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Style is that “identifiable quality that varies from author to author.” That seems a simple idea.

The wording in the Common Core Anchor Standard for style seems simple:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.6
Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Teaching style, however, is not simple. Our high school students who spend hours creating their own style-selecting music stylings, stylizing phone cases, following YouTube fashion stylists-go blank when asked to assess or identify the style of a text.

One stumbling block could be in the selections of texts for examples. Style is often subtle or nuanced, which means that if style is described as the voice of the author, then some authors speak in whispers.

Until September 2016.

That’s when Bruce Springsteen used his authorial voice to tell his life story in his autobiography Born to Run.

His voice is not a whisper…His voice is LOUD!

His…voice…stutters…with…ellipses.

His voice is hyphen-heavy, word-binding; it is a tete-a-tete with the reader.

His voice lists, lists, lists, all of the emotions, locations, events, memories, friends, and objects he has collected over his career.

And he is direct; he knows why he wanted to be a songwriter:

“I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I lived in. So I knew in 1972 that to do this I would need to write very well and more individually than I had ever written before.”

 He writes well. He writes individually. He writes with style. This is 508 pages of The Boss talking to you, the reader.

While some of his language choices in the autobiography may limit a few examples for classroom use, most selections of this text could be used for analysis. There is also the opportunity to compare and contrast the autobiography with song lyrics. In both genres, Springsteen offers examples for practice to identify and to assess style through his word choice, his tone, and his syntax:

  • word choice: “It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap.” (Born to Run lyrics)
  • tone (sad): “No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle/No flowers no wedding dress.” (The River lyrics)
  • syntax: “Then . . . if you want to take it all the way out to the end of the night, a furious fire in the hole that just . . . don’t . . . quit . . . burning.” (Born to Run-Autobiography)

The evidence for an identifiable Springsteen style begins on page one of Born to Run, where the prose in the story of his life is mirrored in his earlier song lyrics:

 “I am alienating, alienated and socially homeless . . . I am seven years old” (1).

That line sounds suspiciously like the list in his song lyrics:

“I’m comin’ to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man” (Rosalita).

Conclusion: Springsteen’s lyrics and prose are filled with lists.

In his autobiography, Springsteen’s voice in reflects on his hometown:

 “Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God’s mercy, in the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, race-riot-creating, oddball-hating, soul-shaking, love-and-fear-making, heartbreaking town of Freehold, New Jersey. Let the service begin”(7).

This hyper-hyphenating in the autobiography is not very different from Springsteen’s lists of the same Jersey locations in the song lyrics for  Born to Run:

“Sprung from cages on Highway 9,
Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected
And steppin’ out over the line.”

Conclusion:  Springsteen’s lyrics and prose are filled with hyphenated word combinations.
Then, read on a few more pages and you become aware of Springsteen’s extensive use of CAPITAL LETTERS, such this reflection on Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show:

“Somewhere in between the mundane variety acts on a routine Sunday night in the year of our Lord 1956 . . . THE REVOLUTION HAS BEEN TELEVISED!!” (39)

That same style choice is chosen for other musical force in his life, The Beatles:

The album cover, the greatest album cover of all time (tied with Highway 61 Revisited). All it said was Meet the Beatles. That was exactly what I wanted to do. Those four half-shadowed faces, rock ’n’ roll’s Mount Rushmore, and . . . THE HAIR . . . THE HAIR. What did it mean? It was a surprise, a shock. You couldn’t see them on the radio. It is almost impossible to explain today the effect of . . . THE HAIR” (50).

Conclusion: Springsteen’s prose in the autobiography is filled with CAPITAL LETTERS, a style choice he makes to emphasize the IMPORTANT MOMENTS of REALIZATION. His lyrics probably don’t need to be capitalized; he can sing those LOUD for emphasis.

Finally, in both song lyrics and in prose, Springsteen serves up multiple examples of motifs he uses to communicate ideas. In writing about his upbringing and religion:

“In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward” (17).

A similar idea is expressed in the lyrics to Land of Hope and Dreams.

“Dreams will not be thwarted.
This train…
Faith will be rewarded.”

Of course, if we are talking about faith, here is yet another take on faith that Springsteen placed into a rhyming couplet for the lyrics of  Thunder Road:

Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night;
You ain’t a beauty but hey you’re all right.

That tone…those blunt, coarse, tender words…the casual-just-you-and-me attitude….the style of the voice that sang 508 pages of his life into my head….I hold the lighter up and beg for an encore: BRUUUCCCE!

It’s not you.

It’s the text.

It’s moving on…to another grade level.

“I just don’t understand why….” you catch your breath, “it’s been the only book I liked …no, I loved… to teach.”  

You pause, ‘Why does it have to leave?”

After all, you and the book have been together for school years. You have bonded during the pre-teaching stage, the author bio, and the background vocabulary. You were always excited to share the best part of the story with students, and they were engaged by your passion. But, the relationship is coming to an end. The book is leaving for any one of the following reasons:

 

  •  curriculum revisions with different texts
  • a move to a different grade level
  • to make way for new materials
  • replacement copies are not available 

You will have to clean out the banks of questions carefully organized by chapter, or the files stuffed with activities to go with the text. Your long ago plans for the bulletin board will need to change.

You have been told, “It’s about teaching the skills, not the content.”  But that seems a cold appraisal of a text that is more than content to you. Whether the book could be Lois Lowry’s historical novel Number the Stars or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, you have seen (and felt) how these texts have generated powerful connections for you and for the students.

