Welcome the story-tellers

After a gap of 2+ years, it’s time to get this thing rolling again.

Lizzie Ross

A new year, a new chance to tell you about books you might love. Today, a set of three books that weave folktales and myths into the journeys of three children and their fellow travelers.

Grace Lin, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (2009), Starry River of the Sky (2012), and When the Sea Turned to Silver (2016).

Writer-illustrator Grace Lin grew up in upstate New York, where she and her two sisters were the only Chinese children in her school. Living in this cultural desert was difficult, and Lin admits to having been ashamed of her ethnic heritage. Her mother gave her books of Chinese folktales to read, and it’s Lin’s retellings of those tales that shape these three companion novels. Embedded in the books are also tidbits of Chinese culture: food, beliefs, values, clothing, village and family life. It’s easy to see that Lin is finding a way to…

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The Watsons Go To Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Watsons Go To Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis, is a story about a family going through the good and the bad together. A true coming of age story, it also offers a view into the historical events going on in the country at the time (Civil Rights Movement). The characters are identifiable, and their experiences relatable to middle schoolers all over the world. Kenny, the protagonist, experiences bullying, friendship troubles, learns how to share and be compassionate, learns right from wrong, and the importance of family, through his experiences with his brother Byron, who is a notorious bully. It is because of Byron, that the family decides to travel to Birmingham to drop him off to stay with his grandmother for the summer. The grandmother is considered super strict, and the father believes that this experience will whip Byron into shape. They travel from the extremely cold Michigan to Alabama. When they are there Byron’s act changes, but that is not the most important thing that occurs; while at church Kenny is a firsthand witness to the bombing at the church, killing four girls. This experience changes Kenny and forces him to grow up. He no longer wants to play with toys, or hang out with his friend Rufus. He has witnessed an unfortunate reality of his life, and this has cased him to lose some of his childhood innocence.

What is great about this book are the characters. They are so well described they seem animated. I could see the events they experienced as I was reading. They are written realistically, but also humorous at times, making the story a better read. Of course, it is important to note the historical relevance of the Watsons going to Birmingham. Like Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, this book can easily be taught in correlation with a social studies curriculum. But I would also use the text for a character study and analysis. The characters in the story are always acting in result of a certain motivation; Kenny doesn’t want to be bullied and so ignores Rufus initially, Byron doesn’t want to be in trouble and begins to clean up his act, the father doesn’t want his son to be a delinquent and so decides to take the whole family to Birmingham. An activity that I would incorporate is a “Body Biography” where the students would be able to choose a character from the story, and map out his traits and experiences on a drawing of a body, representing the character. It a way to engage students of all learning styles, and gives the students the opportunity to truly understand character motivation.


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is a beautifully written memoir. Woodson writes her story in verse, giving the entire book a dreamlike musicality. Each chapter, that is given a title and not a number, is like its own entity, and can be studied on its own. Each one provides an image, a thought, a feeling that Woodson reveals through her language, and through the naïve eyes of her younger self.

The story begins with the author telling us how her parents represented the two views on segregation at the time. Her father would not accept it, and refused to go visit his in-laws in South Carolina, and her mother was caught in between, did not like how things were down South, but understood the reality. Woodson foreshadows her parents’ eventual split, by telling the story of how she got her name. Her father insisted that she be named Jack, after himself, but her mother, Mary Ann, wrote Jacqueline on her birth certificate when she was alone. The eventual compromise is that everyone calls her Jackie. The story moves on with Jackie’s description of moving to the South after her parents separate with her mother, sister and brother. They go to live with her grandparents, that were people who believed in peace and living in harmony. The grandfather, Gunnar Irby, a heavy smoker, works hard for a living, and does not make waves at his employment to cause any trouble when others with less experience are promoted, or when those who are beneath him treat him with disrespect. Jackie begins to learn the ways of the South, how to behave in public, how important church was to her grandmother. Mary Ann leaves her children for a little bit, and goes to New York to set up a new life for her family. While staying with her grandparents, Jackie understands the importance of family, of respecting others, and learns that sometimes things don’t always go according to plan.

The Woodsons eventually move to New York, where Jackie becomes friends with a Puerto Rican girl, and discovers her true love of writing. Although I would recommend it in an instant, I feel like the ending remains a bit unresolved in terms of her father. I know that it is a memoir, and the author writes things as they happened, but I wish that they could reconnect before the book ended.

What I love about the book is its ability to be taught in a classroom setting. There are so many literary elements that are accessed in the book. Some teachable elements are the use of verse to introduce poetry, the point of view of the author, the genre of memoir itself. But also the ability to be used as a text for cross content planning. The story takes place during the tumultuous times of the 60’s and 70’s, with historic events taking place as the story is told. A carefully planned Unit that crosses into he social studied class would give the students a better understanding of the story, and also the history that Woodson lived through. I definitely recommend this book.


Matilda by Roald Dahl

Reading Matilda, by Roald Dahl, took me back to my childhood. Although I hadn’t read Matilda prior, I was a big fan of Witches. I can recall reading the book, and really questioning if witches were in fact real. What I can enjoy about reading Dahl, now as an adult and an educator, is his humor that is in fact intended for an older audience I believe.

