Students will need to keep a reading journal. This can be on paper or the teacher may wish to set up student journals or blogs through an application such as Microsoft OneNote, or online options such as WordPress Edublogs, Three Ring or Kidblog. Digital journals provide the teacher with greater flexibility in accessing student work.
1. Thinking about the power of literature
Divide the class into small groups. Provide each group with a large sheet of paper and one of the following quotes to explore. On the paper, they should brainstorm the potential readings of their given quote. Encourage students to think about the quote literally, symbolically and then thematically. What ‘messages’ can they gain from their quote? What are the different ways in which it can be interpreted?
- “I’m not the messenger at all. I’m the message.” (p. 386)
- “Sometimes I hate the sound of a car door slamming.” (p. 23)
- “Somewhere along the line, I feel like somehow I introduced myself. To myself. And here I am.” (p. 331)
- “The air of invincibility has deserted me and I’m suddenly aware that I have to do this surrounded by nothing but my own human frailty.” (p. 96)
- “It’s the person, Ma, not the place. If you left here, you’d have been the same anywhere else.” (p. 306)
- “Sometimes people are beautiful. Not in looks. Not in what they say. Just in what they are.” (p. 242)
- “I’d rather chase the sun than wait for it.” (p. 306)
- “There are pieces of me on the ground.” (p. 320)
- “Of course you’re real – like any thought, or any story. It’s real when you’re in it.” (p. 382)
After this group brainstorming session, each student should engage in free writing in their journals. Encourage students to create their own text – such as a poem, a narrative, a personal anecdote, a blog entry – that is inspired by their given quote. Encourage students to write from the heart, articulating the personal meaning that they gained from the quote. They may wish to share and discuss these responses with others in their groups. We will return to these quotes and responses later.
(ACELT1814) (ACELT1644) (EN5-5C) (EN5-6C)
2. We can be heroes
“I’m typical of many of the young men you see in this suburban outpost of the city – not a whole lot of prospects or possibility.” (p. 6)
Ed characterises himself in this rather self-deprecating manner. It can be hard sometimes to appreciate our own worth. It’s often easier to focus on our shortcomings. Every person, though, has the potential to alter the lives of others in meaningful ways.
Encourage students to consider the following scenario: if they were the main character in a novel, what would its theme(s) be?
This may require some scaffolding: encourage students to reflect on a particularly significant life experience. What lesson did they learn that they could, potentially, teach others? Students should write a journal entry in which they articulate the themes their journey could reveal to others. Alternatively, students may wish to record their response verbally and save to their electronic journal. A further alternative, if there is time or if the teacher wishes to develop this task into a formal writing opportunity, would be to write a ‘book review’ of the story of their life, in which they articulate these themes.
(ACELT1644) (ACELY1756) (EN5-6C) (EN5-1A)
3. Who are our heroes?
Students should construct a multimodal presentation on a real-life hero. The presentation should include details of this person’s background, achievements and impact on others, as well as a justification as to why the student believes the real-life person to be a hero. Have students complete the presentation as a homework activity and then share in class to small groups. Following this, conduct a class discussion about the nature and definition of heroism. As part of the discussion, use the students’ research into the backgrounds of their heroes to explore whether we admire more the achievements of those from a humble background or whose heroism is manifested under unlikely circumstances. Develop discussion into why this might be the case.
4. Cryptic clues
An optional activity you might like to use with your students in order to bring the novel’s themes to life, is to put them in the same position as Ed. This may involve a little preparation, but this could be cut down by requisitioning the assistance of other staff. Use a set of playing cards and write one cryptic clue on a card for each of the students. (You may add more than one clue if you feel it is necessary.) These clues should lead each student to complete a simple good deed around the school or community. Their experiences could become the basis for a piece of writing, or the students may even choose to create a mini-documentary of their experience in figuring out the clues, filming it on their smart phones. Based on this experience, students could be asked to predict the themes of the novel by considering what they learned as a result of their experiences. Develop this activity with some explicit teaching of personal context and how a reader’s context can influence their understanding of and response to a text.
5. Exploring the opening chapter
Read the opening chapter aloud with the students. Alternatively, the chapter lends itself to being acted out; different students could take on the role of each character and the scene could be played out within the classroom. After doing so, students should write their initial impressions of the character of Ed, particularly noting the way he handles himself in this stressful situation, the way he speaks to the gunman and to the police and his self-deprecating descriptions of himself. Use Think, Pair, Share to have students answer these journal questions: how does Ed become the hero? Is he what we would consider a conventional hero? Why/why not?
For homework, have students define the terms ‘hero’, ‘anti-hero’ and ‘vigilante’. Identify examples of each from books, television and films and brainstorm their conventional traits. As they continue to read the novel, encourage students to reflect on these definitions and which they would apply to Ed.
(ACELT1641) (ACELY1749) (ACELY1754) (EN5-3B) (EN5-8D) (EN5-2A)
Personal response on reading the text
Encourage students to maintain a blog or their journals as they read. Rather than setting chapter questions, offer a range of prompts for students to respond to, such as the following potential examples:
- Which of Ed’s missions made the most impact on you?
