Grade level: 7th and up
Summary: The story is about a thirteen year old boy named Pierre Anthon, who decides school is a waste of time because nothing in life matters. His classmates don’t want to believe life that is meaningless but the more he talks that way, the more they start believing him. Pierre sits in a plum tree everyday and while his classmates are walking to school, he shouts every day they walk by the tree that life does not matter. His classmates soon realize they have to prove him wrong because he is starting to sound right. They come up with a plan to form a heap of meaning that each person will contribute to, by giving up something that they declare has meaning. The items start out simple such as, books, sandals, and a bicycle but then turns to dark items like a corpse filled coffin.
- The meaning of life is different for every person
- You can’t force your opinion on others
Reflection: Janne Teller has created a dark text that ask the philosophical question, does life matter? If so then how can you prove it matters? Tellers uses children to try and answer these questions that even adults do not know the answer to. There are many characters in the book but none are fully developed into characters. The only thing we know about each of the characters is there name and what they put into the heap of meaning. Teller’s approach to leave the characters undeveloped allowed me as a reader to imagine myself as each one of them. I asked myself each time an item was put into the heap, “Would i be able to give that up?” This is a text that makes you question your life and ask what do you value the most? Teller provokes many question throughout the book but gives no answers. She leaves it up to the reader to define meaning and understand it themselves.
Possible Student Reaction: After a student reads the book, they will be full of questions that did not exist until reading this. The text will open there eyes and get them thinking outside of the box, so that they can move beyond what they already know. It will help them with the skill to always question life and don’t stop thinking about the world we live in.
Janne Teller. Nothing. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2000.
“Nothing Matters,” he announced.
“I’ve known that for a long time.
“So nothing’s worth doing.
“I just realized that.”
After asserting this, 13 year old Pierre Anthon walked out of class, leaving the narrator, Agnes, and the rest of her classmates to struggle with Pierre’s lingering words. The 7th graders initially brushed off Pierre’s nihilistic statement, yet they found it impossible to ignore for long. Every day on their way to school, the students walked by the plum tree Pierre had been perched in ever since his declaration of nothingness while he hurled challenges at what they perceived to be meaning. His shouts that, “Everything begins only to end. The moment you were born you began to die” drives Agnes and her classmates to action. They must prove to Pierre that live does indeed have meaning.
To do this, the students decide to gather everything that has meaning to them, which they then place in a pile in an abandoned sawmill. They begin with things which are innocent enough: a Beatles tape, an ivory comb, a book of hymns and a rose from a bride’s bouquet to name a few. Yet they know this won’t be enough. No – they decide that the stakes must be driven higher. As they search for things with deeper and deeper meaning, they must come to terms with questions about how far they’re willing to go in order to prove that life has meaning while still struggling with self-doubt in their own beliefs. Before long, the students find that they have no chance to object to the things that they are called to sacrifice. This ever-escalating quest to find and demonstrate meaning, in turn, drives the students to take inhumane and sociopathic actions.
This highly philosophical book engages deeply existential questions without providing answers, thus forcing the reader to engage them on their own even after they have finished the novel. The novel also looks at peer pressure through group dynamics. This is accomplished through the ever-escalating demands to sacrifice their most precious things the classmates place on each other. Ultimately, by writing Nothing, Janne Teller has created a book that takes themes found in Lord of the Flies and repackages them in a relevant, post-modern book. By using a first-person narrator, Teller is able to dialogue directly with readers through the thoughts of Agnes. This forces the reader to be introspective while engaging the novel and its challenges.
Recommendations for Teachers
Nothing is an insightful and valuable book, and it is narrated by a girl in secondary school in the Netherlands. Because of its subject matter is not deemed appropriate for audiences any younger than those in high school. While the story is keeping the readers entertained, Teller does an impeccable job of introducing students to the world of peer pressure, self -doubt and coming of age. It forces students to initiate themselves into a deeper thinking process especially over the main subject of the book; what is the meaning of life, and what is important to you? One can argue that as a parent or even a teacher, it is a good idea to present these ideas to students and have a conversation about them since many students are likely to run into at least one of these. Nothing can also be taught beside the famous book Lord of the Flies, which explores similar themes and ideas. Both explore important themes, in similar ways, therefore allowing them to be read and discussed during the same unit.
However, please be mindful of the subject matter. It does incorporate some gruesome and inappropriate scenes. It includes scenes of sexual intercourse, dismemberment, and loss of life. Needless to say, Janne Teller’s Nothing has a few difficult scenes, but the possibilities of rich discussion are endless; perfect for a high school classroom.
About Janne Teller
Janne Teller was born in Copenhagen, Denmark to Austrian and German parents. Janne gained her first degree in 1988 from the University of Copenhagen with a degree in Political Economy. After college she focused on world development by traveling and living in many underdeveloped nations in the world. Some examples of places she has been are: Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Tanzania, and Mozambique. She had a short career with the United Nations where she was able to continue her humanitarian work. In 1995, Teller became fully indulged in her writing career. Her literature includes essays, short stories, young adult novels as well as adult novels. Her debut saga Ordin’s Island (1999) was highly acclaimed and it explored major themes such as social responsibility, religious and political fanaticism. Many more of her books were published in the Netherlands years after Ordin’s Island. However, her books were censored in many countries and even banned in Scandinavia. Nothing was banned simply because of the controversy that it caused. Since then, Teller has often participated in public debate concerning the issues brought about in her book. Even though her books are constantly under the eyes of scrutiny otherwise known as critics, Teller has won numerous amount of awards for this book. American awards include: the Pritz Honor Book, the ALA Best Book for Young Adults and the Mildred L. Batchelder Honor Book. She also won the prestigious Le Prix Libbylit in 2008. According to Teller’s website, years after the book released in 2010, Nothing, had sold 200,000 copies in Germany and was released to 22 different countries world wide. Today she mostly spends her time in New York, but she also spends time in Virginia and Copenhagen.