At this low moment, however, you might consider that this break-up could be a good thing.

Frankly, you know too much.  and there is the slight possibility that you have been teaching YOUR version of the text. After all, you have done all the research. You have all the materials. You have all the answers.

Even more reasons as to why it is time to move on.

It’s time to remember how you fell in love with the book. That sense of discovery in learning the characters, rereading their experiences, delighting in the words. And while the thought of starting over can be overwhelming, there can also be a twinge of anticipation….a chance for discovery.

It’s time.

It’s time to start new, and in starting new you can give your students the opportunity to let the students do the research. Let the students find the materials. Let the student provide the answers.

There are new texts just waiting to be discovered: Wolf Hollow, Fish in a Tree, The March Trilogy. Maybe there are other classic characters just waiting to be introduced: Stone Fox, Guy Montag, Ponyboy.

You will be able to guide your students’ inquiry on any text you have not taught because you already know how to develop a relationship with a book. You can guide students as they discover how an author can engage and sustain their interest.  You can offer a chance for discovery to your students, and for yourself as well.

You remember how you fell in love with a book.

Now, use your breakup to show your students how to fall in love with a book on their own.

Today marks the 200th birthday of American writer (poet, essayist, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist) Henry David Thoreau. I remember my first encounters with Thoreau were traditional, his essays read in my high school English class. Soon after, my choice of for a quote under my yearbook photo (a serious decision made after much deliberation) was his:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

“That’s a rather depressing sentiment,” my Aunt Rita had commented.
“It’s what I believe,” I had replied.

Therefore, I was surprised to discover that although I have taught his essays and discussed his literary impact on American Literature,  I have not yet written on this blog about Henry David Thoreau.  This post will correct my oversight.

In 2013, I created a Livebinder for my seniors who were reading the Bill Bryson book A Walk in the Woods. A Livebinder is a digital file cabinet where anyone can upload or link materials for others to use. The about page explains their purpose:

“We created LiveBinders so that you could do with digital information what you do with the piles of papers on your desk – organize them into nice presentable containers – like 3-ring binders on your shelf. With our online binders you can combine all of your cloud documents, website links and upload your desktop documents – to then easily access, share, and update your binders from anywhere.”

The materials on Livebinders can be accessed on all digital platforms, so that students could access it on their own devices. My Walk in the Woods Livebinder allowed me to place the link Thoreau’s essay “On Walking” explained in its republication in The Atlantic magazine

“In May 1862, the magazine published ‘Walking,’ one of his [Thoreau] most famous essays, which extolled the virtues of immersing oneself in nature and lamented the inevitable encroachment of private ownership upon the wilderness.”

I still remember the opening phrase from the essay, “I wish to speak a word for Nature…”.
A student had grumbled, “There’s a lot more than one word here…”
His was an understatement. This particular Thoreau essay runs about 20 pages; a total of 12,188 words.

I did not require my students to read the entire essay, although I encouraged them to try. Instead I had them peruse the text until they found a passage that seemed interesting. They had to choose a quote, much like I had for my yearbook photo, that they found particularly profound and then write an explanation on why this quote was interesting or meaningful. . I still remember some of their choices, and their reflections on why they chose a particular passage such as:

  • Which is the best man to deal with—he who knows nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, knows that he knows nothing, or he who really knows something about it, but thinks that he knows all?
  • In short, all good things are wild and free. 
  • When we should still be growing children, we are already little men

I learned that Thoreau’s sentiments spoke to their frustrations of growing up, or being talked at by know-it-all adults. Many of my students were vocational agriculture students who wholeheartedly agreed with Thoreau’s attitude towards ditching the classroom and getting outside:

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.of having to spend time indoors.”

Using Thoreau’s essay “On Walking” was my attempt to complement Bill Bryson’s memoir of his hiking on the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods. Bryson’s writing was more accessible to the students than Thoreau’s 19th Century prose which is stuffed with allusions of all types. Unlike Thoreau, Bryson makes background instruction unnecessary.

Another accessible text for students was the picture book I placed on the Livebinder, the charming  Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B.Johnson.

Thoreau reimagined as a bear, enjoying Nature!

In this tribute to Transcendentalist philosophy, Johnson cast the naturalist Thoreau as a bear who hikes his way on a route (actually taken by the author), stopping to engage with several of his famous American neighbors (Alcott, Hawthorne, Emerson) also as bears. Henry’s bear companion chooses to work in order to take the train, setting up a story that implies money cannot buy the experience of nature. Students found the message profound, and unanimously agreed that a bear was the perfect choice for Thoreau.

I also placed links to a number of other essays by famous (British) writers on walking:

…and some (American) song lyrics on walking:

I asked students to find their own walking songs to share in class.

There was also an audio essay from the series “Engines of Our Ingenuity” based on an invention (using clay) that Thoreau used to make better pencil out of inferior graphite. Who could have been more inspired to make a better pencil than a writer who used pencils in his writing?

I had hoped that students would be equally inspired to see the connections that Henry David Thoreau had to their lives, to see how he had inspired Bill Bryson and others to take walks in nature. How he promoted Nature as a way for students to gain knowledge about themselves and the world around them…. To encourage others to spend time in the kind of thought that “transcends” or goes beyond what they may see, hear, taste, touch or feel.

My hope was that my students could have Thoreau explain the importance of self-knowledge, “… and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 

40 years after choosing that yearbook quote, I have not shifted in that belief.

This summer, I am shopping the CT summer library book sales with a specific genre and grade level in mind: historical fiction in grade 4.

