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Embedding Windows and Mirrors With Jeff Zentner

By Ally Hauptman and Michelle Hasty
 | May 02, 2018

The Serpent KingThis is the first of a three-part series highlighting the winners of the 2017 ILA Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Awards, which honor newly published authors who show extraordinary promise in books for children and young adults. Young readers need books that provide a mirror in which they can see themselves as well as a window to understand the perspectives of others, especially those whose experiences differ from their own. In this series, award recipients Jeff Zentner, Aimee Bissonnette, and Reyna Grande share how their books may provide readers with “window and mirror experiences.” First, Ally Hauptman and Michelle Hasty, chairs of ILA's Children's and Young Adult Book Award Committee, discuss Zentner's The Serpent King.

When we heard Donalyn Miller at the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention describe stuffing Kleenex in her glasses while reading Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King, we were in. Who doesn’t love a book that is so moving and suspenseful that you don’t want to move, even for a tissue? We fully trusted Miller’s recommendation to run—not walk—to get the book.

In lyrical language and pitch-perfect dialogue, Zentner tells the story of three friends, a group of outcasts in the small, fictional southern town of Forrestville, Tennessee. The book opens as the friends begin their senior year of high school, each contemplating their next steps. Music helps Dill fight the alternating guilt and rage that result from the blame his mother places on him for his father’s term in the state penitentiary. Lydia is fiery and opinionated, having virtually escaped the confines of Forrestville with her acclaimed fashion blog; however, she struggles with her own insecurities and integrity. Reading is an escape for Travis, who deals with an abusive father, enabling mother, and the loss of his older brother.

Major themes

Over pizza at the Farmer’s Market in Nashville, Tennessee, we discussed with Zentner the universal themes in The Serpent King, such as 

  • Isolation. At the top of Zentner’s list was the feeling of being an outsider—not fitting in anywhere, as if there is a “vast, beautiful world, but none of it is for you.” Zentner said he made a conscious decision to tell the story of adolescents in a small, rural community, where “kids who were marginalized in a way.” His goal, he told us, was for the experience to be “resonant outside that specific milieu.” He said he’s surprised by how strongly young readers relate to these characters.
  • Poverty and class. Zentner addresses class divisions through Lydia, Dill, and Travis’ varying post-graduation plans. Lydia plans to attend NYU in the fall, while Dill faces pressure from his mother to stay in Forrestville and help repay his family’s debt. Here, Zentner “wanted to show how Lydia uses the privilege she has been given to lift up Dill and Travis and make their lives better.”
  • Mentall illness. Dill’s family is living in the shadow of his father—a disgraced minister who is currently imprisoned for the possession of child pornography. Zenter illustrate how mental illness has impacted Dill’s family. In a School Library Journal review, the author writes, “Zentner deals with Dill’s depression in an extremely thoughtful and positive way, providing a light and an example for younger readers who might also be struggling with this disease.”
  • Religion. Faith is a recurring theme in The Serpent King. "It was important for me to put a book out there that had an honest struggle with faith," said Zentner. "It is not something you can just walk away from, it’s a lot thornier of an issue.”  
  • Authenticity. One of the most compelling aspects of Zentner’s writing is his dialogue. When asked about his writing process, he said he lets the characters "sit in his head and have conversations with each other.” His writing shows a deep respect for young adults and a trust in their wisdom and capabilities. Zentner told us that he holds nothing back from his writing—no turns of phrase or words—because he knows his readers can handle it.

We hope Zentner will continue to not hold back—we want to hear more of his powerful stories.

Resources for classroom use

Ally Hauptman is the chair of the ILA Children's and Young Adult Book Award Committee and a professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN.  

Michelle Hasty is the chair of the ILA Children's and Young Adult Book Award Committee and a professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. 

Hauptman and Zentner will copresent a session at the ILA 2018 Conference, July 20–July 23, in Austin, TX. Zentner will discuss the writing of The Serpent King and his second novel, Goodbye Days. Be the first to know the 2018 ILA Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Awards winners, coupled with ideas from committee members for implementing these important texts in the classroom. For more information visit ilaconference.org.

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