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.
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Hush: Eishes Chayil (aka Judy Brown)

Hush

Author: Eishes Chayil (also known as Judy Brown)

Publisher: New York : Walker

Publication Year: 2010

Brief Summary: Haunted by memories of her childhood friend’s rape and suicide, Gittel begins to question the close-knit religious community she has grown up in and overcomes her own guilt and fears by finally breaking her silence.  Based on true events and Brown’s own experience of growing up in the Chassidic sect.

Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Personal Comments:  The beginning chapters — filled with Yiddish vocabulary and detailed explanation of the religion and its history — might be hard for some readers to get through.  Those who persevere are rewarded with a powerful and well-written story about child abuse, religious fanaticism, fear and intolerance, friendship, and human courage.  Parents with young children might find this book especially difficult to read — Brown does not soften the harsh realities brought on by sexual molestation, the suffering and shame of victims, the frustrations, the desperation, helplessness, and anger they feel, etc.  Readers are forced to examine ourselves — because at the end of the day, this is not just a story about one specific community or religion, but one that can be told about any community we might find ourselves in and about any issue that we might be denial about, be it sexual abuse, eating disorders, bullying, etc.  Are we doing enough to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves?  Are we willing to shine a light on darkness even if it means going out of our comfort zone or going against what our family or friends expect of us?  Are we going to choose silence or follow blindly out of fear, or stand up and advocate for others with “valor”?  (Eishes Chayil means woman of valor.)

Near the end of the book, Gittel has just started her fight against the religious leaders of her community (as well as her family) in an effort to bring awareness to the problem of sexual abuse.  Her sister calls to scream at her.  How dare she speak against the rabbis?  How dare she speak about something that happened ten years ago and people have forgotten about?  How dare she put her family to shame and destroy all of their reputations by breaking her silence?  The sister forbids Gittel to go near her children with “that garbage mouth of [hers]”.  There are many great lines and passages in Hush (including Gittel’s letter to Devory that she sends in to the community paper); this was the one that opened the floodgate of tears.  After Gittel’s sister slams the phone down, Gittel begins to weep.  Yankel, her newlywed husband — whom she’d only met for 20 minutes before becoming engaged to him, at the age of 18, whom grew up in the same community where no one questions the rabbis or the religious teachings — comforts Gittel by saying this:

You are the Eishes Chayil…  You are the real one.  You are the only one protecting the children, and that is what a real mother does.

Audience: Due to the disturbing/graphic nature of this book, I would recommend this book to mature readers high school and older.  High school English classes might consider doing this as a class read-aloud or book project.

Helpful Links:

  • Eishes Chayil’s Huffington Post article on Orthodox Jewish child abuse
  • Author’s note about the writing of Hush (the same that was included at the end of the book)
  • Article from the Jewish Week about sexual abuse in the Orthodox community
  • Review in Jewish Action (Magazine of the Orthodox Union)
  • Hush pathfinder, developed by Sarah Hannah Gomez at Simmons College

Other notes:

  • The only thing I didn’t particularly like about Hush is the appearance of Devory’s “ghost” as she haunts Gittel and finally implores her into revealing the truth.  This is probably because I have just recently read Wintergirls by Lori Halse Anderson, a book also featuring two best friends separated by death and ghostly visits.  I feel Brown could have easily relayed the idea of Gittel’s guilt and anguish without these almost cliched hauntings.

Excerpts from Professional Reviews…

The story and the writing bring light to the nuances of the issues with insight and sensitivity. The development of the main character, the sense of place of the Chassidic community, and the ending, which brings closure without being unrealistically happy or trite, are all handled well. While intrinsically Jewish, this book could just have easily been written about another insular group or the Catholic priest scandal. Hush is highly recommended for mature teen readers. (Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter)

Family and social life within today’s Chassidic community are portrayed with affection for the warmth and the enduring values but with a clear eye for the vulnerability of the young and the hurt. When Gittel finally does try to tell her friend’s story, she comes up against the powerful men of the community. It is fitting that it is through the written word that both Gittel and the author are able to speak for the Devorys of the world. (School Library Journal)

Gripping, fascinating and poignant, the book is bravely written. …An extremely well-crafted story that keeps you turning pages. (Teenreads.com)

It is not always a pleasant or easy read, but it is a powerful, gripping young adult novel that demonstrates that sexual abuse can happen anywhere, even in an insular, devoutly religious community. (Children’s Literature)

For the reader who is willing to stick with this complex novel, it will strike a deep emotional chord. (VOYA)

Accessed at: Personal Library

NPR.org » How One Unkind Moment Gave Way To ‘Wonder’

I love the line “When given a choice to be right or kind, choose kind.”  What an important lesson for not only our children, but ourselves as well!  Here’s more from NPR’s interview with R. J. Palacio, author of Wonder.

http://www.npr.org/2013/09/12/221005752/how-one-unkind-moment-gave-way-to-wonder

Homeless Bird: Gloria Whelan

Homeless Bird

Author: Gloria Whelan

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication Year: 2000

Booktalk:

Imagine marrying a person you’ve never met.

Imagine finding out that your new husband is very sick.

