The Alan Review
Current Editor
Wendy Glenn wendy.glenn@uconn.edu
Volume 27, Number 3
Spring 2000


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Covering the Bases with Young Adult Literature:
Implementing John H. Ritter's
Choosing Up Sides and Over the Wall
As Touchstone Texts in a Middle School Language Arts Program

Patricia K. Ladd

Introduction

Another phone message. Another urgent e-mail. Another hastily penned note. Students, colleagues and parents wanted to know more about "that book" by "that new author." I smiled. Good news travels quickly. My return messages all said basically the same thing. "Please. You've just got to read it."

After all, one must personally experience the gifts of John H. Ritter, the "new kid on the literary block" in order to viscerally comprehend the buzz of my young adolescent readers. Their responses have dominated my year.

John H. Ritter's Choosing Up Sides (1998) winner of the IRA Children's Book Award, Older Reader Category, an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and a Blue Ribbon Book by The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, and Over the Wall (release date Spring 2000) are musts for every middle school teacher and student of reading, writing, and analytical thinking.

As conscientious language arts teachers face the challenge of designing standards-based units of instruction that successfully integrate components of the Reading/Writing Workshop Model (Atwell), we recognize the merits of selecting titles from both the classics and young adult literature. For many of us, our classrooms, libraries, and grade-level curricula are replete with titles of the classics that are selected and approved by our states and districts as required reading for adolescents.

However, YAL titles suggested by states and districts are not as readily recognized. Therefore, teachers, students and parents rejoice when they discover the gifts of an author whose first two novels serve as powerful instructional tools for an integrated English Language Arts Program.

While Choosing Up Sides is set in a rural farming community in Southern Ohio in the early 1920s, and Over the Wall takes place in the crowded and boisterous streets of New York City in the 1990s, both books deal with the age-old questions common to all developing young adults: Who am I? Where do I fit in? and What are my values and beliefs? As Ritter's powerfully told tales unfold, readers become connected to well-developed characters and intricately woven plots that present thought-provoking dilemmas. The essential purpose of his work is to serve as a literary moral compass, without being preachy in the traditional sense. Both plots address historical battles that tore at our nation's integrity as well as the private conflicts that can destroy individuals, families and communities. Ritter uses the game and field of baseball to play out these conflicts. The multiple layers and messages of both novels make them ideal touchstone texts for teaching literary elements, plot development, and strategies to increase reading, writing and critical thinking.

Reviews of the Novels

Choosing Up Sides (Visit John H. Ritter's web page at: http://www.johnhritter.com)

Thirteen year-old Luke Bledsoe, oldest child and son of a preacher, is marked at birth in the eyes of his father, a rigid Fundamentalist. Ezekiel's beliefs take root in Biblical verses and are further supported by the behaviors of Luke's Uncle Micah, his wife's only brother. Uncle Micah shares a genetic trait with Luke - a trait that Ezekiel feels certain is "The hand of the devil…pure backwards of what's right and good" (1). Luke and his uncle are left-handed, and Ezekiel " …ain't about to let that happen" to his son (1). Yet, by the end of Chapter One, Ritter sets the scene to a story that is rich in inter- and intra-personal conflicts, and one that address significant moral issues. He addresses themes of autonomy and independence common to young adult readers and portrays plot through authentic dialect, and well-developed characters. At first glance a simple story of realistic fiction, perhaps even a parable, Ritter's use of dialogue, similes, metaphors, and imagery add dimensions to the plot that leave readers pondering the book's messages long after turning the final page. Yes, this story is about baseball. Yet, as Ritter says: "I think baseball's a great metaphor for life." Choosing Up Sides has made me a believer.

Over the Wall (Visit John H. Ritter's web page at: http://www.johnhritter.com)

Ritter's second novel is once again a book about baseball - or so it appears. However, true to Ritter-style, he weaves a profoundly poignant story around complex developmental and historical issues. Set in the late 1990s in sun-baked southern California, Tyler, an undersized, orange-haired, athletic thirteen year-old, continues to suffer from the aftershocks of his father's emotional "earthquake." Tired of his dad, Lyle, getting "…all the sadness" while he and his mom are getting "…all the grief", Tyler mourns not only the death of his older sister, whom their father accidentally ran over, but also the psychological loss of both parents. His grief turns to anger and is fueled by his growing realization that "Time won't heal anything" (1). Just when things couldn't appear to be more dismal, Ritter offers this self-absorbed protagonist and his readers a flight of hope. Tyler's aunt and uncle in New York City want him "…to spend the summer hitting, chasing, and throwing baseballs on the old-fashioned, tree-bordered ball fields of Central Park… " (7). This invitation offers Tyler a respite from the sadness. Yet, Ritter takes this young adolescent on not only a transcontinental journey, but also a maturational and historical ride. Along the way, Tyler learns about the impact of the Viet Nam conflict not only on his father's generation, but on all survivors. He learns, too, the value of forgiveness that leads to actions and healing, actions that cause readers to question their own relationships, values, and practices. This is a profound story of realistic fiction for young and mature adults.

