100th Blog: Escape Novels

IMG_0624Bud compares ideas to seeds in “Bud, Not Buddy” (Curtis, 1999, p. 90). The same seed of thought that can inspire awe, entertain, and provide refuge could also be the thing that you smash yourself upon. It could be so all-consuming that it even hurts your relationships with others.

Cassie Beasley (2019) begins the sequel to “Circus Mirandus” with an idea. Her idea swims throughout the story, growing bigger and brighter, while always eluding the reader. Finally, it literally escapes; You actually want it to be realized, but the seed refuses to be planted. It has plenty of water, but no soil. (If you read “The Bootlace Magician,” you will know exactly what I am getting at!)

Claudia “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (Konigsburg, 2007, p. 1), originally published in 1967 and winner of the ’68 Newbery Award, had an elegant idea to escape her prepubescent plight of indifferent unappreciation by running away to the most plush place she could think of.

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The “Escape Novels”

I had an idea.

Escape through escape. Stuck at home, we are all feeling the pull, the desire, the need to escape our physical isolation. 

One of the best ways to at least feel like you are getting away is by getting lost in a good book. And, what better way to lose one’s self than by identifying so much with a character or scenario that you feel like you are participating in the story?

I have three books for you. I am calling them Escape Novels. Two of them are Newbery Award winners, and the third has won multiple other awards. This idea of escaping through reading about escaping is geared toward middle school-age kids, but I am loving rereading these texts, myself, and I am far from ten or eleven!

  1. “Bud, Not Buddy” by Christopher Paul Curtis (1999)
  2. “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E. L. Konigsburg (2007)
  3. “Refugee” by Alan Gratz (2019)

I chose “Bud, Not Buddy” (Curtis, 1999), winner of the 2000 Newbery Award, for its historical picture of a time the country hoped to escape, The Great Depression. The text shares some scary similarities to what America is experiencing right now. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Layoffs are lengthening. Continued closure of companies threatens. And, racial disparity is being ignored (Kaur, 2020).

Chapter 6 finds Bud, a 10 year old parentless black boy, in line to get breakfast from a mission (Curtis, 1999, p. 49). The line of African Americans was quiet, until it was faced with faces and words smacking of white privilege. The first image of the following slideshow displays this horror. The slideshow is a great tool for gaining background knowledge about the Great Depression.

The Great Depression  from Jackson

Curtis describes the billboard,

It showed a gigantic picture of a family of four rich white people sitting in a car driving somewhere. You could tell it was a family ’cause they all looked exactly alike. The only difference amongst them was that the daddy had a big head and a hat and the momma had the same head with a woman’s hat and the girl had two big yellow pigtails coming out from above her ears. They all had big shiny teeth and big shiny eyes and big shiny cheeks and gig shiny smiles. Shucks, you’d need to squint your eyes if that shiny family drove anywhere near you.

You could tell they were rich ’cause the car looked like it had room for eight or nine more people in it and ’cause they had movie star clothes on. The woman was wearing a coat with a hunk of fur around the neck and the man was wearing a suit and a ties and the kids looked like they were wearing ten-dollar apiece jackets.

Through using the first person point of view Christopher Paul Curtis helps white kids know a new perspective. When Bud witnesses Lefty Lewis get out of his car for the first time, he tells of his putting on a “black hat like the kind the police or some army men wear. But all the cops I’d ever seen were white, so I knew this guy must be a soldier” (Curtis, 1999, p. 98). Curtis doesn’t shy from the topic of race throughout this book. Here you have an African American boy assuming a man to be a soldier because of the type of hat he was wearing. Was it possible he could have been a police officer?

As it turns out, No. Not only is that concept completely naive, but dangerously biased. I like to try to keep as even a playing field in my mind as possible, but it only takes two seconds of research to find out about the Black Legion, a white supremacist group that was credited for killing at least 50 people in 1936! Curtis keeps his book kid-safe, but 1936 was a scary time for black people in Michigan. When Lefty Lewis finds Bud walking on the side of the road between Flint and Owosso, Michigan at 2:30 in the morning, Curtis (1999) has him explain to Bud,

Bud-Not-Buddy, you don’t know how lucky you are I came through here, some of these Owosso folks used to have a sign hanging along here that said, and I’m going to clean up the language for you, it said, “To Our Negro Friends Who Are Passing Through, Kindly Don’t Let the Sun Set on Your Rear End in Owosso!” (p. 105)

I am a 45 year old white male, having grown up in New England; How ignorant and stupid do I feel, learning that this Black Legion group famously killed Charles Poole, the leader of the Works Progress Administration, the very group that Lefty Lewis was helping in “Bud, Not Buddy?” (Curtis, 1999, p. 138). Chapter 12 has Lefty Lewis keeping his cool, when being pulled over by the police. Unbeknownst to Bud, Lewis has a box of fliers advertising a meeting of railroad workers in his car. These papers are exactly what the police officer was looking for!

