Destroy All Cars

By Nancy Barile on August 16, 2010
  • 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.

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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.'"

Students Respond

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.  

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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.

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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."

Additional Resources

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. 

~ Nancy

  

Comments

Thanks for the tip, Chelsea! I thought I had read every single Blake Nelson book ever written, but I have not read that one. It's on my list now!

As a museum educator, I once worked for a museum whose mission is "to inspire children to care about and improve the world." Although I am not a classroom teacher, I love to see that students are reading books that inspire them to make a difference. If students are as instantly connected to and inspired by Blake Nelson's books as I am, they will also love "They Came from Below," another excellent book by Nelson with a heart string-tugging environmental theme. These characters become connected with their environment on a deep and intimate level, and after I finished reading, I couldn't hear a bird sing or a water faucet drip without being haunted by the awesome connection of all living things on this earth. Additionally I felt a new understanding about my own responsiblity toward maintaining a healthy planet, and it got me thinking about the little ways I can do my part. If they haven't already, your students should check this one out, too!

Thanks, Alesia - you would not have believed how much the boys "pushed back" when I first told them we were reading GIRL. Some of them didn't even want to carry the book around with them lol. But after I read the first chapter in class, they were completely hooked. The word-of-mouth on the book after that was all that was needed to keep the boys interested!

Nancy,

You mentioned how your entire classroom liked reading the book Girl. I was surprised to see how even all the boys in your classroom were interested in the book. Out of curiosity, how did you get the boys in your classroom excited and interested in reading a "girly" book?

Thank would be awesome, Jon!!

Great recommendation! It would make a great title for inclusion on our summer reading list. Or maybe as a companion piece for Walden...

Nancy, I just got this book for my niece who is in HS. Fabulous read. Thanks for sharing.

I couldn't agree with you more, Sally. Blake Nelson's YA novels are head and shoulders above some of the mindless fluff in the genre. I agree we need to give our teens more credit than that!

I have to say, as a YA Librarian, I really feel Blake Nelson-in "DESTROY ALL CARS", as well as in his other YA books-has perfectly captured the angst, frustration and passion of a young man trying to find some authenticity in himself and his peers. He brings me, and my patrons, right back to a time when what was most important was becoming who you will be, and what better, more fruitful time is there? I love his books, as do my teens, for their humor and accessibility, esp. in this time of Vampires and vapid Pop stars. Teenagers are so much more than the sum of their parts, and it's wonderfully refreshing to read an author who understands that. Thanks, Blake! Keep writing, please. We need you!

The park cleanup was one of my favorite community service projects at RHS. After we did it, I always enjoyed driving by and looking at how beautiful it looked!

Thank you, Danielle and Penny. One of the great things about Blake Nelson's books is that they appeal to both BOYS and GIRLS - sometimes it's hard to find YA books that boys like!

Read and loved the book...as did my 14 year old son. I will definitely introduce this book to his high school librarian/science department. Great post and blog!

This sounds like a great book. Working in a middle school, it is so important to be able to provide book recommendations to kids that will inspire them to become active, especially with a cause like taking care of the environment. If you can do that with a book that is relatable and funny then boy do you have a gem on your hands. Thanks for the recommendation Nancy I can't wait to read it and pass it on!

Wow, Jessica, it sounds like you're doing an amazing job with your 1st graders! And Scott, I teach AP too, and every time I read DESTROY ALL CARS, I wonder how I would have handled James' essays! Probably not as well as Mr. Cogweiller did.

Kathy, your daughter would probably really love GIRL, too. It's a little racy in spots, but a wonderful read. And thanks, Mary, for passing the blog onto your high school English department! ~ Nancy

I loved DESTROY ALL CARS, especially the parts where James tries to provoke his crusty (but wise) English teacher Mr. Cogweiller. I read an interview where the author said that relationship was based on one of his own high school teachers.

Although I teach first grade, I love how children of all ages are capable of relating to engaging literature. It's great how your students were able to relate to the story, and to James, by taking care of a small part of their city. They know that even the smallest contribution can make a difference. That's something I want to teach - even as young as six-years-old - they can make a difference.

Thanks, Nancy, I am going to send your blog link to my HS English department. They will appreciate your insight.

Can't wait to read this myself and give it to my teenage daughter, thanks for posting!!

Thank you, Michelle! Let me know how you make out!

This sounds like a great book for high school students to relate to and really get interested in! I'm going to try to get it in my own classroom library!

Hi LS--

For your future lexile needs, You can find many Lexile levels through Scholastic.com's Book Wizard link.

Here's the link for DESTROY ALL CARDS, which gives a little more info about the book, including a Book Talk.

http://bookwizard.scholastic.com/tbw/viewWorkDetail.do?workId=1303630&

Thanks for joining us! Gabrielle

Hi, LS! The lexile level for Destroy All Cars is HL610L. I highly recommend this and any Blake Nelson book - teens really love them!

I have forwarded this to all the Reading teachers I work with. It is always great to hear about a book that really engages students. Out of curiousity, do you know the lexile level of Destroy All Cars?

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