John H. Ritter: The Origins of a Writer with a Cause

Writers never write in a vacuum. So, what memories, experiences, and events serve as a backdrop for John H. Ritter as he paints literary images that later become powerfully written novels? Novels that not only address our human imperfections, but also leave readers with a sense of hope.

Since both Choosing Up Sides and Over the Wall focus on the thematic ideas of becoming self-aware and responsible for one's own life, I asked John about his own growing sense of self-awareness and personal responsibility as a young adult. Specifically, I asked him to address the topics of hate and prejudice-two prevailing themes in his works. His e-mailed response helps put the pieces together.

Funny you ask. Because hatred in the form of bigotry came to me first from a distance. On TV during the early 60s I watched dumbfounded as the freedom riders were beaten and the civil rights marchers were attacked by clubs and dogs and high-pressure water hoses. Then the kidnappings and murders. All deplorable. But I always thought that happened someplace else. Not in my part of America. I certainly wasn't raised like that.

Then one day in high school in the late 60s, I was sitting in the gym during a pep rally. I heard the school principal berate our school's opponent, their mascot, and the students who, by accident of geography, attended that school.

Right there on that hardwood bleacher board it came clear to me that I was surrounded by hate and prejudice. That the same thinking our principal was foisting onto us as he whipped the student body into a frenzy was the same thinking some people had toward blacks and the Vietnamese.

That day I became a pacifist. In the spirit of Gandhi and Dr. King, I saw the damage that hate, pride, and school spirit could do. That they were really all the same. (John H. Ritter, April 2000)

Boom. Sitting in the gym during a pep rally. A common young adult experience. Seemingly benign. Ritter, however, saw the event as foul. The discomfort of the bleachers paled in comparison to his sudden awareness that by showing his school spirit he was unwittingly supporting our society's malignant tumors of hate and pride by belittling others who were different. His sense of personal responsibility toward self and society moved him toward a clearer definition of the persistent adolescent refrains: Who am I? and What are my values?

Years later, upon the sale of Choosing Up Sides, John became a full-time writer. Although he claims the work is arduous, "…the ten-hour days spent in solitude, the constant battle to get the words right, the story right, to meet deadlines-they all take their toll", he loves it. "I love using that voice to say something I need to say. I love the rhythms and the musicality of language. I love discovering a good story, building it, and telling it. And when they all come together between the covers of a book, it's like magic."

It's more than magic-at least for classroom teachers eager to discover quality text that extends beyond a "good read." Ritter's works are touchstone texts for developing readers, writers, and analytical thinkers. As Rosemary Chance reports in her article "A Portrait of Popularity: An Analysis of Characteristics of Novels from Young Adults' Choices for 1997" (The ALAN Review, Fall 1999), young adult readers progress through three stages of reading development. And, according to Margaret J. Early, those in the middle stage of self-conscience appreciation begin "…to move away from the simple pleasure of what happens in a story to judging elements of the literary piece" (Early 1960). Many middle-school-students are at this stage; therefore, the following instructional ideas and student work samples exemplify the myriad of classroom uses for Ritter's works beyond a pleasurable Read Aloud.

Choosing Up Sides and Over the Wall in a Readers' Workshop Setting: The Use and Power of Metaphors

Metaphors allow readers to make connections between that which is understood and ideas that invite further investigation. The process stimulates a reader's imagination while also increasing one's comprehension of the subject. Both of Ritter's pieces are rich in metaphor. In fact, he says, "My books are pyramids." Upon a quick-read, his stories can be interpreted at the literal level by an unsophisticated reader. However, Ritter goes on to say: "You can take my stories at face value or you can dig under the surface and find other levels of meaning, like secret chambers and passageways that lead to other thoughts and ideas buried within." The treasures found while on the meta-cognitive journey through the chambers and passageways in Choosing Up Sides and Over the Wall allowed my students to strengthen their understanding of plot, character development, and to make connections between Ritter's texts and other classic and contemporary pieces.

