The Gods of Our Stories

In my Young Adult Fiction class, we read, among other texts, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. This book can be super-tricky to teach for a bunch of reasons–the prose is gorgeous but can be challenging, the book is fairly long and unusual, there’s completely legitimate debate about whether or not it’s even a YA book at all–but I continue to teach it. Partially because I think it’s an important book that shows the outermost limits of YA as the genre exists now, and also it’s fucking incredible, but outside of that, it sets up one of my favorite teaching exercises.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Book Thief (and you should absolutely read it, like, yesterday), it’s about a young girl coming of age in WW2-era Germany. I don’t want to spoil the plot too much, which is why I’m being vague, but what’s important for this exercise is that in this novel, the narrator is Death himself.

The exercise is this: the students, at this point in the semester, have already written a story. I ask the students to consider the forces at work in their story. Death? Love? Deception? Technology? Then I ask them to write a three-page monologue about the happenings in their stories, as told by a noncorporeal/elemental being or deity that has some stake in the plot. What does Cupid think about this doomed affair? The wind that whips by the house day in, day out – can she see the protagonist being terrorized by that ghost? And once they’ve done it, you can have them try it again from a different or competing voice: if God is disapproving of the situation your characters are in, what does Satan think about it? What about Hades and Persephone? Time and Space?

Of course, your class doesn’t need to have read The Book Thief to do this exercise. It just works beautifully in conjunction with the novel because it’s such a clear example of how this technique can work. Death has existed forever, and will always exist, and yet something about this story, this girl, makes Death pause and point and pontificate.

The important thing to emphasize to students about this exercise is that this isn’t (necessarily) a rewriting of their story. The narrator they choose for this exercise doesn’t have to become the narrator for the actual story. This is merely a way to reconceptualize their narrative, or to consider it from a different angle.