If you are not already familiar with reading curriculum that incorporates the Reading Workshop model called Units of Study, then let me explain that the plan is to have our grade 4 students read historical fiction in book clubs this coming spring. That means all the classroom libraries in six elementary schools will need an increase in texts to allow students to choose books to read with each other.

Fortunately, the Cyrenius H. Booth Library book sale in Newtown, CT, with one of the most active library associations (read about the library’s history here)  had plenty to offer.

 

As this will be our first year implementing the Reading Units of Study in grade 4, I was not sure which historical fiction titles would be the most popular for student choice. Instead, I let my selections be guided by Connecticut’s Social Studies Framework which states as one of its 6 principles:

Social studies education has direct and explicit connections to the Common Core State Standards for English/language arts and literacy in history/social studies

The 4th grade social studies curriculum is dedicated to the study of the United States, the geography, history, and culture of our nation.

As I quickly eyed the piles of books, neatly lined, spines up, anything from the “Dear America” series seemed to fit that criteria. I located a number of titles of this series available, and I scooped up an entire box that included multiple copies (3-5 each) of:

Hope students will enjoy this historical fiction selection as much as I did!

I also secured a number of copies of the Laura Ingalls Wilder classic  Little House on the Prairie, a personal favorite of mine. There were copies of  Farmer Boy and Little House in the Big Wood for any student want to read more about the Westward Expansion. In addition, there were Michael Dorris titles that feature Native Americans: Sees Behind Trees and Morning Girl.  On top of my almost full cart, I added a layer of American Girl books: Meet Kaya! Meet Josephina! Meet Felicity! I did leave some of the American Girls for others to meet.

Noticing the heavy dose of serious historical events, I did add several individual copies of Jon Scieszka’s Time Warp Trio books….comedic time travel in history is still historical, as in See You Later, Gladiator!... right?

Once again, I must take time to compliment the volunteers who had the children’s book section alphabetized by author AND organized by series. This made my shopping a breeze…and I was at $99 (for 153 books) in a little less than an hour.

I asked Denise, the wonderful woman who tallied my purchases, if she was noticing a down turn in the number of books donated for sale this year. She indicated that the paperback trade books did seem to be less plentiful, but that “children’s books are still coming…” thank goodness!

What is remarkable is the amount of historical fiction there was for sale, an indication that this genre is popular for young readers in Newtown. Just living in this old New England town, settled in 1705 with Colonial homes lining many of the streets, makes them already familiar with American history!

last-stop“…and what is that award for?” the boy asked pointing to the right corner of the book.

I was showing students in a 2nd grade class the cover of the picture book Last Stop on Market Street, written by American author Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson.

The boy was pointing to a black medallion, pasted under the silver foil award marking the  2016 Caldecott Honor and under the gold foil award marking the 2016 Newbery Medal. He was pointing to the shiny black circle that marked the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, that lists the qualities of peace, non-violent social change, and brotherhood on its emblem.

“It has so many awards….and it’s only a few months old,” his classmate noted.

This fall, I have been reading Matt de la Peña’s story to students in different elementary grade levels.

The students are hooked from the beginning when the picture book’s hero CJ bursts through the church doors, and into the rain that “smells like freedom.”

They notice the white trunks of the birch trees, drawn to look like they are “drinking through straw.” They like Nana’s sharp retort as she grows irritated with CJ’s questions.

“Boy, what do we need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire.”

These repeated readings have made me aware that that CJ’s journey is a sophisticated journey. CJ travels through an urban landscape, a setting that is familiar to these students, but combined with same fantastic elements of an archetypal narrative pattern known as The Hero’s Journey. 

The Hero’s Journey or mono-myth was introduced by Joseph Campbell an American mythologist, who wrote in his most famous work The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949):

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

This narrative pattern of myth and legend has been followed by other characters on journeys. In the literary canon there are many examples such as  Odysseus (The Odyssey) and Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit). The same narrative pattern is seen also in film with Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars trilogy.

Campbell drew parallels between these journeys of legend in literature and mythology with the journeys that everyday heroes make. He suggested that the everyone in life meets complications and obstacles, but it is the individual who goes through each of the stages and completes them successfully who society regards as a hero of any kind.

The Hero’s Journey follows a pattern of adventures that are generally organized in 12 stages. There is evidence that de la Peña’s little hero CJ experiences each stage, even in the short text (32 pages) of this picture book:

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-10-24-53-pm1. Beginning in the Ordinary World

This is where the hero CJ begins his journey, oblivious of the adventures to come. We learn his his shortcomings; he complains  (“How come we don’t got a car?”) and he lacks the imagination of his Nana (“…he never saw a straw.”).

2. Call To Adventure

CJ’s adventure is a call to action, but the action is not clear until the end of the story.

3. Refusal Of The Call

Standing at the bus stop, CJ is uncomfortable.“How come we gotta…?” he complains to his Nana.

4. Meeting The Mentor

CJ’s  mentor figure is his Nana. She gives him whatever he needs: wise advice and self-confidence. She dispels his doubts and fears and gives him the strength and courage to continue his journey.

“Nana gave everyone a great big smile and a ‘good afternoon.’ She made sure CJ did the same.”

5. Crossing The Threshold

Climbing into the bus, CJ crosses the threshold between the world he is familiar with and that fantastic world which he is not. He climbs into the “…bus that breathes fire” and immediately the bus driver performs a magic trick with a coin.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies

As every hero on a journey, CJ  needs to find out who can be trusted and who can not, and these characters on the bus initially seem a little sketchy.

