Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award nominees, The Outcasts by John Flangan. The book is the first of his Brotherband Chronicles series, set in the same world as his Ranger’s Apprentice series. It was published in 2011, so books two and three in the series have already appeared on the scene.
That means I must have read The Outcasts sometime during the summer or fall of 2012. At the time, I found it to be a satisfying adventure, but nothing I was ready to run out and shout about from the rooftops.
The Skandians are a very Viking-like people. The men are sailors and warriors–plunderers, really–who sail to new lands, storm the banks, and take what they will from the villages they find there. Hal, is a teenage boy who barely knew his father, a great Skandian warrior who died in battle when Hal was quite young. Hal’s mother is an Araluen–captured by the Skandians during one of their pillaging raids. Thus, being a half-breed, Hal never quite fits in and is often ignored and, worse, bullied, by the other young men of the village.
The Skandians employ Brotherband training to ready their young men to become warriors like their fathers before them. There is skill-training both with weapons and on ships and tests of endurance and strength. Boys are divided into teams, which compete with one another daily on all the things they are learning. Think of it as Survivor but with Vikings. The young me,n themselves, choose a few among them as captains, who are then allowed to pick their own teams. Of course, there are always the guys no one wants, and Hal is not only one of them but becomes the leader of them as well. As you can guess, the story becomes reminiscent of The Bad News Bears or The Mighty Ducks–with the rag-tag team of outcasts showing up the teams made up of young men with important fathers and cocky attitudes. Which is why I said it was a satisfying adventure and not an amazing book: I’ve heard this story told before.
And then Neil Gaiman had to go and stick his nose in it. Well, not literally. It’s not like I talked with him about the book or anything. What I did do is read the article in The Guardian about his speech given this past Monday at a gathering of The Reading Agency. In it he said this about children (among scads of other brilliant things), “A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it.” Boy, did I feel shamed.
The students I serve on a daily basis are ages 11-14–almost too young for even the remake of The Bad News Bears! And so even though I knew all along that Hal’s little group would pull together and defeat the “rich, popular kids” and win the whole dang thing, my students will not necessarily have that all figured out. And they will love cheering for the underdog, love seeing the bullied become the victorious, and love feeling hope that they can succeed and, yes, triumph, even if they identify more with Hal than the better-equipped, more esteemed, “cool kids.”
And so the next time I booktalk The Outcasts, (which will be very soon, I guarantee it), it will be with renewed vigor. Kids deserve not only to be inspired by a book such as this, but they deserve an inspiring introduction to it as well.