- In your opinion, which mission do you think was most important?
- Which mission did Ed learn the most from?
- What additional mission would you like to send Ed on, and what lesson would he learn?
- Which main character in the novel is most like you? Explain why.
- What mission might Zusak have sent Ed on to learn from you?
- Identify a 50-word extract in which you found the language beautiful, powerful or effective.
- Create a ‘found poem’ using a particular page or pages from the novel. Create a meaningful image or idea that relates to the novel or to your experience of reading it. See here for instructions on creating found poems.
- Design an alternative book cover that captures the tone of the novel.
- Who should play the main characters in a film of the novel? Why did you choose these actors?
- Create a spider diagram that maps all the characters and their relationships.
2. Who is the bank robber?
Before exploring the concept of metafiction, lead a class discussion on who the students believe the bank robber to be. Focus initially on the final section, but go back to earlier references to the robber for clues. In addition, prompt students to articulate their responses to the revelations of the final section: did they feel intrigued, impressed, frustrated, ‘ripped off’ (a common response!) when realising the implication that the bank robber may be a representation of Zusak himself (or at least ‘the author’)? Develop into a discussion of why they may have responded in this fashion, considering such factors as:
- our expectations regarding narrative resolution,
- the suspension of disbelief,
- our previous experiences of reading,
- typical patterns of reader engagement.
Outline of key elements of the text
Pan Macmillan offers a solid summary for teachers of the plot, main themes and some language devices. You can access it here.
2. Visual Record
Print a set of blank playing card templates using an A4 sheet for each. Use these to create a visual record of key ideas as they come up in class discussions, pinning them to a wall or board. Use Hearts for themes, Spades for language, Clubs for narrative elements and Diamonds for great insights or responses. This is a great way to value students’ contributions and record the classroom discussions. Students can visit the wall to view the various comments throughout their study.
This activity could be extended further by giving each student a set of smaller blank cards. They can write their own responses, additions, challenges or alterations on these cards and pin them to the larger cards. Drawing on Zusak’s symbolism, Hearts could represent students’ personal responses to the key idea, Clubs could be a challenge, Spades a deeper insight into the idea and Diamonds valuable additions.
3. Chapter questions
For those teachers who find setting chapter questions useful in guiding students’ comprehension, a set can be found here (PDF, 144KB). These may be used as a homework activity, an individual reading guide or as a collaborative exercise as per the instructions on the handout.
(ACELT1642) (ACELT1643) (EN5-2A) (EN5-3B)
Dramatic presentation and artistic discussion
In small groups, have students negotiate a scene from the novel that generated a strong emotional impact. Using the novel, create a brief script for this scene before rehearsing and acting it out for the class. After the performance, each group must also discuss their scene, articulating why they chose to present it and how and why it created a strong emotional response. Encourage stronger students to grapple with the themes or moral questions their particular scenes engage with. Stronger students should also be able to make reference to their own context when explaining why this scene resonated with them.
(ACELT1641) (ACELT1644) (ACELY1750) (EN5-3B) (EN5-6C) (EN5-1A)
The writer’s craft
1. Exploring the exposition
The novel starts ‘in media res.’ The reader is thrown into a high action scene – as the students will be aware from their dramatic reading of this opening chapter. Brainstorm with students the function of an exposition: it needs to engage the reader, introduce characters and setting and set up the ‘inciting incident’ and the problem that will lead to the development of conflict within the novel. Examine how Zusak achieves this by throwing his characters into a testing situation.
- How beginning the novel with the characters in the middle of a dramatic scene works to engage the reader.
- The clues as to the working class setting of the novel, such as Ed’s job and Marv’s car.
- The natures of the characters – particularly Ed’s – are established through their unexpectedly humorous reaction to this ordinarily terrifying incident.
- The inciting incident – the threat made against Ed – sets the reader up for the conflict that follows as Ed completes the various missions.
- The status of Ed as an unlikely hero is established when he foils the bank robbery, hinting at later themes.
2. The hero’s journey
Watch this TED-Ed Talk on the hero’s journey with the students. It provides an excellent overview of the cyclical structure of the hero’s narrative journey, based on Joseph Campbell’s theories. Set up twelve stations around the classroom, with writable surfaces or butcher’s paper at each point. Label each station according to the stages of the hero’s journey: the status quo, call to adventure, assistance, departure, trials, approach, crisis, treasure, result, return, new life, resolution. After watching and discussing the video, have students move around the room in small groups, recording their thoughts regarding which events within the novel correlate to each stage of the hero’s journey.
Follow up with a class discussion looking at how conclusively Ed’s narrative journey conforms to the archetypal hero’s journey. For example, consider the following potential understandings based on archetypal aspects of the hero’s journey:
- the call to adventure (the cards),
- the mentor (Zusak or the implied author who sends Ed the cards),
- the trials (Ed’s missions),
- the ally (The Doorman).
