In Unit 2 of the Australian Senior Secondary English Curriculum, students analyse the representation of ideas, attitudes and voices in texts to consider how texts represent the world and human experience, with a focus on how language and structural choices shape perspectives.
Nick Earls’ novel 48 Shades of Brown is an accessible novel with a straightforward, humorous plot; an engaging adolescent narrator with a distinctive voice; and approachable themes around coming of age, independence and identity. It is an ideal text for Year 11 English students to explore stylistic choices and the fundamentals of the novel form; to reflect on their own and others’ experiences of, and perspectives on, the world; and to practise viewing a text through some elementary critical lenses as they consider why ideas are represented in certain ways (revealing attitudes, values and perspectives).
Students can use aspects of 48 Shades of Brown as stimulus for their own creative responses, reflecting on how they select language and represent ideas.
The novel also provides an excellent introduction to the concept of intertextuality, with its frequent references and apparent relationship to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996).
This unit of work suits the NSW Stage 6 English Syllabus (Year 11 English Standard Module B: Close Study of Literature). It could also be adapted into a Year 10 unit on identity, coming of age or growing up, though teachers of younger students will need to balance the novel’s sexual content against their individual school policies.
NOTE: It is assumed that students will have read the novel at least once before lessons commence.
What is ‘coming of age’?
Start by asking students the following framing question and encourage them to share their answers if they wish (in small groups or with the class):
What is the one main thing that has defined or will define my transition from childhood to adulthood?
Introduce students to the term ‘coming of age’ and explain that 48 Shades of Brown is a coming-of-age novel.
NOTE: It is possible that students will compare the title to Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James; you may need to point out that 48 Shades of Brown was published well before this text, and that there is no relationship between the two.
Brainstorm together what might be meant by coming of age, and ask students to think of other texts that fit within or contain elements of this genre.
Now ask what sort of things commonly happen in coming-of-age stories. Brainstorm together, prompting as necessary with the following ideas:
- a catalyst for change
- milestones or rites of passage (cultural, family or individual) signifying the move from childhood to adulthood
- changed expectations
- new responsibilities
- transition from innocence to experience
- mixed feelings/nostalgia
If time permits, ask students to read, view or research a coming-of-age text of their choosing and compare and contrast it with 48 Shades of Brown. They can use the text comparison table (PDF, 97KB) for this activity.
NOTE: Coming-of-age literature and bildungsroman are explored throughout this unit. If you wish to front-load these concepts more comprehensively, you can do so at any point from now.
Research task 1: rites of passage (in class)
Have students work in pairs to research some traditional rites of passage and/or initiation practices. For example:
- land diving in Vanuatu
- Hispanic quinceañera
- Coming of Age Day in Japan
- tā moko in Māori culture
- Jewish bar and bat mitzvah
- receiving the ‘key to the door’ on one’s 21st birthday (mainly in the UK, but also in Australia, albeit less commonly now)
Students will then briefly present their findings to the class.
You could also discuss more ordinary rites of passage that students may have encountered, such as:
- getting a driver’s licence
- getting a pen licence in primary school
- getting your first mobile phone
- any other rites of passage that students can think of
Research task 2: family and friends’ rites of passage (homework)
Direct students to ask their family and friends if they can think of any rites of passage, especially those from their own lives. These could be common rites within the community, or unique traditions that a family has invented (e.g. in my friend’s family, you knew you’d come of age when you were allowed to use Dad’s woodworking tools, or when you got your driver’s licence).
Class discussion: personal response to Dan’s coming of age in 48 Shades of Brown
Point out to students that Dan arrives in Brisbane anticipating a significant and unusual year. Ask the class what rites of passage (or at least changes) he is expecting to mark his transition from childhood to adulthood during this year without his parents.
- Do any of Dan’s expectations come to pass?
- What happens that is unexpected?
- What aspects of being a teenager/young adult are captured effectively in the novel?
