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Reading Group Guide to Sweetblood By Pete Hautman About the Book “… there are only two races that matter: the Living and the Undead… and with every year that passes, the numbers of the Undead grow. It is inevitable.” So says sixteen-year-old Lucy Szabo. She has a theory: Hundreds of years ago, before the discovery of insulin, slowly dying diabetics were the original “vampires.” Lucy, a diabetic herself, counts herself among the modern Undead. As Sweetblood, Lucy frequents the Transylvania room, an Internet chatroom where so-called vampires gather to discuss all things goth. But Draco, one of the other visitors to “Transylvania,” claims to be a real vampire—and Lucy’s not entirely sure he’s kidding. As Lucy becomes more involved with the goth/vampire subculture, everything in her life begins to unravel. Her grades plummet, her relationship with her parents deteriorates, and her ability to regulate her blood sugar worsens dramatically. Then she meets Draco, face-to-face, and he invites her into his strange world. Lucy realizes that she needs to make some difficult choices—if it isn’t already too late. Sweetblood is a unique “reality-based” vampire novel about a smart, troubled teen struggling to find herself in the face of a chronic, potentially deadly disease. Diabetes and Vampirism by Pete HautmanCan an ordinary human live on blood alone? When I first decided to write a vampire novel, I read everything I could find about blood drinking. Unless you happen to be a mosquito or a vampire bat, I learned, blood should be consumed in moderation. Red blood cells contain iron, and too much iron is toxic. Over time, excessive iron leads to a condition known as hemochromatosis. Most hemochromatosis sufferers have a genetic flaw that makes it hard for them to metabolize iron-it has nothing to do with their diet. But whatever the cause, hemochromatosis victims suffer from numerous health problems, including insulin-dependent diabetes. Today, diabetes is treated with insulin, a natural hormone. Insulin allows the body to metabolize carbohydrates, allowing the patient to live a normal life. But a century ago, no effective treatment existed. A century ago, diabetics died. Unable to convert carbohydrates to energy, the untreated diabetic slowly wasted away. Not a pretty way to go! The more I read, the more eerie-and familiar-the symptoms sounded: • Severe weight loss • Pale, clammy skin • Elongation of the teeth (from receding gums) • Ravenous hunger and extreme thirst • A sweet, rotten odor • Loss of hair • Sensitivity to bright light and strong odors • Confused, angry, aggressive behavior • Coma • Death I imagined what it might have been like in, say, Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages… A man is slowly dying of diabetes. As the disease destroys his body, he grows thin and deathly pale. His hair falls out, His teeth get longer, and his lips are red with blood from his bleeding gums. His behavior is erratic and deranged. E demands tremendous amounts of food and drink. Sunlight hurts his eyes. He is repelled by the strong odor of garlic. Eventually he falls into a coma. The village priest pronounces him dead, but a few hours later the man opens his eyes and climbs out of his coffin, confused and famished… A stake through the heart might seem like a good idea to the frightened villagers. What if (I asked myself) the vampire legends had their roots in the tragic demise of untreated diabetics? Right there I had my idea for a new type of vampire story. Discussion Topics • Alienation • Self-Identity • Chronic Illness (Diabetes) • Love and Friendship • Lifestyle Cross-Disciplinary ConnectionsLanguage Arts • Vampires have been appearing in fiction ever since a poem called “The Vampire,” by Heinrich August Ossenfelder, was published in Germany in 1748. Today, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of vampire books, stories, movies, and television shows are made every year. Why are vampires so popular? • Mrs. Graham reacts to Lucy’s essay by calling a meeting with Lucy’s parents. Why was she so upset? Was her reaction excessive? How would you feel if you wrote an honest, from-the-heart essay and your teacher called your parents about it? Visual Arts • Lucy’s first self-portrait portrayed her as blond, blind, and foolish-her true self-image. When Mrs. Winter rejected it (because she did not see any resemblance), Lucy covered the portrait with black paint, leaving only the whites of her eyes and two white canine teeth, showing a completely different side of herself. Activity suggestion: Draw, paint, or sculpt two or more self-portraits, each showing a different aspect of your personality. Health • Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus (IDDM), also known as Juvenile Diabetes, or Type 1 Diabetes, affects more than 1,000,000 people in the United States today. How is the disease treated? What are some of the challenges faced by people with IDDM? • Lucy’s negative, despairing attitude toward her diabetes nearly causes her death. How else do our attitudes and beliefs affect our health? Science and History • How do people use fashion to connect to other people? Does changing how you dress change who you are? Why do we have fashion, anyway? Why don’t we all just wear gray coveralls? • In ancient times, people used stories of supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes to explain how the world came to be, and how it works. We call these stories “myths.” Myths about vampires are common in many cultures, from Europe to China to South America. • What are some of the ancient myths that no one believes anymore? • What are some modern myths? What stories are we told (and expected to believe) that are not based on fact? • What is the difference between a myth and superstition? • What is the difference between myth and religion? Questions for Classroom Discussion 1. Alienation: Many people-not just teenagers-feel alienated from society. Some people feel alienated because they look different. Some people feel alienated because of physical limitations. Others are alienated for psychological reasons: shyness, uncontrolled anger, or behavioral quirks. Why does Lucy feel she is different from her classmates? Is she really that different? 2. Self-Identity: What is a sense of self? Is it something you are born with, something we are given, or something we invent? Is it possible to change who you are? If you could change your sense of self, who would you become? 3. Chronic Illness (Diabetes): A chronic illness is a disease that won’t go away. Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma are examples of chronic diseases. How does having diabetes change the way Lucy views the world? 4. Love and Friendship: You can love a friend, or be friends with a lover, but the two things are very different. At first, Lucy is just friends with Mark Murphy. She does not see him as someone to fall in love with. What makes her change the way she sees Mark? Does the way she feels about him change, or did she feel that wat all along without realizing it? 5. Lifestyle: Most of us dress and act in ways that define us as part of a group. Some of us adopt extreme looks and behaviors. Goth and “vampire” looks are among the most conspicuous and creative of these groups. What other lifestyle choices do you see in your school? How are they defined by dress and behavior? This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Pete Hautman is the author of Godless, which won the National Book Award, and many other critically acclaimed books for teens and adults, including Blank Confession, All-In, Rash, No Limit, Invisible, and Mr. Was, which was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Pete lives in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Visit him at PeteHautman.com.