Punkzilla by Adam Rapp

Rapp, Adam. Punkzilla . Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2009.

Dear Teacher, here's a review...

“Today has been the shittiest day of my life.”

Isn’t this a common phrase we as teachers overhear students uttering in the halls of our middle and high schools? And if they’re not saying it out loud, they are showing it in their body language or merely thinking it in the corners of their minds. Well, Jamie, Punkzilla ’s clever and unabashed epistolarian certainly finds himself at a time in his life where this statement seems to be all too true all too frequently.

Written, as a collection of letters, from the perspective of a rebellious fourteen-year-old boy leaving his ‘tween years far behind, author Adam Rapp , reveals a twist on the traditional coming-of-age story reminiscent of Stephen Chbosky ’sThe Perks of Being a Wallflower.

While undisputedly one of the most graphic YA novels we have come across, Rapp has mesmerized his readers and gained critical acclaim as the novel boasts the ALA 's Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literatureon its front jacket. Also on its front jacket, we see an illustration of the titular Punkzilla, drawn in shades of gray, melancholy in air, half donning a mask that certainly denotes the importance of the symbolic mask of identity that the character is so candidly struggling with.

As a reader of Jamie's diary-like writings to his older brother Peter (P), we discover that our narrator is on two journeys: the road-trip from Portland, Oregon, to Memphis, Tennessee, as well an embarkation into adulthood. Armed with some paper, a pen, a cynically bleak yet refreshingly witty attitude, and a rubber Halloween mask that he sometimes takes refuge behind, Jamie tells us the story of his tumultuous journey to get to his dying, cancer-stricken brother and to figure out who he is and how he fits into the mold of his family and society. Through snippets of his day to day life, we encounter Jamie the disappointing son, Jamie the banished, Jamie the crook, Jamie the underachieving cadet, Jamie the runaway, Jamie the experimenter, Jamie the scared, Jamie the hitchhiker, Jamie the victim, Jamie the villain, Jamie the caring son, Jamie the friend, Jamie the lover, Jamie the admiring brother, and most importantly Jamie the confused and misunderstood. He's constantly questioning, indirectly, who understands him and, to some extent, who he understands. As you move through the text, the obvious answer would be his brother P, since he's seemingly so willing to share shocking statements like,

"One time she made me come so hard I shouted "I'M A CRIME THRILLA AND A DIRTY COP KILLA!"

This isn't your typical brother to brother statement and it reveals an interesting characteristic of the book; that while written in letter form, Jamie's letters serve as almost a stream-of-consciousness diary. So, are P's eyes truly destined to see these letters since Jamie often seems to have forgotten that he is writing anyone at all? His tangents lead him deeper and deeper into side-notes and back stories that offer the reader a more intimate look into our protagonist’s life. Jamie himself, meanwhile, is developing a greater sense of self identity within the story. It could even be suggested that when Jamie's letters are less about correspondence with his dying brother, and more about a lacking need of expression he is filling through a therapeutic release of anxieties and raw emotion. He exhibits little censorship or discretion when writing Peter, sharing grotesque and taboo details that would make most older siblings squeamish and dissociative. Perhaps it speaks to Peter's liberal attitude and acceptance of all things out of the mainstream, or on a deeper level it signifies a truly open, concrete, and real relationship the two brothers have.

"I apologize if my handwriting is hard to read but writing on a Greyhound isn't too easy and by the way I just reread most of what I wrote and I realize I'm not following the rules like I should you know like grammar and punctuation and commas. I hope that's cool."

Jamie admits within his first letter to P that he would not be abiding by the accepted rules of grammar. It is a disconcerting read for we sometimes-persnickety English teachers! However, the technique certainly adds to the authentic voice and can lead to good discussions about voice and technique, and how creative use of both can enhance a reader's enjoyment as well as provide a way for the author to deliver his message or intent.

This raw, forward approach allows for a relatively easy read for adolescents. Jamie's writing does in fact mimic the way many of them speak, using the lingo and fillers that, again, we tend to hear in the halls of our middle and high schools. Jamie's voice is one that our students will easily identify with and therefore they should undoubtedly be able to pick up the underlying themes that are touched on in this text. Having said that though, does Punkzilla introduce our students to a character that they can identify with? Is he representative of all kids their age? No, certainly not. His experiences, however, broken up by letters or in snippets do resonate in their lives and the lessons and discussions that could be provoked by reading portions of this text do hold validity in the classroom. We see how portions of this text could be effectively incorporated into a conceptual unit and, like Smargorinsky suggests in Ch. 8 of his book, Teaching English by Design: How to Create and Carry Out Instructional Units , focus on such themes as "How does does discrimination affect society and its individuals?" and "How does it feel to be an outcast?".

Dear Teacher, here's some recommendations...

