This young adult novel is obviously about bullying but it is also about identity, self-acceptance, the nature and importance of friendship and about resilience and hope. The novel also highlights the importance and power of language. Language is seen as a veritable weapon against others who misuse language for their own entertainment.
Ishmael is presented as a young teenager who, like many other teenagers, struggles with being different. Ishmael loathes his name and the back story to his naming. He is convinced that his name is to blame for his daily awkwardness that he feels is peculiar to him. Hindered by anxiety, Ishmael is afraid of drawing attention to himself and this makes it especially hard for him to engage in public speaking and almost impossible for him to act on any romantic interest.
It is not until he meets the new boy, James Scobie, and faces a series of circumstances that are thrust upon Scobie and himself, that he realises that a teenager can be very different, even an embodiment of physical weakness and still have courage if he has the power of words and rational thought on his side. It is through Scobie that Ishmael ends up forming connections with the unlikeliest band of friends who become instrumental in helping Ishmael overcome his fears, his insecurity, and the taunts of Barry Bagsley.
What starts off as a promise to present a serious and scientific approach to the examination of his self-diagnosed condition, ends with a humorous celebration of his growth into a more confident individual who acknowledges his namesake and looks to the near future with excitement.
The Author – On the novel and narrative beginnings
In an online interview, Bauer claims that he first came up with the idea for this novel, Don’t Call Me Ishmael when he was writing his first novel, The Running Man.
Bauer said that he:
…had happened to glance over at the big noticeboard beside his desk. It was full of notes and photographs and other bits and pieces I’d pinned there over time. One of the items on the board caught my eye. It was a page I’d torn from a copy of Life magazine showing a still from the old 1956 movie version of Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. It was a dramatic scene from the end of the story where Ahab is on the back of the great white whale still trying to harpoon the creature to get his revenge.
Bauer claimed that he had pinned the picture on the noticeboard because he liked the drama and action of it and because he actually liked the novel:
But what happened was, when I looked at the picture it made me think of the famous first line of the novel – ‘Call me Ishmael’ – which is spoken by the narrator of the story. For some reason I then imagined a voice saying the opposite, ‘Don’t call me Ishmael’. It was the voice of a boy complaining about his name – and that’s where the story started. Most stories seem to start this way, with tiny things – a picture, a line from a poem, a piece of overheard conversation, a childhood memory, someone you see briefly on the bus – but then they grow into something much larger.
Before I knew it, those first four words had started to turn into a novel! That’s why I often say if it wasn’t for Gregory Peck, there wouldn’t have been any Ishmael Leseur. Writing is a strange thing.
Activity: Short story inspired by an object or an image prompt from students’ own collections
Students write their own stories from something significant they have found or collected. This can be an image or an object.
It is not till the end of their story that they reveal the object or significant item.
They then explain how the story developed from this prompt.
Students decide what are important aspects of the creative process together as a class and write the assessment criteria to judge each other’s work. This can be done in a creative gallery walk where the student stories are pasted up on display in the library (for example) and students take five criteria sheets and assess five of their peers’ stories.
(ACELA1766) (ACELT1632) (ACELT1767) (ACELY1732) (ACELY1736) (EN4-3B) (EN4-4B)
Personal response on reading the text
Questions and comments while reading
There are many chapters in this novel and so it is very easy to lose track of what is happening in each part.
To manage this better, it is a good idea to keep a reading log guided by questions to respond to quickly after reading each chapter or a few chapters at a time.
Students date each entry. As they do the first five chapters they should also respond to the titles of each chapter. For example:
Chapter 1: Who is the Mayor of Loserville and why? Make sure you explain Ishmael Leseur Syndrome here.
Chapter 2: ‘Fancy that’ is an idiomatic expression used by a listener of a story or tale to respond to a situation where they discover some interesting information. At the end of this chapter it is apparent that this exclamation is ambiguous. Why is this a relevant title for this chapter?
Chapter 3: ‘Thar She Blows!’ is an intertextual reference to another text. What text is it referencing and why is this reference so clever and funny?
Chapter 4: ‘Thanks A Lot, Herman!’ What logic does Ishmael use to justify his arguments whilst being funny at the same time?
Personal connections with own experience
Empathy with character task
- With whom do you identify in the text?
- Is there a character who you could say has experienced something similar to you?
- Who is this character? And why?
Empathy with situation task
- Is there a situation that you are familiar with and can identify with in this text?
