Tradebook Review: Citizen of the Galaxy

citizenofthegalaxy_6926I’ve been writing some tradebook reviews for class, and I wanted to share a couple of them. I was complaining to a friend of mine about how hard it is for me to find books for students that satisfy all the different mundane considerations that have to be taken into account, but are still – you know – good literature. He recommended “Citizen of the Galaxy.” It’s perfect, and that’s kind of thrilling, because how often do you get to introduce classic sci-fi into the classroom? Not often enough!

Here it is below the jump. I’ve left it in review template form, more or less the way I turned it in.

Tradebook title: “Citizen of the Galaxy” by Robert A. Heinlein
Would be used in course: Language arts/English
Grade: 10th
Lexile score: 820
Estimated reading level: intermediate

Give a brief overview of the proposed tradebook:
“Citizen of the Galaxy” is a science fiction novel. Heinlein is, of course, one of the most prolific and well-known sci-fi authors of the last half century. While much of his fiction is intended for adults, “Citizen of the Galaxy” was written for a younger audience. The plot follows the travels and education of a young orphan searching for information about his parents. Structurally and thematically, critics have noted a lot of similarities to Rudyard Kipling’s story, “Kim.”

Cite relationship of this text to course curriculum:
“Citizen of the Galaxy” packs in quite a bit of math and anthropology. There’s certainly some potential for integrating instruction with geometry, and social studies.

As noted below in the standards, CotG is a multi-faceted work that can be analyzed in a number of different ways. Analysis could take any form the teacher chooses, whether that be discussion, a written essay or other project, or something else entirely.

Sci-fi has had a large and very important effect on our culture, and continues to do so. Unfortunately it is often very poorly represented in public schools. I think teachers tend to stay away from the genre because much of it is not age-appropriate. That’s one reason that “Citizen of the Galaxy” is so instructionally valuable; because it is representative of the best of the genre, and it was written for young adults. If you had to choose a single sci-fi work to study in class, I think you could do a whole lot worse than “Citizen of the Galaxy.”

Cite relationship to common core standards:
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.4
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

Students would get a lot of practice determining the meaning of words. Heinlein does a lot of scene-setting with his choice of diction.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.9
Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).

“Kim” by Rudyard Kipling was an inspiration for Heinlein when he wrote “Citizen of the Galaxy, and the two stories have a similar lexile score, and are structurally and thematically similar. It would be really, really cool to do a comparison project using the two different stories.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.3
Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

Baslim the Cripple, the protagonist’s adopted father is an enigmatic figure for most of the story. The reader’s understanding of his character changes and grows substantially. Studying how the protagonist’s idea of who his father was changes and informs his motivations would be an excellent approach to the story, and excellent practice on analyzing complex characters in general.

Identify difficulty/challenge level of the text both in terms of reading level and conceptual level
“Citizen of the Galaxy” is written with syntactically simple sentences. The diction is modern and simple as well, but the story introduces a lot of new concepts, both fictional and real. For example, the various fictional cultures of the locations the protagonist travels to are discussed using real-world political and sociological  terminology. When starships travel through a planet’s atmosphere, they are described as “dopplering” (a made-up word that refers to the doppler effect.) There is a chapter in which the protagonist learns about (and the reader as well) three-dimensional geometry in outer space. Real mathematical terms are applied to a fictional situation.  The book presents a moderate challenge, largely due to the volume of new concepts and specialized language.

Students who are advanced readers will be able to read and quickly digest the entire book. All of the more advanced concepts and specialized language used to discuss them are introduced slowly and didactically, since the protagonist is learning about them at the same time as the reader.

Students who are reading at grade level will be able to read and understand the entire book as well, but would benefit from reading/writing summaries shared with classmates, periodic discussions about the book, and comprehension checks.

Students in support programs will need extra support and scaffolding to make it through the entire book.

Does the text prompt student thinking? Does it try to make connections to prior knowledge and student experiences?
Absolutely, especially in today’s world where there is so much science fiction in the pop culture that students consume. “Citizen of the Galaxy” bridges what students have seen in science fiction TV and movies, with knowledge they have from much more serious and practical topics, like government, slavery, history, family, and blue-collar occupations.

Overall strengths of this tradebook?
Strengths: The story covers a lot of ground, students from many different backgrounds will find elements in the story that are familiar. Difficult concepts are introduced gradually and intended to educate. Contains a ton of vocabulary that is very context-friendly (intended to be decipherable from context-clues)

Does this material consider the emotional, physical and intellectual development of the student?
Yes. In the beginning of the story, the protagonist is about 14 years old. By the end of the story, he is about 20. Developmentally, high school students are experiencing a very similar state of life, and face a lot of the same problems and questions as the protagonist.

Does this material address the needs and interests of both males and females?
While the book focuses on the male protagonist, there are sympathetic female characters of nearly the same age as the protagonist who are struggling with similar issues. “Citizen of the Galaxy” does not feature a romantic subplot of any real significance, which gives its women characters the space to be more multi-dimensional and have more agency than they might otherwise have had.  There are some older female role-models as well, including a ship-captain.

Does this material help males and females explore the wide range of roles available to them?
As I said earlier, one female character is a starship captain. Another woman is an anthropologist. The protagonist lives in a community which is partially matriarchal (patrilineal matriarchy, to get technical) for part of the story. However, it can’t be denied the majority of the characters (including the protagonist) are men, and men are portrayed in a wider variety of roles.

Will students of diverse cultural backgrounds see themselves reflected in these materials?
Possibly. Although the cultures and people represented are entirely fictional and don’t have clear analogues to modern cultures, they contain a lot of different familiar elements, and are on the whole very plausible and coherent depictions of human social structures. Since the book hardly contains any physical descriptions of people or groups of people at all (details such as skin color, hair or eye color are nearly absent,) it’s very likely that students of various cultural backgrounds will recognize and be familiar with elements of any of the cultures in the book.

Does this text contain any material which may be considered sensitive or controversial?
The protagonist is rescued from being sold into slavery in the first chapter of the book. Slavery remains a subject of some discussion for the rest of the book. The protagonist’s adopted father is a sort of anti-slavery activist. There are no graphic or explicit representations of slavery or the conditions of slavery, it is merely an important fact in the background for much of the plot. 

Poverty, as well, is an important part of the book’s first act. Several of the characters are professional beggars.

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