“They sat right up front.
The man across the way was tuning a guitar.
An old woman with curlers was holding butterflies in a jar.”

CJ is out of his comfort zone and is confronted with challenges that help the reader gain a deeper insight into his character. The characters he meets are illustrated: the guitar player, Bobo, and the lady with butterflies, the boys with earphones, the blind man, and the blind man’s dog.

7. Approach To The Inmost Cave

In the mono-myth, the hero must make final preparations before taking that final leap into the great unknown. That comes about when the man with the guitar begins to play, and CJ follows the advice of a blind man:

“To feel the magic of music,” the blind man whispered, “I like to close my eyes.”

screen-shot-2016-11-03-at-10-24-24-pm8. Ordeal

By closing his eyes, CJ experiences the mono-myth’s “metaphorical resurrection” that (literally) grants him the hero’s insight:

“And in the darkness, the rhythm lifted CJ out of the bus, out of the busy city.
He saw sunset colors swirling over crashing waves.”

9. Reward 

During this stage, CJ is transformed into a new state, emerging with the prize or elixir. The background illustration by Robinson is not an urban landscape, but a full page spread of CJ’s imaginings. The prize or elixir is magic of music that activates his imagination.

“CJ’s chest grew full and he was lost in the sound and the sound gave him the feeling of magic.”

10. The Road Back

At this stage in this hero’s journey, CJ returns with his reward.  According to the pattern, he may still need one last push back into the Ordinary World. This is the moment before the Hero finally commits to the last stage of his journey,  moment in which he must choose some higher cause. Here, CJ notices the “Crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors, graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores,” a stark contrast to the beauty that the elixir of music provided.

11. Resurrection

This is the climax of the picture book, the “a-ha” moment. Responding to his disappointment, CJ’s Nana tells him,

“Sometimes, when you’re surrounded by dirt, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

Her knowledge has far-reaching consequences to his ordinary world.

He wondered how his Nana always found beautiful where he never thought to look.”

12. Return With The Elixir

This is the final stage of the Hero’s Journey, which is now revealed to have been a journey to a soup kitchen. On this journey, CJ has grown as a person; he has learned many things. He is a fresh hope to others, and, like his Nana, can offer a solution to problems.

“I’m glad we came.”

The final reward that he obtains may be literal or metaphoric. Ultimately the hero CJ will return to where he started, but he has a new point of view, one of empathy.

You can see Matt de la Peña reading selections from the book here:

In proposing The Hero’s Journey, mythologist Joseph Campbell suggested that everyone goes through a series of challenges in life, but it is only the hero who successfully meets each challenge at each stage of the journey.  CJ is the literal and archetypal hero of Last Stop on Market Street, reminding all audiences, young 2nd graders and adults, that the hero can be anyone who makes that challenging journey and who returns to bring hope to his or her community.

CJ’s reward is Nana’s approval to his statement, “I’m glad we came.”
She responds, “Me too, CJ. Now come on.”

CJ’s reward as a hero in completing his journey is captured for all audiences in a picture book by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, in a picture book that is decorated with book awards.

Dan Brown has announced plans to release a young adult version of The Da Vinci Code.

The announcement was met with some critical commentary on Twitter:

How can people expect teenagers to read and write essays on Dickens but think that Dan Brown is too challenging?

Interesting that the tweet above compares Dan Brown with Charles Dickens. In the category of abridged novels, the author Brown has the edge…he has the opportunity to abridge his own work. The author Dickens has not.

While some may dispute an attempt to compare their literary work, it is true that both Brown and Dickens have been deemed successful authors.

Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (2003) has sold 82 million copies worldwide; two of his novels, Angels & Demons (2000), The Da Vinci Code (2003),have been adapted into films; Inferno (2013) is in film production.

Charles Dickens had three best-sellers to his name at age 27; he completed dozen major novels, short stories, plays, and several non-fiction books; his performance tour in the United States approximately $95,000.

Abridged Dickens

An abridgment is a condensing or reduction of a book or other creative work into a shorter form while maintaining the unity of the source
-Wikipedia

The abridging author selects what may or may not be important in original work in an attempt to recapture the tone and  message while making things easier for the reader.

There are multiple abridgments of Dickens’s novels and short stories. Like most 19th C writers, he is wordy. His style features multiple subordinate clauses or lists of descriptive elements that strung out sentence length. He also was offered financial incentives for increasing story length.

The following passage is from Stave One of a Christmas Carol. The words in blue are those that make up the abridged version on the LovingtoLearn (for grades 2-3) website:

The original version/abridged version:

“Oh!  But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind- stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!  Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.  The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.  A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin.  He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

“External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often came down handsomely, and Scrooge never did.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, `’My dear Scrooge, how are you. When will you come to see me.’ No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o’clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blindmen’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, ‘No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master! ”’

scrooge

Both passages were run through readability measures: Flesch-Kincaid,  Coleman-Liau Index SMOG IndexGunning-Fog ScoreAutomated Readability Index.
  • Dickens’s original version has 307 words/ 18 sentences/16.5 words per sentence. The passage is written at an 7.8 average grade level.
  • The abridged version or “children’s version” has 64 words/5 sentences/12.8 words per sentence. The passage is written at a  7.2  average grade level.

NOTE: There is no statistically significant difference between the original and abridged versions (grade levels 7.8-7.2 ) in readability; the only difference is in the length of the passage.

So, why bother?