- What has changed about life and society since this book was first published in 1999?
- Did you like Dan? Did you want him to succeed? What was it about him that you found appealing/unappealing?
Students may well disagree on some of these points. Allow time for them to debate their ideas and remind them to justify their opinions with evidence from the text.
Watch the trailer for the film adaptation, 48 Shades, together as a class. If time permits, you could watch the whole film now or at another point in the unit. Ask students to note, discuss and debate what they think has been captured well and what has been less faithfully adapted from the book. Encourage them to consider what aspects of character, the plot and Dan’s journey have been picked up on, and what has been changed to suit the kind of film being made and marketed. You could briefly discuss elements of film genre here too: is 48 Shades presented as a romantic comedy? A teen film? A slacker comedy?
Outline of key elements of the text
Use the overview slides (PDF, 628KB) to introduce the key elements of the text:
- plot (including the term ‘bildungsroman’)
- key characters
- narrative perspective
Throughout the presentation, pause at each set of prompt questions and discuss, allowing time for students to fill in the overview note-taking scaffold (PDF, 98KB). These questions are designed to elicit students’ early impressions and ideas, and to activate discussion and curiosity, without needing to have studied the novel (or to provide answers) in great detail.
Synthesising initial responses
Chapter-by-chapter questions and reflections
Distribute the chapter-by-chapter questions (PDF, 197KB) and ask students to complete them over the next few lessons. These are a mixture of basic comprehension and higher order questions, designed to help students revise the text and synthesise the concept of the coming-of-age genre with their thinking about key events, characterisation and themes.
The questions can be completed individually (in class or at home); the end-of-chapter reflections and extension activities could be completed in small groups.
NOTE: Page numbers have been taken from the 2017 edition of 48 Shades of Brown published by Penguin Random House Australia.
Alternatively, allocate each chapter to a different pair or group of three students. Direct them to complete all questions, reflections and extension activities for their assigned chapter, then ask them to teach the rest of the class via a presentation (or by uploading their answers to your Learning Management System, if time is tight).
When all questions have been completed, ask students to think about Dan’s coming-of-age experience and write either:
- a reflective, discursive piece about a coming-of-age experience in their own life (first person); OR
- a creative piece (or fragment or scene) in which a character comes to a new and mature perspective on something in their life (first or third person).
Remind students to provide evidence in their responses, even if questions do not explicitly ask for it.
Understanding how the text is crafted
Plot and structure
The action of the novel takes place over a period of about five weeks. There are no major incidents to speak of; the plot develops as the reader follows Dan through a series of small triumphs and setbacks, leading him to certain realisations about himself and about life.
The following activities are designed to consolidate students’ understanding of the plot and how it is structured.
Create a tension graph that represents the major and minor climactic points in 48 Shades of Brown (x axis = time passing, with key events plotted chronologically; y axis = the amount of tension Dan is experiencing and/or the significance of the event). Encourage students to include at least one event from each chapter; some chapters contain more than one. You can download a free tension graph template from Teachit (account required).
Optional: creative task in pairs or groups
Working in small groups, create a board game that represents the plot and structure of 48 Shades of Brown. Remind students that there is no major rising action or crisis in this character-driven story, but rather a series of wins and losses. Encourage them to include obstacles, setbacks and triumphs based on Dan’s experiences. Also encourage students to think carefully about the game’s end goal: what would it look like for Dan to ‘win at life’? Is it about ‘getting the girl’ in the end (and if so, which one)? Or is it about gaining something else?
Students may wish to use one of these board game templates. As the game needs to reflect Dan’s progress through the story, the playing pieces could represent miniature versions of him!
