Maeve Visser Knoth: 02/01/2007 - 03/01/2007

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Higher Power of Lucky- what a controversy

I read the 2006 Newbery winner, Susan Patron's THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY with great anticipation. The book was published in the late fall, I believe, so I don't know many folks who had already read it by the time the Newbery Award was announced in January. Luckily, I had ordered copies for the library, so I had to only wait a couple of weeks for the book to be on the library shelves.

Something from the reviews I first read had me expecting a book for young readers, something I would shelve alongside OWEN FOOTE, FRONTIERSMAN and recommend to good first through third grade readers. When the book arrived and I looked at it, I decided that I had been wrong. The book belongs in the general fiction section where kids all the way from 2nd-6th grade (and sometimes older) find their books.

I didn't know there was controversy surrounding the book until after I had finished it and my husband noticed an article about the book. He let me know that some school librarians are nervous about the presence of the word "scrotum" on the first page of the book. Some librarians seem to be more than nervous and are not purchasing the book for their libraries. There seem to be several important issues here.

First, is the book a good one? Does the word fit into the book as Patron has written it?

I like THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY very much, but is it the best book of the year? I have long since given up the belief that the Newbery Award winner is the best book of the year. It is certainly one of the top books. I like many other novels published in 2006 and another group of 15 librarians would have come up with a different title.

Rarely is there a book that most professional children's librarians agree upon for the awards. Patron writes beautifully. She peppers a very serious book with some humor and lovely details taht make the setting and the protagonist vivid to the reader. The book made me want to go out and buy a special tool for chopping parsley and I did buy a bunch of parsley this week so my family will have the special touch that Brigitte adds to all her meals.

Are there things about the novel which I wish to shield my children from? No. Not a single thing. If we had a world in which no fathers ever deserted their children, no mothers ever died tragically, no children ever worried without explaining their fears to the adults who care for them, then maybe I would hate to introduce these new ideas to 3rd graders. But we do have dead-beat fathers, alcoholics attending twelve-step programs, and mothers who can't raise their children. My children know this, but even if they did not already know it, I would rather they learn from Susan Patron's gentle novel than from the newspaper.

Second, how should librarians respond when they worry in advance that selecting a book will come back to haunt them? A parent might stride in and demand to know why her darling 3rd grader had to learn the word "scrotum" at school. It is easy to say that librarians should always stand on the side of freedom for children to access anything they desire in the library, but it is not really that simple. An elementary school serving 1st-4th graders will not buy Walter Dean Myers' novels, even if some of the fourth graders have the reading skill to understand the novels. Most professional librarians do make choices based on age and suitability. That said, I do NOT believe that THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY falls into the category of books that are not suitable for elementary school age children. I personally would rather have a child know the word "scrotum" than forever rely on schoolyard slang. Think of the power we are giving children when we give them the correct words. And think of how much less exciting a scrotum is once we give it a medical name just the way we name every other unexciting body part.

There are things in children's books that make me squirm. I hate gratitutious vulgar language or violence that is meant to be funny. There are even times I suggest to my children that they wait a bit, grow up a bit, before reading a particular book. But we plan to start reading THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY aloud this week, and I am looking forward to it.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Helping Students Find the Theme of a Book

How is it that a teacher can help his students come to an understanding of the theme of a book? In my experience, even first and second graders can begin to understand THEME if they are asked the right questions. Once a group of children have finished a book, they will have things they want to discuss but many of these naturally tie into an understanding of theme. Before tackling THEME, make sure that the students have talked about setting, tone, character developemnt and the other literary elements. These will all fit together to build the theme. When a book is well-written and successful, all parts work together to leave the reader with the something. A well-constructed theme is not a moral, but a general truth about life, something larger than the story, that the author wants her reader to take away from the book. I help the learners stay away from generalizations by asking them to use some qualifier when constructing a theme. They may use "Oftentimes..." or something of this sort.

I usually ask the learners to brainstorm a few general topics that might be related to the theme...They come up with things like "friendship, bravery, becoming an adult," From there, I ask them what the author might be saying /about/ bravery, friendship etc... It might work well to have students write a complete sentence as a starting point and use these sentences as the beginning of the discussion. Sometimes there are threads in several sentences that can be woven together into a theme. Since students learn differently, I try to use both writing and discussion to come up with a theme.

If your group read CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY the learners might come to theme this way:

I'll ask, "What is the book about?"

The children might answer:
Bad kids get punished.
Charlie gets what he deserves.
Charlie is the best of the kids.
Charlie loves his parents and grandparents and thinks about others before himself.
The Chocolate Factory is some kind of "dream come true".

So, I prompt,....Dahl might be saying what?

Oftentimes bad kids are punished.
Oftentimes good kids get rewards.

Let's refine that a bit more. How does the story end? Is it more about Charlie or more about the other kids? How is Charlie good? Can we put that in the theme?

"Oftentimes someone who thinks more about others than himself, may be rewarded beyond his wildest dreams."

This is of course not the only theme they might come up with, but if you press them to look at the book, how it ends and what the author really puts in the story (rather than what the kids read into the book or bring from their own experience) they are likely to be on the right track.

I must credit Aiden Chamber, British writer, critic and teacher, for his brilliant scaffolding for creating meaningful book discussion with elementary school children. Take a look at the book TELL ME to read more about his work.