Destroy All Cars
- Grades: 9–12
As an English teacher, it has been my goal to help my students find the joy in reading for pleasure. For that reason, my classroom library is stacked with young adult literature with which I know students will connect.
I have always been a huge fan of author Blake Nelson. His book, Girl (see photo above, "Boys Reading Girl"), took me back to the days of my own teenage angst. To this day, I cannot fully comprehend how Nelson was able to capture the voice of a teenage girl so accurately and brilliantly. That book flew off the shelves in my classroom and became a class favorite. In fact, many Blake Nelson books, including Paranoid Park, The New Rules of High School, and Rock Star, Superstar, are extremely popular with my students.
Destroy All Cars
Destroy All Cars came out last year, and I knew right away that my students would love it. It is hysterically, laugh-out-loud funny. Despite the fact that protagonist James Hoff lives and breathes the suburbs, I felt my urban school students could relate to his feelings about school, the opposite sex, and — especially — the environment. In fact, I hoped that James' rantings and ravings might get my students interested in making a difference in their own neighborhood. And it did.
Destroy all Cars is written in a way that appeals to teenagers: there are copies of AP essays, dramatic dialogue, and references to Facebook, difficult parents, high school cliques, and teenage hypocrisy. One thing I've always enjoyed about Blake Nelson's protagonists is that they are smart. They might grapple with the agony of high school, but they are not typically vacant and vapid like the characters in some young adult literature. And James is no exception.
James rails against American consumerism and materialism, scorning gas-guzzling SUVs, mall culture, and conspicuous consumption. He despises the materialism that says if you own a certain object or article of clothing, you will be cool. He makes an excellent point when he says, "This is the typical fallacy on which all CONSUMER AMERICA is based. Some piece of useless crap will make people like you."
James identifies more with Karl Marx than he does the sports and rock icons of his generation. As idealistic as he is, however, he is still a teenager, one who lists the "GOALS I WOULD LIKE TO ACHIEVE THIS YEAR" as "(1) Overthrow petroleum-based world economic order; and (2) Have sex."
It is James' love of his ex-girlfriend, Sadie, that causes him the most distress. While James hopes to destroy all cars, Sadie is an activist who is more inclined to act locally. Her canned food drives upset James, who sees them as a band-aid solution: "'So we give cans of food to people,' I said. "What does that solve?' 'It solves the problem of what they are going to eat that night,' she said, her eyes locking onto mine.'"
Despite James' idealism, he makes valid points about American culture that resonate with my students. We get it that we can't stop global warming by recycling a few soda cans, but we can brighten up the beleaguered earth a little bit. Each year our Culture Club cleans up, digs up, and plants flowers in a small island bus stop area in our city. It's not leading the revolution that James wants, but it is something. We take a dirty, ugly eyesore that has been ravaged by humans, and we turn it back into the beautiful, flowering piece of nature it once was.
My urban school students have a great deal of fun transforming this tiny piece of green in the city. They enjoy getting their hands into the earth and becoming what I call "men and women of the soil." It is fun to watch this blighted little bus stop blossom into a pretty, vibrant respite for harried travelers. My students know that their contribution, however small, has made a difference.
At the end of the day, my city kids can look around and echo the same sentiments about nature that James does: "No matter what we do, Nature remains our protector. Even as we ignore it, contaminate it, destroy it, Nature offers us sympathy and love. It comforts us in our darkest hour. We do not deserve this. And still it is offered."
For more insights on Destroy All Cars, read a booktalk by librarian Joni Richards Bodart. You can find additional books that share these themes and/or attributes using Scholastic's BookAlike. I've also posted a booklist of some essential books, "Don't Graduate Without Reading These Books!" that may also be of help. And don't forget to share your own recommendations below.