Key events for these tasks (among others students can identify) include:
- arriving at Jacq’s
- meeting Naomi
- Dan realising that Naomi is having sex next to his room
- the first day back at school
- learning to do chores
- meeting Phil Borthwick
- Naomi planting basil and considering breaking up with her boyfriend
- the first picnic at uni
- deciding to learn bird names
- Dan making pesto
- the party
- Jacq’s revelation about her feelings for Naomi
- the second picnic at uni
- Dan and Naomi seeing the bird in the backyard
- Naomi reading Dan’s essay
- Dan deciding to try to see Imogen
Time permitting, allow students to play each other’s board games, view each other’s tension graphs, and discuss any differences in approaches that they observe.
Conclude this section of the unit by summing up the differences between plot-driven and character-driven writing. Ask students to record some examples of plot-driven stories (novels, films, TV series, etc.) and, in writing, compare them with Nick Earls’ approach in 48 Shades of Brown. Prompt them with the following questions:
- How does the purpose of character-driven writing differ from that of plot-driven writing?
- How does the effect on the responder differ, and why?
- What do responders value in different types of texts, and why?
Direct students to complete the character summary table (PDF, 97KB). If time is tight, divide the characters between small groups and ask them to complete the table for their assigned character. Have each group share their findings with the rest of the class.
Using the information from their tables, students are to create a visual representation of one of Earls’ characters for classroom display. This is an opportunity to discuss the difference between illustration and representation.
NOTE: Students may include images from the 48 Shades film, but these should be combined with other visual elements to create representational meaning. Avoid collages of images that are essentially just illustration, or other people’s interpretations/representations. Also encourage students to assess how images from the film either celebrate or contest Earls’ original characterisation in the novel.
Direct students to write a 350-word reflection statement, explaining how they used visual features to represent their character and justifying their choices using textual evidence.
Students may then choose one of the following creative responses to round out their study of characterisation:
- Imagine that Facebook existed in the 48 Shades of Brown timeline, and use Fakebook to create an account for Dan, Jacq, Naomi or Burns. Try to capture their character by imagining what they would put on their profile, what they might like or post, etc.
- Pretend that you are one of Earls’ characters and make a ‘mix CD’ of songs from the novel’s time to give to another character.
- Plan Naomi’s perfect date OR what you think Burns’ idea of the perfect date might be.
- Pretend that you are one of the characters from the novel and plan your perfect holiday.
Invite students to present their work to the class and explain how the choices they made highlight the views and values of their chosen character.
Narrative perspective, voice, language and style
Remind students that the narrative perspective in 48 Shades of Brown is first person, a common feature among coming-of-age/bildungsroman stories.
Make sure they have noticed that the action is told in the present tense. This stylistic choice, together with the first-person narration, gives the text a sense of immediacy and strengthens the narrator’s personal voice; we feel like we are going through Dan’s experiences alongside him. We also notice his sophisticated vocabulary as a 16-year-old. This is unlike other coming-of-age stories in which an adult narrator reflects on their past experiences growing up (e.g. To Kill a Mockingbird). Dan does reveal a few things that happened in his childhood, but the main action of the novel is set in the present.
Another distinctive aspect of voice in this novel is the unconventional way in which dialogue is set out. Ask students to identify what is unusual about this stylistic choice, and to note what happens when Dan is speaking/thinking compared to when other characters speak. Together read pp. 183–184 or pp. 246–248 (or another similar passage of your choosing) and annotate where different characters’ dialogue and Dan’s thoughts occur, noting that sometimes it takes a moment to distinguish what Dan thinks from what he says out loud.
Encourage students to discuss why they think this authorial and/or editorial decision may have been made. The following prompts may be helpful:
- Consider the use of inner monologue (Dan’s thoughts written as coherent sentences) and elements of stream-of-consciousness (representation of thoughts in a less ordered way, mimicking actual thought patterns). Find examples of each.
- Consider Dan’s habit of blurting things out and then thinking he should have kept them to himself.
- Consider how the lack of punctuation emphasises Dan’s intense self-focus and busy mind.
- Consider how this feature draws us even more closely alongside Dan as narrator, as we are sometimes required to figure out what he is thinking and what he is actually verbalising.
