Reading & Teaching Esperanza

My daughter is reading Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan in her 6th grade ELA class and since it’s been on my list of books to read for a couple of YEARS I decided to read it with her.  It is a story that draws readers in almost immediately, and one that many can identify with and that many of us can learn from.  I found the audiobook version on YouTube (see below) and plan on playing it for my younger daughter.

You can find numerous teaching resources online (here’s one from Scholastic) and it would be perfect for lessons in character, perseverance, historical fiction, immigration, the Great Depression, or Mexican culture.  I love that my daughter’s ELA teacher has parents bring in various food items that serve as chapter titles so students can try different foods.  (A more elaborate activity could be to have students/parents bring in food items for a fiesta like the one detailed in the book.  Guest speakers from the community can also be invited to talk about their immigration experience or any personal connections they might have to this time in history.)

Other topics mentioned in the book that can be further discussed

  • Class divides: Why does Esperanza say that in Mexico there’s a river between her and Miguel?  Does the same divide exist in the US?
  • Immigration, migrant workers
  • Working conditions for migrant workers: Why do workers strike? What are pros and cons of striking?
  • Segregation
  • Dust storms
  • Discussion of various symbols in the book — the mountains and valleys in the blanket Esperanza is crocheting, the meaning behind her name, etc.
  • Other books about characters that had to persevere through difficult circumstances… For example, read Listening for Lions (Gloria Whelan) or The Higher Power of Lucky (Susan Patron) and discuss similarities and differences between the stories and characters.

5 Questions: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Bowing to pressure from outraged parents and after inquiries from the Daily News, the principal of Public School/Middle School 114 announced the book was no longer required summer reading. ‘It was like “Fifty Shades of Grey” for kids,’ said Kelly-Ann McMullan-Preiss, who refused to let her son read the book.

Read more:

REALLY?!?  This book is about many things, but the last thing it is is “Fifty Shades”…nor is it about masturbation, or teen swearing.

Anyone who has actually READ this book knows that it’s about growing up, racism, alcoholism, poverty, friendship, family, love, hope/desperation, courage, finding your identity, and many, many more. This was my favorite book this summer. Yes, it contains f-bombs and references to sex but it is not used gratuitously, I promise!  You can like or dislike the book — everyone is entitled to that — but let it not be because a) you haven’t read it or b) a word you didn’t like was mentioned a few times.

Below is my reading response for the book, written for my YA course this summer.

Favorite part/scene of the novel….

I loved Alexie’s use of humor to offset the hopelessness and desperation Junior (and those living on the reservation) feels.  This is often seen in the cartoons Junior draws, which serve as lighthearted commentary on the important events and people in life.  They are full of sarcasm (e.g. p. 51, 107, 124) and keen observations (especially portraits of Junior’s family and friends: those of his parents on p. 12, of his sister on p. 27, and of his grandmother on p. 69).  The narrative contains many funny moments too.  One of the saddest part of the book – when the reservation held a wake for Junior’s grandmother after she was killed by a drunk driver – was filled with laughter:  Billionaire “Ted” had shown up for the wake with a long-winded, affected story about how he came to be in possession of Grandmother Spirit’s dance outfit, only to be told that she was never a dancer, and that, contrary to what his expert had told him, the beadwork and design looked more Sioux than Spokane.  And just like that, the tone of the chapter turns from somber to light:

Two thousands Indians laughed at the same time.  We kept laughing.
It was the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.
And I realized that, sure, Indians were drunk and sad and displaced and crazy and mean, but dang, we knew how to laugh.
When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.

To me, this passage (p. 166) is a perfect summation of the tone of this book – a marriage of light and dark, laughter and tears.

How did the book make you feel and what thoughts did it make you have…relate to personal experiences…

I am especially drawn to the theme of duality in this book, the duo identity that Junior grapples with.  I loved the cartoon on p. 166 — one side of the face laughing, one side crying — but also p. 43 — the signage pointing one way to REZ/HOME and one to HOPE/??? – and p. 57 – a split drawing of a white boy on one side and an Indian boy on the other.  The white boy has labels such as “a bright future”, “hope”, and “positive role models”, while the Indian boy has labels such as “a vanishing past”, “a family history of diabetes and cancer”, and “bone-crushing reality”.  This struggle for identity is also shown on p. 182, in the cartoon showing Junior playing basketball.  On the one where he was playing on the rez, he is depicted as the devil or “white-lover”.  On the other side, he is playing at Reardan and is depicted as an angel.  In both pictures, he is thinking, “Who am I?”

Junior and many other characters in the book frequently have to contend with duo-identity issues (his sister Mary, Rowdy, even his parents, who go back and forth between sober and drunk).  Do they stay on the rez knowing that they’ll be stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty, drunkenness, and hopelessness?  Or do they leave, knowing that they’ll be considered traitors?  Even after Junior makes the decision to leave, he struggles with who he really is and where he truly belongs.  Being an immigrant myself, I often wrestle with the same question, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that there’s no good answer – one just ends up feeling pulled in all sorts of directions.  I loved Junior’s epiphany near the end of the book (p. 217):

I realized that sure, I was a Spokane Indian.  I belonged to that tribe.  But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants.  And to the tribe of basketball players.  And to the tribe of bookworms.
And the tribe of cartoonists.
And the tribe of chronic masturbators.
And the tribe of teenage boys.
And the tribe of small-town kids.
And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.
And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers.
And the tribe of poverty.
And the tribe of funeral-goers.
And the tribe of beloved sons.
And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends.
It was a huge realization.
And that’s when I knew that I was going to be okay.

