What’s In a Name
by Ellen Wittlinger
About the book:
As if the students of Scrub Harbor High don’t have enough to worry about: Christine is quickly losing her friend Georgie to Ricardo; Nelson can’t connect with Shaquanda; Adam’s role as the new kid is tougher than he thought; and O’Neill’s controversial poem has electrified the school while making life unbearable for his football-star brother, Quincy. In ten interlocking stories, Ellen Wittlinger addresses the rarely discussed issues of class and identity that inform so much of teenage life. What’s in a Name is a bold report from the cutting edge of teenage concerns.
About the guide:
This guide includes discussion questions and projects appropriate for book clubs, literature circles, and classroom discussions. It is intended to provoke thought and insight into the themes of this novel which include identity, friendship, romantic relationships, peer pressure, and class and race issues.
- Why did you decide to write the novel in several voices?
Writing in ten different voices was actually the inspiration for the book. I wanted to look at one situation from many different points of view, and also look at how the students’ perceptions of each other might change over time.
- The awkward, realistic dialogue between teens is always pitch perfect. Do they come out that way?
Voices come easily to me–I just hear them. I’ve always been able to write dialogue–it’s one of my few gifts. I wrote plays for several years when I was younger and I think that honed the ability too.
- Did you do a great deal of pre-writing for this book? How did you develop such distinct characters?
I did write a few notes on who each character was and how they might change during the story. But I don’t do a lot of pre-writing. I find the characters come to life more easily if I just let them evolve naturally.
- What inspired the central conflict in the book?
I took the story of the Scrub Harbor/Folly Bay conflict from the real life drama of a small city near where I used to live. Lynn, Massachusetts, an old industrial center now fallen on hard times, had been known as “Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin,” for years, and a group of people put forward a referendum to change the city’s name to Ocean Park. They failed because the old Lynners didn’t want to lose the identity of the place they’d grown up. It seemed to me this made a perfect background for a story about teenagers who are searching for the truth of their own identities.
- Who would you be friends with from the novel? Why?
I would be friends with Georgie, and I would have a crush on O’Neill. Which is to say, Christine is my alter ego here. I always liked the unusual kids–they were the most interesting to me. I guess they still are.
- Describe Georgie. Why do you think she acts the way she does? Do you think she’s right about the way her mom feels about her? Is she a reliable narrator?
- Do you think it would be hard to live in such a wealthy community? Do you think people are divided in this country more by race or economics? Why? Support your answer.
- Why doesn’t O’Neill have any real friends? Why is his brother so much more popular? What is he thinking about revealing?
- Do you think O’Neill should have told his family first? Why or why not? What do you think of the way Quincy handles the public announcement? What did you think of O’Neill’s speech at the support meeting?
- Compare Ricardo’s life in America with the one he left in Brazil. Would you like to be an exchange student after reading Ricardo’s chapter? What do you think would be the most difficult part of living where you are only learning the language?
- Why do you think Christine and Georgie are friends? What does Ricardo think of each of them? How do their friendships change over the course of the novel? Do all friendships change? Why or why not?
- Everyone thinks Nadia is a mouse except Adam. Why? What does Nadia mean when she says, “…I don’t know where to buy a new personality.” Why does she think she needs one? Do all teenagers feel this way sometimes?
- Why do things get so tense between Nelson and Shaquanda? With whom do you agree? Why? Why does Shaquanda say “I think we’ll be who we are by then” (p. 87) What do you think she means?
- Why does Shaquanda talk so hard it sometimes scare people? What does Shaquanda have to do each day just to get to Scrub Harbor High? Would you be willing to do this?
- Adam and Gretchen discuss the disadvantages of being popular. Do you agree with them? Will it change how they behave in college? Adam says, “Maybe we’re only who other people think we are.” (p. 103) Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
- Do you think Quincy and Gretchen will break up? Why? How do Quincy’s parents start treating him differently? Would this make you angry if you were him? How would you feel in his shoes?
- How does Gretchen change over the course of the novel? Is she someone you’d want to be friends with? Why or why not? Who has the most influence over her? Do you think she will allow that to continue? Would you?
- What does it mean to be a Scrub or a Folly? Why do you think the students felt the need to choose sides? What did the issue mean to them? If you lived there whose side would you be on? Why?
- Did you think any of the characters were stereotypes? As you learned more about them, did that change? Do your feelings about real people also change as you get to know them? Did any of the characters change their opinions about others during the course of the book? What can make you change your mind about someone?
- Whose chapter did you like the best? Who would you be most likely to be friends with? Who, if anyone, would you like to date? Did you dislike any of the characters? Who? Why? How do readers get to know characters?
Fill out the chart on character below.
Fill out the character chart below as you read the novel. Use page numbers to reference your findings.
|Character||Quote from them||Description||Folly or Scrub and why||Prediction for future|
Research tuition costs for four different colleges that might interest you. What are the expenses for room and board? How much do books average each semester? Compare these costs with the average salary you’re likely to be paid in the field you want to enter. How many years will it take you to earn back the investment? Turn in the hard numbers, any data gleaned from websites or publications, and a brief journal about what you learned.
Create a piece of art through the eyes of one of these characters. Explain in a brief paragraph on the back why you picked the media and subject that you did.
Create a soundtrack for the film release of What’s In a Name.
Research the story of a town’s name. It could be a local place, where you were born or where your family was originally from. Find out how it got its name and whether it has ever been changed.
This guide was created by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, a reading specialist and author of the poetry book Sketches from a Spy Tree. Visit her website and find other guides to YA literature.