Engaging with the text
Getting to know the author including:
- personal experiences
Betts refers to Zac and Mia as a book that seems to ‘keep going’. In the last part of the interview she relays some of the messages about her novel that she has received, and continues to receive, as it is republished in different languages around the world. Betts reveals that she receives messages from people who thank her for:
- writing honestly
- highlighting an experience that many do not know or understand
- exploring the mind of young adolescents
- sharing the experiences of young people so parents/carers can understand
- reminding the reader of what matters in life
Have your students write down the reasons why they may have been drawn to Zac and Mia. This could be due to the setting, plot development, character arcs or characteristics of those in the novel. After they have identified something and have written a short explanation of how these things made them feel, react or respond, have them write a line or two from their ‘review’ on the whiteboard. In effect, the class will create a large ‘praise page’ with statements about what they enjoyed and what resonated with them in the novel.
This praise for the novel could be published and sent to your school library where it could be used to promote the text, or in your study guide for future years to show other students how much the book has been enjoyed.
(ACELA1571) (ACELT1640) (ACELY1752)
The theme of luck dominates Zac and Mia, and in her interview, Betts explains that she wanted to explore the concept of luck through the character of Cam who has cancer. She explains that Cam’s purpose was to highlight the ‘other side of luck’, especially in the hospital setting where many are not so lucky, and also to assist Zac and Mia in understanding their fortunes. Betts acknowledges that it was a ‘brutal’ writing decision for Cam to pass away, but it was needed for the development of Zac and Mia’s characters.
Host Astrid Edwards also remarks, ‘As a reader, I think I needed Cam too’. Ask your students what they think Edwards may have meant by this comment.
There are many widely known stories that have a seemingly lucky protagonist such as Charlie Bucket (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Harry Potter (the Harry Potter series), Ubby in the Ubby’s Underdogs series or even Ashala Wolf in The Tribe series), as well as characters who make their own luck like Kirrali Lewis in Becoming Kirrali Lewis, Fuzzy Mac in Grace Beside Me, Ellie Linton in Tomorrow When the War Began, Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or even Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games.
Explore idioms and phrases related to luck to further tease out the concept. Fill out a table such as the one below. More idioms can be found here.
|Idiom/phrase||Meaning/interpretation||Use in a sentence|
|to push your luck|
|the luck of the draw|
|as luck would have it|
|to be down on your luck|
|no such luck|
|that ship has sailed|
|to have something fall into your lap|
|to jump on the bandwagon|
|make hay while the sun shines|
|strike while the iron is hot|
Discuss the concept of luck with students. What kind of circumstances are lucky or unlucky? In the novel, are people considered more ‘lucky’ if they have a certain type of cancer or a certain prognosis? How can you make your own luck? Why have a character that falls on their feet?
(ACELA1563) (ACELA1564) (ACELA1571)
Have students write a short story (no more than 1,000 words) where their protagonist meets a character who is essential to shaping the outcome of the story for them, or helps them to adjust their values, goals or expectations, just as Cam does in Zac and Mia.
Students could write a piece starting from the beginning, or they may like to integrate a character into a story they have already begun to develop.
Have students consider:
- The overall themes of their story – how could a new character shape the way the themes are showcased in their story?
- The purposes of each character – how could a new character help an existing character to re-evaluate their goals or aims?
- What can a new character teach an existing character about themselves?
The writers’ journey including:
- development of approaches, style and individual writing characteristics
- themes, issues and motivations
Betts is asked by Edwards whether Zac and Mia is ‘about gender’. She explains that both characters in the text deal differently with the effects of their chemotherapy treatments. Zac treats his hair loss with fun, commenting on the size of his head without all the hair covering. Mia on the other hand is defined by her appearance, stating, ‘I’ve only ever been the pretty one.’ Mia’s journey to acceptance is to ensure that she starts to recognise the value of her other qualities and see her worth outside of her physical appearance.
