Today is actor Robert Sean Leonard‘s birthday. Although Leonard turns 45 today and may now be best recognized as the somewhat-saner colleague of Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House, in his younger days he starred in two great teen-rebel films: Dead Poets Society and Swing Kids. While the films are quite different from one another, they both feature Leonard as a character who is questioning the authorities around him, and whose rebellion has tragic consequences. Celebrate Leonard’s birthday by picking up one of these classics to watch with your friends… and maybe a book to read afterwards.
Dead Poets Society (1989): Here, Leonard plays Neil Perry, one of a group of students at an elite prep school, with Robin Williams starring as Perry’s eccentric English teacher John Keating. Keating tries to teach his students to break away from traditional ideas about learning and poetry, and his students, Perry among them, are inspired to revive the “Dead Poets Society,” a secret poetry club that meets off-campus. Keating’s lessons change the lives of his students, but in the case of Leonard’s character, the consequences are tragic.
Some books to pair with Dead Poets Society:
Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers: Like the fictional John Keating, real teacher Erin Gruwell approached her students with unorthodox teaching methods, choosing to teaching them about tolerance through the lens of the Holocaust and challenging them to keep diaries of their own experiences. This book uses excerpts from the students’ own journals to tell their story.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: Walt Whitman is the poet that Keating seems to admire most, and this famous collection includes such poems as the oft-quoted “O, Captain! My Captain!”
Matched by Ally Condie (2011 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults): Although not a teacher-and-students story, Matched includes themes of non-conformity and the power of poetry that play such an important role in Dead Poets Society.
If you’re interested in a more critical take on the film, check out this recent article from The Atlantic.
Swing Kids (1993): This film takes place in Hamburg, Germany during the Nazi rise to power, and stars Leonard and Christian Bale as two “swing kids,” teenagers who rebelled against the Nazis by listening to banned swing music in secret. Swing Kids is interesting because it shows some of the moral and everyday struggles faced by Germans who weren’t being actively persecuted, as well as glimpses of those who were. And while it’s a serious film, the dance and music sequences are just plain fun.
Some books to pair with Swing Kids:
The Berlin Boxing Club by Rob Sharenow (2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults, 2014 Popular Paperback for Young Adults): Sharenow weaves a fictional story about real-life boxer Max Schmeling and a young, secular, Jewish pupil Karl Stern in Nazi Berlin. Karl decides to learn to box after getting repeatedly beaten up for being a Jew, and Schmeling is willing to help him in exchange for a painting from his family’s gallery. Their friendship becomes more complex as the Nazis gain power.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2007 Printz Award Honor Book, 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults, 2007 Best Books for Young Adults, 2009 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, Ultimate Teen Bookshelf): If you haven’t read this award-winning story narrated by Death, here’s another excuse to do so!
The Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgel: This is an older book (1978), but it gives an interesting picture of the Nazi rise in Vienna, Austria. Inge, who’s Jewish, and Lieselotte, whose parents are Nazis, try to maintain a friendship despite growing difficulties. Like the young men in Swing Kids, Lieselotte does find friends and a certain appeal to the Hitler Youth activities despite being opposed the the Nazi ideology…another example of why the Hitler Youth organization was so effective.
Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (2006 Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults): A nonfiction exploration of the Hitler Youth organization and its role in Hitler’s Germany. Bartoletti makes powerful use of photographs and gives an overview of the Hitler Youth movement through varied individual stories of Hitler Youth members.
-Libby Gorman, currently listening to Plague in the Mirror by Deborah Noyes