In Choosing Up Sides, Ritter uses Walt Whitman's epic poem, "O Captain! My Captain!" as a poignant metaphor. Whitman's first line, "O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done" foreshadows the protagonist's journey with his rigidly authoritarian father and its tragic ending. Luke, a 13-year-old natural-born athletic southpaw, faces the challenge of accepting himself as he is or conforming to his father's belief system that his left hand is indeed the "hand of the Devil." Ritter's choice of Whitman's classic poem is brilliant, and lends itself beautifully to rich, open-ended classroom dialogues when juxtaposing this poem to the plots and characters in either of his books. My young adolescent students wrote poems "Whitman-style" from the perspective of a major character in both novels. Valerie, a middle-school-student, writes from Luke's point of view in Choosing Up Sides:

"O River! My River"

By Valerie Carlin

Inspired by John H. Ritter's Choosing Up Sides

and Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain"

O River! My River! My father lies in your grasp
You have freed me from my prison, from my lashed and bloody past.
The 'light' is near, I see it there, it is a baseball plate.
While in your dreary waters, he tried to fight against my fate.

This first stanza reflects Valerie's comprehension of the basic plot. More importantly, her interpretations reveal her understanding of the multiple conflicts and symbolism presented in this story. Luke seeks freedom from the imprisonment of his father's fears; ironically, his 'light' of hope lies in being true to himself and using his God-given talents. For Luke to realize his own inner goodness and strength, he must take a stand against his tyrannical father.

Valerie's next stanza provides evidence of her own awareness of Luke's self-development and his sympathetic compassion for his "Ma."

O River! My River! My mother cries anew
I wonder what is best for me, I bet she wonders too.
You helped me through my lonesome life, but now Ma needs you more.
You now run free inside of me, but she is bruised and torn.

Ritter's use of a river as a metaphor has several implications. Valerie sees it as a "dreary" coffin for an antagonist and a source of power for the protagonist. This tension between good and evil flows throughout his works.

Although Whitman never mentions Abraham Lincoln by name in his poem, Valerie understands the poem is a tribute to this powerful giant who presided over a nation torn by civil war. She connects Lincoln's role and wisdom to that of the mighty river in Choosing Up Sides--Ritter's metaphor for our own spirit. Ritter writes, "Everybody's got a river inside… always something under the surface" (83). Ritter knows his audience. Adolescent angst is a main topic of interest for young adult readers. Luke's inner thoughts reveal his own emotional roller coaster ride: "I was always rising up one day, falling down the next. Moving along. Changing my mind. Never the same from one day to another, but, then again, always the same. Always me" (128). Adolescents relate to this protagonist. Indeed, their own travels often feel like a "civil war" as teens seek autonomy from their parents and teachers. Yet, when the journey is done, a healthy adolescent will find, as Ritter states through Luke, that: "Time now, I figured, to let the river in me run its own true course" (166).

In Ritter's second novel, the 13-year-old protagonist is an angry, self-centered hothead with a winning swing at the plate. Like many adolescents, Tyler is a dreamer who fails to recognize the collective wisdom and pain of his elders. Angry at life itself, he runs from his emotionally wounded parents, openly defies his strongest ally, his baseball coach, and even takes swings at his own cousin. Iain, a middle-school-student, writes his "Whitman-style" poem from the perspective of Tyler's coach. This one brief stanza underscores the power of using Ritter's novel in a well-integrated middle school language arts program. Iain is able to sympathize with an authority figure and acknowledge the pain of a highly controversial war that began and ended long before his birth.

O Tyler! My Tyler!

By Iain Hartley

Inspired by John H. Ritter's Over the Wall

and Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!"

O Tyler! My Tyler! Rise up and stop the madness
Can't you see? War is made of fear and only forebears sadness.
I know! I watched the streets of our country's bloody civil unrest
I watched the pain of Vietnam and our flag burned in protest.

Ritter skillfully makes use of metaphors to encourage readers to think abstractly and critically. Readers are left questioning societal mores and values, rules and politics, and their own moral development. As students study both Luke and Tyler's reactions to life's many curves, as presented by Ritter through the game of baseball, they gain insight into the complexities of decision making and the maturation involved. Ritter presents Luke as perceptive, sensitive, intelligent, mature, and growing toward independence from an overly zealous, fearful and abusive father. While initially Tyler's levels of these same traits are not as significant, he makes tremendous gains as evidenced by his actions and decisions towards the end of the novel. Readers watch in admiration as Tyler shows a growing compassion for his emotionally devastated father. Another middle-school-student voices Tyler's plea and his awareness of his father's pain as he addresses his "…empty shell of a father" (4).