Direct students to collect quotes that illustrate Dan’s sophisticated vocabulary, and those that show him being smart and witty (most often during his conversations with Jacq). They should look up the definitions of any unfamiliar words.
Once they have collected this evidence, they should write a paragraph in response to the following question:
How would you describe the voice of the protagonist and narrator, Dan, and what are some aspects of Nick Earls’ writing style that help to create this voice?
The significance of setting in the novel
There are two settings in the novel, though one (Geneva, Switzerland) is only ever talked about. Make sure students understand that Geneva in winter is about as different as possible from suburban Brisbane in the height of summer. Discuss how Earls uses this contrast to accentuate other aspects of the novel, such as:
- the difference between sisters Margot and Jacq
- the differences between Dan’s conservative, ‘tasteful’ family home and the more bohemian environment of a student share house (explain the term ‘bohemian’)
- Dan’s feeling that things are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, heightening his sense of dislocation
Direct students to re-read setting descriptions on pp. 3, 7, 10, 13–14, 16, 18, 28–30, 112 and 217. They should pay special attention to heat and other weather features, abundance, and anything that suggests a bohemian lifestyle different from Dan’s usual home. Invite students to discuss the effects of these descriptions. Teach or remind them about the technique of ‘pathetic fallacy’.
Ask students to consider how setting is used to create Dan’s character. For example:
- The summer heat seems to build and become more oppressive as the novel progresses, especially the morning after the party when Dan’s emotional discomfort is fairly high.
- Dan’s capacity to finely observe and describe aspects of his new environment helps develop the reader’s sense of him as an intelligent and thoughtful person.
Extension activity: comparison with another text
Revise key visual literacy terms such as:
|vectors||colour palette||colour symbolism||illumination|
|proportion||positioning / framing||reading path||salience / salient imagery|
|foregrounding / backgrounding||visual symbolism||gaze (offer / demand)|
Direct students to choose a double page spread from The Arrival that visually conveys a sense of dislocation or alienation. They are to analyse how visual techniques and features contribute to this. They will then write a short extended response comparing the way Earls and Tan create a sense of dislocation and discomfort for their respective characters.
Ask students to complete the creative response task (PDF, 150KB).
Other uses of contrast
Introduce the concept of ‘foils’ in the development of characterisation (you can refer to this explanation from Encyclopaedia Britannica).
Ask students to fill in the contrast table (PDF, 94KB). They may need assistance with the more abstract concepts towards the bottom.
Explain that the terms ‘contrast’, ‘foil’, ‘juxtaposition’, ‘binary opposition’, ‘duality’ and ‘dichotomy’ can all be used with reference to paired features in a text.
Direct students to choose two or three examples from their tables and write a short extended response exploring how contrast is used to develop the plot and characters in 48 Shades of Brown. You can supply the following sentence starters to help them practise using the metalanguage:
- The contrast between Geneva and Brisbane…
- Burns acts as a foil for Dan, emphasising that…
- The juxtaposition of Imogen’s dark hair with Naomi’s blonde hair shows…
- Earls creates a binary opposition between Burns’ immaturity and Dan’s growing maturity by…
- Duality is seen in the way Dan, in Brisbane, often thinks about what time it is in Geneva, showing that…
- The dichotomy between childhood and approaching adulthood can be seen in the way Dan…
Give students the following conversation starter:
What sort of things might senior high school students do to impress people they are romantically interested in? What tropes (typical examples) from popular culture might we see in advertising, television shows, films, etc.?
Ask for some examples students may have seen in their favourite films, TV shows, advertisements, online videos, memes, etc. List their responses, then contrast them with Dan’s ideas and strategies for gaining Naomi’s attention. What does this demonstrate about his character? For example, his interest in classification (of birds) points to the fact that he is still his mother’s child as much as he is a young adult in search of romantic love. He is on the cusp adulthood, but not quite there yet.
