This book should be read by every 10th grader, boys and girls. Reviews cite it as a slapstick, hilarious, satirical, picaresque adventure in the footsteps of Don Quixote. Cervantes' classic is both the model in form for this book and the central motif of the story (a dying 16-year-old whose reading of Don Quixote is interrupted by his death-notice and the resulting quest for a cure). Cameron's journey interweaves snippits of US contemporary life and language (at least YA life and language with nods to the adult world) and magical, illusory realities that are the stuff of dreams. The resulting tale is funny and memorable like Wile E Coyote and the Roadrunner are funny and memorable. As is true in the cartoon world, this is a book about drawing doorways that become real - it is book about the very act of creation (a fiction about a fiction within a fiction...).
What reviews do not dwell on is the intense emotional impact of the story. It is as much about life as about death; as much about reality as about dreams; and more about hope than about despair. It asks What does it mean to be alive and how do we create this meaning? It answers the question without vampires or the living dead, thankfully - Cameron is a true 16-year old at-risk, longing for something better, or at least different. Because it is a true portrait, the book works.
I have pegged it at 10th grade because it is (1) fairly long and (2) a true portrait of a 16-year old boy's world, and hence contains S - X, D - - GS, and at times graphic V - - - - - CE. But it is also full of music and dance and silent tableau's as powerful as any old world masterpiece. Many minor characters are richly drawn, including a delusional garden gnome and a nurse.
If I were to teach this novel, I would:
- want students to hear Richard Kylie sing "I am I, Don Quixote, The Man of La Mancha," "Dulcinea," and "The Impossible Dream." These are available on iTunes and through Amazon (full cast recording of The Man of La Mancha or individual downloads)
- purchase a copy of the screenplay for The Man of La Mancha (Amazon)
- borrow a copy of Don Quixote (in translation) and provide students with links to SparkNotes and other online materials - students would benefit from a plot overview and a character list before beginning Bovine
- download from YouTube at least one Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon (I use Zamzar)
- send students to Libba Bray's playlist created to accompany the novel - students can download songs of choice
- get ready for some heady discussions of the themes and ideas in the novel
- prepare, if you like, some pre-reading resources related to the "reality factors" in the book (I don't want to give any away here - they jump out at an adult reader) - teachers have to be their own judges of this
My reality is 7th grade. Can they read this book? The top 10% can, no problem. But I will require parental consent. I am going to offer it in a book bag (LEGO ERGO SUM) with the above resources and with Death Be Not Proud and a novel from the list below - 5 bags, in fact, if I can swing it, each for a different reader
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Alexie)
- Once & Then (Gleitzman)
- The Good Thief (Tinti)
- Briar Rose (Yolen)
- Skellig (Almond)