Consider whether or not this novel would appeal to today’s teens. If so, why and to which group? Think about where the novel fits into the YA spectrum. Middle school? High school? Boys? Girls? Reluctant Readers? Only fans of certain genre? 

I believe this book would appeal to today’s teens, since it addresses many issues that teens deal with today: alcoholism, poverty, abuse, racism, etc.  According to Alexie’s 2011 Speakeasy article, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood”, he has met with many young readers who found solace and hope in reading Part-Time Indian.  Boys might be especially drawn by the sports references in the book and the male characters/friendships.  That said, boys and girls alike who have dealt with identity issues as well as those mentioned above will find themselves in these pages.  This book might appeal to reluctant readers and fans of graphic novels/cartoons (the art adds volumes to the text).  Reviewers recommend this book for middle-schoolers and up.


The Hello, Goodbye Window: Norton Juster

The Hello, Goodbye Window

Author: Norton Juster
Illustrator: Chris Raschka
Publisher: Hyperion
Publication Year: 2005
Brief Summary: A little girl spends time at her grandparents’ kitchen window, playing games, watching stars, and saying hello and goodbye to passersby.
Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Ideas for using this book in classroom or library and/or brief notes on curriculum connections/content learning standards/Common Core, etc.:

  • What do you see outside your window?  How might this be different depending on where you live?  What could you see outside the window of an apartment/cottage/cabin in the woods/suburban house/highrise building, etc.?  Discuss different kinds of communities/housing.

Special features included (if applicable) — index; timeline; author’s notes; further reading; etc.   

Accessed at: Thrasher Elementary School

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble: William Steig

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

Author/Illustrator: William Steig
Publisher: Little Simon
Publication Year: 1969
Brief Summary: When Sylvester finds a magic pebble, he uses it to escape a lion, only to be turned into a rock, with no foreseeable way of returning to his original form.
Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Emphasis on Reading: A Children”s Choice Book Award Program, 1982-1983′ ‘ Winner’ ‘ Grades K-1’ ‘ Alabama’ ‘
Randolph Caldecott Medal, 1970′ ‘ Winner’ ” ‘ United States’

Ideas for using this book in classroom or library and/or brief notes on curriculum connections/content learning standards/Common Core, etc.:

  • Would you like a magic pebble like Sylvester?  If you were to encounter a lion, how would you get out of the situation?
  • Is there a moral to this story?  What lesson did Sylvester learn through his adventure?

Accessed at: Personal Library

House Held Up By Trees: Ted Kooser


House Held Up By Trees

Author/Illustrator: Ted Kooser/Jon Klassen
Publisher: Candlewick
Publication Year: 2012
Brief Summary: An once-well-maintained house starts to decline once its inhabitants move out.
Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Governor General”s Literary Awards, 2012′ ‘ Finalist’ ‘ Children”s Illustration-English’ ‘ Canada’ ” New York Times Best Illustrated Children”s Books, 2012′ ‘ Winner’ ” ‘ United States’ ” ‘
Booklist Book Review Stars , Feb. 15, 2012 ; American Library Association
Booklist Top 10 Books on Sustainability for Youth, 2013 ; American Library Association

Ideas for using this book in classroom or library and/or brief notes on curriculum connections/content learning standards/Common Core, etc.:

  • How did the man in the story care for his house and surroundings?
  • Why caused the house to start its decline?  How did it come to be surrounded by trees and brushes when the yard was empty before?  (Seeds that were blown onto the yard were not weeded and were allowed to grow freely, etc.)
  • Discuss how nature takes care of itself vs. what happens to man-made things when they are neglected.

Accessed at: Vancouver Public Library

The Happy Hocky Family!: Lane Smith

The Happy Hocky Family!

Author/Illustrator: Lane Smith
Publisher: Viking
Publication Year: 1993
Brief Summary: A collection of short, funny stories about the Hocky family and sometimes their visitors.
Awards, Honors and Prizes: Parents” Choice Award, 1997′ ‘ Gold’ ‘ Paperback’ ‘ United States’ ” ‘

Ideas for using this book in classroom or library and/or brief notes on curriculum connections/content learning standards/Common Core, etc.:

  • Discuss families and family members.  What is your immediate family?  Distant relatives/extended family?
  • In this story, does the Hocky family like their neighbors?  Why or why not?  How can you tell?
  • Why did the kids try to get their grandma to open the window wide, really wide?  How can you tell?
  • After the family visits the zoo, what happened to their dog?

Special features included (if applicable) — index; timeline; author’s notes; further reading; etc.   

Accessed at: Thrasher Elementary Library

Like Jake and Me: Mavis Jukes

Like Jake and Me

Author: Mavis Jukes
Illustrator: Lloyd Bloom
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Year: 1984
Brief Summary: A boy named Alex has a hard time bonding with his stepfather until a spider comes along.
Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Award, 1985′ ‘ Winner’ ‘ Children”s Literature’ ‘ United States’ ” ‘
John Newbery Medal, 1985′ ‘ Honor Book’ ” ‘ United States’ ” ‘
Children’s Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, 2001 ; H.W. Wilson
Recommended Literature: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, 2002 ; California Department of Education

Ideas for using this book in classroom or library and/or brief notes on curriculum connections/content learning standards/Common Core, etc.:

  • Not sure if I’d keep this book in my collection since in one of the pages the boy’s stepfather gets completely naked in order to find the spider…might meet with challenges from parents or school administrators.  That said, this might be a good book for child struggling with stepparent relationship or blended family relationships.

Special features included (if applicable) — index; timeline; author’s notes; further reading; etc.   

Accessed at: Thrasher Elementary Library