So the story begins by setting up the plot and introducing us to Matilda Wormwood, who is a reading prodigy. She learns to read independently before even entering school, and finds comfort in escaping to the library and reading book after book. The librarian there helps her make her choices, and is amazed that a girl so young is reading such sophisticated literature.

Another aspect to Matilda is her home life, which seems completely unpleasant. Her father is a car salesman, that tampers with the cars he sells to make them appear as new, thus selling cars for much more than they are worth. Her mother is not really interested in being maternal to Matilda, and shows favoritism to her brother. Both parents discourage Matilda from reading books, and at times forbid her, even though she manages to sneak them in the house.

Once entering school, Matilda meets Miss Honey, her teacher, who is a loving and nurturing woman that identifies Matilda’s genius and tries to encourage her to advance in her schooling. She even attempts to have Matilda placed in a higher grade by bringing the matter to the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, who shuts down this idea completely, and now has Matilda on her radar.

The headmistress hates children, and comes up with ridiculous ways to punish them for offences that do not seem serious in nature. As the story unravels we learn that she was once responsible for Miss Honey because she is her aunt and when Miss Honey’s father passed away, she gained custody, of the then child. Miss Trunchbull made Miss Honey’s life a living hell, to say the least, and Miss Honey ultimately manages to escape and build a life of her own, even though she has been essentially robbed of her birthright and her home. The surprising twist of events is that Matilda possesses magic powers, and when she concentrates on something hard enough she can make things move with her mind. Miss Honey helps her to cultivate this ability, and Matilda uses the power against the Miss Trunchbull and her family.

The story ends on a happy note with the Miss Trunchbull gone, and her parents allowing Matilda to live with Miss Honey after they decide to leave because Matilda manages to expose her father for the crook that he is. Even though the ending is a happy one, it still is quite a sad story, considering how this young girl is rejected by her family and must fend for herself. They discourage her genius, and refuse to help her embrace her love of learning.

Even though Matilda is intended for a younger audience, my 9-year-old niece loved it; I would make the book available to my lower level seventh graders, as an independent reading book. I think that the language is sophisticated enough to be appropriate, and there are so many literary elements that can be explored through reading it. I would have the students concentrate on character development, and characterization. I think Dahl excels in creating a visual image of what is being described when reading. I would also provide a visual component, perhaps to have the students create a visual representation of a character in the story, or a setting that is described in the story. This will also give them an opportunity to do a “close reading” of an excerpt and identify the language that enabled their visual interpretation come into fruition. I think Dahl’s language is vivid, and he uses descriptive language in a way that even the most awful of situations become humorous and colorful.


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

When I began reading The Graveyard Book I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t heard of it before, or had any prior information as to what type of novel it was. So when the first scene is that of the murder, I was in shock. I found it hard to get into initially, because I couldn’t follow the logic. It truly is easier to enter into fantasy scenarios with the imagination of a child. I believe adulthood leaves us a bit jaded, and so after entering into a suspension of disbelief, I ended up really liking it. I do enjoy novels of the fantasy genre, and especially with a bit of mystery. I thought that this book would probably go over exceedingly well with my 7th graders since they all enjoy mystery stories.

The story is that of Bod (short for Nobody), who is the sole survivor of the opening murder scene. At the start of the novel he is a baby, and having escaped the killer, manages to be saved from certain death by entering into the close by graveyard, where its inhabitants are the ghosts of the people who were buried there. An older, ghost, couple essentially adopts Bod, and he grows up in this environment, receiving food, shelter and education from the ghosts of the graveyard. He is invisible to outsiders who are living, but can be seen by other children. When a young girl comes to the graveyard with her mother, the two develop a friendship that ends up being long-lasting. The conflict of the story is that the killer will not stop searching for him, with the intention to kill him. Bod’s naïve nature, and lack of education essentially prevents him from understanding how he is being protected by this evil that is searching for him, and also gets him into trouble when he follows the ghouls to the depths down below. And true I really liked how the author never gave too much away but left little hints to the reader. Like how we never are told what Silas is. Which in the beginning puzzled me because he was said to not be alive or dead. So naturally I connected the dots and said that he must be some sort of undead or vampire. Even though he says he is a reformed evil creature, who has the ability to leave and return the graveyard, something that the spirits cannot do. Bod, as a protagonist, is clearly how the students would connect to the story. Although he is being raised under strange circumstances, he is still going through things that they have experienced as well. It is a true coming of age story too; that I think is what humanizes the mystical premise.

Due to the fantastical nature of the novel, I think that a creative writing assignment would be an excellent way to end a Unit on the book. I would provide the student’s with a list of characters from the story, all of which would be minor characters that live in the graveyard, and have them write their story. What happened to them, how did they die, why did they end up there? I would also have a visual component to the assignment and ask the students to create drawings or pictures of their characters, trying to use details from the story. I think that the writing activity will be one they enjoy to write.