O Father! My Father!

By Nick Lake

Inspired by John H. Ritter's Over the Wall

and Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!"

O Father! My Father! Your life is a disgrace!
You're always in deep mourning; a wall is what you face.
You cannot see the harmful and unpleasant things you do,
Just because Lissie died does not mean you must, too.

But O Wall, Wall, Wall
How you shield my father's eyes
He is hurt deep down inside
And himself he does despise.

The neighbors reassure you, that nothing was your fault,
Yet it seems that you no longer act like a strong and caring adult.
You constantly pace back and forth, spreading misery,
You are emotionally broken down, but this you cannot see.

Oh, Father! Try harder!
You must divulge the key
To find a path around the wall
And set your spirit free.

Once again, Ritter's use of metaphors, particularly "the wall," captivates the curious minds of young adults. Nick addresses Ritter's themes of blame, guilt and self-loathing - issues common to all, particularly adolescents. He also reflects his understanding of inner conflicts faced by Tyler's father as he comes up against the walls that imprison him. Nick asserts that a wall of deep mourning immobilizes a once, but no longer, capable parent. However, Over the Wall sends the message to readers that we have the inner resources to heal; that with compassion for self and others, we can scale walls of fear, insecurity, ignorance and pride. Hope and understanding prevail in this piece and in Choosing Up Sides-- a much-needed prescription for today's youth. A river and a wall are only two of many intriguing metaphors Ritter incorporates into his novels. A visit to his websites (cited above) will provide a more complete list.

Teaching Students to Respond to Themes and Conflicts

While most adolescent readers are skilled at decoding words, many remain unsophisticated in making meaning from text. We all know of students who amaze us with their oral fluency, yet act perplexed when asked to discuss the "big ideas" in a novel, or even to simply retell the plot. More than ever before, researchers are identifying strategies that proficient readers use as they read. Ellin Oliver Keene's and Susan Zimmermann's book Mosaic of Thought-Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop (1997) is finding its way into the hands of dedicated teachers across the nation. Two of the seven cognitive strategies recognized include:

As adolescents become familiar with themes and learn to draw inferences, they make connections text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world. As a result, comprehension increases (Keene and Zimmerman, 1997). Furthermore, those readers in Early's middle stage of "self-conscious appreciation" respond positively to both theme and archetypes, such as: search for self and young adult heroes. Literary archetypes, as suggested by Sarah K. Herz and Donald R. Gallo in From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges Between Young Adult Literature and the Classics, also " …help students become more conscious of an author's style and to think about and recognize the way in which a particular writer develops a character or story." (1996, 65) John H. Ritter's novels are easily incorporated into instructional units that provide students opportunities to connect common themes and archetypes while also studying writer's craft.

Seeing Students Make Literary Connections

The following writing samples reveal connections made by my young adolescent readers and writers. Connections that strengthen overall comprehension, synthesis and analysis of text and author's style. Using Herz's and Gallo's model of thematically "bridging" one text to another, students connected Ritter's work to either a classic or contemporary piece.

Choosing Up Sides by John H. Ritter andDogsong by Gary Paulsen

Theme Connectors: Coming of Age; Independence

Robin Piper, a middle-school student, concludes his essay comparing Luke, from Choosing Up Sides, and Russel, from Dogsong:

In conclusion, Luke and Russel are similar in age and alike in that they both are strong individuals in search of a path towards a better life. However, they are different in the way they deal with their emotions, in their interactions with the people and places that confront them and in the techniques they use to succeed in their personal journeys. Although they face different challenges and develop different strategies to resolve their conflicts, Luke and Russel both find ways to distance themselves from the life style of their fathers in order to embark on a way of life that fits their needs and capabilities. On reading John H. Ritter's Choosing Up Sides and Gary Paulsen's Dogsong, one wonders what personal conflicts the authors confronted in their own lives, as both seem to caution young readers that though their parents deserve their respect, they do not always know what's best for them. The message they deliver is particularly relevant in the fast changing, technology driven world that young people live. As they mature, young people need to learn to listen to the advice of their elders, yet recognize that fundamental choices about the direction of their lives will take are theirs alone to make. (Nov. 1999)

Robin's character analyses reveal his comprehension of conflicts at both a literal and an emotional level. He makes text-to-text comparisons and text-to-society recommendations. Using two pieces of contemporary literature provided Robin with familiar teenage dialogue, events, problems and a template for his own maturation. Although the settings are vastly different, both protagonists grow in their self-awareness and independence.