Have students research the importance of hair for women throughout history. Hair has played a significant role in the formation of women’s identities. Have students find out more about hair’s role in determining and influencing perceptions of:
- race oppression and politics
Recently with the fore-fronting of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, but also in Australia and elsewhere, longstanding and ongoing discriminatory practices relating to black hair (and in particular, black women’s hair) have been highlighted. This is certainly a deeply personal issue, but one which also has a strongly political dimension. Students may wish to further investigate this persistent discriminatory phenomenon pivoting on hair colour and style and its racist and colonial origins. The following sites and articles will prove to be illuminating:
- A Brief History of Black Hair, Politics, and Discrimination
- The politics of black hair
- Gabrielle Union Discusses the Politics of Black Hair
- The Politics of Black Women’s Hair
If time allows, facilitate a class discussion specifically on this issue, giving students the opportunity to find examples for themselves which demonstrate how hair colour and style have been used to assert power and control.
Create a list of words associated with hair that reflect these categories. How does Mia feel about her hair and what kinds of words does she use to describe herself with/without her hair? Why do you think Mia and Zac have such different reactions?
Consider the story of Rapunzel, that of Joan of Arc or even women who have been punished throughout history with hair cutting/shaving, especially ‘the shorn women’ of Vichy France at the end of World War II. How has their hair played a role in shaping their identity? How has their hair been used for/against them?
(ACELA1564) (ACELA1571) (ACELT1639) (ACELT1812)
Betts touches on the impact of social media usage for Zac and Mia. They both use social media in different ways. Zac is very open about his cancer treatment and uses his social media accounts to share his struggles and the side effects he experiences. He jokes that he has ‘never been so popular’. Mia, on the other hand, crafts a narrative that she is in hospital by choice and is secretive about her diagnosis. Both characters ‘perform’ their illness, just in vastly different ways. An interesting discussion of the way both characters use social media takes place at the 18-minute point of the interview.
Given the alternative perspectives from which the story is told, apply this same method to creating a social media profile for Zac and Mia that is truthful and reflective of their experiences. If both of them were being honest about their true feelings, what might they really say about what they are experiencing? For Zac, this might mean being serious instead of making jokes all the time, and for Mia, this might mean admitting her illness and connecting with her friends.
The most simplistic way to complete this task would be to use a Twitter-style format, where each tweet (no more than 280 characters) provides an insight into the characters’ ‘true’ feelings regarding a particular scenario. This template (PDF, 174KB) might be helpful.
(ACELA1564) (ACELA1566) (ACELA1571) (ACELT1639) (ACELT1641) (ACELT1812) (ACELT1643) (ACELT1644)
The writer’s craft including:
- Point of view
Betts reveals that she felt like she was ‘muddling along’ when trying to select an appropriate perspective from which to tell Zac and Mia. She started with a stream of consciousness style from Zac’s perspective, but quickly realised that the story was then ‘not actually about Zac’ but rather about Mia, whose character undergoes the most development and change in the story.
Play with the different types of perspectives – first, second and third – and how this can influence how a story is told. A helpful guide can be found here. Have students craft a short scenario (approximately 250–500 words). When writing in first person, challenge students to write in a stream of consciousness style, describing the happenings as if they are flowing through the mind of the character. Ask students to then translate the same story into second and third-person perspectives.
After the students have undertaken this task, discuss:
- What are the benefits of a first-person style of narration?
- Which perspective was the most challenging to write in? Why?
- Was your story altered negatively (if at all) by one style of narration? Which one?
- Which perspective allows your story to be told in the best way?
Consider how Zac and Mia may have been a different story if it was told from the perspective of just one character. How is it that each character’s perspective teaches and shows us aspects about the other characters in the text?
(ACELT1639) (ACELT1640) (ACELT1641) (ACELT1642) (ACELT1643) (ACELT1815) (ACELY1749)
Betts switches the first person narrative voice between Zac and Mia. The text is structured in three parts: Part one – ‘Zac’, Part two – ‘And’, and Part three – ‘Mia’. Part two is told through the alternating perspectives of Zac and Mia whereas the other two sections are told from the perspectives of each of the title characters.
