Thursday, January 12, 2012

Underground - Reading into the Subterranean Metaphor

There was time in my young adulthood when underground definitely meant nonconformist; challenging society; outside the mainstream, in hiding.  There was the Underground Railroad, the Weather Underground, the Urban Underground, the underground of poetry, music, and art.  It still means this.  There are, for example, many sites where underground eBooks can be downloaded and there are real dark coffee houses where underground artists can found.

It also means hidden but worthy of exposure. The urban underground holds the clues to restaurants, bargains, and the best of hip life. Underground guides tell the real truth about Google, universities, interviewing, travel destinations, standardized tests, and just about everything else - well over 1,000 titles are listed by Amazon alone.

And underground is still and always has been a place.  The nature of this place is the focus of my interest today.  Essential Questions:  What are the persistent elements of The Underground in k-12 texts and media?  Why are we attracted to this metaphor?  How and why do we get Underground?

Picture Books and Early Childhood - It is difficult to find underground spaces in picture books - they are too scary. The nearest thing is the abundant otherplaces that are found. These range from the very close and real (under the bed, in the closet or attic) to the fanciful (faraway islands, imaginary lands). To a child, all is imagination - so otherplace and realplace are allowed to intersect. Readers of the MS and YA books on this list will find the same, or similar, places. Older students should discuss this. In general, it is enough to point out to younger students the other places and what they do/do not contain, to discuss the emotions connected to them (inference exercise, often), and to discuss how the protagonist responds to the experience of being or confronting in the other place.  The realization of the reader is often personal because of this connection.  Older students will remember these connections.
  • Babar and Zephir - Jean De Brunhoff
  • Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen - Maurice Sendak
  • The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree - Stan and Jan Berenstain
  • The Dark at the Top of the Stairs - Sam McBratney
  • There's a Monster Under My Bed - James Howe
  • There's a Nightmare in My Closet - Mercer Mayer
  • Chris Van Allsburg - The Garden of Abdul Gagazi, Jumanji, The Polar Express, Zathura
  • fairy tales: Hansel and Gretel, Bluebird (might be too scary), Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow Queen
  • Rainbow Fish and the Sea Monster's Cave - Marcus Pfister - early reader, read aloud
  • The Minipins - Roald Dahl - forest - early reader, read aloud
  • The Secret Shortcut - Mark Teague - jungle - early reader, read aloud
  • Very Last First Time - Jan Andrews - bottom of the sea - early reader, read aloud
  • Alistair Underwater - Marilyn Sadler - a very deep pond - early reader, read aloud
  • James and the Giant Peach - Roald Dahl - inside a giant peach - read aloud and on-your-own after grade 3 or so
  • Film: Finding Nemo, Alice in Wonderland (animated)
As is true of zombie texts and metafiction texts, the critical teacher will find that there is a spiraling change in the meanings and interpretations of the metaphor as the texts become more advanced and complex.  Student readers above the elementary level should definitely read up and across the spiral.  That is to say, all readers should read and process at least one text from the lower reading level(s) and examine at least one form each of media and informational text at each of the level(s) (sometimes not possible for film).