Imagine that when he dies, just a few weeks after your wedding day, you become a nobody… someone who is considered unlucky, someone that no one would ever dare to love again.

Imagine being abandoned in a strange city, with a …imagine having to survive on the streets, with just a sleeping roll and $1 – just one dollar! – in your hand.

Now imagine that all of this happens before your 14th birthday.

Set in India, Gloria Whelan’s Homeless Bird tells the story of Koli, a girl whose family considered her a burden.  At 13, she is married off to Hari in an arranged marriage.  Only after the wedding did she find out that the groom – a boy about her age – is dying, and that her in-laws wanted her only for what little dowry she could bring.  They use the money to travel to the holy waters of the Ganges, which they believe would miraculously heal Hari.

When Hari and his dad die, and his younger sister is married herself, her mother-in-law does what is many do with “unlucky” widows – she abandons Koli in a city called Vrindavan, where thousands of widows like her (young or old) live out the remainder of their lives on the streets, struggling to survive.

Whelan’s story paints a vivid, and oftentimes heartbreaking, story of Koli’s short-lived marriage, her friendships with the most unlikeliest people, her strained relationship with her mother-in-law, her despair after becoming homeless, and her will to survive.  What do you guys think you would do, if you were in her shoes?  What do you think happens to her?  Find out, when you take home Gloria Whelan’s Homeless Bird.

Awards, Honors and Prizes:

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

  • Discussions on India: geography, history, culture/customs, etc.  What are some problems it is facing today?  What are some of its accomplishments?  Discuss the caste system in Inida — what does it mean?  how does it work?  How might the caste system dictate how people’s lives turn out?
  • Discuss child marriages in India (as well as other countries such as Ethiopia) and its implications (girls who are forced into child marriages often lose their chance to become educated, etc.)  What are some ways you, as a student in America, can bring about positive changes for girls in a different country?  Older students can explore different ways to get involved in advocacy — through literature, visual arts, music, film, photography, drama, etc.
  • We might not have “child marriages” in the US, but what are some ways that prevent children in getting an education here?
  • Watch clips from the film “Girl Rising” and discuss.  (Another clip about child marriages/education — this one about a girl in Ethiopia — can be seen here.)  What is it like for girls in some of the countries in the film?  How are their lives different from those of girls in America?  (Some scenes/content can be disturbing…use clips according to the school’s guidelines/rules.)
  • What were some things Koli did in order to survive?  How did she use her skills/resources to build a life for herself?
  • Link to discussion guide.  
  • Recommended for readers 10 and up.  Will primarily appeal to girls, students interested in India, and reluctant/struggling readers.  Would work well as a class read-aloud as a way of introducing a different culture, world issues such as poverty, women’s right to education, women’s equality movement, etc.  Could be an inspiration for kids who want to change the world.

Accessed at: Personal Library

Listening for Lions: Gloria Whelan

Listening for Lions

Author: Gloria Whelan

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication Year: 2005

Brief Summary: This historical novel tells the story of 13-year-old Rachel, whose missionary parents died in the 1919 influenza epidemic of East Africa.  Orphaned and alone, she is tricked into living a lie by the Pritchards, who forced Rachel to assume the identity of their dead daughter in order to receive a handsome inheritance.  Rachel has dreams of her own — including returning to Africa as a woman doctor.  Will she outsmart the Pritchards and their wicked scheme, or is she doomed to become prey to others’ traps?

Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Great Lakes Great Books Award, 2007 Honor Book Grades 4-5 Michigan
Best Children’s Books of the Year, 2005 ; Bank Street College of Education
Booklist Book Review Stars , May 15, 2005 ; American Library Association
Children’s Books 2005: One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing, 2005 ; New York Public Library
Children’s Catalog, Nineteenth Edition, 2006 ; H.W. Wilson
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Supplement to the Ninth Edition, 2006 ; H.W. Wilson Company

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

  • Discussion of British colonialism in Africa.  What does this mean for the Brits?  For the natives?  What are some of its implications?  Older students can do further research about the history of colonialism in Africa and discuss this part of history from different perspectives.
  • Discuss the theme of “freedom” and what it may mean to various characters in the book.  What kind of metaphors for freedom can you find in the book?
  • Discuss the history of women in medicine…why do you think women were not allowed to practice medicine earlier in history?  The book discusses some of the reasons…do you agree with these or not?  Hold a mock debate with students researching and arguing from both sides.
  • What are some ways Rachel is able to overcome the adversity in her life?  Discuss goal-setting and practical ways to achieve your goals.
  • What lessons does Rachel learn about truth vs. dishonesty?  How did she feel when she pretended to be Valerie?  How did she feel when she finally revealed the truth?
  • Students may be encouraged to do further research on one of the animals/plants mentioned in this book.  The class could read the novel together and go onto do individual research projects on animals/plants in Africa/Britain…perhaps discussing how animals/plants are same/different in Africa and Britain (due to climate, habitat, people’s philosophies, etc.).  For example, animals roam free in Africa but are held captive in Britain; flowers grow wild in Africa vs. formal English gardens; flowers that grow in Britain cannot survive in Africa, etc.  How does Whelan use these differences to support the themes in this book?
  • Students can be encouraged to read other orphan stories or other stories about Africa.
  • Author’s note and glossary are included in the back of the book.
  • Link to HarperCollins teaching guide.  
  • Recommended for readers 10 and up.  Will primarily appeal to girls, students interested in Africa, students who like mysteries/suspense, and reluctant/struggling readers.  Would work well as a class read-aloud.

