Books on the Blog: The Tragedy Paper and Like Any Normal Day
by Molly Leahy
The Tragedy Paper
In her first young adult novel, The Tragedy Paper, Philadelphia’s Elizabeth LeBan invites readers to an elite boarding school for dual story-telling. Readers follow Tim Macbeth, a new student who transfers to Irving School, as well as, Duncan Meade, who inherits Tim’s dorm room and his collection of CDs narrating a personal nightmare the previous school year. Both students are linked by English teacher Mr. Simon’s legendary writing assignment known as the Tragedy Paper.
A sign reading “Enter here to be and find a friend” greets students as they enter the school, and fortunately, Duncan has a core group of friends to help him through senior year, unlike Tim. Readers may recognize a classic love triangle between Tim, his only friend Vanessa Scheller, and her jerk boyfriend Patrick Hopkins. The Irving School Bulldogs read Moby Dick and Hamlet, while their English teacher Mr. Simon challenges them to understand themes such as magnitude, and order from chaos. LaBan creates true order from chaos in her choice of narrative structure, recorded CDs that captivate Duncan who can’t stop listening to Tim’s tale, just as readers can’t stop turning pages.
With allusions to Shakespeare’s tragedies throughout the novel, the flawed characters in this story, Tim and Patrick, plot the annual senior prank, known as The Game. What could go wrong on a perfect winter’s night for sledding? LaBan’s beautiful imagery for snow and vision illustrates that neither Vanessa nor Tim could see how their friendship built amidst igloos and snowballs one night, would take a treacherous turn on another winter’s night. Duncan questions his own fate, trying to make sense of his own Tragedy Paper and his role in continuing The Game.
My school chose The Tragedy Paper as one of two titles featured in our library’s Big Summer Read program. I’m excited to share LaBan’s book with students. Cool off this summer by reading about the lasting chill from a senior prank on a cold night.
Like Any Normal Day
Like Any Normal Day is not like any normal school-assigned reading. A game-changer in our afternoon Brit Lit class, Mark Kram’s book about a family in our school community actually revived my seniors. This non-fiction work features Buddy Miley, the senior quarterback of our school’s football team in 1973 who becomes paralyzed during a game. Despite his paralysis, Buddy still feels excruciating pain, and depends upon family members to care for him for the next twenty years. Kram relays Buddy’s experiences by also including multiple perspectives from Karen, Buddy’s high school sweetheart, Buddy’s family members, and especially his younger brother, Jimmy. The story reveals the depths of a brother’s love and the heroic strength Jimmy demonstrates off the playing field when he honors Buddy’s wish to be Dr. Kervorkian’s final patient.
My twelfth grade students, snapped out of prom and senior week conversations to discuss the complex issues surrounding Buddy and Karen, high school seniors like themselves. They marveled at the competition and love two brothers shared as athletes growing up together, and then drawing upon that strength years later in much more serious challenges. A student whose father was incarcerated said “I’ll never complain about my life being tough again.” A student who had staunch views, honestly admitted “I thought I knew what was right, but now, I’m not so sure. This family’s ordeal really makes me think twice.”
Reading Like Any Normal Day became a shared reading experience – students couldn’t return books because a parent, grandmother, or uncle wanted to read their school issued copy. Dinner conversations about the Miley family and Kram’s book connected generations of neighbors, students, and alumni, and generated such a buzz when the author came to speak to our class. I am so grateful we have the opportunity to teach Like Any Normal Day, a book that begins with a sports injury but becomes so much more than just a football tale. It’s not often that a new book about your school is published, released, and purchased with the Superintendent’s blessing, all in the matter of weeks! Based on my experience teaching Like Any Normal Day, I recommend reading about your school’s community with students. And if no one has written a local story for you, what’s stopping you from writing it yourself?
Molly Leahy teaches 9th grade English at William Tennent High School, where she also coaches the boys’ and girls’ tennis teams, combining her two childhood favorite past-times, reading Nancy Drews and smacking tennis balls.