It is hard to imagine that there is any possible way to include this very graphic novel in a secondary English curriculum. It could, however be available to students for reading outside of the class, either on their own or as a part of an after-school book club. Issues covered in this book are: sexual release and body issues, homosexual encounters, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol use, petty theft, violence, misogyny, death and dying, and parental abuse. Although this novel covers many problem issues very well, it is hard to pinpoint how the book could be used to encourage a student's understand of himself or in any way relate to the myriad of situations that Jaime finds himself in. Jaime himself is a rather unlikeable character, and the novels ends on an inconclusive note, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions with very little information. This book does not end in a tidy package, nor are the moral issues and lessons clear to even this experienced reader.

One of Rapp's previous novels, The Buffalo Tree was censored by the Muhlenberg School Board in Reading, PA due to its themes of mental illness, graphic language and sexual content. There is no reason not to believe that Punkzilla would elicit the same sort of reaction and response.

However explicit and offensive the material of this or any novel may be, it is never wise or productive to "rule out" or give-up on a text's incorporation into the classroom. The ability to include texts such as these in the curriculum in any form, from a required text to merely a student option for student-lead literature circles, will require patience, dedication, and an open mind. The long road begins with finding a justification of the text's use within the sought after classroom setting. Defending the text and it's use in relation to state standards and local board policies is a must. Once a concrete and comprehensive proposal has been put into writing, it is time to present the plan to the principal or other appropriate administrator. It is important to exercise transparency and clarity in these situations, especially with such a potentially repudiated text. If the administration turns the text away, talk to the administrators about what, if any any possibilities in which they believe the text could be used. Administrators and teachers work best together when there is mutual respect and acceptance of their talents and skills. Introducing this text will surely be a collaborative effort between administration and staff. Inclusion of the book would likely include a required signed permission slip from the student's parent, perhaps a recommendation that a phone call be placed to the parents as well.

Dear Teacher, here's some stuff on the author...

Adam Rapp is a novelist, filmmaker, and an OBIE Award-winning playwright and director. His plays include Nocturne, Ghosts in the Cottonwoods, Animals and Plants, and Blackbird (Off-Broadway with Edge Theater). Adam Rapp is Resident Playwright with The Edge Theater, New York City. As a director, his production of Blackbird (Edge Theater) received two Drama Desk Nominations.

Adam Rapp is a graduate of Clark College in Dubuque, IA, where he majored in Fiction Writing and Psychology. Mr. Rapp also completed a two-year playwriting fellowship at Juilliard. Rapp was a member of the band Bottomside, which released the independent CD The Element Man in September 2004. He is currently a member of Less the Band, which released Bear in April 2006. He was born in Chicago, IL, and currently makes his home in New York City.

Rapp, 42, is no stranger to controversy. As noted above, his previous novel The Buffalo Tree was banned by the Muhlenberg School District in Reading, Pennsylvania. The Administration cited parents concerns with the book's social themes, graphic content, and sexually loaded offensive language. In May of 2010 Rapp's newest play, The Metal Children, tells the story of a New York writer (portrayed by Billy Crudup) and his explosive encounter defending one of his young adult novels, which has been banned by the local school board. One would be hard-pressed to ignore the strong parallels of the play to Rapp's own situation with the Muhlenberg School Board. The censorship play, which has received positive reviews, is Rapp's response to the district that now requires a full synopsis of every required text be provided to parents. As Punkzilla begins to enter the Young Adult scene, it is likely that Rapp will face further opposition from school boards around the nation.

Dear Teacher, here's some other stuff that may help...

On the off chance that you teach at one of those "anything goes" alternative schools, or you have an open-minded school board that sees the value and learning potential in texts that other boards may regard as "disgraceful and disgusting", here are a few tips, ideas, and recommendations for allowing students to get active in the text itself.
  • Epistolary - Have your students write their own letters to a deceased or long-distance loved one. It will not only help students to relate to the characters, but to grow their writing and their self.
  • Music Maestro - Allow the students to hear the songs as they are referenced in the story. Encourage students to spend time at home listening to Jamie's playlist. You could even allow them to create their own playlist and share it with classmates.
  • That's not in the story! - Challenge students to write letters as characters who were never heard from in the story. For example, write a letter from the viewpoint of P's partner (x). This allows students to think critically, and to enter deeper into the story world.
  • Tracking the Greyhound - Allow students to track Jamie as he travels, research Portland, Memphis, and other cities in which Jamie visits on the way. It will build their geography skills, and build their cultural understanding of different people across our expansive nation.
  • Livestrong P! - Have students host a fundraiser, event, or online social blitz to raise awareness about Cancer. Cancer is a growing epidemic, and to most students it is personal. Encourage students to get involved, share their experiences, and fight to find a cure.
  • Spend some time with a chapter of the text working on grammar and punctuation. Discuss the effect of the writing technique and how it either enhances or distracts the reader from the text. Find other texts that use lack of punctuation and grammar to present their work (ie., e. .e. cummings).
  • If you want to play it safe and get the most bang for your literary buck, have students work in literature circles where they can discuss the book freely with classmates. It is less awkward for them, and less awkward for you.
  • Remember the sexual references in this story pertain to a post sex-ed reader, encourage students with questions to focus on the meaning and themes of the text rather than on the sexual content.
  • If you are teaching this book, don't forget that you are blessed as a rare exception. Be sure to appreciate your administrators and community for their dedication to personal liberty and greater education.