3. Cards as structuralising devices
One of the most striking features of the novel is the way Zusak uses playing cards to structure the narrative. Form students into small groups. Provide each group with three copies of each of the four Ace cards. (You can find templates online, such as this one.) Have the students summarise each mission on the appropriate card. On the reverse of that card, write down the lesson that Ed learns from that particular mission. Encourage students to imagine they are Zusak, playing with the organisation of Ed’s life. Use the cards to experiment with the order of the missions, exploring how altering the order would have altered the lessons Ed had to learn and thus the character development of Ed. Zusak’s instructions were:
- Protect the diamonds.
- Survive the clubs.
- Dig deep through spades.
- Feel the hearts.
In their journals, have students reflect on the order of Ed’s missions and how they dictate Ed’s character development and the lessons he learned.
Zusak also uses the cards as a device for building tension, as Ed – and the reader – await each new card and the mysteries it will bring. Furthermore, the cards carry significant symbolism: card games require a combination of chance and skill. The cards themselves, along with the games of Annoyance the characters’ play, represent changing fortunes. The cards one receives might be dictated by chance, but how one plays them is a skill that can lead to winning or losing. Consider how the cards represent Ed’s fluctuating fortunes. Encourage students to reflect on other important ways in which the cards connect to Ed’s journey, and what the reader might perceive as a result.
(ACELT1641) (ACELT1642) (EN5-3B) (EN5-2A)
4. Resolution: Interview with Zusak
Who is the joker? Who is the joke on? Have students role-play an interview with Markus Zusak in which they interrogate him on the implications of these questions. As part of the interview, encourage students to consider how this resolution works to reinforce the themes of the novel.
(ACELT1812) (ACELT1641) (ACELT1642) (EN5-7D) (EN5-3B) (EN5-2A)
Approach to characterisation
1. Ed the hero? Anti-hero?
Share these quotes about Ed (PDF, 272KB). Which suggest Ed is an unlikely candidate for a hero? Which of them make Ed seem like he is a hero? Which suggest, instead, that he isn’t? This can lead nicely into a discussion of values and what qualities we, as a society, see as ‘heroic’. Make reference back to the introductory activity in which students identified an example of a hero. Were any of them unlikely heroes? Ask students to compare Ed to their chosen hero and comment in their journals.
Students have already defined the terms ‘hero’, ‘anti-hero’ and ‘vigilante’. However, show students this TED-Ed Talk on the nature of the anti-hero. Based on textual evidence from the novel and the video, and their understanding of the above terms, have students write a personal response as to whether they believe Ed to be a hero or anti-hero (or neither!).
2. Who are the characters?
Although the students may struggle to comprehend such a time, The Messenger is set prior to the ubiquitousness of mobile phones and social media. Creating a faux social media profile for a character is an effective way for students to engage with a character and demonstrate insight into their understanding of their nature. Fakebook offers an online tool whereby students can create a social media profile for educational purposes. As it is not actually connected to social media, it is a safe tool to use. On the profile, students can demonstrate their understanding of the character through articulating the friendships, interests, likes/dislikes and so on. Encourage students to develop the profile, imagining for example the favourite films and music that might represent that character’s ‘personality’. They can even construct a series of ‘posts’ that reflect the character’s involvement in the plot of the novel. This can become quite a rich task, with, for example, links to student-developed news reports of the robbery and so on.
Following the creation of the profiles, students can discuss them within small groups, getting valuable peer feedback to refine their profiles. Using this understanding, students could take over the role of Zusak and write the next chapter for their particular character, exploring the impact Ed’s good deed has had upon the character and their situation. For example:
- What happens with Marv and his new-found family?
- What happens with Ritchie and his search for work and a sense of self-worth?
- What happens with Audrey now that she moves in with Ed?
- What happens with Ed’s mother, and their relationship, now that Ed has changed?
3. Through Ed’s eyes
All of the characters are filtered through Ed’s eyes and a big part of their construction occurs in the ‘hearts’ section when Ed is forced to really learn about his friends. He ‘observes’ each in turn, seeing their private sadnesses for the first time. This is where he realises that his assumptions about his friends mask their ‘realities’. Give students this table (PDF, 97KB) to complete, comparing how Ed perceived his friends prior to investigating them and what his new understanding was afterwards. Consolidate this with the following questions:
- Can Ed be considered a naive narrator?
- How did Zusak’s choice of point of view allow him to ‘hide’ details about each character?
- How did the process of observation change Ed’s – and by extension, the readers’ – understanding of these characters?
- What does this suggest about the process of characterisation?
- What lesson(s) did Ed learn by observing his friends; and what theme or idea is developed as a result?