Gentle, nostalgic, and fueled with old-fashioned girl power, this involving orphan story will please fans of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic The Secret Garden (1912) and Eva Ibbotson’s The Star of Kazan (2004). (Booklist)

Listening for Lions is a quiet story that roars in its ability to help readers make sense of hardships that befall humankind. It speaks softly but leaves a lasting impression of strength of character and the wisdom of following one’s dreams. It will have lasting appeal and a ready audience. (VOYA)

Whelan’s formidable and appealing heroine will keep readers rooting for her dream of a home with the lions of Africa. (Publishers Weekly)

Accessed at: Personal Library

Out of the Easy: Ruta Sepetys

Out of the Easy

Author: Ruta Sepetys

Publisher: Philomel

Publication Year: 2013

Brief Summary: Josie, 17-year-old daughter of a French Quarter prostitute, can’t wait to escape the caged life she leads in the Big Easy.  She devises a plan to attend a prestigious college — working as a maid at the brothel her mother works in, and as a clerk at a bookstore during the day.  But, when she becomes entangled in the murder investigations of a wealthy architect, it seems all her dreams of a better life are about to be crushed.

Personal Comments: Out of the Easy is a captivating read and paints a vivid picture of 1950s New Orleans.  Sepetys’ characters are colorful and memorable, and readers will identify with the identity struggles that Josie (and some of her friends) go through.  Readers who enjoyed Sepetys’ Between Shades of Grey (2011) will like the author’s second novel, though the two books are significantly different in subject matter and tone.  For older readers (high school and up).

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

  • Social Studies: New Orleans history, geography, traditions/culture
  • Discuss historical fiction and its characteristics.  Do you think this book is an example of historical fiction?  Why or why not?
  • Discussion on how our choices might affect the outcomes of our lives, and sometimes the lives of others.  How did the choices Josie make in the book affect her life?  How did her mom’s decisions affect Josie?  What are some other examples of life-changing choices that other characters in the book made?
  • Encourage students to read some of the works mentioned in this book: David Copperfield, Keats, etc.  Why do you think these works were so important to Josie?  What are some of the themes/quotes that she mentions throughout the book?
  • Thinking about different circumstances you might encounter in life or you might be born into.  Is there ever something that you can’t imagine ever getting out of no matter what you do?  Is there such thing as “fate”/”destiny”, or can all those be changed?  (Older students can hold a debate on this topic, or write a persuasive essay arguing either side.)

Awards, Honors and Prizes:

Kirkus Book Review Stars, January 15, 2013
Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, December 24, 2012 ; Cahners
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, March 2013 ; Cahners

The sights and sounds and characters are vivid and captivating. Her sense of timing is impeccable. Mystery, suspense, and a strong heroine all add up to one fine story. (Sharon Salluzzo, Children’s Literature)

With a rich and realistic setting, a compelling and entertaining first-person narration, a colorful cast of memorable characters and an intriguing storyline, this is a surefire winner. Immensely satisfying. (Kirkus)

Accessed at: Personal Library

The One and Only Ivan: Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan

Author: Katherine Applegate

Publisher: New York: Harper

Publication Year: 2012

Brief Summary: Ivan is a star at a circus-themed mall, where he has spend the last 27 years alone in a cage.  When his good friend Stella, an aging, dying elephant, makes him promise to take care of the mall’s newest addition, a baby elephant named Ruby, Ivan devises and carries out a plan that will save them all.

Awards, Honors and Prizes:

John Newbery Medal, 2013 Winner United States
Amazon Editors’ Picks: Best Books of the Year, 2012
Choices, 2013 ; Cooperative Children’s Book Center
Kirkus Best Children’s Books, 2012
Kirkus Book Review Stars, October 15, 2011
School Library Journal Best Books, 2012
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, January 2012 ; Cahners

Personal Comments: Based on the true story, this book will appeal to animal lovers of all ages.  The book’s easy-to-read text and short chapters will appeal to reluctant/struggling readers and its themes will touch many hearts.  Students might want to research the life of the real Ivan further by going to the Zoo Atlanta web page as well as other sites devoted to him.  The book may also be a good vehicle to discuss zoos, circuses, and the philosophies associated with them.

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

  • Discuss animals in captivity and the human treatment of animals in general, animal rights, etc.  How were things done in the past?  How are things today?  Discuss similarities/differences…in what ways have we gotten better in our treatment of animals?  In what ways do we still need to improve?  Discuss zoos, circuses, animals kept in home, etc.
  • Research more about some of the animals featured in the book — elephant, gorillas, dogs.  Do elephants really have good memories?  What are some of the characteristics of gorillas?  What are other unlikely animal friendships that you might have read about in the news or in other informational books?
  • Link to book’s official website.

Accessed at: Personal Library