Have students experiment with this shift in narrative voice by having them write about or recall an aspect of the life or the lives of one of the characters they have already developed in their previous writing exercises. Then, have them change perspective and write about the same thing from another point of view. Where possible, some students may be even able to go to the next step and write from another gender’s perspective.
(ACELA1564) (ACELT1814) (ACELT1815)
Comparison with other writers and texts:
- versions of style and key themes in other modes, media and contexts
- aspects of genre
- other writers using similar approaches or dealing with similar ideas
Zac and Mia falls into the genre of ‘sick lit’ – literature that explores the experiences of illness and disease and, it has been suggested, glorifies death, suicide and other mental illnesses such as eating disorders. ‘Sick lit’ has been touted as instrumental in shaping knowledge of the illness experience and in an article in Kill Your Darlings (2014), Betts claimed:
I wrote Zac & Mia because I’ve spent the last eight years teaching adolescents on a cancer ward, and I wanted to pay homage to their amazing courage, humour and friendships, and the perspectives they develop along the way … Young people already know of sickness: cancer, eating disorders, diabetes, mental health issues, etc. … What they might not know is how to be compassionate to others who are suffering, how to respond, and how to be grateful for their own health. Novels have the capacity to foster empathy and compassion.
Other texts that fall into this genre include:
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
- Wonder by R. L. Palacio
- All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
- Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
- Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
- Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott
Edwards underscores Betts’ motivations for telling the stories of Zac and Mia by explaining how her story explores what it means to be ill, and gives insight into an experience that can usually only be shared by those who have endured the same thing.
Have students write a personal reflection in which they explain what they learned about having an illness that they may not have known before. As much as the text helps to unite those who have or who have had an illness, as Edwards says, it also gives insight into the experience.
A suggested structure for your students could be:
- a short introduction to the text
- example from the text that helped to highlight the experience
- explanation of what this example highlights for the reader
- how this example might influence the actions of the reader in the future
Rich assessment task
The following task (PDF, 123KB) is designed to incorporate a number of writing techniques that Betts uses and speaks to in her interview.
In this task, you will try to emulate Betts’ writing style by taking her advice in piecing together a story and crafting your own original piece of under 1,000 words. Follow the below steps to bring your story to fruition. Be prepared to explain how your story has been formulated using Betts’ steps.
Part 1: The inciting moment
Betts states that she knows the inciting moment before she knows the rest of the story she is going to write. In this moment, she knows what will ‘hook’ the reader into the story. She says her stories never start with a grand thing, rather that she is just curious.
For your story, come up with an inciting moment or ‘a call to adventure’. Think about the genre of the story you want to write and how that might influence the inciting moment. Perhaps:
- A romance story where two people meet unexpectedly
- A thriller where the perpetrator is on the run from the police
- A comedy where the protagonist reflects on their own circumstances
Part 2: Writing as problem solving
At the beginning of her interview, Betts explains that she views story writing as ‘problem solving’, describing the process of writing Zac and Mia as putting a puzzle together.
For your story, explore a problem that needs to be solved by your characters. This could be a physical problem like a crime or mystery, or an emotional problem such as overcoming loneliness.
- How will your story help solve this problem?
- Will there be a ‘who-dunnit’ plot to follow?
- What steps will be taken by the protagonist to show they are overcoming their problem?
Part 3: A catalyst but not a dominant theme
Even though Zac and Mila is set in a hospital and is about two protagonists who have cancer, Betts maintains that cancer is ‘a catalyst’ and not an overarching theme. In your writing, will there be a catalyst that triggers the storyline? Will it be a human catalyst or an activity that changes something?
Part 4: Stream of consciousness
The stream of consciousness style employed by Betts is one of the defining hallmarks of Zac and Mia. In your story, try to utilise this as well. You may even like to adopt some of the structural choices that Betts uses.
- Draft to be completed before writing your final copy
- Word processed formal submission
- Length: approximately 1,000 words
- Clear plan for story following Betts’ steps
- Evidence of drafting for clarity and cohesion
- Correct spelling, grammar and punctuation