As my students examined Steinbeck's The Pearl, the theme of prejudice emerged and was passionately discussed. Within weeks they also read a chapter in Ritter's Over the Wall in which an interesting character referred to as "Dog-man" caught their attention. Connections between the two texts were made on multiple levels as students activated prior knowledge (schema) and made inferences. (Keene and Zimmermann) Bridging a classic parable from the 1940s to a contemporary novel of the new millennium was successfully accomplished as demonstrated by the writings of two young adolescents.

From John Steinbeck's The Pearl to John Ritter's Over the Wall

Theme Connectors: Prejudice, Fear, and Pride

Mariah discusses the town doctor's prejudicial treatment of Kino, Juana, and their infant son, Coyotito in The Pearl. Hunt follows with his interpretations of the significance of "Dog-man" and Ritter's purpose in placing him in the plot line of Over the Wall.

Prejudice is seen in Steinbeck's novel, The Pearl. As Kino and Juana journey to see the doctor for their infant son's scorpion sting, Steinbeck foreshadows the theme by writing: 'This doctor was of a race which for nearly four hundred years had beaten, starved and despised Kino's race.' (p. 9) This gives a vivid description of the kind of prejudice and treatment Kino's people had felt. Steinbeck makes it so you can almost glance back at the past four hundred years and see the labor natives performed and how the outsiders shunned them. (Mariah Casias, February 2000)

Mariah's identification of the prevailing theme of prejudice is also noted by Hunt in his analysis of a minor character's role in the plot of Over the Wall:

Dog-man is probably included in Ritter's Over the Wall to act as a courier. He is carrying the message that fear, and fighting and war are not right. He carries this message by talking about how our country was formed; how we forced out the Indians which we called "godless heathens" and replaced them with "God-fearing Christians." (159) These past acts were prejudicial against the Native Americans and were caused by fear and ignorance by the Europeans, just as Kino and his family were denied medical treatment by the wealthy doctor in The Pearl. (Hunt Hardisty, March 2000)

Both Steinbeck and Ritter are able to elicit from young adult readers their impressions concerning the age-old societal cancer of man against man. As an educator and advocate for youth challenged with growing up in today's complex society, I find Ritter's works invaluable in terms of springboards for open-ended dialogues concerning how we treat one another. Our schools lack the resources necessary to meet the needs of today's students. Counselors are in short supply, classrooms are over crowded, and materials are scanty. However, the printed words of a rich tale can go far as students sort for themselves the world around them.

For instance, one young female addresses the issue of oppression in Choosing Up Sides. The following paragraph illustrates her ability to synthesize and analyze crucial events in the novel that fall under the umbrella of "oppression." Caroline Stevens writes:

Ritter portrays a picture of oppression in his novel Choosing Up Sides. For example, Luke, a 13-year-old natural-born left-hander, innocently throws a stray baseball back to a group of boys living in his small farming community. Much to their utter amazement, the ball is thrown with more accuracy and speed than any of the players can accomplish. At this point in the plot, the boys begin to pressure Luke to join their rag-tag team. There is a strong conflict, however; Luke's father, Ezekiel, is a Baptist preacher who rigidly believes in Biblical scriptures.

Therefore, Luke is not allowed to use his left hand, dance, watch moving pictures, or play sports. These frivolous rules and demands of his father cause Luke to feel more pressure from his father than he feels from his peers who simply want him to play baseball. Luke's decision to avoid the game reveals oppressed behavior caused by his father's fear of having a child who doesn't fit the role of the perfect preacher's son. Another example of oppression is shown by Ezekiel's attitude towards Luke's favorite relative, his Uncle Micah, who is also left-handed. Ezekiel says of Uncle Micah: "Leave a boy go left-handed," he once told my ma and he'll turn out wild as a witchdog, same as your fool brother, Micah…I ain't about to let that happen." (p. 1) Ezekiel's stern warning shows his disgust and fear of anyone left-handed. Ezekiel's attitude towards those born left-handed reveals his complete intolerance and inflexibility for people, even his own son and wife's brother, who act contrary to his own rigid belief system. This is the cruelest form of oppression when not allowed to be as you are born. (March 2000)

Earlier in the year, Caroline read Jack London's modern classic, The Call of the Wild. As she studied the writer's craft and literary techniques, she took part in class discussions concerning the theme of "naturalism." Although the protagonist in London's piece is a 140-pound St. Bernard/Scotch Shepard mix, Caroline made a text-to-text connection between Buck and Luke in Choosing Up Sides. She realized both struggled against oppression from being their true selves. She says: "Buck's transformation from a civilized domesticated house dog to a primordial beast, his natural state, is similar to Luke's transformation from an overly obedient, fearful boy to a young adult who follows his dreams and beliefs based upon his natural-born self and gifts" (April 2000).