Upper Elementary - Middle - At this level, underground begins to have metaphorical significance; setting often becomes itself an antagonist.  Look for mazes, dark happenings, confusion, threat - all of which are associated with a world that the protagonist must "work through" and ultimately "rise above" or, a wonderful exception, accept and join.
  • Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll - a must read
  • Tunnels (series) - Roderick Gordon - SF, with classical allusions - patience is necessary with Book 1's beginning, but after that the subterranean fantasy fun begins 
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth - H. G. Wells
  • The Dark Portal (series) - Robin Jarvis - mice, rats, cats, good and evil
  • The City of Ember (series) - Jeanne DuPrau - the 1st book is especially significant for this metaphor, as the child protagonists escape an underground world
  • The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There - Catherynne Valente - there is Fairyland and then there is Fairyland Below... - sequel
  • Slake's Limbo - Felice Holman - orphaned run-away lives underground in NYC - metaphorical and lyrical, so it challenges today's MS readers, which is unfortunate
  • "Orpheus" and "Theseus and the Minotaur" - the myths are available in many forms - must reads
  • The Shadow Thieves (Cronus Chronicles) - Anne Ursu - like Percy Jackson, the protagonists travel into the mythic underground - this book is the better by far
  • The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman
  • Book of Lost Things - John Connolly
  • Kit's Wilderness - David Almond
  • The Underland Chronicles - Suzanne Collins - Middle to YA - series of 5 fantasies about a boy hero named Gregor, a world under NYC, and dark happenings
  • The Infernal Devices (series) - Cassandra Claire - Victorian London underground
  • also underground elements in: The Lord of the Rings, The Time Machine, Ship Breaker, Mockingjay, Maze Runner
YA - although YA readers can read and enjoy the above books, the titles below move into the dark underground of the soul and the mazes of fear and awareness that almost-adults can and should be confronting.
  • Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
  • A Star Called Henry - Roddy Doyle - Irish uprising - survival means learning to travel underground
  • Everneath (series) - Brodi Ashton - young woman stolen by a steamy immortal (sound familiar?)
  • Enclave - Anne Aguirre - April 2012 - YA update of The City of Ember
  • Notes from the Underground - Fyodor Dostoevsky - freely download one ebook translation here - another from Project Gutenberg - Schmoop's guide is useful for HS students reading this challenging metaphorical text
  • Plato's allegory of The Cave
  • Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison - metaphorically and also literally underground, this black narrator reflects on his life and how he chooses to live it - Schmoop's Guide
  • This Side of Brightness - Colum McCann - subway society in NYC
  • The Woman in the Dunes - Kobo Abe - Japanese surreal
  • Inferno - Dante - painted images of this descent into Hell are also great text
  • The Underground Man - Mick Jackson
  • Subterranean - James Rollins - not deep literature, but a good modern read of the SF adventure variety
  • The Great Stink - Clare Clarke - Victorian England sewer construction, but also a murder mystery 
  • King Rat - China Mieville - wonderful fantasy, but only for persistent readers
  • Level 7 - Mordecai Roshwald - dystopian
  • The Descent - Jeff Long - cave
  • In the Skin of a Lion - Michael Ondaatje - literal tunnel-digger, metaphorical plunge - overlaps with characters in The English Patient
  • "The Defenders" - Philip K. Dick - free for Kindle - post-apocalypse

Film and other Media - Viewer/readers should ask: What is the purpose of the underground in this film?  How does it serve as allegory for or parallel to our world?  How does Underground in film compare to Underground in fiction and fact?  I have put the films in order of age-appropriateness, but teachers need to preview them before using.
  • Finding Nemo - corny, maybe, but the underground cave scenes are worth study
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth - multiple versions are available
  • The Time Machine - Morlock sequences
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - have to love those caverns
  • Metropolis - YA (boring to MS kids), but MS students should be able to get the message from selected clips
  • Tremors - pure SF - giant worms in the desert - PG 13
  • The Matrix - focus upon those scenes of the alternative underground society
  • Voices in the Tunnels: In Search of the Mole People - YA
  • Dark Days - YA
  • Saving Grace - the new Canadian film - YA
  • The Descent - cave (not the same as the novel) - YA
Informational text - for elementary students, there are lots of good informational skinny books about building subways and exploring caves. I recommend a trip to the library.  These titles are selected to support the MS and YA fiction titles. 
  • Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York's Urban Underground  - Gregory J. Snyder
  • The City Beneath Us: Building the New York Subway - New York Transit Museum - wonderful photographs
  • The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City - Jennifer Toth
  • "The Vertical Topography of the Science Fiction Film" - a serious and scholarly look at various underground spaces
  • "West Side Improvements"- a graphical iJournalism piece found in Synchopated: an Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-essays
  • Hollow Earth: A Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands... - David Standish
  • Tunnels and Trolls - a multi-player or solo-player role-play and problem-solving game similar to Dungeons and Dragons - all of the rule books and encounter/master guides can be freely downloaded at the site 
  • Steamscope HD - the ultimate tunnel experience - only for iPad 2  

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