On Friday March 26, Princeton Day School welcomed renowned author Madeline Miller for a virtual session to discuss her book, Circe, which has been the focus for the past 10 weeks of the elective Senior Reading Intensive course. The Senior Reading Intensive brings course participants together for close reading, engaged seminar discussion, personal response and critical writing, capped off with a discussion and a Q&A session in which seniors can engage directly with the author to answer questions and reflect on the book.
"We work to identify literary works that will engage seniors and that will provide 'food for thought' as they end their PDS careers and prepare for the next stages of their education," said English Department Head Karen Latham, who began offering the course in 2018.
Latham, in partnership with US English teacher Jessica Manners, coordinated Miller's visit with funding from the Lively Arts program.
"This year, Madeline Miller's Circe was an easy choice, given the novel's content, a strong female narrative voice and the many themes it addresses, such as family, coming of age, owning who you are, being an outlier and a survivor, being human and more," Latham added.
Circe tells the story of the novel's eponymous nymph, daughter of Helios, who appears in Book 10 of The Odyssey. Miller brings Circe to life, imagining her challenges and her triumphs while retelling her story with a strong female narrative voice.
"Our goal was for students to learn about Miller's writing process, the research she did and the decisions she made to develop Circe as she does. Circe's character undergoes significant change throughout the novel, changes that are far more interesting and impactful than the character who is presented by Homer, and in other Greek tales," Latham noted.
"We wanted students to discover how Miller came to develop such a unique, strong, and engaging female. Of course, it is also important for students to learn about the hard work involved with writing – be it a novel or even the essays they draft. She spoke directly to that," Latham continued.
Manners and Latham helped students prepare for Miller's virtual visit in a way that encouraged equitable participation. "We wanted to make sure that our students would feel engaged with the talk, so everyone prepared questions and we had one volunteer representative from each section ask Miller something that reflected their own and their peers' interest," Manners shared.
"There's something thrilling about being able to test your theories about a text on the author herself. Our students thought deeply about the novel, its themes and its characters. To have the chance to actually engage the creator of the text about those thoughts is a unique opportunity," Manners remarked.
"Miller was generous, knowledgeable, and fully engaging. We were all mesmerized by her story and her willingness to share. Students were impressed with how she was able to take something she studied in school – the Classics – and turn that into a career in creative writing," Latham said.
"Miller took our students' questions seriously; whether they were asking her about her inspiration and her process, or her specific characters. She gave thoughtful, thorough, fascinating answers to everything. I think the students really appreciated having the chance to hear from someone who was both clearly brilliant and in love with what she does. As they start to think about their own odysseys, she gave them a glimpse of just how rewarding it can be to pursue a passion!" Manners concluded.
Read a previous news story on the first Senior Reading Intensive author visit to PDS, Yaa Gyasi.
Photo: Madeline Miller with "Circe" cover art (photo by Nina Subin)