What is Lost in Abridgment

Students who are given this “abridged version” of A Christmas Carol will still get Dickens’s message and plot. They will still learn about Scrooge’s redemption after the visits by three spirits. But in this single example they will miss experiencing some of the novella’s best figurative language:

  • Hard and sharp as flint (simile)
  • no steel had ever struck out generous fire (metaphor);
  • secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster (simile);
  • The cold within him (conceit or extended metaphor);
  • spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice (personification):
  • Foul weather didn’t know where to have him (personification).

Moreover, they would have missed a critical detail, that it was the blindmen’s dogs, seeking to protect their vulnerable masters from Scrooge, that would tug their masters into the doorways. Dickens himself, who had abridged this particular passage for public readings in the USA, included that small critical detail for a reason.

Ironically, when the Common Core State Standards for Reading Literature want to focus attention on author’s style and craft, the students offered an abridged version would have missed how well Dickens crafted his description of Scrooge.

Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code:

Dan Brown will have the opportunity to abridge his work, although the same readability measure used above confirms that his writing is already at the young adult 7.6 average grade reading level.  Take a  passage from Brown’s novel  from the opening chapter:

DaVinciCode cover“Almost immediately, a heavy fist pounded on Langdon’s door.

Uncertain, Langdon slid off the bed, feeling his toes sink deep into the savonniere carpet. He donned the hotel bathrobe and moved toward the door. ‘Who is it?’

‘Mr. Langdon? I need to speak with you.’The man’s English was accented—a sharp, authoritative bark. ‘My name is Lieutenant Jerome Collet. Direction Centrale Police Judiciaire.'”

The Da Vinci Code. Copyright 2003 by Dan Brown. Random House Publishers.

The passage above has 64 words/10 sentences/6.4 words per sentence. The average grade reading level falls into the range of Dickens; the difference between Brown and Dickens is the number of words in each sentence. The  difference again is that student needs to have stamina to read the complexity of Dickens extended sentences.

This means that tweets -like the one above criticizing Brown’s writing- are misleading. In the examples above, both authors are writing at roughly the same readability grade level average.

Abridged Version for the Young Adult

Ultimately, Dan Brown will have every opportunity to exercise his authorial voice in choosing what will be modified and what will remain in his abridged version. Given the maturity of some of his subject matter (description of Monsieur Saunière’s corpse; the murders by the monk/assassin Silas), there may be a toning down of the violence for younger audience. Young adult readers, however, have made publishers very aware that their tastes for blood (The Hunger Games, Twilight ) and conspiracy (Divergent) should be appreciated, and Brown may agree.

Regardless of what choices Brown makes, the excitement that surrounded the original The Da Vinci Code will not be duplicated. Brown may make his word choices more simple. His abridged book, as with the abridged versions of Dickens’s novels, will be shorter.  But, the YA version will not surpass the excitement of the original book The Da Vinci Code.
In competing with himself, Brown’s best chance is that his abridged version could be a tie with his original.

That is the best any abridged version-Brown or Dickens- could hope to be, a tie.

And a tie is, as the Michigan State football coach Duffy Daughtry once said, “like kissing your sister.”

It’s not a loss, but it’s not a win.
It’s a kiss…but it’s your sister.

Wednesday night, January 13. 82nd Street branch of Barnes and Noble Booksellers, NYC:

After a full morning of delivering professional development to the K-12 grade literacy team combined with an afternoon working with 6th grade teachers, I was getting my literary reward. I was sitting in the second row at an author event, listening to the writer Colum McCann (Thirteen Ways of Looking, Let the Great World Spin) interview the writer Elizabeth Strout (Abide with Me, Amy and Isabelle).

"There are writers that leave porous holes [in their works] with air pockets for the reader," said Colum McCann, introducing Elizabeth Strout, whose novel I am Lucy Barton was recently released. "She whispers, 'trust me I m going to take you somewhere' and when we get there..she has told me secrets."

“There are writers that leave porous holes [in their works] with air pockets for the reader,” said Colum McCann, introducing Elizabeth Strout, whose novel I am Lucy Barton was recently released. “She whispers, ‘trust me I m going to take you somewhere’ and when we get there..she has told me secrets.”

McCann was interviewing Strout about her latest novel I am Lucy Barton and it was obvious that they both were happy to be having this intimate conversation in a room packed with their fan base.

I slid into a seat saved by my loyal friend Catherine-traveling  2 hours and 40 minutes after the aforementioned teacher PD- to hear McCann begin the interview with the question:

“Elizabeth, are you happy?”

“Yes,” replied Strout, and for a brief and worrisome moment it seemed as if the interview would end with that response, but McCann pushed a little more on the relationship writers have with their readers….and proved to be charmingly deft at teasing out ideas:

  • On writing a narrative: (McCann)“There is a agreement that the writer will tell you some thing you sort of knew… you knew that you sort of knew, but now you know it.”

  • On telling secrets:( McCann) “Any good story teller is saying to the reader come with me, and I’ll tell you something….an intimacy.”

  • On writing about a writer: (Strout) “I don’t know how I do what I do, that’s why writers are boring…”

  • On the process of writing: (Strout) “We just don’t know what we are doing…but I know who is charge.”

  • On how we know we are writers: (McCann) “I don’t think what we know what we are going to do…until we do it it’s only when people tell us what we’ve done that we know what we have done.”

As I listened, I thought of how all the effort I had expended that afternoon (from train, to shuttle, to subway, and run) had been worth it. So many of these statements by contemporary authors might seem oddly disconcerting for middle and high school students, and I began to wonder what was the best way to share what they were saying.