4. Peer teaching
Assign students one of the more significant characters: Ed, Marv, Ritchie, Audrey, Ed’s mother. Students can work individually for this activity or in small groups. Have students conduct a thorough character analysis of their selected character, considering how the following elements help build a picture of this individual:
- Setting (for example, considering the significance of Ed’s dilapidated house and the point at which he cleans it up, Marv’s car or Ritchie sitting alone in the kitchen);
- Speech (considering both what the character says and how they say it);
- Growth and development (examining what the character is like at the beginning of the novel and how they have changed by the end);
- Appearance (particularly, Ed’s descriptions of his friends’ appearances);
- Actions (for example, Ritchie’s paralysis, Ed’s cab driving, the football game);
- Interactions with others (for example, considering Ed’s relationship with his family);
- Memories and recollections (for example, considering Marv’s memories of his girlfriend, or Ed’s recollections of going down to the river);
- Symbolism (for example, the constant card-playing, Ed’s dog the Doorman, Marv’s battered car).
Students should build as detailed a picture of the character as they can and – emphasise this – collect accompanying quotes that demonstrate evidence of their interpretations. Students can then get together with others who studied the same character and, through comparing their analyses, refine their own analysis. Having done this, students can design a simple learning activity (such as a simple worksheet or set of discussion questions) to teach this character to other students. Finally, regroup students so that each group is composed of students who have studied all the various characters. The students then have responsibility to teach the other students in their group about their character.
(ACELA1568) (ACELT1642) (ACELY1813) (EN5-2A) (EN5-3B)
Language and style
The construction of Ed Kennedy’s voice is a strength of this novel. It is by turns jocular, self-deprecating, wistful, bitter but always searingly honest. Conduct a close reading of chapter 1, ‘the hold up’, noting details such as:
- the use of colloquialism and relatively simple diction;
- the way in which he criticises Marv’s car, despite knowing how it will inflame his friend;
- the cheeky tone in which he addresses the police;
- the use of sarcasm;
- the almost belligerent use of questions.
After identifying examples of these (and any other) language devices that assist in the construction of voice, have students write a paragraph in their journals describing this initial construction of Ed’s voice.
Next, have students analyse the construction of voice in chapter 2, ‘sex should be like maths: an introduction to my life’, where the self-deprecating and witty aspect of Ed’s voice is revealed. If students struggle, you may like to ask them to consider:
- the fact he describes himself last;
- the list of remarkable nineteen-year-olds;
- the continual use of sequences of short, simple, one-sentence paragraphs;
- the focus on negative details of his life and tone;
- the almost apologetic tone at points;
- the loving description of the Doorman;
- the listing of characteristics that define his ‘life’;
- the dreamy way in which he thinks of and describes Audrey;
- the self-deprecating inclusion of details about how ‘crap’ he is at sex;
- the brutal honesty with which he lays open his life.
Have students construct a Venn Diagram to compare the voices of Ed as constructed in the first two chapters: the confident and cheeky Ed of chapter 1 and the self-aware and self-critical Ed of chapter 2. There’s an online interactive Venn Diagram available here or students could use a paper template such as this one.
Lead a class discussion into which of Ed’s ‘voices’ creates an emotional response in the students. Do they find the voices of Ed authentic or resonating? What does the difference in voices suggest about how we present ourselves to the world, as opposed to who we really are inside?
Read the following extracts from:
Complete this worksheet (PDF, 119KB) comparing the construction of adolescent male voices.
Further develop by considering the use of the first person point of view, a common technique in YA fiction. Introduce the concept of ‘positioning’. Do the above techniques assist the reader in empathising with Ed? Do we accept his ‘version’ of events? Discuss why authors may use first person point of view to position readers to align themselves with flawed, ‘outsider’ characters such as these.
(ACELT1639) (ACELT1643) (EN5-8D) (EN5-3B)
Symbolism is defined as the use of objects, images or symbols to represent ideas, qualities or emotions different from their literal interpretation. Symbolism enriches literature by providing layers of meaning and connotation. There are many symbols within The Messenger, many of which become motifs through their repetition.
Create a set of A3 sheets with a picture of one of each of the following symbols in the centre:
- ace of clubs
- ace of spades
- ace of diamonds
- ace of hearts
- the joker
- a rusting blue Ford Falcon
- The Doorman – a Rottweiler / German Shepherd cross
- the stones by the creek
- the card game ‘Annoyance’
- the Sylvia Plath dream.
Spread these around the room. In pairs, students should walk around adding their interpretation of each symbol to the sheets, thinking about how the symbol deepens their understanding of characters, themes or ideas. As more students offer their interpretations, they may add to or refine others’ thoughts. After each pair has had the opportunity to comment, organise students into small groups and give them one of the A3 sheets, as well as a fresh copy of the same symbol sheet. They are to collate the various responses, deleting any repetitions and refining the expression, and then prepare a ‘neat’ version that clearly brainstorms the various interpretations of the symbol. Each group then shares this information verbally with the rest of the class, who make notes. (Alternatively, you may wish to collect, copy and distribute the neat versions, or have them summarise the findings in a table.)
The meaning of metafiction
Metafiction is a style of writing used by writers to self-consciously and deliberately draw the reader’s attention to the text as a constructed piece of fiction. Metafictional devices make the reader question what is reality and what is actually the author’s fictional version of reality, and forces readers to be aware that they are reading a fictional work. Metafiction covers a range of devices such as authorial presence in the text, the lack of narrative resolution, crumbling or fragmented structure, direct reader address and calling attention to the text as construction (e.g. by having a character writing the novel).