Allocate the following themes to pairs or small groups:
- growing up/rites of passage/coming of age
- challenging expectations
- love, romance and sex
- love and family
- intergenerational relationships
- finding one’s own identity
- women’s roles
- masculinity (and what it means to be a ‘decent, worthy man’)
- the pain of unrequited love
Ask each pair or group to consider how Nick Earls explores their allocated theme in the novel. Students should gather specific examples (plot events and quotations) to support their contentions. Reassure them that there will be some overlap between themes.
Exploring intertextuality and themes
Give students the intertextuality handout (PDF, 105KB). Take them through the definition and introductory information and check their understanding. Explain that the novel’s use of intertextuality helps to illuminate many of its themes.
As directed in the handout, watch the fish tank scene from Romeo + Juliet, then read pp. 135, 157–158 and 278–279 as a class (these are moments when various characters think about or discuss the meaning of the scene).
Draw students’ attention to the fact that there is a fish tank in the share house in 48 Shades (the film), and that this is where Dan and Naomi meet. Director Daniel Lapaine has picked up on this extended metaphor, adding value to the intertextuality. Ensure that students connect ideas from both Romeo + Juliet and the extended metaphor with Dan and Naomi’s relationship, such as:
- the magnifying effect of water
Ask students to work through the remainder of the handout, noting which aspects of Romeo + Juliet are echoed in the novel and collecting evidence to support their assertions (depending on student ability, this can be done together with teacher support).
Discuss and consolidate students’ understanding of how Dan and Naomi’s relationship does or does not mirror that of Romeo and Juliet.
Finally, provide the following opening sentence for an extended response:
Intertextual references to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet) are used throughout the novel, bringing additional meaning to the text and illuminating some important themes.
Ask students to continue on from this sentence and write one or two substantial paragraphs.
Ways of reading the text
Introduce the concept of reading texts through different critical lenses. Explain that critics read texts from different perspectives and focus on different elements. If time permits, briefly discuss a range of possible theoretical approaches, such as:
- Marxist criticism
- Gender studies and queer theory
- Feminist criticism
- Psychoanalytic criticism
NOTE: The aim is not to teach these approaches in detail, but to point out that each of them foregrounds different aspects of the same text.
Explain that students will be practising this ‘foregrounding’ technique by focusing on feminist and psychoanalytic theory with reference to 48 Shades of Brown. Give students the literary criticism handout (PDF, 147KB) and read through it together.
First way of reading: representations of women (and men)
Discuss the representation of girls and women in the novel. Divide students into groups and allocate each group one of Earls’ female characters:
- Dan’s mother (Margot/Madge/Margaret)
- Lisa (the girl in the fish-skin jacket at the party)
Students will discuss the following questions in relation to their allocated character:
- How is she described?
- Is she positively portrayed?
- Is she what you would consider a fully developed character?
- In what ways, if any, is she stereotyped?
- In what ways does the ‘male gaze’ shape how she is represented in the novel?
Lead a class discussion about the attitudes displayed towards women in the novel. Which characters are more inclined to stereotype and/or objectify women? What are some examples from the text? Prompt students to consider the attitudes and actions of:
- Chris Burns
- Phil Borthwick
- Jacq (especially her attitude to Madge)
Ask students to consider what ideas about masculinity are presented in the novel. Dan often muses about what it means to be a ‘decent, worthy man’, a good boyfriend, or an attractive romantic prospect; other male characters help shed light on these ideas as well. Direct students to find three key moments in the novel where masculinity is explored, and write a paragraph following on from this sentence:
Dan spends considerable time contemplating what it means to be a ‘worthy’ man.
Second way of reading: psychology and identity formation
Distribute the terms associated with psychoanalytic theory (PDF, 115KB) and ask students to complete the research task.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, much of this novel is about Dan striving to form his own identity separate from his parents. It also explores how he grapples with aspects of his psychological makeup in order to exist comfortably in the world.
