Posts Tagged ‘One Crazy Summer’

A year of third grade and fourth grade reading

A year of third grade and fourth grade reading

February marks a full year of what started out as a 3rd grade book club, and is clearly on its way to becoming a 5th grade one. I began this out of frustration and dismay at some of the books K was bringing home, sometimes at the suggestion (insistence?) of the school librarian, endless series of books about school life where “weird” and “gross” make appearances on nearly every page, where teachers exist merely as objects of derision, where all the characters are white and usually suburban. I knew from having seen K and her friends reading more substantial books, if they happened upon them and the mood struck them, that they were capable of much deeper thought, that in fact their brains were hungry for a greater challenge, for being expanded. I knew, and they knew, that they could handle and enjoy much, much more. (One girl was hesitant to join, saying she only liked to read books with mice that wore clothes. We managed to change that.)

We began with The Secret Garden, the classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The first meeting left me giddy with delight, as I recount here. I went all out, decorated with vases of roses, served cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off. A minute before the eight girls arrived, I panicked. What if they thought this was silly? What if they wanted to make fun of me like some of their books made fun of teachers? My fears couldn’t have been more misplaced.

Over the past year, with a break in July/August, we tackled:

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blue
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien
One Crazy Summer, by Rita Garcia Williams (which gave K’s father an excuse to put together a fantastic soundtrack from 1968)
Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech (which made for the most animated discussion)
Rules, by Cynthia Lord (“too easy,” the girls said)
Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson

Every meeting starts with ten minutes of chatter while everyone arrives and gets settled, a 30-45 minute discussion, a snack related to the book in question, a related activity, and a vote on the book for the meeting after next (so that I have time to order it, distribute it, read it and plan the meeting). The children have been surprisingly enthusiastic about how the snack matches the book. They pounced on the corn kernels and shredded cheese I put out for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH with squeals of delight. Their parents shook their heads in a mix of wonder and amusement when they came to retrieve their children.

I’ve been very impressed with the depth of thinking and the level of analysis these girls have demonstrated, and the caliber of the discussions we’ve had.

The topics we’ve discussed include:

Oppression, the Black Panther movement, the power of imagination, self-consciousness, the death of a parent, sibling relationships, autism, story arc, character arc, running away from home, storytelling techniques, what defines a “classic,” the ethics of scientific research with animals, loneliness, finding happiness, the meaning of “civilization,” sacrifice, civil disobedience, peer pressure, prejudice, unwritten rules, sadness, point of view, film adaptations, responsibility, cerebral palsy, book cover design, devotion to art, pacing, what made a book “good” a century ago versus today versus what makes a book just plain “good” all the time.

I’m planning out the selections for the next year. Now that I have the girls’ attention, now that they are invested, I’m going to mix it up a bit more, and designate a category for each month: poetry, biography, mystery, fantasy, adventure, Africa, Asia (not enough months to break down into smaller categories, but there’s always the following year), Europe, Latin America, Pacific Islands/Australia, Middle East, and probably different regions/historical periods in North America. I could get lost for hours in noodling around the various options.

 

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Every time my oldest comes home with a book club flyer from school, my heart sinks. I understand and fully support the motto of “building confidence in young readers,” but does that have to mean that each flyer must be a compendium of mostly the following:

  1. Books pertaining to underwear and bodily functions;
  2. Endless series of vapid characters in interchangeable stories;
  3. Books packaged with items such as zombie glasses, glow-in-the-dark slime or Ninjago figurines;
  4. History and science presented in terribly uninspiring and reeks-of-school titles;
  5. Books derived from cartoons or other TV characters?

Lost among all these are a few gems: Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, Eleanor Este’s Ginger Pye, Charlotte’s Web. But those are not the ones the child clamors to buy (but look, Mom, it’s only $3.99 and it comes with a cupcake charm!)

For a while, I went with the whatever-she-reads-is-great attitude, because I just wanted her to discover the joy of reading. But now that she’ll happily curl up on the couch with a book, I find myself very discouraged with the books she’s exposed to through the library at school, or the book fair, or the abovementioned flyers. Sure, she can read all the Captain Underpants books and giggle with her friends about how often the word “fart” shows up in Diary of a Wimpy Kid (I’ll hand it to those authors that they’ve nailed their audience on the head), but I feel compelled to help her dip her toes into the vast, rich, magical world of wonderful children’s literature – the kind that transports you, haunts you, affects your very soul and stays in your memory forever – that exists out there. The one that sustained me, nourished me, when I was a young child.

And thus is born our book club, for her and up to seven of her friends from school. We held our first, organizational meeting this past weekend. There were snacks, coffee and tea for the parents, several girls piled onto each arm chair, and lots of pink-and-purple-socked feet waving around. We discussed ground rules, respecting opinions, what to do if you don’t like the book (read at least 25 pages and come prepared to explain why you didn’t like it), what the name of the club should be (there were evocations of bookworms, pandas, panda worms – ew – without any consensus), and of course what the selections would be. I handed each girl a booklet with a list of titles and authors, a picture of each cover, and a description, and asked each one to nominate three from among the 22 or so on the list.

The first vote was almost unanimous for Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Remember that one? I thought so. I can’t wait to see what the discussion of the book will yield. The book was written one hundred years ago (I don’t think the girls know this yet), takes place for the most part in Yorkshire, England (after Mary’s parents die of cholera in India) and is quite unlike anything these girls have read yet. It’s a far cry from the school-based series revolving around someone’s best friend moving out of state, or a weird substitute bringing the class on an adventure, or a band of classmates solving the mystery of the disappearing lunchboxes. I wonder how much of their decision was based on my use of this particular cover? (On a very abridged, Scholastic version from 1993.)

The Secret Garden

 

I’ve written before about the drastic variation in covers on editions of old classics, and how that predisposes today’ children to shy away from some of these gems. What if I had used this cover image instead? (Simon & Brown, Dec 2012)

The Secret Garden

Or this one? (Random House abridged version from 1987)

The Secret Garden

And here’s the list of book options that I have compiled so far. Other suggestions welcome!

  • Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Judy Blume
  • From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by e. l. konigsburg
  • The Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia
  • A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Complete Verse and Other Nonsense, by Edward Lear
  • Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech
  • The Story of Doctor Dolittle, by Hugh Lofting
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School, by Louis Sachar and Julie Brinkloe
  • Rickshaw Girl, by Mitali Perkins
  • The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
  • The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards
  • My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George
  • Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brian
  • Frindle, by Andrew Clements
  • Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin
  • Poetry for Young People: William Carlos Williams
  • Wonder, by R. J. Palacio
  • The Double Life of Pocahontas, by Jean Fritz

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