Teachers know that many students are convinced that novels spring, “Athena-like”, fully-formed from the mind of the author.
There is little regard for craft. The idea that authors say that they “don’t know,”and are waiting to hear from readers to know what their writing means strains credulity.

Paradoxically, many of these same students also believe that some readers -or at least all English teachers-make too much of what the author meant: too much of the symbols and motifs and themes in literature. They are quick to contend that maybe the author “did not know” and just wrote without a plan. They reject the notion of craft.

The conversation I was hearing suggested that that the relationship between a writer and the student does not need the English Teacher filter…and that teachers need to get out of the way. Whether or not students will find it…author’s craft is there.

But, I digress…and so did they.

Strout spoke of the experience of having her book Olive Kitteridge turned into a film:

McCann: “Directors come and actors come….and they put a language on what you have done…is that odd…? Do you think, Like T.S. Eliot That’s not what I meant at all?”

Strout: “No…they did a wonderful job. When I saw the character Henry, I thought,’I know that Henry…I made that Henry…'”

McCann: “And are there Lucy Barton’s walking about?”

Strout: “Sweetie…She’s fictional.”

Fiction aside, Strout commented on how she intentionally writes about people struggling with an real obstacle…and one real obstacle she includes is class.

“How do people fit into the world?” she asked. “I like to write about class…The poverty that does not let people belong to a community. They exist more now; They are hungry. So much of our literature does not want to talk about poverty.”

Her sentiment, I suspect, is what initially frustrates students when they complain about the steady diet of what they consider “depressing literature.”

Both Strout and Mcann saw the issue of class differently, and spoke about the power of literature in developing empathy.
“We know what it like in a world without it,” Strout responded to an audience member’s question, “Literature can make us understand briefly for a moment what it is like to be another…. than that would be a wonderful wonderful thing.”

The audience murmured their agreement, and Mccann echoed his opening question:

“So, Elizabeth, are you happy?”

“I am,” she responded.

We all were.

It’s December, and in keeping with the season,  I had planned on a post celebrating Robert Frost’s poem “Christmas Trees”. Instead, however, I found myself on an inquiry path on a Frost holiday tradition.

I first inquired, what is the story behind Frost’s poem Christmas Trees?

The poem opens:

The city had withdrawn into itself  
And left at last the country to the country;  
When between whirls of snow not come to lie  
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove  
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,   
Yet did in country fashion in that there  
He sat and waited till he drew us out,  
A-buttoning coats, to ask him who he was.  
He proved to be the city come again  
To look for something it had left behind   
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.

The stranger asks to purchase Frost’s trees:

 He said, “A thousand.”  
  
“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”  
  
He felt some need of softening that to me:       
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”  

Rather than sell them, Frost conclusion is more metaphorical:

A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!  
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,  
As may be shown by a simple calculation.  
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.       
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,  
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

I found (on Poets.org) that beginning in 1929, Frost and the printer Joseph Blumenthal partnered up to produce beautifully illustrated Christmas cards featuring Frost’s poetry.  I was surprised to discover, as reported in the NYTimes, Blumenthal, who ran the Spiral Press of New York, created the first card without Frost’s knowledge:

“…he printed 250 copies—for his wife and a small group of colleagues—of a letterpress chapbook of Frost’s early poem “Christmas Trees.”

When the poet saw the publication, his first response was to contact Blumenthal and request a few copies to send out to his own family members: ‘My sympathies have been enlisted on the side of small presses and hand setting. My heart will be with you in your work’.”

A slideshow of the cards is available on the NYTimes website. This tradition continued for another 30 years, and the Frost-Blumenthal productions were holiday “greetings” in the form of chapbooks.

I then needed to inquire, why a chapbook?

I discovered that a chapbook was historically “a small pamphlet containing tales, ballads, or tracts, sold by peddlers” in contrast to its current contemporary meaning, “a small paperback booklet, typically containing poems or fiction.” These chapbooks are very simple, stapled in the center, with some illustrated covers.

The Blog Poetry and Popular Culture posted their inquiry about the chapbooks as well:

  • What was the annual press run?
  • Did the press have a list of subscribers committed to buying a set every year, and how much money did Blumenthal and Frost eventually make off of the limited editions?

I did find out on the Poets.org site that Blumenthal printed 275 copies of the first greeting, and the last, “The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics, the Commentators Merely by Statistics”  had an edition run of 16,555 copies. There was no collective information on the money exchanged, other than the note that the cards can sometimes be found for purchase on E-bay (example).

That led me to inquire, what other poems did Frost place into chapbooks?

Oher poems sent as chapbooks were “Birches,” “A Boy’s Will,” and “The Wood-Pile”. There was an exhibit of the chapbooks in 2012 at the Pequot Library in Southport, CT. The exhibit was titled “Good Wishes from Robert Frost” – a set of 19 chapbooks loaned by Elinor Wilber, granddaughter of the celebrated American poet Robert Frost. Several have a personal inscription from Frost to Elinor and her husband. A video showing these chapbooks is available here:

The video ends with a copy handwritten by Frost of his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

That led me to seek out a better copy of this manuscript, and my path of inquiry took me to the Library of Congress where there is a photo of the poem in its entirety:

Screenshot 2015-12-18 19.02.41

Robert Frost. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Holograph manuscript, n.d. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (195C)

 

 

 

 

This inquiry led me a different publisher. Frost’s Snow to Snow, was issued by in 1936 by Henry Holt & Company. They published twelve of Frost’s  verses, each one corresponding to a month of the year and ending with December’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

So how does one find out what the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” means?

