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In pop culture, YADA-YADA usually means "blah, blah, blah" or "more of the same." For this blog, YADA-YADA is an acronym meaning "Young Adult Discussions About Young Adult-Designed Art." Check out my summaries and reviews of teen media. Chime in and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Blog NO. 23 -- A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck

GENRE: Classic YA Lit
Title: A Day No Pigs Would Die
Author: Robert Newton Peck

Bibliographic Information:
Publisher: Random House, 1972 (original)
Re-release September 1994
ISBN13: 9780679853060
ISBN10: 0679853065
Reading Level: 5-6 grade
Interest Age Grade 6 and up
Pages 160

An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

Reader’s Annotation:
Young Robert Peck lives on a farm with his pig-butchering father and his farmwife mother—all of the Shaker faith—who believe in living life simple and honestly. Their religion makes them a bit outcast, even though they are respected, but young Robert doesn’t fit in—that is, until a baby pig changes his whole life.

Plot Summary:
Robert Peck begins the story as a twelve-year-old boy who is desperate to have something to call his own, despite the fact that he is very poor, lives during the great Depression and is a Shaker—a religious faith that believes in hard work and not having anything considered a “frill” (not necessary for survival). But Robert grows up among students who are not Shakers, and they don’t understand him, or his family’s ways. His dad is a hard-working farmer who is too poor to raise his own animals, but instead butchers pigs for a living, and often comes home smelling like the animals themselves. Mom is a quiet, hardworking farmer’s wife, who keeps the family going. Near the beginning of the story, young Robert saves a neighbor’s cow—a pregnant cow whose baby is breech and Robert literally pulls the calf out, getting hurt in the process. For his reward, the owner gave Robert a young pig that he calls Pinky. Dad agrees to allow him to raise the pig for food but Robert keeps hoping that Pinky will be “just a pet.” Many things happen throughout the year, as Robert prepares for his thirteenth birthday—the day he becomes a man. But things don’t work out so well for the family, and Robert finds he has to grow up much faster than he wanted.

Critical Evaluation:
I cried the first time I read this. And I cried again the second time—right in from of my ninth grade English class, when I read aloud to reluctant readers a part of this book that is especially sad. For a book to make me cry – and to make me do so in front of impressionable teens—the emotional arc of the story has to ring true. This book does. Slightly fiction and mostly memoir, this classic tale of Robert Newton Peck’s upbringing on a farm in Vermont during the Great Depression is sure to make even the toughest boy choke up. It is the perfect book for boys, and especially those need to be reminded on how tough life can be when you are poor, don’t fit in, and want something desperately that is a frivolous, even though your faith does not allow you to have it. I truly love this book. My students, seeing that I could be moved to tears in front of them, made them beg me NOT to stop reading. I think this is a great book for all ages—for anyone who needs to be reminded what it’s like to witness true love and respect between a father and a son. A must read, even thirty years later!

Reading level/Interest Age:
It shocks me that the publisher’s teacher site gives this book a reading level of grade 5.4 and an interest age of grades 6-8. They are out of touch. I think the subject matter is quite dark in spots and while some very smart and mature 6th graders might handle it; I think this is really a high school book in terms of content. It is an easy read to be sure, but the situations are tough, despite the fact that the hero is only 13. The characters are older for their age, certainly mature and deal with some adult situations. Not a middle school book—well, maybe 8th grade honors.

Information about the Author:
Robert Newton Peck was born in Vermont, and is writer who comes from a long line of Down East farmers. As a boy, he was raised as a Shaker—a strict religion that believed in hard work and a “no frills” philosophy. This book, which is part fiction and part memoir, utilizes his Shaker upbringing to write about the young protagonist, Robert, who starts the book as a questioning twelve-year-old, and ends up, at thirteen a man.
His own father, whom he honors in this book, was a practical man who killed pigs for a living, just like the father in his book. He was raised believing in the practical aspects of faith, in that it was only worthwhile if everything associated with it ended up better off for the belief in it. His father, who could neither read nor write, influenced Peck to learn as much as he could—in fact, he was the first person in his family to be able to do so. Peck had many odd jobs: a lumberjack, butcher, and paper millworker. During World War II, he joined the Army and upon his discharge, he received his BA from Rollins College, and later his law degree from Cornell University. He worked in the advertising industry as a jingle writer, which he left after the publication of his first book—A Day No Pigs Would Die. Today, he directs the Rollins College Writers Conference.

Curriculum Ties:
This is a great pairing with Night by Elie Wiesel, as both books are about young men profoundly influenced by their fathers, and for whom life was a struggle.

Booktalking Ideas:
It is the Great Depression, and life on a farm in rural Vermont isn’t easy—there are bullies who tease you because your father always smells like the pigs he butchers for a living, and because you are a Shaker, you never ever get a store-bought coat, and you always “make do.” But one day, you get a reward for saving your neighbor’s cow—a beautiful little pig that you hope your dad will let you keep as a pet – and not raise for dinner!

Challenge Issues:
This book has been widely challenged, and is on the ALA list for the Top 100 challenged books for its graphic depictions of real farm life, like butchering and mating. Peck only writes about nature. I find it difficult to believe that anyone would find this offensive—it is a highly tasteful book, and offers positive lessons about family relationships, and forgiveness. Perhaps some Americans have strayed too far away from their rural roots to realize that what Peck writes about it just plain natural.

Why I Included This Book:
It is a classic piece of YA literature—one of the earliest works in YA—and it is still one of the best. Heartwarming and heart wrenching—but very real and true.

Cover image courtesy of: http://www.powells.com/biblio/17-9780679853060-0

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