Organise students into small groups and have them work collaboratively to address this question: “Can you find evidence of any of these devices in the resolution of The Messenger?”
- Ed directly addresses the reader, such as on page 96 where he accuses them of safely reading while he has difficult decisions to make.
- Throughout the novel Ed is supposedly unaware of the tasks he will face and Zusak, for the most part, does not make his presence known to the reader (and Ed) until the very end of the novel. In the final pages of the text, when Ed meets the young man who has been sending him the messages, the mysterious figure says to Ed, ‘Everything. Everything I wrote for you. Every idea I scratched around with. Every person you helped, hurt or ran into… even this [discussion]…is in [the yellow folder].’ Zusak’s dialogue here reminds the reader that he has been creating the tasks and challenges his character has faced and therefore has been the omniscient figure lurking in the background all along.
When the messenger leaves, Ed is left pondering whether ‘[he] should write about all this [himself]. After all, [he’s] the one who did all the work.’ Importantly, Ed notes that he would start with the same event as Zusak – the bank robbery – calling attention to the writing process itself and reminding the reader the novel they have just read is a construction and not ‘real’. Zusak’s surprise metafictional ending may strike some readers as a shortcut, but it sparks much discussion and debate about the nature of storytelling and the value of literature to share ‘messages.’ In this case, Zusak seems to be encouraging readers to act, to transform themselves and/or their world rather than passively drifting through life. Indeed, this is echoed in Ed’s own comments to the reader on page 96, referred to above. With a stronger class, a discussion of ‘agency’ might be appropriate here: the bildungsroman journey, and adolescence itself, can be understood as the development of agency within an adolescent. Consider the extent to which this novel, in blurring the lines between fiction and reality, seeks to promote the development of agency within the reader.
It is also important to consider how our frustrations with the ending remind us of our subconscious desire to get ‘lost’ in a story.
A Prezi with this content is available here.
Text and meaning
Themes and ideas
One way the novel can be read is that its central concern is with the nature of heroism: what doing ‘the right thing’ means. The novel is divided into five different sections: clubs, diamonds, spades, hearts and the joker. Ed has to learn different lessons, or messages, from each suit. Use the symbolism of the card suits to categorise the types of lessons Ed has to learn.
- Clubs – being a hero sometimes means making difficult moral choices to ‘do the right thing’.
- Spades – a hero learns to dig deeper to understand what ‘the right thing is’.
- Diamonds – a hero appreciates that small gestures can be ‘the right thing’.
- Hearts – being a hero sometimes means hurting – in order to help – the ones you love.
- The Joker – being a hero means recognising one’s own worth.
Use the hexagon mind-mapping strategy to develop students’ relational understanding of the themes and ideas. Divide the class into five groups and assign them one of the suits or the joker. Ask students to, individually, write down ten different specific ideas that are developed within their given section. Within their group, share their ten ideas. Remove any double ups or refine to differentiate further. Then write each idea on a different hexagon. As a group, connect the ideas according to their relationship. The ideas that end up with several other ideas connected to them then become core ideas and the stems that branch off should reflect further refinement of these ideas. Working collaboratively on this activity allows students to develop a higher order understanding of the themes and provides them with multiple points of argument for any essay writing on themes and ideas.
The activity can be taken to the next level by then joining the groups together to interrelate the various themes. A pin up board and velcro dots might be useful to allow for painless rearranging.
This wiki entry gives a clear overview of the hexagon strategy. This paper provides further discussion of the theoretical basis behind this strategy. You can find a hexagon template here. Alternatively, there are also apps that allow students to complete this activity digitally, such as this one.
Of course, there are many other meanings which can be drawn from the novel, and students should be rewarded for identifying valid alternative meanings. Perhaps ‘Aces’ could be used as identifiers of alternative insights.
2: Interrogating the Joker
One of the most significant lines in the novel is when Ed realises that he isn’t the messenger, but ‘the message’. Use the Think, Pair, Share model to encourage students to reflect on this idea. What is ‘the message’ that Ed represents? What does it suggest about who ‘the message’ is really for? What does this imply about the function and value of literature? How successful is Zusak in revealing ‘the message’ to his readers?
Afterwards, use this as an opportunity to explore the concept of representation. Characters are rarely just ‘people’; they are representations of groups of people in society or even abstract ideas. Students could be asked as a homework activity to suggest other leading characters and what they might be considered to represent.
(ACELT1639) (ACELT1642) (ACELY1749) (EN5-8D) (EN5-2A)
3: Developing a moral code
A significant part of Ed’s bildungsroman journey is the development of his own moral code. He is put in several morally challenging situations. The choices he makes reveal that morality is a complex idea, and that sometimes doing the ‘right thing’ can mean doing the ‘wrong thing’.