Whether young adults face oppression in the form of unreasonably harsh parents, demanding peers, or the legalities imposed by society, the struggle to find and accept oneself remains common. Ritter's works are "…stellar examples of how a predictable plot such as 'boy meets baseball' can be thrown a fresh curve through the use of strong themes and character conflicts" (Robin Piper, student, April 2000). They provide hope and wisdom for adolescents as they choose their peer groups and confidence as they discover and listen to their own inner strengths.

As young adult readers increase in their levels of sophistication to "make critical judgments and form unique interpretations from text" (Keene and Zimmerman, 1997), so does their ability to consider themes rich in complexity and abstraction. Ritter's novels serve as deep reservoirs from which to drink while making connections between themes and their significance in our lives. One young adult reader identifies regret as a principal theme in Over the Wall. Although, because of their propensity toward self-centeredness and a sense of invincibility, we do not usually perceive adolescents as being regretful, Anisa's response to Ritter's story provides me with an awareness of her own sensitivities to the imperfections of mankind. She writes:

Regret is a principal theme in Over the Wall. For example, when blinded by anger at a baseball game, Tyler shoves someone, punches his cousin in the mouth, and is kicked out of the game. Tyler does not regret shoving that person until his actions get him tossed from the game, however, he feels badly right after punching his own cousin. Only when someone close to him is hurt does Tyler feel guilty and concerned, which relates to what Dog-man said about caring for your fellow man, no matter who that man might be. Tyler had not yet met Dog-man when blinded by his own anger, and he clearly lacked compassion. However, after meeting him, Tyler grows in awareness; he starts to see the big picture, which Ritter makes evident later in the book. In addition, when Tyler is standing in front of the panel at the Vietnam Memorial Wall on which his grandfather's name is engraved, he "chokes up" wondering if his grandfather felt any sorrow or anger before he died. Sorrow for dropping napalm bombs on innocent Vietnamese men, women, and children. Ritter further describes how Tyler "chokes up" at Lissie's grave. He cries not for his older sister, but for his mother. This comparison between Tyler's deceased grandfather and his older sister makes the reader question how Lissie must have felt just before she died. Did she regret playing that "harmless joke" on her dad? The joke which lead to her physical death and her father's emotional death. Was she in pain? It also brings up the question of whom Tyler cried for at the Vietnam Memorial Wall. For when he cried at his sister's gravesite, he was not crying for Lissie herself but for his own mother. He could have very well been crying for others besides his grandpa when he stood at the wall. (Anisa Wieder, April 2000)

Anisa asserts that Tyler's "choking up" at his sister's gravesite and at his grandfather's panel at the Vietnam Wall represents his growing self-awareness that an individual's actions can deeply affect others. This is an extremely important step for young adolescents. Like the ripple effect, Ritter shows his readers how intricately connected we are to one another. Anisa senses that just as impulsive childhood behaviors can have deadly consequences for not only a child but for all who loved that child, an adult's actions, though deemed responsible by most at the time, are not without consequences and, at times, pure regret. Ritter's story also allows Anisa to consider the effects of fear upon our actions toward others. Just as Tyler symbolizes our indifference toward the suffering of those we don't know or understand, he also represents the compassion we generally feel toward those we can name. Fear, or anxiety of the unknown, is a ready excuse for ugly reactions in humans. All forms of discrimination share fear and ignorance as a common denominator. Choosing Up Sides and Over the Wall not only identify the issue but also point the way toward understanding and healing.

