Roy Edward Jackson holds degrees in Education, English, and Library Science. He has worked in public education in a variety of roles for over two decades. Currently, he is working on doctoral research concerning the rise in LGBTQIA+ book challenges in school libraries. He resides in Pennsylvania with his husband and menagerie of pets.
Erinn Bentley is a professor of English education at Columbus State University. When not mentoring her pre-service teachers, she enjoys leading students on study abroad programs and traveling with her family.
Contemporary Takes on Star-Crossed Lovers by Roy Edward Jackson and Erinn Bentley
Romeo and Juliet premiered over 425 years ago. For many readers, it is the first, and sometimes only, experience with Shakespeare. It may feel like a binary experience for teachers regarding students' responses to it; students seem to either love or hate the text. However, that love/hate response may not be as content driven it may seem. It could be more about access to the language and structure which can feel obscure and difficult for young readers. As teachers, we often incentivize our students to finish the text with promises of movie and book adaptations. This may be the wrong approach from many young readers. What often happens is after trudging through the text, with its difficult language, the a-ha moments come through in the adaptations. Oh, I get it now, that’s what that was about. There is something special about Romeo and Juliet that tugs at young readers with themes that are meaningful to them. Themes of love, class structure, duality, and fate. These themes resonate today 425+ years later. These themes are timeless and never tiresome. Perhaps though, the incentives that are offered after the reading may be better suited by reversing the timing. Reading, and watching, updated adaptations first gives the access point for readers to enjoy, and not trudge, through the original text. Three books are fantastic access entry points into one of Shakespeare’s most often taught plays in our schools. They are Romiette and Julio by Sharon M. Draper, If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson, and Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackmore.
Set in an alternative historical reality, Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackmon tells the story of two star-crossed lovers through their alternating points of view. Persephone (Sephy) and Callum reside in England in the early 2000s; however, this England is split by class and race: Crosses (dark-skinned people) are the ruling class and control the noughts (light-skinned people). Sephy (a Cross) is the daughter of a wealthy and powerful politician and Callum (a nought) is the son of Sephy’s nanny. They are best friends until Sephy’s mother fires Callum’s mother, forcing the teens to keep their ongoing relationship a secret. When Heathcroft, a Cross secondary school, allows a select number of noughts to attend, Sephy is thrilled to be reunited with Callum. Both, though, quickly realize that no one accepts their friendship. As Callum’s family becomes increasingly angered by the Crosses’ unjust governance, his father (Ryan) and older brother (Jude) join the LIberation Militia (LM) and are accused of bombing a local shopping center. Things disintegrate quickly for Callum’s family, as his older sister commits suicide, his father is arrested and imprisoned, Jude goes into hiding, and Callum is expelled from Heathcroft.
In typical star-crossed lovers fashion, a series of miscommunications leads to the couple’s separation, leaving Sephy to attend a boarding school and Callum to join the LM. When united years later under unusual circumstances, they resume their short-lived romance before Callum is forced to go back into hiding. Soon, Sephy discovers she is pregnant. Once this news is made public, Callum meets her for a midnight tryst, is discovered and arrested. Sephy’s father then presents both lovers with a heart-wrenching decision, ultimately sealing their fates.
The similarities to Romeo & Juliet are numerous, and this novel would pair well with the play or as an alternative reading. That being said, Noughts and Crosses also stands on its own as a literary text. Considering Britain’s colonial past, reimagining people of color as the more powerful race allows readers a unique perspective to examine racism. The Jim Crow-like laws, segregated schools, biased justice system, and hate-filled epithets in the novel, sadly, can be compared to current events here and around the world. The novel also offers quieter moments for readers to consider. For example, when a nought is injured at Heathcroft, Sephie is told, “‘They don’t sell pink Band-Aids. Only dark brown ones.’” Sephy admits, “I’d never really thought about it before, but she was right…Band-Aids were the color of us Crosses, not the noughts.” In Sephy’s world, the Crosses erased noughts by ensuring every television advertisement, magazine model, and first-aid bandage only matched their skin - much like our own country’s past and current history.
In addition to providing provocative themes and text-to-world connections, Noughts and Crosses offers characters who are flawed and realistic. Often in YA novels, the teenage protagonists are portrayed as heroes who are wise beyond their years. Sephy, on the other hand, is spoiled, immature, and naive through much of the first half of the novel, which is actually typical behavior for a 14-year-old child who has lived in a privileged, protected space. Callum is moody, impetuous, and stubborn - again, traits of a real teenager. Both characters disappoint their families, themselves, and each other, which I believe makes them more relatable and makes their relationship more poignant. While at the beginning of the novel they both dreamily imagine running off together, they adopt a mature and realistic view in their final moments together. Unfortunately, this realization comes too late, and readers are left wondering over the many decisions these characters made, and if they would have chosen differently. This novel is certain to spark impassioned discussions among student-readers.
Whether paired with the original Romeo and Juliet or read as an alternative text, these 3 novels offer unique opportunities for students to grapple with the universal themes of unrequited love, loyalty to family or friends, and the struggles associated with coming-of-age. We highly recommend adopting these novels in your classroom.