Teacher Insights- YA Book Review of Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Feel free to chime in if you read Graceling or if you’re considering reading it.

Snapshot of Max, A Teen You Might Recognize

He struggles to finish an essay on Notability this morning before school, but with help from Siri, Max doesn’t have to hear his mother say, “Look up the word in the Dictionary,” as her mother used to cajole. EasyBib.com creates his Works Cited entry for him. Whew. Done. Why do they teach this stuff anyway? He checks his “Here Comes the Bus” app and packs up as soon as his bus enters the target zone in Maps. “Bye Mom!”

Max’s classroom instruction is a mix of lecture, group discussion, and self-guided work via his iPad. When the teacher isn’t looking, he and the others sneak silly pictures of each other and filter them through face-squeezing, picture editing apps or they surf the web, all with earbuds in their ears listening to rap. It’s too bad the school filters out certain websites, but there’s always a work around and he knows the kid in the class that knows all of them. Max nonchalantly touches the screen he’s supposed to be reading when the teacher turns around and stares.

After cross country practice, Max delays doing his work on Canvas to check sales on his Ebay account. Fantastic! It looks like someone finally bid on that skateboard he got for his birthday two years ago. Now, he’ll have money for a better skateboard he wants to buy. Max then checks his stream and likes on Twitter and Instagram. Who’s the bare butt following him on Twitter? Block. He’s not one of those kids. Max takes a moment to Skype one of his 1000 Subscribers to his hobbyist YouTube account. These guys are his best friends and they live all over the country—in Michigan, North Carolina, and California. He knows the friend in California is still at school, so he leaves a note for him on a forum to be read later. He notices that an older teen who posted a YouTube video degrading an eight-year-old’s video already has twenty-five nasty comments deriding the youngster in support of the older teen. Should Max post a comment in defense of the kid being bullied or say nothing? It reminds him of his bus ride home only worse. He decides to play a few rounds of Minecraft, while munching on graham crackers and milk. Then, he opens his lap top and starts to read tonight’s homework and to watch the teacher’s instructional videos.

Does Max sound like a teenager you know? Max lives at home and virtually everywhere else.


He pulls Graceling by Kristen Cashore out of his backpack. He chose to read Graceling for his independent book project due in a couple weeks. He thought it might be cool because of the sword on the front cover and a woman’s eye staring at him. But, it’s thick and he hopes it doesn’t turn out to be a stupid girl book. The print seems big enough. He probably would have chosen another novel, but the other kids were faster to the teacher’s book shelf.

Questions to Probe in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling 

In “Young Adult Literature in the 21st Century; Moving Beyond Traditional Constraints and Conventions” Jeffrey S. Kaplan notices that “The authors of many articles say, the world of young adult literature is being transformed by topics and themes that years ago would have never been conceived” (11). His and other writers’ observations suggest new questions that critical analysis discussions might address today.


  1. Science Fiction in the Post-human Age: Do human values and human nature prevail no matter what the human body endures? (14)


  1. Stretching the Boundaries and Blurring the Lines of Young Adult Genre: Are there identifiable markers that identify a novel as a particular genre or as fiction or fact? (16)


  1. Identity: What choices have been made in the creation of today’s novels that influence how teenagers are being constructed as adolescents and how do such constructions compare with each teen’s own attempts to form his or her own identity? (16) How do young people find who they are if they live in a seemingly rootless social world? (17)


The Appeal of Fantasy to Teens

Fantasy Island was a television show that entranced viewers in the 1970s. Pay $50,000 and you too can stay on an island for three days to have your fantasy come true.

The appeal was as obvious then as it is today. Escape the chaos. Be whoever you want to be. Make your world right again. Live in a fantasy—if only until you finish the book. The danger of the fantasy novel arrives the day a parent discovers that her teenage daughter crawled out of a second-story window to sit on the roof to gaze at the sky willing that vampires exist— clearly influenced by a scene from the tween’s favorite vampire series.

If that same teenage girl had read Graceling, she instead might sign up for judo or fencing. She might kick the kickball a little harder in P.E. or stand up to a bully at the lunch table. In Graceling, the protagonist, Katsa, is gifted with the grace of killing (actually survival) and is capable of outlasting very formidable male characters on her journey to save seven kingdoms. Do any men sweep in to save Katsa? No, but she does fall in love with a man who helps her to identify and to accept who she is. She does the same for him. The relationship is balanced and equal, which is refreshing and a healthy example for both females and males.