Divide students into small groups, each responsible for one of the following tasks:
- Dan’s relationship with his mother features prominently in the novel. How does Earls show that she is still a significant figure in Dan’s life, but also that Dan is trying to gather confidence in himself and gain some separation from her influence? Gather relevant quotes from the text.
- Dan is very conscious of creating a new identity for himself. Collect quotes that show how hard he is striving to figure out who and what he should be as a young adult in the world.
- Opportunity for differentiation (for more capable students): Describe Dan’s past experiences with his mental health, and explore how they continue to influence him in the novel’s present. Collect quotes that reflect his patterns of thinking in this area.
There can be more than one group working on each question. Those groups can then combine to share their responses before presenting a summary to the whole class.
Where does this text fit in the world of literature and in Australian culture?
Remind students that 48 Shades of Brown is a coming-of-age novel in the bildungsroman tradition, which has existed in English literature for a number of centuries. Revisit the overview slides (PDF, 628KB) if required at this stage.
Encourage students to investigate other classic and contemporary coming-of-age stories. They could look at synopses of classic English and American texts such as Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Outsiders and The Catcher in the Rye to get a sense of the genre’s heritage. This presents an opportunity for students to conduct some wide reading and practise finding their own related texts, if appropriate and if time permits. You can direct them to search online for lists of coming-of-age novels, including those in Reading Australia’s collection.
Some suggested Australian titles are:
- The Simple Gift by Steven Herrick
- Storm Boy by Colin Thiele
- Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung
- Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta
- My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
- The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson
For related non-fiction and memoir, see the Growing Up anthology series published by Black Inc. (and others). Many of these works, in addition to exploring the transition from innocence to experience, reflect other aspects of Australian culture:
- Growing Up Asian in Australia, ed. Alice Pung
- Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, ed. Anita Heiss
- Growing Up African in Australia, ed. Maxine Beneba Clarke, Magan Magan and Ahmed Yussuf
- Growing Up Queer in Australia, ed. Benjamin Law
- Growing Up Disabled in Australia, ed. Carly Findlay
- Growing Up in Country Australia, ed. Rick Morton
- Growing Up Muslim in Australia, ed. Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren
- Growing Up Wiradjuri, ed. Anita Heiss
- Growing Up Torres Strait Islander in Australia, ed. Samantha Faulkner (forthcoming)
If time permits, view and discuss an episode of an Australian TV series like The Secret Life of Us (set in Melbourne) that deals with similar concepts and values. How is it similar? What Australian values and other cultural elements are explored in these texts?
Class discussion 1: culture, representation and diversity
How representative of Australian culture is 48 Shades of Brown? Draw out students’ ideas about how the novel is uniquely Australian and, on the other hand, how the story could take place anywhere. Does the novel reflect the realities of Australian society?
Prompt students to examine the novel’s lack of class, racial and cultural diversity. Ask them to consider what aspects of social diversity are featured in the novel.
Concepts of class and privilege could be explored further by looking at:
- university education (Naomi’s inability to articulate her reason for studying psychology; the boys lying about studying law at the party)
- private school education
- Dan’s family background, international travel and Geneva
- gender roles and sexuality
Class discussion 2: how have things changed?
Explain to students that a reader’s context shapes how they read a text. Ask them to consider how their own context differs from that in which the novel was written and is set. How have values changed since this novel was published?
Prompt students to consider how the story might differ if it was set in the age of smartphones. You may also wish to examine the concept of the ‘male gaze’; the way Burns’ use of porn (and the way Dan narrates it) objectifies women; and whether students find any of this at odds with contemporary values about respect for women in the post-#MeToo era (though you may have already explored this in previous discussions about the novel’s representation of women).
Also revisit the depiction of men in light of how representations of masculinity have changed over time. Are teenage boys really just bumbling idiots obsessed with women and sex? Are the representations of Dan, Burns and Phil (and their feelings towards women and other men) accurate? Do they ring true today? If not, why not – what has changed? Is hyperbole being used for the sake of humour (e.g. is Dan’s inability to concentrate around Naomi realistic or played up for laughs)?