Create an imaginary line in the classroom, designating one end ‘totally agree’ and the other end ‘totally disagree’. As you read out Ed’s response to each of the situations he finds himself in, have students arrange themselves along the continuum according to the extent to which they agree with his response to the situation.
Ask students to justify their positions along the continuum.
- Ed lies to Milla Johnson, impersonating her dead lover, in order to bring happiness to the elderly lady.
- Ed encourages Sophie to run barefoot, although she ends up injured as a result.
- Ed kidnaps and terrorises the rapist with the hope that it stops him from abusing his wife.
- Ed beats up Gavin Rose so that Gavin’s brother is inspired to protect him rather than abuse him.
- Ed challenges Suzanne Boyd’s father, reuniting her and Marv against his wishes.
After this activity, have students reflect in their journals on the mission they found most morally challenging, and their response to Ed’s choices. Stronger students might be encouraged to reflect on their own moral code or values.
(ACELA1565) (ACELT1812) (EN5-7D)
Infographic on the theme of heroism
Have students create an infographic on the concept of heroism in the novel. Infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present information quickly and clearly. Piktochart offers an easy to use and economical platform that allows students to create visually appealing infographics, as does Infogr.am.
Within their infographic, students should clearly outline the qualities of heroism, how these qualities relate to Ed Kennedy, statements that reveal their perspective on Ed’s heroic nature, as well as quotes from the novel that support their assertions. This should be constructed in a fashion that is appropriate for the purpose and the audience of their peers.
(ACELT1642) (ACELA1567) (ACELA1572) (ACELY1776) (EN5-2A) (EN5-3B) (EN5-1A)
Ways of reading the text
1. A coming-of-age novel
The genre of The Messenger is variously described as ‘bildungsroman’ or ‘picaresque’. To some extent it can be seen as an amalgamation of these two genres.
A bildungsroman narrative is a coming-of-age story that follows the life of the protagonist from youth to adulthood, as they learn, grow and change. The protagonist transitions from a position of naivety to self-awareness. The transition often involves the motifs of a journey, as protagonists are pushed outside their immediate society or comfort zones, usually by some kind of tragic loss. Along the way, the protagonist faces several challenges or tests that assist in the maturation process, as they learn valuable life lessons. They may also be guided by a mentor figure. Finally, the protagonist returns to the immediate society as a mature adult. A significant aspect of the bildungsroman is the search for – and gaining of – personal agency. However, the bildungsroman ends with the protagonist’s acculturation into dominant society. Typically, the values of society are gradually adopted by the protagonist and he is ultimately accepted into society having learned his lessons. In some novels, the protagonist is able to act as a mentor to others after achieving maturity.
This YouTube clip may be of use to explain the bildungsroman genre to your class.
- What could be considered a ‘dominant society’ in an Australian context? What are our dominant cultural/social values?
- Which aspects of the bildungsroman genre are evident in The Messenger?
- Which aspects of the bildungsroman are not? Is Ed, for example, acculturated into the values of his society or does he continue to resist?
- Does Ed come of age? In what ways? What are the life lessons he learns?
- How do Ed’s values (both prior to undertaking his missions and afterwards) compare with the dominant values of Australia?
- By the age of 19 do you think you should have already come of age?
The picaresque genre refers to a style of fiction, invented in 16th-century Spain, which features the humorous escapades of a ‘picaro’: a quick-thinking, loveable rascal from a low social class who spends the narrative out-witting the corrupt society s/he lives in.
A picaro character is an outsider, someone marginalised from mainstream society, usually through no fault of his or her own. The picaro’s journey ultimately reveals the hypocrisy or flawed judgements of the society which alienates the character. The picaro is often considered a revolutionary, a hero for the underdog as the society and those powerful individuals within it are critiqued.
- To what extent is Ed a picaro?
- How has Zusak employed aspects of this genre in his novel?
- How does considering Ed as a picaro subvert the typical bildungsroman hero?
- How does reading Ed as a picaro shape our understanding of the themes of the novel?
2. A gender reading
Conducting a gender reading involves interrogating the text for the ways in which it represents characters in regards to their gender and gendered experiences. Guide students through a whole class discussion of the following two approaches.
A focus on the representation of women
Have students make a list of all the female characters in the novel and identify their roles.
- Are any female characters in positions of power, or are they all subordinate?
- Are there any female characters not in domestic or sexualised roles?
- How do female characters relate to the male characters with whom they are associated?
- Do any female characters attain personal agency?
- Is it significant that all the female characters need Ed to ‘save’ them in some way?
- Which behaviours seem to be valued and which criticised in females?
Have students consider the extent to which the novel participates in the subordination of women and reinforces males as the more dominant and powerful gender.
A focus on the representation of men
Introduce students to the concept of hegemonic masculinity, the understanding that there are several ‘masculinities’ but that some are privileged over others. The dominant ‘masculinity’, particularly within Australian culture, tends to be a model that embodies qualities such as machismo, sporting prowess, drinking, mateship, heterosexuality and so on. Students could be involved in brainstorming a list of qualities they believe are idealised or privileged within masculine identity. Males who don’t conform to this ideal are then subordinated, along with females.
