Little Brother


“I can’t go underground for a year, ten years, my whole life, waiting for freedom to be handed to me. Freedom is something you have to take for yourself.” – Marcus Yallow

As a teacher, I see the current teen culture close up on a daily basis, like an anthropologist studying an aboriginal tribe in the middle of South America. One of the things that I keep seeing, in my daily excursion into the deep dense jungle that is middle school, is a strong sense of apathy, of laziness, a real sense of kids thinking “Who cares?”. This is a problem because these teens are being trained to accept the world around them without analysis, without skepticism. They hear that their clothes come from a sweatshop in Indonesia, oh well…They see that the chicken they eat is injected with so many hormones that they can’t even walk like normal animals and they say, oh I love them with honey mustard…or they find out that the government is tapping their phones and logging their search histories online and they just shrug and say, I don’t care if they know what I look at. The world around them slowly drifts closer and closer to a Orwellian society and, because of their malaise, they just look up from their screens with a blank stare and continue texting their friends. Social activism is dying and the world of rebellion, the world of sit-ins and protests is falling by the way side. So when I find a book like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a book about social activism, a book about standing up for your freedom in the face of an unjust government, I don’t put that book down easily.

Marcus Yallow and his friends are a group tech savvy gamers who chose to skip school on the wrong day. A terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco leads to them being captured and detained by the Department of Homeland Security. Marcus refuses to cooperate with the DHS and so they decide to inflict him to prison intimidation tactics to get information from him, as they think he may know something about the terrorist attacks. Once he is finally released, Marcus is so infuriated that he becomes hell-bent on getting revenge on the DHS for treating him so unfairly and for not releasing his best friend, Darryl, who had been stabbed just before they were picked up by the DHS.

The story revolves around the theme of social activism as Marcus begins a cyber-guerrilla war against the DHS and the security checkpoints they begin installing throughout the city. He begins an online movement through a protected internet called XNet, where he teaches other teens how to scramble DHS trackers, protect their information, and generally make life for the DHS harder. Doctorow shows the dangers of social activism under a police state, but also the reward of knowing your beliefs and fighting for you right to speak your mind and be free. Marcus ends up butting heads with police, with his vice principal, and with the DHS on numerous occasions, as he fights to maintain his freedom in a city with an ever-growing police presence.

The book also has a lot of computer tech references that sometimes bog down the prose for a less than tech savvy plebeian like myself. The book is also set in the very near future and references some technology that I have never heard of, so I assumed it was fictitious, which was also slightly confusing. Marcus spews computer hacking terms and encryption techniques like he is teaching a class on computer science, which I found to draw me out of the narrative. But for a student that is into coding, this jargon may be exactly what will keep them hooked in the story.

I definitely enjoyed Little Brother, and there were moments where I struggled to put the book down. The story was very engaging and I often found myself needing to know what happened next when Doctorow left me with a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter. But it is a thick book, which may scare away some students who are interested in technology and computer sciences, but are not avid readers. I would use this as part of a lit circle, but I would recommend using it with grade 9 or higher, as there is some language and sexual content in the story. I would pair this book with Rae Mariz’s The Unidentified, Feed by M.T. Anderson, or James Dashner’s The Eye of Minds, as they all deal with a tech world and the fight against an oppressive system and the activism it takes to rid yourself of their control. Little Brother is a fantastic story for lovers of computer science, social activism, or just plain bringing down the man.


A Long Way Gone

A Long Way Gone

“When I was young, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’ I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going. Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.” – Ishmael Beah

One of the most frustrating things about being a teacher in North America is the amount of entitlement I see in my students on a daily basis. I see it in the uproar they create when I confiscate their phones, the malaise they show when they are reprimanded for handing an item in late, or the outright expectation that in the end their work ethic, or lack thereof, will not affect whether or not they are successful at completing school. As both a Social Studies and English teacher, I like to challenge my students’ world view and prod at the comfortable little bubble they reside in. Ishmael Beah’s book, A Long Way Gone, is an extremely effective tool in bursting the comfortable bubble that some students live in. Beah’s book is a powerful memoir of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, the struggle to survive the civil war and avoid capture, the internal battle over remorse when performing his “military duties”, and the recovery process he underwent to become normalized again. It is heart wrenching, and eye opening. It gives a very personal glimpse into what is going on outside of this sheltered continent called North America.

It is a fantastic bubble-burster because students read the book and see first-hand the struggles that people in the developing world must endure. The book highlights the resiliency of children to overcome great odds when faced with challenges, and shows that the grit we try to instill in them is not a lost cause, but training for the challenges they will face in life. This is not to say that our students will endure similar hardships to Ishmael, but that perhaps they will face those challenges with more optimism and a stronger work ethic, because, if a boy like Ishmael can overcome what life threw in his path, should not any human be able to take on the problems they may face with courage?

The theme that was impressed upon me the most while reading Beah’s story was the brittle nature of humanity. Early in the story, Ishmael’s innocence is taken from him because of turmoil in his country. Instead of enjoying his adolescences, he is forced to run for his life, lose contact with family members, and generally have his life turned upside down.  Once he is picked up by the government’s army at the age of 13, he is forced to commit terrible acts and his humanity increases to deteriorate. His life in the army breaks him down, and once he is rescued, it takes significant help to try and fix what his experiences ruined. A Long Way Gone highlights the tenuousness of our humanity and how extreme situations can debase it and cause us to succumb to our baser instincts. It is even more powerful because it is not some fictional interpretation of the story, but Beah’s actual account of events he had to endure.

With so much to be able to dig into, I would highly recommend this book to be used for Lit Circles. It will give students so many things to think critically about, challenge their world view, and force them to dig into a wolrd outside of their comfort zone. The prose is not overly challenging, although the content can be fairly sad and brutal, so I would say this is a book for grade 10 and up. Much like my last review, World War Z, one of the strongest themes in A Long Way Gone is humanity and the human reaction to challenge. I would pair this book with Max Brooks’ World War Z or Pat Barker’s Regeneration, as they again all deal with the issues of seeing horrors first-hand, and the brokenness of war, or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner because of the brokenness of childhood and the recovery process involved. A Long Way Gone is a brokenly fantastic story of overcoming extreme hardships, and the resiliency of humanity.