- Write a three to four page recount of this experience.
Reflection on completion of the text
Groups of three or four students engage in a discussion about what makes a novel effective.
- What are some of the key elements of an effective narrative?
- Brainstorm some of these using brainstorming apps like Skitch or Ideaphora.
- Document this in a Plus/Minus/Interesting table.
- Write a review of the book using the review template (PDF, 291KB) attached.
- C3B4Me – See three other students or people before submitting to me to assist with the editing process.
Looking at a conflicting perspective on the text
Read this book review written by Darren Levy who was only in Year 8 at the time when he wrote this.
- This review won The Young Reviewer of the Year Award back in 2007. These awards are conducted by The Age in partnership with the Children’s Book Council. Why do you think it won an award?
- What are your thoughts on the ideas expressed about Don’t Call me Ishmael?
- Write a ‘Similar’ and ‘Differences’ table contrasting your experience and ideas of the text with Darren Levy’s.
The writer’s craft
Use your knowledge of the way narratives are structured to create a plot graph of the main elements of the narrative.
To do this well the following should be undertaken:
1. List the (ten) most important events that you think should be documented.
2. Structure the story – create the graph making sure you document the following:
a) Orientation in time and place
b) Orientation in character
c) Complication 1 – does it have a resolution?
d) Complication 2 – does it have a resolution?
e) Complication 3 – does it have a resolution?
f) Complication 4
3. The book is in five parts. What is the main idea of each part?
4. Epigrams from Moby Dick appear at the beginning of each part. What’s each epigram emphasising? How does the plot in each section reflect the concerns of the epigram?
|Quotation from Moby Dick
|Explain what the quote is saying
|How is this quotation relevant to the section of the novel that follows?
Call me Ishmael
I will not say as schoolboys do to bullies – Take someone of your own size; don’t pommel me! No, ye’ve knocked me down, and I am up again; but ye have run and hidden.
There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke…and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.
…what trances of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.
Delight is to him – a far, far upward and inward delight – who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self.
Intertextuality and Don’t Call Me Ishmael
Moby Dick does not just appear in the epigrams, it is part of the fabric of the book creating intertextual connections between the books. Intertexuality is a special literary device used in writing. We can notice intertextuality occurring in a text we are reading or viewing when the writer starts to make references to another text. This can be any type of text. In this book, when a reference occurs, it is normally done in a significant way. In other words, what the writer is referring to, or borrowing from, the other text seems to be very important in helping the reader to understand concepts, ideas or messages. It may even shape the plot or form of the text and it becomes important for the reader to have some knowledge of the other text referenced in order to better enjoy or make meaning of the text they are reading. A well-known American sitcom cartoon that students probably recognise, The Simpsons, often uses intertextual references and this helps a wider audience appreciate the messages within each episode.
- The dominant intertextual reference in this novel is Moby Dick. How do you know?
- Write down all the characters or other references that become important for you to know to help you understand the text better.
- Do you think it matters if you don’t know the other text? Why? Why not?
- Can you think of another text you have experienced that uses intertextuality?
Approach to characterisation
Bauer’s characterisation helps the audience empathise with, but not pity Ishmael.
- Miss Tarango asks students to write five important things about themselves. What do Ishmael’s five things reveal about himself? (p. 30)
- Ask students: What five things would Bagsley write about himself?
- Students write five important things about themselves.
‘Showing and NOT telling’
This is an important mantra to remember when writing your own creative story. It is particularly important when constructing characters.
It is the writer’s job to know when to ‘show’ and when to ‘tell’ and it is a balancing act. This is also known as ‘indirect characterisation.’
Direct characterisation: tells the audience what the personality of the character is; for example: ‘The patient boy and quiet girl were both well-mannered and did not disobey their mother.’
Explanation: The author is directly telling the audience the personality of these two children. The boy is ‘patient’ and the girl is ‘quiet.’
Indirect characterisation shows things that reveal the personality of a character.
Use the STEAL mnemonic to assist in character analysis.
There are five different methods of indirect characterisation. Find these in the book and add examples.
|Type of indirect characterisation
|What does the character say?
How does the character speak?
|What is revealed through the character’s private thoughts and feelings?
|Effect on others towards the character
|What is revealed through the character’s effect on other people?
How do other characters feel or behave in reaction to the character?
|What does the character do?
How does the character behave?
|What does the character look like?
How does the character dress?