Have students consider the extent to which The Messenger reinforces or challenges the hegemonic masculine ideal. For example, Ed may be considered as not totally conforming to the masculine ideal through such qualities as his love of old movies and his romantic tendencies, yet he is critical of his own perceived lack of sexual prowess and he participates in hypermasculine activities such as the Sledge game and excessive drinking, suggesting a privileging of a particular masculine ideal and a degree of self-loathing over not meeting that ideal. However, Ed admires the tenderness in males such as Lua Tatupu and, later, Marv, particularly in the way they interact with children.
- What does this suggest about masculinity?
- What qualities does Ed exhibit?
- Which male characters does Ed admire?
- What qualities do they represent?
- What behaviours does Ed participate that enhance his masculine identity?
- Does Ed objectify Audrey or does he genuinely respect her as an equal?
Can women be heroes?
This very topical question could be debated in relation to the novel. As a prompt, students might consider the recent stable of superhero movies, and the number that have women in the ‘hero’ role. For example, Batman and Superman have been brought to the screen numerous times and even been re-imagined on several occasions, but it has taken 75 years for Wonder Woman to get a film of her own. (Interesting, too, to discuss her scantily clad appearance and her masculine surname, Diana Prince.) This article may provide useful background reading, as might this infographic.
To consolidate their understanding, have students respond to one or more of the following prompts in their journals.
- The Messenger reinforces limiting stereotypes for both genders.
- The Messenger encourages readers to challenge dominant ideas about masculinity.
- The Messenger, as a novel, would horrify feminist readers.
3. A social class reading
Additionally, teachers may wish to consider an alternative reading based on social class. Zusak has drawn on a number of stereotypes of the urban underclass in representing Ed’s society: the dole bludger, teen parents, the wife-beater, the single mother, the ‘battler’ with a heart of gold, the child with a dream and so on. Explore how readers from this social context might respond to these representations? How realistic are the solutions offered for the characters’ various predicaments: getting a job, falling in love, taking responsibility. What is suggested by the fact that many of the characters need a ‘hero’ (Ed) to assist them in their situations?
(ACELA1564) (ACELT1640) (ACELT1812) (ACELT1642) (EN5-5C) (EN5-7D) (EN5-2A)
Comparison with other texts
Set students a personal reading challenge to read a second novel – perhaps as a holiday activity – which they will then discuss in small group, panel discussions. For students who might struggle to read a second novel in the time-frame, open up the text selection to include feature films. Each group will have a different focus and students need to select their novel or film accordingly. Suggested group focuses are:
- bildungsroman texts
- crime or detective fiction
- metafictional texts
- texts with unlikely heroes
- texts with an unusual structuring device.
Throughout their reading, as well as upon completion, students should be given opportunities to meet with the other students in their group. These discussions should focus on discussing how their chosen texts compare with The Messenger, citing differences and similarities as well as articulating and justifying their personal preferences.
(ACELA1566) (ACELT1640) (ACELT1641) (ACELT1774) (EN5-6C) (EN5-5C) (EN5-3B)
Evaluation of the text as significant to the world of young adult literature
Children’s Book Council awards
Read this article from the Sydney Morning Herald which describes The Messenger as ‘nauseatingly simple’ in its morality and suggests it was a ‘preposterous’ inclusion in the Older Readers category of the Children’s Book Council awards. Encourage students to develop their own opinions regarding the value and significance of this novel by conducting panel discussions in small groups. Students could be shown an episode of the ABC’s Book Club, such as this one on YA writing, as a model of what they are expected to do. To develop the task, the rest of the class could act as an audience for the panel discussion, with the opportunity to question the panelists. Through this dialogic process, students should develop and test firm opinions regarding the novel, engaging in robust debate to defend – or develop – their perspectives on the novel and its value to YA literature.
Identifying and justifying language/stylistic techniques for specific narrative or dramatic purposes
‘This is a dangerously written book.’ This quote from the Pan Macmillan reading guide provides a great prompt for discussion and follow-up writing. In what ways can Zusak’s writing be considered dangerous? Consider the following from Robyn Sheahan-Bright:
It’s funny and alarming by turns. It’s hard and violent, and yet often seems very sentimental too. It teeters from crisis to crisis but is largely about ordinary events and ordinary people whom Ed is able to somehow make better in some way. Often the action is unbearably real; for example the rape of Angelina, and Ed’s near murder of her husband are described as if ordinary events, because they are. They are scenes which could belong in a Quentin Tarantino movie, or equally at the end of an ordinary street near the local pub. This parallel between a Hollywood drama and the equal power of the ordinary crisis is deliberate because it’s at the heart of what Zusak wants to say. We are all capable of tragedy. Of violence. Of ill-considered actions. Of hate and of love. (pp. 4–5)
Add to this by considering the actual language itself. Zusak uses blunt, hard language and abbreviated syntax. This is contrasted with moments of quiet lyricism. He depicts acts of both violence and tenderness in the same matter-of-fact vernacular. While widely celebrated, the novel has been criticised as subversive, normalising antisocial behaviours and lacking literary merit. Does this make it ‘dangerous’?