Choosing Up Sides and Over the Wall in a Writers' Workshop Setting: Teaching Writer's Craft while Encouraging Critical Thinking

Mini-lessons allow me to teach and model a variety of techniques and strategies applicable to both reading and writing. Following lessons on similes, metaphors, leads, themes, conflicts, and characterization, several students researched Ritter's novels and created slides for a PowerPoint presentation featuring these elements. Classmates then responded to author's craft. Responses took the form of written analyses, Socratic Seminar dialogues, graphic organizers and mandalas using ideas presented in Fran Claggett's Drawing Your Own Conclusions (1992). I relied on Don Killgallon's instructional strategies as outlined in his Sentence Composing for Middle School (1997) to encourage variety and maturity in composition. Killgallon's premise is that student writers learn by imitating the pros. Therefore, my students found examples in Ritter's works that supported the literary elements we were studying. For example, when studying characterization, Annette and Carling found the following sentences from Choosing Up Sides to underscore the various ways a writer adds dimension to his characters:

  • By telling: (deacon talking to Chastity) "'Sure is sweet pie,' said the round-faced churchman with the crab-apple nose" (2).
  • By writing how a character acts: (Luke to his baby sister, Chastity) "Chastity bit her lower lip and wrinkled her five-year-old nose at me. I patted her knee" (3).
  • By a character's thoughts or words: (Luke) "Finally, I had to leave. It got to where I felt like someone was watching me. From above" (13).
  • By the reaction of others: (Pa to Luke) "Pa only watched. Not a word. Just the light touch of his hand, gentle on my shoulder. His left hand. It scared me" (84).

Students then wrote their own sentences and paragraphs by imitating Ritter's works. Not surprisingly, their observations of an established, published writer transferred to their own drafts of short story collections.

As my students and I patiently awaited both the arrival of spring and the release of Ritter's second novel, we were thankful for the "assignment" he posted on his web page. Students were asked to respond to each of the first five chapters of Over the Wall. The chapters and responses are posted at the following address: http://www.johnhritter.com/otwpage.htm. This exercise allowed students to identify specific literary elements in Ritter's work as well as an opportunity for analysis. A sample of student responses includes the following:

When you say, "People say, time heals all wounds. I used to think so. Now I know better," [line one of Over the Wall] you use the technique of flashback. Nadine

I took careful note of the fantastic imagery you used to describe the day Tyler's sister dies: "…that dry, windy day, under a huge pepper tree. The Santa Ana breezes lifted the long, feathery branches that usually broomed the ground, lifted them like leafy banners that flickered and tickled my arms and face…" To me, imagery is the greatest gift bestowed upon an author for that is how readers become enthralled and engrossed in novels. Carling

I like the part about the moon, how it makes the tide roll in and out. In my opinion, this means the moon is in charge of everything; it is a metaphor for good and evil. I am also glad you put in words and phrases that kids use today; kids can relate to the book this way. Chelsea

I like your opening sentence on how time doesn't heal all wounds. This is true. Our school counselor gave us a lesson about grief and loss. One of the things he said did NOT work was to wait for your sorrows to go away. Max

"Like a dying bird, it plopped against the base of the fence and bounced off." I really love that simile because it paints a clear picture in my head of a flying baseball with wings hurtling to the ground. And, one of my favorite things about this book is how even the minor characters can mean so much. For example, Dog-man shows a strong purpose. He stands for how the world should be today and how, unfortunately, it is in reality. He is a symbol of peace and kindness, even though he seems, at first, to be threatening." Annette

John H. Ritter as Teacher of Writing

In the spirit of imitating a pro, one of my students sought Ritter's advice as she embarked upon her own journey as a novelist. Her questions were posted on his message board, and much to her delight, he responded with the following e-mail:

Let me give you a few guidelines and suggestions, things I have told many beginning writers.

Keep the story simple and the book short. Pick one story with an interesting, attention grabbing beginning that causes the main character a problem, let the main character come up with a plan to solve the problem, put the plan into action, have several obstacles or setbacks come up that are hard to overcome, but must be, while never letting up on the pacing-that is, keep the story fast-paced and always moving forward-then give the reader a satisfying conclusion, with hope, if possible.

Avoid long sections of thinking. Use dialogue a lot, especially to move the story along and to let the characters learn new information. Use plenty of action scenes-that is, get your characters up and moving. Avoid "talking head" scenes, such as two people talking at a restaurant. Yuck. Get them out doing their hobbies, going to interesting places, building something, discovering something, or inventing things. Anything that involves interesting action.

This will probably take some research. Be sure to stop and read deeply into whatever area you're writing about. For example, if the main character rides horses, you must become an expert on horse care, the art of riding, the parts of a horse, saddlery items, training methods, and stuff like that.

However, don't try to put all of these elements into your first draft. It will take forever as you constantly stop to try to figure out the next problem or the next solution. Or the overall plan or the best beginning.

