If You Love Something, Set It Free, But Be Prepared For Fatalities

So here’s a taste:

“He was so enormous and bright that it was hard to look directly at him.  ‘It’s just like the poem says,’ Sistine breathed.  ‘What?’ said Rob.  ‘That poem.  The one that goes ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the night.’  That poem.  It’s just like that.  He burns bright.’  ‘Oh,’ said Rob.  He nodded.  He liked the fierce and beautiful way the words sounded.”  (p. 49-50)

The Tiger Rising

Author:  Kate DiCamillo

This is a serious book about loss and how people deal with it.  Rob’s mother died and he and his father move to a new town and live in a run-down motel.  Sistine and her mother move to town after Sistine’s father has an affair with his secretary.  Both kids deal with their losses in very different ways, but find themselves drawn together when Rob shows Sistine a tiger caged up in the woods.  What they do about the tiger, as well as interactions with the motel’s “prophetess” maid, help them each confront the pain they’ve tried to avoid.  This book doesn’t have the kind of light-hearted elements embedded in DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, but the seriousness seems to work.  Coming in at a 4.0-ish reading level and only 116 pages, this book has rich themes and character development.  I know I keep picking books for book club…and this is definitely another excellent choice for that.  I can even see kids enjoying a back-to-back reading of The Tiger Rising and Because of Winn-Dixie–I’d love to talk with kids about the connections they notice between the two novels.

For Writers Workshop:  I can see using excerpts to show how describing the external traits of a character can powerfully reveal internal pieces of the character.  Example:  ” ‘Hey there,’ he hollered.  Beauchamp was a large man with orange hair and an orange beard and a permanent toothpick in the side of his mouth.  The toothpick waggled as he talked, as if it was trying to make a point of its own….The gold chains buried deep in Beauchamp’s orange chest-hair winked at Rob.”  All that outside description, but readers clearly get a sense of who Beauchamp is, and they can predict how other characters will respond to him as a result.  All the characters get a similar treatment, and it is the kind of writer’s work that many fifth grade writers are developing toward.

And then there was this part:

” ‘My old friend, my old, old friend, Hattie Owen, how are you, how old are you?  Ethel what birthday is it oh it’s mine I meant how old are you going to be she knew what you meant Ricky Ricardo I’m surprised at you it’s not nice to ask a woman’s age.’  Adam is absolutely the strangest person I have ever met, but he is grinning, and he is making Mom and Dad and me grin too.  My heart has stopped pounding and I feel a little giddy.  Christmas morning giddy.”  (p. 37)

A Corner of the Universe

Author:  Ann M. Martin

Set in 1960, eleven-year-old Hattie finds out she has an uncle, Adam, that she’s never heard about.  That’s because he’s been away at a special school and is, in some way, mentally ill.  But he comes home for one fateful summer, and Hattie is drawn to Adam’s strange, but sometimes wonderful, ways.  The novel details the history of their friendship from Hattie’s viewpoint, including the struggles she has with how other people treat Adam, including her own family.  Adam gets Hattie to look at the world differently, which is alternately delightful and painful.   With a reading level at 7.3-ish, this novel is not going to find a huge audience among my fifth graders.  Still, I can already think of several former students who I would recommend the story to, and so I imagine there will be a select group of future students who will find this book a good fit.   I was very touched by both the Hattie and Adam characters, and the story brought me to tears more than once.

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