Allow the students time to think about their stance in regard to if and why this is a ‘dangerously written book’, before facilitating a class discussion to tease out these ideas.
Finally, have students consolidate their positions by writing a review of the novel with the headline ‘This is a dangerously written book’. Encourage students to apply what they have learned previously about the construction of voice and use language to construct a clear sense of their own voice within their article. See here for a review template (PDF, 112KB) that could be used to scaffold students’ writing. This site provides information to help extend able writers.
(ACELA1571) (ACELT1640) (ACELT1641) (ACELY1756) (EN5-3B) (EN5-5C) (EN5-1A)
Rich assessment task 1 (Receptive mode)
Students should write a persuasive text, such as a speech or feature article, in which they seek to convince an audience that Ed Kennedy is a positive role model for today’s generation of young men. There are several ways in which students could approach this argument, considering The Messenger in terms of a thematic reading, a gender reading, a genre reading or even exploring the morality represented by the protagonist. In formulating their argument, students may consider:
- the contexts of young men today;
- the context of the character of Ed;
- the messages conveyed to young male readers through Ed, regarding such themes as:
- growing up and maturing,
- finding a purpose in life,
- relationships – familial, romantic and friendship,
- self-discovery or developing self worth,
- the qualities exhibited by Ed;
- Ed’s moral choices;
- The extent to which Ed typifies a bildungsoman hero or a picaro;
- The concept of masculine identity represented by Ed, including the way in which he perceives women.
In their writing, students should demonstrate clear features of their chosen form, the use of rhetorical devices, a clear thesis or line of argument, textual evidence and a strong sense of their own personal voice. Stronger students should seek to craft their text to suit a particular audience and context.
Synthesising core ideas
1. Reflection on the creative process
Having completed a study of the novel, students should now return to their responses to Activity 1: ‘Thinking about the power of literature’, in the Initial Response section of this unit. They should compare their interpretations of their given quotes to way those quotes are used within the context of the novel. Encourage reflection on their own creative process, including how and why they developed their piece as they did.
- Watch this interview with Zusak, in which he shares the advice of writing from experience.
- Alternatively, watch this interview in which he describes writing as playing with words.
As part of their reflection, ask students to review their own use of personal experience and language features to develop a theme in their original piece of writing.
(ACELT1774) (ACELT1814) (EN5-6C) (EN5-5C)
2. Debate: Is Ed a hero?
‘How do people live like this? How do they survive? And maybe that’s why I’m here. What if they can’t anymore?’ (p. 43)
Return to Activity 3, ‘Who are our heroes?’ in the Initial Response section of this unit. Evaluate Ed Kennedy as a hero according to the criteria decided upon during this early discussion. Develop this early writing into a formal debate, with serious consideration given to the reasons why Ed should or shouldn’t be considered a hero, or anti-hero, drawing on his characterisation within the novel for evidence.
Extend stronger students by asking them to consider social context; for example, is Ed the kind of hero readers expect or need in contemporary times? Does he represent a hero for wider Australian society, or for the particular social context in which Zusak has placed him?
(ACELT1640) (ACELT1812) (ACELY1813) (ACELY1751) (EN5-5C) (EN5-7D) (EN5-3B) (EN5-2A)
Have students select a character from the novel other than Ed. Drawing on clear textual evidence, students should draft, rehearse and deliver a monologue that articulates the character’s likely view of Ed and the impact of his intervention on their lives. In doing so, the students should reveal their understanding of the particular lesson or realisation revealed through their interaction, as well as a clear understanding of character and voice.
(ACELT1815) (ACELT1644) (EN5-3B) (EN5-6C)
Rich assessment task 2 (Productive mode)
Creating a book trailer
Have students create a book trailer that represents their overall reading of The Messenger. Book trailers, like film trailers, are multimodal presentations that work to advertise a text by constructing an engaging and provocative ‘taster’. Students should draw on one (or more) of the key aspects they have studied and use that to shape the representation of the novel in their trailers. The book trailer should be constructed in such a way as to represent the student’s reading or understanding of the novel. For example, students may choose to represent the novel in terms of:
- the theme of the unlikely hero,
- its controversial nature,
- its metafictional nature,
- the genre of bildungsroman,
- the genre of picaresque,
- its gender issues,
- its potential as an example of crime or detective fiction.
In addition, the book trailer needs to be constructed with a clear sense of purpose and audience.
There are several resources online that will assist in the creation of a book trailer, such as:
Make sure you provide students with high-quality examples, such as this excellent trailer for Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.
Students should storyboard their trailer first, keeping in mind:
- how they will construct character;
- the aspects of plot they will reveal, and those they’ll not disclose in order to generate intrigue;
- the use of visual language to convey genre;
- the themes that will be alluded to;
- how they will capture a sense of Ed’s voice as narrator.