Teacher's Dead Paperback – 3 Sep 2007
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About the Author
Benjamin Zephaniah is probably one of the most high-profile international authors writing today, with an enormous breadth of appeal, equally popular with both adults and children. Most well known for his performance poetry with a political edge for adults and ground-breaking performance poetry for children, Benjamin also has his own rap/reggae band, and has appeared on desert Island Discs. He is in constant demand internationally to perform his work: he is (he thinks) Nelson Mandela's favourite poet, and is the only Rastafarian poet to be short-listed for the Chairs of Poetry for both Oxford and Cambridge University. His previous novels for Bloomsbury are Face, Refugee Boy and Gangsta Rap. He has also edited an anthology of poems, The Bloomsbury Book of Love Poems.
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Top customer reviews
Devoid of the trappings of flowery rhetoric, Zephaniah presents a straightforward account of one boy's quest to find the truth behind a horrendous murder he witnesses in the school playground. There is a noticeable lack of adjectives and adverbs, but this only serves to distance the reader from forming pre-conceived ideas about the characters presented in the story.
Zephaniah skilfully avoids stereotypes - we are not given any detail of ethnicity or religion. He does however, allude to some common mis-representations of individuals in society (noticeably mental illness) and allows us to consider the consequences of domestic violence, broken homes and absent parents; but without judgement or amplification. The reader is simply left to follow the story as the case unravels to a surprising and totally unexpected climax and here lies the strength of Zephaniah's writing, as the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place without any change in the pace or flow of the story.
Zephaniah does not preach, moralize nor make assumptions; but neither does he miss the opportunity to drive home the importance of tackling bullying. The lead character Jackson Jones is an ordinary boy who engages in frank exchanges with his mother, openly asks questions, enters 'enemy territory' and also cries. He is not presented as a weakling, but neither is he given the kudos of a Hollywood hero. He is simply a teenager in any secondary school, in any town in the country; but what he discovers allows the reader to consider how we 'see' 'hear' and process what is presented to us as the truth.
The story is told by another pupil, Jackson Jones, who witnessed the stabbing and who has decided to look into the circumstances of the murder. This `investigation", a necessary self-therapy to deal with his confusion and emotions about what has happened, uncovers new information about the crime, about those involved and about Jackson himself. This allows readers to continually develop and refine their opinions on what happened and why. At the end there is a twist that is entirely believable.
Jackson makes contact with the teacher's widow and with the mother of one of the two boys, who is emotionally and physically isolated, and attends the trial at which both boys plead guilty. These two women and Jackson's mother present a strong female core with equivalent male characters being entirely absent.
There is are complementary stories about Jackson's bullying at school and about an unbalanced woman who claims to be Ramzi's mother, both of which link to the murder story. Like all of the main young characters, Jackson is brought up by his mother, but has a good relationship with her. Being something of a swat he is also a loner which enables him to comment from a distance on the everyday events that are swirling around him. We learn a great deal about the school, the nearby streets and the people who live there. We also realise just how many of these, be they adult or teenagers, are just hanging on in society by their fingernails. Middle-class society is nowhere to be seen.
The book has the dedication "For the truth, and the seekers of truth" and the author's focus is about not taking everything at face value and understanding that there is usually `something' behind what meets the eye. Jackson needs to know why two boys, not much different from himself, could really have come to the commit such an act. This need becomes more palpable with each page turned.
This book appears to be targeted at 12-15 year olds but is one that many adults, especially parents, should read. It uses simple vocabularies of pupil- and teacher-talk, short chapters and a brief list of main characters. Bravely, Zephaniah opens with the murder but there is little danger that readers will lose interest as they read on. This enables the story to bowl along and to engage the reader fully. While it might seem especially suitable for boys, Zephaniah introduces girl gang-members to broaden the social issues of interest.
In the course of his investigations, Jackson uncovers a number of surprising facts and the reader learns about parental relationships - not least about the nature of maternal love. Other issues addressed relate to absent fathers as role models, bullying, peer-group pressure, the need to express one's emotions (especially true for teenage boys), the media's focus on entertainment rather than truth, the family, prejudices and identity, communication and under-age alcohol abuse. All of these issues are addressed in an oblique manner and the author never adopts a `preachy' tone. As a consequence, the reader is teased into a consideration of society's role in the behaviour of young people.
The only character that I questioned was the school's headmistress, Mrs Martel, who towards the end of this short novel seems to be a little too responsive to advice and suggestions from Jackson.
Zephaniah, of Jamaican descent and raised in England, spent two years in prison as a young man. As a result his is a truly authentic voice that will resonate with many. In this book his use of language aims to communicate complex issues, but his poetic ear is never far away. At the end of a novel there is a short poem, "Now the headlines" which includes the lines "How do you like your truth?/Bite-sized in soundbites cut easy to chew,/With a talking head saying the victim's like you,/And when you've digested the horrors you've seen/You find good, you find evil, with no in-between". If some readers are introduced to Zephaniah's poetry through this book, then so much the better.
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