I generally feel I’ve got a good sense for what books work for children and was surprised when a group of teachers told me that they thought Suzanne Collins’ Year of The Jungle: Memories from the Home Front (Scholastic) was really a book for adults. I felt that her memoir about the year her father went to Vietnam was so anchored in an authentic child perspective that students would understand and be engaged in her telling.
“Maybe older children?” I suggested to these teachers.
They insisted that it was an author’s idea of a book for children. I hovered between thinking I’d really blown it and having a certainty that children would find it meaningful. So I spoke to one of the most amazing teachers I know and asked her if I might be able to take the book for a test drive in her classroom.
She is no ordinary teacher and they are no ordinary children! She is inventive, curious and in equal measures nourishes their hearts and minds. All year she has stimulated their learning. One day, for example, I happened into her classroom as she introduced marine animals with slews of samples she’s collected at the beach. She passed around plastic bags containing samples and told amazing scientific facts like they were stories and she was in the midst of a giant show and tell.
She responds just as playfully to her students’ emotional needs. When her 5th graders began the school year and couldn’t list what they were good at, she instituted the I Can cans. Now, weekly students stuff their cans with all the new things they can do.
My friend explained to her students how we’d known each other for years and how she’d volunteered them to help me examine this book. I had hardly explained what I planned to do when one 5th grader ran up and hugged me. I was confused until he told me that he thought I was Suzanne Collins. I felt royally welcomed by this greeting and we all laughed a bit. (Suzanne Collins, there is a fifth grade boy in Raleigh who loves you for your books!)
Reading the book aloud for first time with students, it became different for me. For one thing, I saw how many times Collins’ inferences invite readers in. When trick-or-treating, for example, a woman gives the young heroine with way too much candy. These 5th graders were able interpret this action as an expression of how people felt sorry for her. It’s also a great example of how the author maintains the point of view of a young child who is constantly overwhelmed by the world around her, even a situation that would normally please young trick-or-treaters.
The timing of my read aloud turned out to be perfect as the students were on the verge of studying the Civil War and writing memoirs. This teacher, fabulous at making connections, increased the book’s meaning while highlighting their upcoming studies by extending Collins description of how her father is “there and not there” when he returns from Vietnam. One student identified this as PTSD and their teacher told us that in the Civil War this was referred to as a “soldier’s heart.”
My intention was to frame our discussion by an activity I call, “Did you love, like or hate this book?” In this activity students cite reasons for their feelings about a book. The students made some great points, but we all became most intrigued by a discussion of how old a child should be to understand this book.
“2nd grade,” said one child.
“Do you think a 2nd grader might be scared by the ideas?” I wondered.
One child raised her hand. “My father, died in second grade, and I didn’t know what was going on. I was so confused. I think this book would have helped me because I knew the fear she wrote about, but it would scare other kids.”
I often tell children, “I’m falling in love with your mind.” I told this child, “You are so brave to speak about this, I think I’ve fallen in love with your heart.”
Her courage and the environment this teacher had set allowed children to voice their sadnesses in safety including one girl who had never spoken about her father leaving and never returning, “And I still feel confused,” she finished, her eyes tearing.
I left the classroom in awe of our discussion, their courage, and their remarkable teacher!