I then decided to chase down the popular story (one that I have often repeated without checking its veracity) that Frost was in the audience of group of people listening to a lecture about the meaning of this poem.

I had heard that “The poem is about death,” the lecturer supposedly reported, and he continued for many minutes pointing out all the images related to death:”darkest evening” and  “sleep”. At the end of the lecture, there was an opportunity for questions and comments from the audience. Now (according to the rumor), Frost patiently waited his turn, and then firmly stated: “I wrote that poem. It is not about death. I was going home in the snow.”

As much fun as that rumored story is….I could not find anything to confirm it happening. I am chagrined that I have kept the rumor going.

However, I was relieved to find some form of confirmation in quotes from a book: Robert Frost an introduction: poems, reviews, criticism with quotes from Reginald Cook regarding this poem:

  •  “it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home.”…
  •  “I always thought,” he explains, “it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”
  • When a friendly critic asked if the last two lines in “Stopping by Woods” referred to going to Heaven, and, by implication, death, the poet replied, “No, all that means is to get the hell out of there.”

On this path of inquiry, I also discovered a video of Frost reading this poem. The introduction is by the radio host Garrison Keillor:


Susan Jeffers on Frost

My final thought on Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was of the picture book illustrated by Susan Jeffers that I read to my boys as part of our holiday preparation. The man in her rendition bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus and the little harness bells look very festive. I know Jeffers makes the poem more child-friendly than alternative interpretations!

Finally, to sum up Frost’s attitude towards analysis, in a letter to Louis Untermeyer (1964) in Robert Frost: A Backward Look, Frost writes:

You’ve often heard me say – perhaps too often – that poetry is what is lost in translation. It is also what is lost in interpretation. That little poem means just what it says and it says what it means, nothing less but nothing more.

Or, here is a more unceremonious statement in his own voice:

“….What are the promises?….If I wanted you to know, I would have told you in the poem.”

Therefore, on this post I offer no translations…and no interpretations. Here are discoveries-and at least one correction- on my inquiry journey of the winter poems of the aptly named Frost.

Happy Holidays!

The best holiday scenes in novels are sometimes unexpected. While some of these scenes may seem incidental, the Christmas tree scene in Betty Smith’A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) is anything but ancillary. Smith uses the sentimentality of Christmas to highlight the novel’s theme of tenacity.

Smith’s protagonist is the 10-year-old Mary Frances “Francie” Nolan, who is determined to rise above challenging circumstances of poverty, social class, and her father’s alcoholism. Coming of age novels like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are good choices to use with students, but educators may be dissuaded from assigning the novel as a whole class read because of its length (443 pages). The reading level (Lexile), however, is 810, a reading level appropriate for readers grade 5 and up, although some of situations and language are more suited for grades 8 and up.

With all the attention to the practice of “close reading” to improve comprehension, it is possible to have students read a single chapter, such as this Christmas chapter (Ch. 27), independent of the novel. Sharing this chapter can help students appreciate Smith’s storytelling.

For purposes of brevity, the text has been truncated into sequential sections below along with four questions that educators can use.

  1. So what does Smith “say” in the opening of the chapter?

“Christmas was a charmed time in Brooklyn…You have to be a child to know how wonderful is a store window filled with dolls and sleds and other toys. And this wonder came free to Francie. It was nearly as good as actually having the toys to be permitted to look at them through the glass window. Oh, what a thrill there was for Francie when she turned a street corner and saw another store all fixed up for Christmas!…”

Possible responses:

  • The setting is in borough of Brooklyn; city streets
  • Toys (dolls and sleds) for Christmas were in the store windows
  • Francie did not have the money to pay for the toys she saw

2. What interesting or unusual words does Smith use is explaining Francie’s challenge ?

“There was a cruel custom in the neighborhood. It was about the trees still unsold when midnight of Christmas Eve approached. There was a saying that if you waited until then, you wouldn’t have to buy a tree; that “they’d chuck ’em at you.” This was literally true. At midnight on the Eve of our dear Saviour’s birth, the kids gathered where there were unsold trees. The man threw each tree in turn, starting with the biggest….If a boy didn’t fall down under the impact, the tree was his. If he fell, he forfeited his chance at winning a tree.”

Possible responses:

  • “Cruel custom” taking place on the “Eve of our dear Saviour’s birth”
  • “they’d chuck ‘em at you”
  • Forfeit; impact

3. How does the Smith play with language in the following section?

“Francie stepped forward. ‘Me, Mister.’

A spurt of derisive laughter came from the tree man. The kids snickered. A few adults who had gathered to watch the fun, guffawed.

‘Aw g’wan. You’re too little,’ the tree man objected.

‘Me and my brother-we’re not too little together.’ She pulled Neeley forward. The man looked at them a thin girl of ten with starveling hollows in her cheeks but with the chin still baby-round.

‘Two ain’t fair,’ yelped Punky.

‘Shut your lousy trap,’ advised the man who held all power in that hour. ‘These here kids is got nerve.’

The others made a wavering lane… a human funnel with Francie and her brother making the small end of it. The man flexed his great arms to throw the great tree. He noticed how tiny the children looked at the end of the short lane.