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Backtrack for clarity.

As a side-side note, here; I am just now, having read this book many times, figuring out that this box of fliers is most certainly the very same box that had been in the back seat of Lewis’s car the night before, and had written on the side of it, “URGENT: CONTAINS HUMAN BLOOD” (Curtis, 1999, p. 106). This message had caused Bud to lose his mind, when he read it! Lewis had explained to Bud that he was delivering the blood to a hospital. I’d always figured Curtis had Lewis multitasking; Picking up a copying order, while dropping off medical supplies. His transfusion of blood wasn’t to one person or one hospital. He was transferring a message, help to all working people during the Great Depression!

After reading about “Bud, Not Buddy” (Curtis, 1999), one might feel like Claudia “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (Konigsburg, 2007) is a spoiled white brat. She isn’t. Before I get into explaining that statement, let me end my discussion of “Bud, Not Buddy.” Christopher Paul Curtis performs magic throughout this tale of a young parentless black boy growing up in the most depressing era, territory, and scenario in America’s history. It is said that people can’t be sad when dancing, and that is one of the reasons jazz music was so popular during the Depression. “Bud, Not Buddy” doesn’t just tell of jazz musicians; It’s prose and story IS jazz literature.

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“Shoot, this ain’t no city, this is just another cardboard jungle” (p. 65).
  • The steady swinging rhythm of Bud checking the contents of his suitcase…
  • A sax solo of Deza Malone’s dimpled kiss…
  • The brassy crackling of a fire consuming Hooverville…
  • Lefty Lewis fooling with the electric guitar…
  • All the while the hope of old Herman E. Calloway’s parentage thumbs the spinal cord of the blues bass line throughout the whole story.

The reader is left with the sweet sadness of the jazz tune never played but heard everywhere, “My Eyes Don’t Cry No More” (p. 159).

The character Bud has something important in common with Claudia, though. Both kids are attempting to escape their past, and in doing so they are finding themselves. Through this stay at home experience there have been times I wonder how my daughter Scarlet will look back at this time of her childhood. Claudia was unhappy with how she was treated at home. It is hard to imagine Bud being treated any worse than having a pencil shoved up his nose, confined to sleep in a haunted, hornet-infested shed, and parentless. It is true that Claudia did not have it nearly as bad as Bud, but in her world, she was being mistreated (Konigsburg, 2007, p. 2).

While her peers had full time maids, she was required to make, not only her own bed, but help take care of her baby brother. What was she growing up to become? During the Coronavirus pandemic, everyone is keeping themselves and others safe by not going outside. What are we preserving ourselves for? What will we do with ourselves when we are allowed out and can freely socialize with one another? Who will we be? The country seems to be bubbling with a frustration of being locked up to rot. Claudia wasn’t going to let herself be turned into a passive tool of her parents; Someone to help raise her three younger brothers and keep dust from accumulating on the marble mantle of her Greenwich, Connecticut home.

More than Claudia running away from her life, she made one for herself. I chose this book in my trio of Escape Novels because it represents the unknown of what will become of all of us. America is rich. Americans, however, are as powerless as the Kincaid children, Claudia and Jamie. In the same way that Claudia decided to stay in the most elegant place she could think of, I am suggesting that readers choose the best books to get lost in. Perhaps we will find ourselves through running down the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Claudia and Jamie. When Elaine Lobl Konigsburg was writing “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (2007) in 1966, she was a stay-at-home mom of three kids, whom she left at the Met for the art to babysit, while she took art lessons in the city (Tolentino, 2007). Was Konigsburg running to something, from something, just running to run, or running the show? Thirty years later, she was to become the only person to ever receive a Newbery Award and Newbery Honor within the same year!

What are you making of yourself during this stay-at-home experience?

I never ran away from home. I never even entertained the idea, outside of a fifteen minute bought of insanity. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy reading about Claudia’s adventure when I was eleven or twelve. Some lessons that I gleaned from the tale then and appreciate now are the idea of self-sufficiency and independence that the kids learn. Claudia’s persistent determination and need for accomplishment in finding out the truth behind the creator of Angel. Lastly, but not finally, I must mention the planning. Claudia’s thorough thoughtfulness should be practiced by all.