A number of motifs run throughout the novel. The most obvious one is that of patterns and classification. Ask students to brainstorm all the different ways this manifests in the novel. If necessary, prompt with:
- colours (e.g. Madge’s beige decorating versus the blue painted table on Jacq’s verandah)
- shades of brown
- various shades of blonde in Naomi’s hair
- classifications of birds
- mammals (on the pre-paid postcards)
- the alphabet that Dan and Burns invented when they were younger
- classification of people into ‘types’ (e.g. Jacq’s ‘matinée idol’ vs Naomi’s ‘goddess’)
- the organising of socks
Another motif is weather, especially the oppressive heat of a Brisbane summer. Help students find examples where the text mentions the heat. Ask them to consider how this motif operates a pathetic fallacy, reflecting Dan’s growing unease and tension as he grapples with emotional challenges (refer to the significance of setting discussed in the Close Study).
A third motif is food and drink. Have students list every reference to food and drink that they can think of from the novel. In general terms, what are they linked with? Ask students to discuss this in small groups and then share their theories about how the motif works. Discussion prompts include:
- Dan’s efforts at cooking (the pesto; the fact that he only knows how to make a fried Vegemite sandwich; his efforts to make proper sandwiches for Naomi) reflecting his position on the cusp between childhood and adulthood
- Childish foods like the butterfly buns and Chupa Chups performing a similar function (e.g. consider the contrast between pesto-loving Naomi and Chupa Chup-loving Imogen – and which girl Dan is more likely to end up with)
- Dan’s efforts to acquire a taste for beer, and his inability to make proper coffee
There are specific symbols operating in the novel, some of which are closely linked with the motifs above. Explain that while the motif of classification of birds (and other things) helps us to understand Dan’s scientific mind and the influence of his science teacher mother, birds themselves act as a symbol in a more specific way.
One way to approach this is to compare the symbolic use of birds with the symbolic use of mammals. Take students through the following whole-class discussion questions to draw out their thinking.
- What are mammals? What makes them different from birds? (i.e. giving birth to and suckling their young)
- With whom are mammals associated in the novel? (e.g. Dan’s mother with the pre-paid postcards)
- What might mammals thus symbolise in 48 Shades of Brown?
- By comparison, what might birds symbolise? Discuss common phrases like ‘spreading your wings’, ‘leaving the nest’, ‘empty nesters’, ‘flying free’, ‘free as a bird’, etc.
- With whom or with what are birds associated in the novel? (e.g. Dan’s efforts to impress Naomi and reinvent himself as a ‘worthy’ man)
- Is there anything else that birds and mammals (and their classifications) might represent in the novel?
Give students the symbols summary (PDF, 99KB). Allow time for them to make notes based on the class discussion, then direct them to work in pairs to complete the rest of the table.
The scaffolding questions from the worksheet will support students’ preparation for the next Rich Assessment Task. It may be necessary to talk through these as a class before students can complete the worksheet.
- What is the symbol?
- What does it represent?
- Does it connect/contrast with any other symbols in the novel?
- To which character(s) does it relate?
- Does its significance change over the course of the novel? If so, how and why?
- How is it used to illuminate a theme, create characterisation and/or facilitate character development?
- What key quotes can you find associated with this symbol?
Practice writing task
Give students the practice writing task (PDF, 134KB) and allow time for them to write at least one paragraph in class. Set up a peer feedback session and/or supply teacher feedback to ensure that they are taking an analytical approach and drawing on their work from this unit, not just commenting on/retelling plot. This is a chance for them to practise writing about motif and symbol before applying this knowledge to the Rich Assessment Task.