The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, was unexpectedly marvelous. I loved so many aspects of the book. The story centers on the Bell family that consists of twins Josh, who goes by the name Filthy McNasty, and Jordan. The twins are basketball players at their junior high school, and the backbone of their team. The story is told through the eyes of Josh, who is going through the regular growing pains of entering puberty. He must deal with his brother getting his first girlfriend, Miss Sweat Tea, and his father’s health issues, that remain a puzzle to him for a large part of the story. He lives and breathes basketball, and has acquired his nickname from his basketball skills. The boys’ father, a former professional player, now is a stay at home dad, that also is their role model and, especially Josh, aspires to be like him. Their mother, the assistant principal, tries to keep the boys focused on their education, and constantly worries about her husband. Josh feels his hair, he has long dreads, are a source of good luck for his game, and when his brother cuts off his hair, the conflict that develops between the siblings becomes magnified. Josh becomes jealous of his brother’s girlfriend, and his jealousy leads him to make questionable decisions, one of which gets Jordan injured during a game. He is jealous of Jordan’s newfound relationship because he finds himself having lost his other half, and is no longer a part of the dynamic duo he is used to. He cannot understand why Jordan wants to spend all of his time talking or with this girl.

The most shocking part of the novel, though, is Josh’s secretly ailing father, who has been keeping his condition a secret from everyone, ends up in the hospital, and ultimately passes away. Alexander does an excellent job showing this loss through Josh’s eyes. As the reader, you are truly pained by this reality, and fell for this boy who has just had his life turned upside down.

What was truly amazing about this novel, apart from the beautiful language and great plot, is the poetic form the author uses. It gives the words movement on the page. The rhythm of the words mirrors the rhythm of the ball bouncing on the court. Also, the use of vocabulary words is great. In terms of using this book in the classroom, I can definitely see how the vocabulary can be an essential part of the Unit. I will definitely be adding it to my class library but will also request to have the books ordered for use as a class novel. I can incorporate it in a poetry Unit. As I read I was thinking of activities that I would develop for a culminating activity, and I think that a creative writing assignment would be perfect. I would have the students to write an autobiographical narrative, using the poetic form. The finished works can then be read in class to music perhaps, or shared in a larger grade level assembly. I see a lot of possibilities for this book, and am so excited to have discovered it. I have also recently found out that the novel has won the Newberry Award for 2015. It truly is a winner.


Friendship and Intimacy in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

the_perks_of_being_a_wallflower_book_cover_drawing_by_pigwigeon-d5j78elStephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” centers on a group of teens and their early sexual experiences. We see characters form friendships that ripen into intimate sexual relationships. We learn about various formations, their depths, secrecies, tensions, dramas, and denouements, and finally how the characters cope with the ends of these relationships.
Charlie, the narrator, is the eponymous wallflower, and though he is decidedly passive at times, he is not what I would consider a wallflower, a shy person who doesn’t get involved. He definitely participates, particularly in his role as a friend. He is a keen observer of his scene, though Chbosky at times gives him a naivete for comic relief, but this naive stance doesn’t always ring true to my ears because of his obvious talents as a chronicler of his friends.
The main characters find themselves in emotional turmoil when their sexual relationships fail.
Charlie’s two relationships both turn out badly. The first with Mary Elizabeth ends on a passive aggressive note when he kisses his true love Samantha (Sam) instead of Mary E. during a Truth or Dare game at a party.
An interesting element of the novel is how friends ripen into lovers, break up, and find themselves integrating back into friendships, as if the friendship was the more important relationship and the sexual one simply an experiment.
Charlie’s 2nd “sexual” relationship ends before coitus despite Sam finally giving assent to him.
Why wasn’t Charlie able to go through with the act even though Sam had been his dream lover almost from the moment he met her? The issue isn’t fully explored though prior to the seduction, Sam criticizes Charlie for being passive. She said she didn’t want to date someone who had a “crush” on her, but someone who could have a reciprocal relationship. Charlie was also unable to be reciprocal with Mary E. She did all the talking and moves.But it’s understandable that he might feel intimidated by older women, particularly if they were first friends whom he admired. It wasn’t “wrong” in other words that he couldn’t go through with the sexual act with Sam. The reality of sex was too overwhelming. What he was afraid of is inferred, but not explicitly explored, and this might be a good place to ask students why he turned down a chance to sleep with the girl of his dreams.
Homosexuality, not surprisingly, is explored in this novel. Gay sex is treated with no more emphasis than straight sex, though the gay characters have the added burden of homophobia and gay bashing once their relationship ends.
How might this novel be the anchor for a generative unit?
The unit could be on friendship and intimacy or if I wanted to be more provocative, Friendship and Sex, but intimacy is a better term because it encompasses sex as well as the emotional closeness we experience in love relationships as well as friendships during these formative years. The teen years are when most people begin to actively explore their sexuality and this novel goes there without blinking.
The story is written as a epistolary novel, letters written to an unknown recipient. I anticipated that this unknown character would eventually be exposed or introduced, but he never is. It was a little disappointing, and I would question why the novel took this form. It could easily have been a diary.