For the rest of us teachers, we know that this book presents a fair amount of challenges in the classroom, but, as you can see, your colleagues and their students have found inventive ways to avoid touching on graphic ideas and language inside the classroom and to still share those projects with the class outside of the classroom. Take a look at this student's project that was posted on Youtube:

**thisisside01** April 20, 2010Due to graphic language and mature themes that were unavoidable and were not permitted to be shown in class, my English teacher has asked me to post my video project on YouTube. There are three scenes (this being the second in chronological order) for which I have made videos. SUBSCRIBERS: DON'T MAKE FUN OF ME!

**thisisside01** April 20, 2010I've made a video project on the novel Punkzilla by Adam Rapp (excellent read, by the way; pick up a copy if you have the means). Due to graphic language and mature themes that were unavoidable and were not permitted to be shown in class, my English teacher has asked me to post it on YouTube. There are three scenes (this being the third in chronological order) for which I have made videos. SUBSCRIBERS: DON'T MAKE FUN OF ME!

Allowing students an opportunity to express themselves creatively is essential to keeping them interested in literature, and developing life-long readers. A variety of internet mediums provide educators with options that allow to students to show their knowledge and understanding of a self chosen texts, such as Punkzilla, without the liability and politics of exposing an entire class to its content. Here is one such example of a Performance Assessment:

There is an aurora of limitless possibility that surrounds the internet when it comes to English education. Be it a book trailer, a podcast review, a reading response blog, or an online review - students have more opportunities to be engaged in their literature texts than ever before. A teacher who allows their students to harvest these benefits will create self motivated learners whose sphere of learning and education will go far beyond the classroom. The engaged student will gain a larger and often more enthusiastic audience on the web, and will gain the satisfaction of knowing their work will be available to both themselves and others for years to come. Punkzilla is the perfect text to bring students out of the standard classroom and on to the web.

Dear Teacher, did we mention there's music too?...

Music factors into this book quite a bit. Jamie speaks of his affinity for punk rock music and the influence that his brother Peter (P) had in making him a punk lover when he says "There was a ton of mad slamming punk rock loaded on that iPod like Dropkick Murphys and the Dead Kennedys and that Clash and Minor Threat. P I know a lot of that scene happened way before I was born but I still relate to it thanks to your rock-n-roll teachings." Punk rock has even made its way into Jamie's identity; being a premise for his nickname and the title of the book. As we read Jamie's letters, listen to him cry out and get a sense of how he is coping with all of the mixed emotions and challenging situations he is facing, we can almost hear the songs he would play on his stolen iPod. Here is Punkzilla's likely iPod playlist, including artists mentioned in his letters & their tracks that he would most likely prefer.

The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" could be considered Jamie's anthem for questioning whether or not to go AWOL from Buckner.

Is Jamie's road trip to see P his attempt to journey on the Dropkick Murphy's "Sunshine Highway"? Is P Jamie's sunshine?

The Dead Kennedys "We've got Bigger Problems Now" perhaps mimics Jamie's sentiments when he found out about his brother's cancer.

Minor Threat's "Out of Step" speaks to Jamie's experimental behavior in a crass and facetious way.

PJ Harvey's "Oh My Lover" would surely remind Jamie of the night in the hotel when he lost his virginity to Albertina who donned a tee-shirt with the singer's photo.

Dear Teacher, and here's some more stuff...

Drama Desk The Drama Desk was founded to explore key issues of the theater community. Each year the organization produces a series of panel discussions to spotlights areas of concern and then to educate the public about these matters.
At the time of the Drama Desk's founding, the only major awards honoring New York theater's creative men and women were the Antoinette Perry Awards, better known as "The Tonys®". These awards only celebrate those productions produced in Broadway theatres, while ignoring the hundreds of stage productions presented each year Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and in legitimate not-for-profit theatres. The Drama Desk Awards work to include productions from all sources.
Adam Rapp Wikipedia Entry
Less the Band information about Adam Rapp's band.
Time Out New York interview with Adam Rapp
Camp Buckner Apparently, Buckner Military Academy is an actual military training camp, affiliated with West Point. This link provides a YouTube video from some 2008 recruits and their training day.
Michael L. Printz Award - Punkzilla is a 2010 honor recipient of the Michael L. Printz Award, an annual award for books that exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature.
ASCD Challenging Content - Teaching Banned Books in the Classroom, Sloan, Willona M. Jan 2010
Education World Curriculum Article, Banning Books from the Classroom: How to Handle Cries for Censorship. Cromwell, Sharon. 2005
Teacher Magazine A great way to keep up on young adult literature, plus be the first to know when Punkzilla wins its next prestigious award
//Teens as Writers// A great site for English teachers from the IRA and NCTE that focuses on helping teachers to inspire students to write. Includes a monthly podcast, including week 17 (available below) that focuses on novels, like Punkzilla, that are written from a teen perspective.
YAReviews - link to other Wiki page review - Eng 311

--L, D, A, and B.