Possible responses:

  • “Aw g’wan” captures the dialect of the tree vendor; the man who held all power in that hour
  • “it was a human funnel”-metaphor
  • “a girl with with starveling hollows in her cheeks”-descriptive imagery

4. So, what does Smith want the reader to understand?

For the split part of a moment, the tree thrower went through a kind of Gethsemane. “Oh, Jesus Christ,” his soul agonized, “why don’t I just give ’em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ’em go? …..”But then,” he rationalized, “if I did that, all the others would expect to get ’em handed to ’em. They’d all wait to get ’em handed to ’em on a silver plate…I ain’t big enough to do a thing like that. I gotta think of myself and my own kids.” He finally came to his conclusion….”Them two kids is gotta live in this world. They got to learn to give and to take punishment….”

At this point in the text, Chapter 27 is not an incidental Christmas event; instead, it stands as representing the novel writ large. Smith choses to use the internal monologue of a man heaving the last of unsold trees at two small children in a perverse act of charity on Christmas Eve to represent all the challenges Francie faces in the novel:

“As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, ‘It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!’

But Francie does not buckle:

“Francie saw the tree leave his hands. There was a split bit of being when time and space had no meaning. The whole world stood still as something dark and monstrous came through the air. The tree came towards her blotting out all memory of her ever having lived. There was nothing-nothing but pungent darkness and something that grew and grew as it rushed at her. She staggered as the tree hit them. Neeley went to his knees but she pulled him up fiercely before he could go down. There was a mighty swishing sound as the tree settled. Everything was dark, green and prickly. Then she felt a sharp pain at the side of her head where the trunk of the tree had hit her. She felt Neeley trembling. When some of the older boys pulled the tree away, they found Francie and her brother standing upright, hand in hand.”

Students cannot help but admire Francie’s tenacity in confronting the physical force of the tree. Her determination is so powerful that she stands for two, “pulling him [Neeley] up fiercely” and standing “hand in hand”.

Film still from the Christmas tree scene from the film "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn"

Film still from the Christmas tree scene from the film “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945)

Francie wins the great tree and as she drags the enormous prize home with Neeley, they are cheered on by well-wishers from the neighborhood.

Smith closes the chapter by reminding the readers that this victory for Francie’s will be short-lived; the challenges of poverty will still be with her:

“There was no money to buy tree decorations or lights. But the great tree standing there was enough. The room was cold. It was a poor year, that one-too poor for them to buy the extra coal for the front room stove. The room smelled cold and clean and aromatic. ….. she sat there and enjoyed the smell and the dark greenness of it.”

True to type, Chapter 27 shares what all Christmas stories share, a miracle…with its element of mystery:

“Oh, the mystery of a great tree, a prisoner in a tin wash bucket in a tenement front room!”

In reading this chapter, students may want to continue to read about Francie, who will, unlike the great tree, not be a prisoner of the tenement…her determination stands.

The advertisement for the 55th Annual Mark Twain Library Labor Day Weekend Book Fair read,

“A large collection of Art books, Environment & Nature, Baseball books, many handsome sets and thousands of CHILDREN’s books..”

I want to make a correction to this advertisement.
There are 300 less children’s books at this book sale because there are 300 books in my car.
By next week those 300 books will be distributed into classroom libraries in grade 4-10 for independent reading.

The Mark Twain Library Book Sale in Redding, Connecticut, claims to be “the oldest – and one of the largest – in New England:”

The history of the sale begins with its namesake, Mark Twain in 1908. When Twain (Samuel Clemens) moved to Redding in 1907, he had more books than would fit in his new home so he donated over a thousand to start the Library. When Twain passed away in 1910, his daughter Clara donated more books for sale, and 107 years later, the Book Fair is still one of the library’s principal fundraisers.

This oldest book sale is also one of the best run in the state.

The sale is held in easily accessible Redding Heritage Community Center. As one entered, volunteers provided maps that detail the book table layout, from mystery selections to travel guides to a table marked ephemera.

The fiction tables in the adult section were organized by author (which made fast finding for copies of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). Of course, having the hardcovers and trade paperbacks grouped together could be part of a sociological study in recent popular reading trends as evidenced by multiple copies of the The Stieg Larsson Trilogy/Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series (the fascination apparently over). There were wide aisles to accommodate the “book sale bump”- a result of patrons trying to read titles while carrying overloaded bags or boxes.

The volunteer help was outstanding; students (middle-high school aged) manned tables to tally books or straighten shelves. Rather than shy away, they approached shoppers with retail-like patter, “Would you like a box to place your holdings?” They checked book prices book-by-book and reloaded bags once they finished counting. Their adult supervisors handled several cashier’s tables. Outside, there were boy scouts who sold baked goods and (predictably) asked if patrons needed help carrying books to cars.

This book sale was one smooth operation.

My finds?

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

Capturing interest from STAR WARS films

One large box filled with a variety (40+) of Star Wars related books. I am anticipating renewed interest with the December (18th, 2015) release of The Force Awakens.
10 neatly stacked copies of Jeanette Walls’s powerful memoir of her homeless parents in The Glass Castle for a Grade 12 English course.
5 copies of Under the Same Sky ( 2005) by Cynthia DeFelice which deals with migrant Mexican workers on an upstate New York farm; ideal for a small book group or lit circle. (Good story; horrible book cover).
Multiple copies of books from R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series and from Rick Rioden’s Percy Jackson series.

IMG_0697

Selection of high interest titles

Final price for 300 good quality, high interest books for independent reading libraries in grades 4 through 10?

$313.00.

Thank you, Mark Twain Library Book Sale Library volunteers. As your founder stated, “We believe that out of the public school grows the greatness of a nation.” (see post)

I know that greatness of a nation starts and continues with the practice of reading.
Your efforts will be felt in many public school classrooms in Connecticut not so far away.