Consider this description of James Scobie:
He was small and a little too neat. His hair was parted perfectly on one side and swept back from his forehead like a wave poised to break. The lines left by the comb’s teeth were as clear as shoe prints on the moon. As for his clothes, it was as if his grandfather was his fashion guru. His socks were pulled all the way up and turned down at the top so that they matched exactly. His shirt was tucked tightly into his shorts, which rode high up over the little mound of his stomach. Apart from that, his skin was pale and looked as if it could be bruised by a strong breeze…Everything about him was a living, breathing ‘Kick Me’ sign. (pp. 55–57)
The author chooses similes to describe James but he starts with a very simple direct statement: He was small and a little too neat. The words ‘a little too’ are negative – there is clearly little value for small and neat people in this world. The negative opening is continued through the statements that follow.
- What does the author imply by the simile ‘like a wave poised to break.’ Is this a weakness or strength? Explain.
- The next simile is ‘as clear as shoe prints on the moon’. What is the effect of this simile?
- Discuss the ways the characters Prindabel, Bill and Razza are ‘shown’ in Chapter 21.
- How do we find out about Bagsley?
- How are the staff members seen?
The school setting is meant to protect students from bullying but it is being run by very busy teachers.
- How does the writer make us aware of this problem?
Write a strong statement in response to this question then use PEEL or TEEL or PETAL or another paragraph structure that you are familiar with to help you to structure a strong one-paragraph response.
Point of view
This story is told from a teenage male point of view. How is this made believable in the novel?
- What makes it a distinctly male voice?
- Would this narrative work with a female voice?
The language of humour
Don’t Call Me Ishmael deals with the difficult subject of bullying through humour from the point of view of the protagonist, Ishmael. Humour is not just about language skills it is also an indicator of emotional/psychological strength.
To achieve the humour the book uses many language devices. Ishmael starts with an anecdote of his birth, from his father’s point of view. He is frequently self-deprecating, putting himself down. Many of the characters show their strength of character in the way they manipulate language such as sarcasm or hyperbole. Mr Barker is regarded a ‘having a black belt in sarcasm’ (p. 90), a metaphor that implies the strength of his language skills. But perhaps the most powerful user of language is James Scobie, especially in Chapter 15.
As students read they should collect examples and complete the table (also attached) below (PDF, 111KB). They may not find examples of all the humour styles listed.
|Words describing humour
|Examples from Don’t Call Me Ishmael
|overstatement or exaggeration
|Meaning the opposite of what is stated
|Imitation used to ridicule
|Like irony but delivered in a mocking tone
|Putting yourself down
|Based on the situation
|Physical comedy involving body
|Referring to ‘toilet’ matters
|Words combined to create humour
|Exchange of witty remarks
|A story that has a humorous ending
|Quick witty comebacks
|A play on words – similar in sound but different meaning
|Implying something without being direct
|When a word sounds similar to another but has very different meaning
(I am effluent instead of I am affluent)
|Often phrased as question and answer showing the absurdity of a situation
Humour has a few psychological levels. Humour can be:
- Affiliative – something everyone will find funny and not offensive
- Aggressive – put downs targeting groups or individuals
- Self-enhancing – laughing at yourself or at everyday situations in a good-humoured way
- Self-defeating – very negative about the self – this is also self-destructive.
Which psychological level is most relevant to Don’t Call Me Ishmael? Explain.
Significance of names
Ishmael? What kind of wussy-crap name is that? (p. 18)
The focus of the book is the name Ishmael. It is regarded as the source of the protagonists’ problems: Barry Bagsley had miraculously transformed me from Ishmael Leseur to Staleness Manure. (p. 19)
In contrast Miss Tarango regards names as important, to be treated with respect, and ‘beamed enthusiastically’ when she learnt Ishmael’s name:
Names can be important and symbolic in books, so they often have deeper meaning. (p. 26)
When he finally reads the book Moby Dick and sees the film, Ishmael realises how powerful the original Ishmael is but also feels he is different.
I found myself drawn into Captain Ahab’s mad quest for revenge against the white whale…I was nothing like this Ishmael. (p. 236)
You see, the plain truth was, unlike me, Ishmael in Moby Dick wasn’t a loser at all. (p. 237)
Students can listen to this video of a rap song on names (‘If they can pronounce Shakespeare’ by Yasmin Lewis).
- What is the attitude to names in this video?
- What advice would this speaker give to Ishmael about his name?