Some people can escape into their planning. They can plan to never execute. The planning becomes the action. No event ever takes place; Just the planning. Perhaps Claudia had read Bud’s instruction manual, Rules & Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself, for she seems to have mastered Rule 328: “When You Make Up Your Mind to Do Something, Hurry Up and Do It, If You Wait You Might Talk Yourself Out of What You Wanted in the First Place” (Curtis, 1999, p. 27).

The third Escape Novel I chose was “Refugee” by Alan Gratz (2017). I already wrote about this in a review of the novel. This book made my list of Escape Novels because the characters of the book are trapped in so many ways. Reading about their situations and empathizing with their plights will free young minds of the biases that entrap so many xenophobic, racist adults. The reader of “Refugee” experiences the same thing Bud did when he was trying to figure out whether he belonged in the cardboard city of Flint, Michigan’s Hooverville (Curtis, 1999, p. 67). Bud looked around the place and saw all different kinds of people. He saw various body shapes, both sexes, and all ages.

They were all the colors you could think of, black, white and brown, but the fire made everyone look like they were different shades of orange. There were dark orange folks sitting next to medium orange folks sitting nest to light orange folks.

“All these people,” the mouth organ man said, “are just like you, they’re tired, hungry and a little bit nervous about tomorrow. This here is the right place for y’all to be ’cause we’re all in the same boat. And you boys are nearer to home than you’ll ever get.”

Someone said, “Amen, brother” (p. 68).

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Home is made of all kinds of materials, just like humanity.

Sources:

1997 Newbery Medal and Honor Books. (n.d.). Retrieved May 8, 2020, from http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newberymedal/newberyhonors/1997newberymedal

Beasley, C. (2019). The Bootlace Magician. New York, NY: Dial Books.

Curtis, C. P. (1999). Bud, Not Buddy. New York, NY: Yearling.

Gratz, A. (2017). Refugee. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.

Kaur, H. (2020, May 8). The coronavirus pandemic is hitting black and brown Americans especially hard on all fronts. Retrieved May 9, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/08/us/coronavirus-pandemic-race-impact-trnd/index.html

Konigsburg, E. L. (2007). From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Tolentino, J. (2017, July 17). “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” Fifty Years Later. Retrieved May 2, 2020, from https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/from-the-mixed-up-files-of-mrs-basil-e-frankweiler-fifty-years-later

The Message is Classier than the Mechanics

We kicked off our “Reading Super Bowl” the other day. The students were pumped to be competing against one another. The line to go to the busses at the end of the day was buzzing with how many footballs each was going to be bringing in the next day.screen shot 2019-01-03 at 11.07.14 pm

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This student may never have tackled this text had it not been for the competition.

Today was only day two of our contest, and students came to school baring both footballs and questions. I find it helpful to sit everyone down on the carpet and go over some extra ground rules: 1. It is okay to bring footballs in a day or two late. You won’t lose your minutes if you forget, or mom/dad was too busy. 2. Only take as many footballs as you truly imagine completing that evening. (Kids will take five sheets of paper=30 footballs=600 minutes or ten hours; probably not realistic in one night;) 3. Even though you are not inside the school building at recess, you can’t bring a book outside to read. Run around; that is what recess is for. While I appreciate the enthusiasm, the lunch/recess aids have enough to do without initialing a million footballs… 

While covering these and more rules and regulations, I began to back away from the parameters of the competition and focus my message on what the contest is actually meant to do: foster a love for reading and develop reading

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Students began bringing books with them everywhere they went.

habits. In the past the class was privy to the mantra “Everyone who reads wins”, but I hadn’t spelled out the underlying agenda of the “Reading Super Bowl”. This year I just flat out told students, “I would rather you only read 20 minutes a day, but wish that you had more time to read and love the time that you did spend reading, than bring four footballs (80 minutes of reading) in to class each day.”

I worded this concept a few different ways with multiple examples, and the students seemed to understand. After each student shared an exciting tale of how much he or she read the night before, I asked what was read and how much the student enjoyed it. It only took a few of these exchanges before students began discussing book series and future books that they wanted to read. Now we were getting somewhere! Rather than championing the paper footballs and minutes read, my students were looking forward to the actual reading.

In previous years, I have asked parents to send in pictures of their kids reading at home so I can include them in movies that summarize the whole competition. I might have parents contribute these earlier in the game, this year. In this way, we will focus on the plays rather than only the score.

The Reading Super Bowl

Every year, on the first day back to school after the winter break, I initiate a competition between two teams in my classroom. The contest is to see who reads more, but the purpose is to make reading a habit and instill an excitement for text consumption. I call it “The Reading Super Bowl”, and it lasts until the actual football game.