Instead write a pretty crummy first draft as quickly as you can. The "holes" will be apparent. Then in draft after draft you will start to fill those holes, thinking of new additions, better plotting choices, new twists and turns, and doing more research. You see, the bulk of creativity comes not from the conscious act of thinking, but rather from the subconscious mulling over of new and interesting information. That's why you'll sometimes come up with brilliant ideas while you're falling off to sleep or just waking up or you'll suddenly remember a word one day that you couldn't recall just a day or two before. And that's why it takes so many drafts to write a good book. Which is why so many writers give up without even finishing a rough draft. They see it as too overwhelming or too frustrating because they're trying to be too perfect the first time through.

Hope this helps. The main thing is to have as much fun as you can. Enjoy the process. And go easy on yourself. (John H. Ritter, December 1999)

John's advice to this aspiring young adult writer was copied and distributed to all of my students. Their acceptance, even eagerness, to take a second or third look at their own works in progress is directly related to Ritter's frank statement: And that's why it takes so many drafts to write a good book. Excellence inspires excellence.

Conclusion

It is now late in the day--the last day of school before Spring Break. Dusk settles over the city and brings with it a blanket of contentment as I reflect upon the past few days with my students. They wanted desperately for me to finish the final chapters of Over the Wall before departing campus for over one week. I chose to grant their wish and penciled in large chunks of time for reading aloud. Equipped with bottled water, I covered the four corners of the classroom making eye contact with each young adolescent as Ritter's story unfolded. Every eye followed my slow dance around the room. When the shrill sound of the recess bell pierced the "rhythms and musicality" of Ritter's tale, students remained glued to their seats.

Chapter 30 swept us away into Tyler's reality. Students reenacted the poignantly written scene where Tyler's pride swells and a wave of destructive anger crashes down upon an innocent victim. I saw, as my eyes darted from text to students' faces, glimmers of recognition upon young, innocent faces. "Text-to-self connections," I noted. Their soft breathing and furrowed brows led me to realize that Ritter's fictional account was real in their minds--believable and worthy of introspective thought.

This morning I read the final few chapters before gently closing the book. Students gradually shifted from their positions of serene self-reflection to an awareness of the moment and their surroundings. My student teacher dabbed the corners of her eyes with a tissue. Finally, one young lady broke the silence. Her shining face characterized the resiliency of youth, the optimism and eagerness to embrace hope.

"I'm glad Spring Break is here," she said. "I'll need that week to think over and over all of those messages in Over the Wall."

Not a holiday assignment from their teacher. Rather a self-imposed opportunity for reflection and self-discovery.

It is now dark, yet I see clearly the power of John H. Ritter's books. Just moments ago, my own eyes fell upon the opening pages of Over the Wall where, in dedication to one of mankind's most revered athletes, Ritter includes the sage wisdom of this man's heart:

"If you have an opportunity to make things better, and you don't do that, you are wasting your time on this earth." (Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1971)

John H. Ritter's books are opportunities for young adolescents to become better. Better readers, writers, and thinkers. However, more importantly, Choosing Up Sides and Over the Wall provide opportunities for readers of all ages to stand at the plate with the bases loaded and face the moral challenges hurled their way, then to swing into action with all of their hearts and all of their minds. Making things better. A grand slam.

Thank you,
John H. Ritter.

Patricia K. Ladd is a teacher of middle school language arts in San Diego, California.

Works Cited

Atwell, N. In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning. NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc. 1998.

Chance, R. "A Portrait of Popularity: An Analysis of Characteristics of Novels from Young Adults' Choices for 1997." The ALAN Review. Fall 1999: 65-67.

Claggett, F. and J. Brown. Drawing Your Own Conclusions: Graphic Strategies for Reading, Writing, and Thinking. NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 1992.

Herz, S. and D. R. Gallo. From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges Between Young Adult Literature and the Classics. CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Keene, E. and S. Zimmerman. Mosaic of Thought-Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop. TX: Heinemann, 1997.

Killgallon, D. Sentence Composing for Middle School. NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc. 1997.

London, Jack. The Call of the Wild. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

Paulsen, Gary. Dogsong. New York: Bradbury, 1985.

Ritter, John H. Choosing Up Sides. New York: Philomel Books, 1998.

Ritter, John H. Over the Wall. New York: Philomel Books, 2000.

Reference Citation: Ladd, Patricia K. (2000) "Implementing John H. Ritter's Choosing Up Sides and Over the Wall as Touchstone Texts in a Middle School Language Arts Program." The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 3, Pages 10-17.

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