For the last 2 semesters, students from Ami Christensen’s course in the Intensive English Program (IEP) at UWEC have met with local author Emily Anderson, who uses the pen name Max Howard, to discuss her young adult novel, Fifteen and Change. The novel tells the story of a teenager who works at a Midwestern pizza shop and gets involved in the “Fight for Fifteen” labor movement. Throughout each semester, the students (all from China) met in small groups outside of class to discuss the book and compare the events and ideas with their own culture and experiences in China.
Christensen chose to teach the novel because the story is told in a series of short poems, which makes it appealing for readers who are still learning English. Student Chenyuan Zhang remarked, “I like the writing style of Fifteen and Change. Long passages make me feel bored. Every chapter of this book is like a poem, and it makes me feel relaxed and more willing to read.” Since the novel is set in the Midwest, it includes regional words and phrases, like “pole shed” that international students might not encounter in their academic texts. “When I read the book, I learned many new idioms and many new words,” commented Wenjin Shen. Many students also noted the cultural knowledge they gained through the text. “I learned some traditions about America, like some different conceptions about family, about friendship, and about romantic relationships between American and Chinese culture,” said Yue Zhang.
Talking with a local author provided students with an opportunity to connect not only with American culture, but with Eau Claire. In 2019, students met Anderson at an Eau Claire institution, Pizza Plus, to discuss the book and sample traditional American cuisine (pizza and wings). They discussed gender roles, pen names, the relationship between fact and fiction, and of course, pizza. Congrong Zhou felt “the book not only introduces the culture of Wisconsin, but also has some interesting philosophical questions.”
In the spring of 2020, classes moved online and students met with Anderson in small groups using Zoom. Some of the students joined the meeting from China, waking up in the middle of the night to ask questions and discuss the book. “This is the first time I have communicated with the author of a novel I read. This experience excites me and makes me have a deeper impression of this book,” Yang Zhang commented. “I found the author very kind,” said Yi Wei, “she answered all our questions and we took pictures with her. This is awesome!”
Fifteen and Change has been nominated for the 2019 “Quick Picks” award by the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, and was a Junior Literary Guild Selection. Christensen is considering using Anderson’s recently released novel, The Water Year, in future classes.