Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Raina Telgemeier's novel Smile was the perfect read for the holidays, and not just because it was set in San Francisco, which got our located-in-New-England book club thinking of places without snow.

Okay. The truth. I chose it as the holiday book because I knew it would be a fast, engaging read. My daughters each read it in about two hours and other book club moms reported similar results.

Smile is a graphic novel and an excellent opportunity to teach kids that "graphic" does not necessarily mean "full of excessive, gratuitous violence and generally inappropriate content." It's also a memoir, which means you get a two-for-one on the vocabulary lesson. Most of the book club members had never read a memoir before and were surprised and delighted to find that this actually happened to the author. Oh! No! Not in the Schadenfreude sense! With braces either just going on or just over the horizon for many of these kids, Smile resonated with them all from the beginning.

But Smile isn't only about braces. It's about bullies and self esteem and bravery. It's about dating and puberty and finding your passions. We talked a lot about what made Raina's friends behave the way they do, and whether or not they would have treated her differently if she hadn't knocked out her front teeth. The kids brought up the fact that Raina dismisses Sammy the same way that Sean dismisses her. They empathized with her loneliness not only once she stands up for herself, but also while she deals with being alone-in-a-crowd. Our members also noticed that the art provides visual clues to the story's subtext that would normally be described in words, and that the book both begins and ends with a photo session and the word "smile."

You can find several resources for Smile online. The blog The Classroom Bookshelf has an activity guide here, and Scholastic's Mother-Daughter Book Club has a page of discussion questions here which you can download as a pdf. There is also an excellent post up at The Graphic Classroom.

If, like us, you can't get enough of Raina Telgemeier's work, you're in luck. She has a second book out, titled Drama, and her third original book, Sisters, is due out in September of 2014. Raina has also illustrated four graphic novel adaptations of The Baby-sitters Club. Her website, Go Raina! includes her blog, a list of upcoming appearances, comic-related links, and more. And it's all right here.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

REVIEW: Tucker's Countryside

Tucker's Countryside by George Selden is the sequel to A Cricket in Times Square. So, most of you probably haven't heard of it or read it. But you should read it, because it has all the sweetness of the first novel with more realism and more issues that are pertinent to a kid's life, like moral dilemmas. Lots of moral dilemmas.

This time, Harry Cat and Tucker Mouse visit Chester Cricket in his Connecticut home, the Old Meadow. It's not just a visit, though: Chester and his friends are in danger of losing their home to developers. Where have we heard this story before? Oh yeah, Hollywood. But Chester's story came long before Hammy and Vern. While you won't guffaw, you will chuckle and you will hold your breath a few times.

Because of the pastoral setting, Selden's narration is even lovelier; his description of the rainstorm made me wish I was tucked into a porch swing, reading outdoors during a late spring rainstorm. In addition, the setting results in the tension in Tucker's Countryside feeling less contrived. Not only are the animals trying to save their meadow, but so are the kids that play there. Adult assistance doesn't come from expected quarters, though, which makes for excellent discussion. The most uproarious comment during our meeting? Vlad's* opinion that "they should only destroy the meadow if there was a bearpocalypse."

You won't find any teacher-made study guides or discussion questions out there for Tucker's Countryside, so I read with a notepad beside me and jotted down a few questions for each chapter. You'll find my questions below (or by clicking here). A unit could include research and activities on picketing, boycotting, civil disobedience, conservation lands, nature preserves, and natural disasters in addition to discussion about what constitutes a "benign deception." Who gets to decide when human progress is more important than preserving nature? Where do we draw the line between truth and lies? Tucker's Countryside gives kids an opportunity to explore questions that will stay with them as they grow.

*a pseudonym, of course. And don't feel sorry for him. I ran the name past his mom and she loved it.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Tucker's Countryside

  1. How could you tell the species of John, Tucker, and Harry even if we hadn’t been told? What clues are in the story?
  2. Do the animals avoid people? Why do you think the author chose to have them observe and interact with people, or have people notice the animals? Do you agree with his decision? Why/why not?
  3. What little things do the animals (Harry, Tucker, and Chester) do throughout the book that show they care for each other?
  4. What is Chester’s big concern about the meadow and the houses? Why is Tucker’s first idea not likely to work? Why are all the animals of the Old Meadow so utterly disappointed that Tucker has no other plans? What did you think of their reaction?
  5. Who is Ellen and how is she important? What happens between Ellen and Harry?
  6. Chapter six (Flood) starts off with language that’s soft, gentle, quiet. How do the descriptions of the rain and water change throughout the chapter? Why did the author do that?
  7. What happens because of the flood? Did you expect something good or something bad to happen because of the flood? Why?
  8. What happens the day the steam shovel begins ripping up the Old Meadow? What does that say about the workers? Did you expect them to react that way?
  9. Why do the little kids not get bored with the picket line? How do those people who drive past react? Why do the mothers not head over to town hall like they talked about? What do you think the moms should have done?
  10. What did you think of Tucker’s plan? What could go wrong?
  11. Harry Cat tells Chester to think of the plan not as a Lie but as a Benign Deception. What is a Benign Deception? What do you think: is the plan a Lie or a Benign Deception? Are there other Benign Deceptions in the book? Where is the line between lies and not-lies? Who gets to decide?
  12. What almost happens once all the people see the sign and the Bible? What is Ellen’s reaction? What do you suppose she thinks about how the Meadow was saved?
  13. Did the book end the way you expected? If not, what did you think would be different?
  14. Why do the humans save the Old Meadow? What changes do the humans now have planned for the Old Meadow? What kind of changes would you make?
  15. Why was preserving history more important than apartments when preserving nature wasn’t important enough?