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How a Friendly Writing Contest Resulted in Three Literary Classics

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These days, damp, rainy spells usually inspire us to curl up on the couch and watch an American Pickers marathon (tell me that's not just me). But back in 1816 - also known as "The Year Without a Summer" - the results were much different.
The summer was rainy and abnormal because India's Indonesia's Mount Tambora ("Pompeii of the east") had recently erupted, creating a volcanic winter.

Lord Byron and writer John William Polidori were staying at a villa near Lake Geneva when Claire Clairmont (Mary Shelley's stepsister) and Percy and Mary Shelley dropped by to visit for a few days. Their plans were dampened by the strange summer, so to keep themselves amused, they took turns reading ghost stories to each other, including a book of German stories translated into French called Fantasmagoriana.

As I suppose might happen when you get a group of bored writers together, they came up with a challenge to write their own works in a similar vein. The result? The beginnings of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Polidori's The Vampyre (largely thought to be the start of the entire genre - you're welcome, Stephenie Meyer) and Byron's poem "The Darkness."

It didn't come easy, mind you. Mary once wrote,

"I thought and pondered - vainly. I felt that blank incapacity of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. 'Have you thought of a story?' I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative."

Byron didn't fare much better, at first - he started and stopped a story about a dying man who swears to come back after death to visit his friend. Polidori picked up this fragment and ended up turning it into The Vampyre. The piece Byron did run with - "The Darkness" - has a definite apocalyptic taste to it and was obviously inspired by the summer's events, which some people took to be the end of the world. Of course, Byron's recent divorce probably wasn't helping his mood, either, nor the fact that his houseguest, Claire Clairmont, was carrying a daughter he didn't want (she was born in January of the following year).

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Kyle Ely
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Dedicated Middle School Teacher Transforms His Classroom Into Hogwarts
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Kyle Ely

It would be hard to dread back-to-school season with Kyle Ely as your teacher. As ABC News reports, the instructor brought a piece of Hogwarts to Evergreen Middle School in Hillsboro, Oregon by plastering his classroom with Harry Potter-themed decor.

The journey into the school's makeshift wizarding world started at his door, which was decorated with red brick wall paper and a "Platform 9 3/4" sign above the entrance. Inside, students found a convincing Hogwarts classroom complete with floating candles, a sorting hat, owl statues, and house crests. He even managed to recreate the starry night sky effect of the school’s Great Hall by covering the ceiling with black garbage bags and splattering them with white paint.

The whole project cost the teacher around $300 to $400 and took him 70 hours to build. As a long-time Harry Potter fan, he said that being able to share his love of the book series with his students made it all pay off it. He wrote in a Facebook post, "Seeing their faces light up made all the time and effort put into this totally worth it."

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Though wildly creative, the Hogwarts-themed classroom at Evergreen Middle School isn't the first of its kind. Back in 2015, a middle school teacher in Oklahoma City outfitted her classroom with a potions station and a stuffed version of Fluffy to make the new school year a little more magical. Here are some more unique classroom themes teachers have used to transport their kids without leaving school.

[h/t ABC News]

Images courtesy of Kyle Ely.

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How the Rise of Paperback Books Turned To Kill a Mockingbird Into a Literary Classic
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If you went to middle or high school in the U.S. in the last few decades, chances are you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's now-classic novel (which was adapted into a now-classic film) about racial injustice in the South. Even if you grew up far-removed from Jim Crow laws, you probably still understand its significance; in 2006, British librarians voted it the one book every adult should read before they die. And yet the novel, while considered an instant success, wasn’t always destined for its immense fame, as we learned from the Vox video series Overrated. In fact, its status in the American literary canon has a lot to do with the format in which it was printed.

To Kill a Mockingbird came out in paperback at a time when literary houses were just starting to invest in the format. After its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed favorably in The New York Times, but it wasn’t the bestselling novel that year. It was the evolution of paperbacks that helped put it into more hands.

Prior to the 1960s, paperbacks were often kind of trashy, and when literary novels were published in the format, they still featured what Vox calls “sexy covers,” like a softcover edition of The Great Gatsby that featured a shirtless Jay Gatsby on the cover. According to a 1961 article in The New York Times, back in the 1950s, paperbacks were described as “a showcase for the ‘three S’s—sex, sadism, and the smoking gun.’” But then, paperbacks came to schools.

The mass-market paperback for To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1962. It was cheap, but had stellar credentials, which appealed to teachers. It was a popular, well-reviewed book that earned Lee the Pulitzer Prize. Suddenly, it was in virtually every school and, even half a century later, it still is.

Learn the whole story in the video below from Vox.

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