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 8.56.16 PMThe class is broken up into two equal groups. I’ve done girls versus boys, odd student numbers versus even student numbers, and broken the class up according to desk arrangements; Doesn’t matter how you do it. The NFL teams that are entering the playoffs are listed on the board. Kids get the lunch/recess time to decide on their group’s team. Then the players are passed out. I usually project a few pictures of each team’s jerseys on the wall for kids to model the coloring of their figure after.

Before all of this, first thing in the morning, I will have the students sit on the carpet while I explain the rules and how the contest works. Students bring home a paper that has images of footballs on it. Each football represents 20 minutes of reading outside of school. They must be initialed by an adult; parent, caretaker, daycare worker, babysitter, anyone. Each football is one yard. It takes one hundred footballs to score a touchdown, but with the whole team working together, it happens faster than you think. If each kid reads 1 football each night for a week, and there are 12 kids on a team, you are looking at midfield (48 yards) by Friday! As you can see, there is lots of math in this contest. Each touchdown is worth 7 points. Field goals can be scored by students completing book reports.

In addition to the classroom contest, each of the five 3rd grade classrooms compete against each other in a grade-level competition to see who will be MVP. We celebrate the students’ successes with a “Reading Super Bowl Party” the Friday before the NFL’s big game. That is when our contest ends.

The students always love friendly competition. They get into coloring and cutting out their footballs. I have them tape them to the classroom football field that I post in the back of the room. Counting their team’s footballs seriously energizes the students to go home and produce multiple footballs for the next day’s taping session.

Screen Shot 2019-01-01 at 8.56.36 PMI got this idea from John Burger, my mentor in 2010 at Willow Lane. It was his last year, and we were teaching second grade. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got the idea from someone else. That’s how teaching works. If you like the idea, use it, go for it. Good luck!

Google Slideshow with Award and Characters

Award-Winning Books Are Classy

The cream of the crop is (usually) very classy. Thus, I have decided to begin a new branchIMG_8534 of The Captain of Class focusing on Award-Winning Books. A couple of years ago I purchased a poster from Scholastic Book Publishers that had pictures of all of the John Newbery Award winners on it. After laminating it, I hung it on the wall to inspire reading high-quality literature. When I look at it, I feel a sense of pride in how many of the winners I have personally read.

IMG_8533One day, as I looked at the poster, a seed of an idea rooted itself in my mind: If the ones I have read were as good as I remember, I bet the others are great as well. Borrowing a metaphor from “Bud, Not Buddy” by Christopher Paul Curtis (2000 winner and recent read aloud), this seed of thought sprouted into a tree that all but required I read every single one of the books featured on that poster.

I recently conveyed this plan to a friend, and he told me about a grad class that required he read many of these. “They were really quite good,” he remembered. I chuckled. “Well, they won the most prestigious award that children’s literature has to offer,” I suggested.

Going in chronological order, beginning with the very first winner “The Story of Mankind” by Hendrik Van Loon from 1922, the year the award was invented, I plan to read each book and provide my two cents about its being used in the classroom. There are endless reviews of books out there, but The Captain of Class will be focusing on the “classiness” of each book. (Perhaps I will develop a “Class-o-meter” once I have a few of these under my belt.)

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My goal is to let teachers and parents know what to expect when reading each award-winning book; what to look for, what to get out of it, and what to watch for, if there are any age-questionable material. For instance, I read one of my favorites, “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (1967), by  E. L. Konigsburg to my third grade class this past year. This classic was thoroughly enjoyed by all. In addition to constantly telling my class that this idea of two kids running away was more believable many decades ago, and that no one should even dream of this today, I had to skip an entire paragraph in the middle (p. 75). It talked about a candy bar being poisoned with marijuana, and drug Matt shares book from carpetdealers using this tactic to create dope addicts (Commonsensemedia.org). Luckily, I am a quick reader and saw some verbiage ahead of time, so that I nixed that section. I did not remember that being in the book at all! It isn’t all that terrible a thing to be in the text, but I felt out of place explaining to my 8 and 9-year-olds what dope addict and marijuana were.

Although I believe that knowledge and understanding are classy, so is innocence. Naïveté should be chipped away, lest you break the spirit altogether. This new family of blogs aims at providing readers with the tools necessary for navigating the Newbery Award winners so that classrooms can make the most out of their reading, while preparing readers for potential problems. Whether you are a teacher or parent, it would behoove you to know about concepts that minds could be too young to absorb.

I hope that you will find this blog inspiring and helpful, not to mention classy;)

“The John Newbery Medal”, American Library Association, November 30, 1999. http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newberymedal/aboutnewbery/aboutnewbery (Accessed June 28, 2018)

https://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews/from-the-mixed-up-files-of-mrs-basil-e-frankweiler/user-reviews/adult