Character from different points of view
Students have to write three character descriptions of Ishmael: one from the point of view of James Scobie; the other as Miss Tarango and the third from the point of view of Barry Bagsley.
Imagine the first time they each see Ishmael (you may want to re-read relevant chapters). Write a paragraph description of the way they see Ishmael. Capture the voice of each character.
(ACELA1766) (ACELA1547) (ACELT1627) (ACELT1632) (ACELY1732) (EN4-3B) (EN4-1A) (EN4-5C) (EN4-4B)
Ways of reading the text
Allusions to the wider world
Allusions are references to other texts, events, ideas within the text. By referring to other texts, events, ideas, the writer draws on the values that inform that allusion and draws these into the present text.
Significant allusions that go beyond a simple comment and may frame the text are an example of intertextuality, that special relationship with other texts.
Moby Dick is an important American text about the fight to assert oneself against a seemingly impenetrable force. The ideas are clearly developed through the novel but there are also other allusions to classical, contemporary and popular texts and events.
Other allusions are to Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet:
What is a man
If the chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more! (Act IV, Scene iv)
- What does this quotation mean?
- Hamlet is a thinker and not an action man – what does this add to the text?
There are allusions to events:
Was there a problem when someone on the Titanic sent out for ice? (p. 112)
Oh well, I thought, if you’re stuck on the Titanic, you might as well have the seat with the best view of the iceberg. (p. 63)
This kind of allusion acts as metaphor.
The Titanic was a disaster therefore anything connected to the Titanic is a disaster.
In the book Ishmael refers to ‘Bug-gate’ (p. 92). Students can find out what Watergate was about and how ‘Bug-gate’ alludes to this event.
There are allusions to other genres:
There was a battle going on before our eyes, but it wasn’t like the Western shoot out I had imagined earlier – this was more like a boxing match. (p. 72)
What does this refer to? What are the features of a Western genre? What are the features of a boxing match? Do you agree that it is more like a boxing match than a Western?
An Exploration of Bullying
I will not say as schoolboys do to
bullies – Take someone of your
own size; don’t pommel me!
No ye’ve knocked me down,
and I am up again; but ye have
run and hidden.
In this Moby Dick quote at the beginning of Part 2 we see that Melville’s protagonist saw his struggle against the whale as that of a victim and a bully and he refused to give in. These few lines convey a strong message that we see in many contemporary sources. Ishmael Leseur realises the destructive power of bullying when he is first called names: Somehow I didn’t look the same…I was seeing myself in a different way (pp. 18–9). He describes the actions and fears of a victim when he says:
I quickly realised that as long as I stayed as far away from Barry Bagsley as possible and didn’t do anything stupid like, say, asking or answering a question in class, making some kind of unusual noise like shouting, laughing or speaking, volunteering for something, putting my name on a list, trying out for a sport, leaving an item of mine where it could be moved, thrown or written on, looking anywhere near the direction of Barry and his friends, or merely doing anything whatsoever that might indicate that I actually existed, I would be fine. (p. 20)
- What other actions might a victim do or avoid doing?
- What bullying takes place in this book? (Include pages 42–3.)
- Ishmael thinks about the possible responses he can give to bullying. Read pages 43–4 closely and discuss if these actions would work.
In contrast to Ishmael, James Scobie becomes a cult hero as he displays great strength of character, responding to Barry with sarcasm:
I’m sure you are tough and brave – after all you have to look at yourself in the mirror every day. (p. 73)
- Using the ideas of the book and what you believe, work in groups and write a list of ten rules for overcoming bullying.
Bullying in other texts
Bullying is regarded as a major issue in schools. It infringes on the rights of individuals and establishes unfair power relationships that can have a lasting impact. Social media becomes an avenue to take bullying beyond the classroom. The novel doesn’t deal with this but it is an important point to consider.
There are many texts produced to help children identify and deal with bullying in an appropriate way. These can be informative, entertaining or persuasive.
Students can view these texts as examples of anti-bullying campaigns:
- Government campaign: Stop It Before It Starts Campaign
- Anti-bullying song and music video clip: Caught in the Crowd – Kate Miller Heidke
They can discuss:
- What kind of bullying is each text addressing?
- What is the target audience?
- Is the message effective? Do you think it will change behaviour?
They can then view ‘Donkey’, an award-winning short film.
- Why is the film in black and white?
- Whose point of view is it from?
- What bullying takes place?