Measuring Graceling to the Questions posed by Kaplan’s Article

Graceling does rub shoulders with post-human age literature. However, the setting, like a fantasy video game, is held in a Renaissance-like world with horses; campfires; hot baths poured by hand; and hunting with daggers or bows and arrows. Because Katsa and anyone, who has eyes with two different colors, is “graced” with an almost super-human skill, in the kingdom of Randa, where Katsa grows up, she is ostracized and feared. She does have a handful of friends, but her skill puts her at odds with most citizens. Her skill makes her valuable. Power-hungry, egotistical kings (Randa and Leck) desire to use Katsa as their thug killer. They employ psychological entrapment to try to manipulate Katsa. Through her interactions with her friends, she learns that she has the power, the will, inside voice, and the choice to be who she wants to be. She learns to accept herself. In Graceling, yes, human values and human nature prevail no matter what the human body endures.

Students will be able to recognize that this is a fantasy novel, however, the idea of embracing and developing special talents might heighten after reading the work. The novel realistically addresses mastering a temper or overcoming a stronger opponent and the fact that most girls are physically weaker than boys. Katsa makes the argument that weaker beings should therefore be trained to become stronger to defend themselves.

Asking students how and why this novel was constructed will provide insight into the lack of novels like it on the market– where a woman saves a man. Graceling was constructed to fill the void of strong and capable female characters who don’t need to be saved. Katsa evolves with help from others, but she is not saved by them. Boys will find capable men who help and are helped by Katsa. Like a journey into a video game, the paths of Katsa and Po – are explored with curiosity about what’s around the next bend.

One Teacher’s Suggestions for Using Graceling with Students

As a teacher, I wouldn’t spend instructional time on Graceling in a middle school or high school setting, however I would use it as supplementary or independent reading or to deconstruct writing with certain students or populations. I love the play of the characters, but would shy away from the descriptions of torture, romantic sex scenes, incest, sadomasochism, cutting, and animal mutilation. Sadly, these are topics that kids today are exposed to and are dealing with, but in a general classroom setting a read like this could spell trouble. I’d be very selective with the book. I think it would be an uplifting read for students who like fantasy, but have a good grip on reality; who could use a self-esteem boost; who are struggling with anger; who are the youngest in their families; who are bullied by peers or adults; who are exceptionally bright but searching for their special talents, career, or direction in life; or those who want to become better writers to learn technique from Cashore’s debut novel.

What Would Max Say?

“For my book report, I chose Graceling, by Kristin Cashore,”

Max mutters while fumbling and looking down at his notecards. It took forever for Max to get half-way through his book pick that has 471 pages. He won’t mention that, of course, because he doesn’t want to disappoint the teacher or get a bad grade. He didn’t finish the book in two weeks because he’s a slow reader and there were cross country practices, meets, and a boatload of homework given by teachers the week after NWEA testing. So, he turned to Cliff Notes to get through the rest of his report.

“My favorite characters in the book are Katsa and Raffin, but Po is cool, too.” He does like Katsa. She’s strong and able to waste entire armies. She reminds him of a few girls on his school’s soccer team. He’d like to meet a girl like that, but not get into a fight with her. He could relate to Katsa. Because of Max’s strength– compared to his little brother’s—his dad told Max to defend his little brother if other boys teased. Once he shoved a kid to the ground for taking his little brother’s books.

“Giddon, a noble, likes Katsa but she doesn’t want to get married. She has a bad temper about it.” He could relate to a girl with a bad temper. Sometimes Max’s older sister was crabby like that and would throw a punch when their parents weren’t looking.

“Katsa and Po fall in love, though Katsa doesn’t want to get married.” Max can’t understand why Katsa wouldn’t want to marry a guy like Po. If she doesn’t want to marry someone who is strong, handsome, kind, and smart then who would she want to marry? Girls are so confusing. He wouldn’t want to fall for a girl who’d push him away. He wouldn’t act like Po. He’d probably find a different girl, though if he really thought the girl was cool, maybe he’d stick around. Maybe. Typical girl story…

“This is a fantasy book. What I would change is to make Raffin heal Po’s eyes in the end. I liked the book and would recommend it…especially to girls.” <Class laughter> He bobs his head and fist pumps as he sits down.

“Did I get a good grade?”

Of course, not every teenage boy or girl will see Graceling this way. Setting up students with plenty of time to read the entire book, thoughtful focus questions, and subsequent discussions will make the read more meaningful.



Works Cited


Cashore, Kristin, Jeffery C. Mathison, and Cathy Riggs. Graceling. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2008. Print.


Kaplan, Jeffrey. “The Research Connection- Young Adult Literature in the 21st Century: Moving Beyond

Traditional Constraints and Conventions.” The ALAN Review ALAN 32.2 (2005): n. pag. The Alan

Review. The Alan Review, Winter 2005. Web. 26 Aug. 2016.



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Filed under Education Strategy, Women Writers, YA Book Reviews & Teacher Insights

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