Rich assessment task (receptive and productive modes)
Language and symbolism
Part A: exploring symbolism
Students are to create a presentation exploring the use of one aspect of symbolism in the novel. They should start by identifying the theme(s) developed through the use of their chosen symbol, then explore how that theme is brought to life by the way in which the symbol operates.
The presentation should:
- be between three and four minutes in length;
- consist of a speech supported by PowerPoint slides/images that help convey the symbolic use of language in the novel; and
- include key points and any other graphic organisers that help convey information.
Encourage students to use images for representation rather than illustration – especially if they choose ‘vomit’ as their symbol! The scaffolding questions from the symbols worksheet (see above) can be included with the assessment instructions; students should use these as a checklist to ensure that their work is comprehensive.
Students should take notes from their peers’ presentations to add to their overall understanding of symbol and theme in the novel. These notes will help them with final Rich Assessment Task at the end of the unit.
Part B: creative visual task
Students are to design a book cover for a new edition of 48 Shades of Brown. They should research the various covers that have been designed for this novel in the past, noting the lack of symbolic material from the novel. The new cover should rectify this problem, using at least two significant symbols from the text.
Students should submit their design with a 250-word reflection statement outlining how and why their design ‘meets the brief’.
Synthesising core ideas
Comparing responses to the text
Explore whether students’ early impressions of the novel and its central concerns have changed since their first reading. Use a thinking routine like ‘I used to think… but now I think…’ or similar. If their ideas have changed, discuss what has led to this.
Encourage students to read about the author, his life and work, and what some reviewers and commentators have said about his novels. They should make notes about Nick Earls (the person and the writer), the work he creates, what they find interesting and what they agree or disagree with, justifying their opinions with evidence from the novel.
The following links, also listed under More Resources, may be useful for this exercise (note that some reference the 48 Shades film adaptation):
- About the author:
- Book reviews:
- News and online publications:
In what ways can students see the author’s personal context shaping his composition of the novel? They could answer this question in a class discussion or an individual writing task.
If time permits, show students the 48 Shades film as an example of one particular response to the text. Ask them to compare this response to their own and then write a detailed review, addressing whether the film is an effective representation of the novel and why/why not. Encourage students to critically evaluate choices that they may not see as justifiable from the original text, and to consider the role that a different purpose, audience and context may play in this.
Class debate: where do we stand on the protagonist?
Help students develop a coherent and conclusive statement of what they understand about the text, its major theme (growing up/coming of age) and its protagonist by holding a debate. First, point out that Dan spends a considerable amount of time during his summer at Jacq’s house trying to work out how to make himself into a ‘decent, worthy man’. But how decent is he, and what exactly does he want to be worthy of: genuine respect, or just attention from prospective romantic partners?
Divide the class into two sides:
- Dan does become a decent, worthy man. He grows in self-knowledge and gains genuine insight into other people’s lives and feelings.
- Dan doesn’t really change. He wants to appear decent and worthy to others, but women essentially remain no more than objects to be pursued.
Rich assessment task (responding)
Major theme essay
Write a detailed, formal essay in response to the following question:
How does Nick Earls represent the idea of coming of age in his novel 48 Shades of Brown?
If required, include the following scaffolding points:
- whether Dan’s expectations are fulfilled
- whether coming of age is portrayed in a positive or negative light
- consideration of character development (especially Dan’s)
- exploration of themes associated with coming of age
- symbolism and motif, and how these are used to create meaning around coming of age
- intertextuality and how this is used to create meaning around coming of age
You can also model a variety of potential thesis statements. For example:
- Coming of age can be exciting, but it can also be fraught with difficulty.
- The formation of an adult identity can only come about when one begins to step away from their parental influences.
- When coming of age is linked with romantic relationships, complications often occur.
- Coming of age is more about reaching moral maturity than about going through specific ‘rites of passage’.
- How to grow up and take one’s place in the world as an adult is not always clear.
Alternatively, help students brainstorm their own thesis statements based on their personal responses to the novel.
The essay should be 1,200–1,500 words in length.