- How does the narrator feel about his actions?
Rich assessment tasks
1. Receptive mode
Decide which text is most effective in communicating and convincing its audience of the importance of not engaging in bullying: the government campaign; the song by Kate Miller Heidke; the short film, ‘Donkey’, or the novel, Don’t Call me Ishmael? Justify your answer.
Your comparison should show a consideration of each text, discussing audience, purpose, structure, form and language features.
(ACELA1543) (ACELA1547) (ACELT1626) (ACELT1627) (ACELY1730) (ACELY1732) (EN4-1A) (EN4-8D) (EN4-5C) (EN4-3B)
2. Productive mode
Using the film ‘Donkey‘ as an example, write a story about Ishmael meeting Bagsley years later. What would they each become? How would they each feel on meeting the other? What would they say about their school days? The scene with Bagsley’s parents may provide some hints about Bagsley’s future direction.
(ACELA1544) (ACELA1547) (ACELT1632) (ACELT1768) (ACELY1736) (ACELY1810) (EN4-3B) (EN4-1A) (EN4-4B)
Rich assessment task (productive): Debating
Could language empower me to defeat Barry Bagsley? (p. 29)
An important theme in the book is the power of language as a weapon. Language becomes an ‘intellectual battle ground’ (p. 98), a weapon for controlling Bagsley (Miss Tarango and James do this), an assertion of authority (James Scobie), and a place to belong (the Debating Club). Debating is also an important vehicle for persuasion.
In this task students are required to understand the structure of a debate, how it is represented in the text and also how to use debating rules to structure their own arguments.They will form debating teams and argue a case in front of the class following debating rules.
Structure of a debate
A debate has a question with two sides: the affirmative side agrees with the question and develops appropriate arguments; the negative side disagrees and sets up counter arguments.
Each side has three speakers: 1st, 2nd, 3rd with slightly different functions: to introduce, develop and finalise the argument, respectively.
Theme: each side decides on a ‘theme’, expressed as a statement that they will prove. The wording reflects the line they will take in their argument.
Rebuttal: Everyone, except the first speaker, has to rebut the previous speaker as well as completing their own argument, but the major rebuttal falls on the third speaker.
Rebuttal in the book
Rebuttal is significant. In the book the boys discuss rules for effective rebuttal:
First – say what the Opposition said. Second – say why they are wrong. Third – say what the team says. Fourth – say why you are right. (p. 129)
This is illustrated in a comic way when Razzman uses it on Ishmael.
Comic rebuttal: One – my love-struck colleague Ishmael said that I was mad. Two – my randy associate is wrong, because he has no medical training and therefore is incapable of making such an outlandish diagnosis. Three – I say my besotted teammate is just accusing me of being mad in order to cover the fact that he has the terminal hots for a certain red T-shirt girl but doesn’t want to admit it. And four – I am right, because if anyone is qualified to make a diagnosis it is I, because I am the Razzman.’ (p. 130)
Are these rebuttal points all valid arguments? Why/why not?
Students practise the four step rebuttal against these statements:
- Bullies are necessary for us to develop resilience.
- Schools are places that breed bullies.
- All we need is inner strength and we can overcome the biggest struggle.
- Teaching reading is not as important as teaching fighting.
- Adversity helps build resilience.
Preparation for task: modelling using the book
Two topics are explored in the book:
- That the private lives of public figures should remain private.
- That science fiction and fantasy films have little relevance to the problems facing today’s world.
Students work in groups and list pros and cons for each argument. This will give them practice in thinking from two different perspectives.
They can then list the themes and arguments made by the characters in the book – look at chapters 29 and 35.
They discuss how effective they think each character’s points are.
Students will debate a topic which is relevant to the novel and include the book as evidence.
Students form debating teams of three.
They receive a different topic drawn from a hat indicating negative or affirmative. The topics include:
- That language is more powerful than physical strength.
- That bullying can make you stronger.
- That we should accept everyone as they are.
- That classic novels provide a firm foundation for modern ideas.
- That literature is more powerful than any advertisement in changing behaviour.
They prepare and present the debate according to the rules of debating.
(ACELA1542) (ACELA1543) (ACELA1547) (ACELT1626) (ACELT1627) (ACELT1807) (ACELY1731) (ACELY1736) (ACELY1808) (ACELY1810) (EN4-3B) (EN4-1A) (EN4-8D) (EN4-5C) (EN4-4B)