Originally published in 1942, Gertrude Chandler Warner writes a wonderfully suspenseful story of four orphaned children. Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny Alden are supposed to live with their grandfather, Mr. Alden, after their parents die, but they have never met Mr. Alden and are afraid of him. So, they decide to run away and live by themselves. On a rainy night in the woods, Jessie finds an abandoned boxcar, and the children soon decide to keep house in it.

As a child, I was inspired and a little frightened at the Alden’s exploits. The thought of living in the woods and taking care of my siblings without my mother or father to help me was just about the scariest thing I could think of. Yet, the Alden children never seemed worried about finding food or making money. Every day, Henry would do odd jobs for Dr. Moore and bring home food whenever he could. Every day, Jessie and Violet would work to keep the boxcar clean and prepare meals. The children’s resourcefulness is amazing, and even when Violet becomes very ill, you know that everything will be alright.

Modern children who read this book will likely be astonished at all of the things the Aldens are capable of doing. Henry gladly works to organize a hopelessly disorganized garage. Jessie can cook a whole meal over a fire. Violet can sew by hand. Benny never complains about any of the chores his older siblings give him. Considering that the story is set in the early 1940s during World War II this is not really as unlikely as it seems. Readers will learn that children during this time were expected to similar tasks every day or whenever necessary. The Boxcar Children is a perfect book to integrate into a unit concerning American history or World War II.

I visited Yellowstone National Park with my family in 2005. At the time, I wasn’t too eager about the trip, but once we made it home I knew that I would always cherish what I had learned and seen of that beautiful place. During my visit, many park rangers talked extensively of the 1988 fire. I learned how important natural fires are to the life cycle of the forests and meadows in Yellowstone, and I could still see the effects of that fire in some places, but I never really knew the extent of that fire until reading this book.

The Great Yellowstone Fire by Carole G. Vogel and Kathryn A. Goldner describes the park, the animals, the fire, and the effects of the fire in a very concise but descriptive manner. The beautiful photographs effectively illustrate the story such that the reader might actually be at the park talking with a park ranger. We learn that fire is important to clear away all of the dead vegetation and make room for new plants, and that fire helps to open the pinecones of lodgepole pine trees and scatter the seeds that will plant new trees. In the park, firefighters only put out the fires that are created by humans, and the natural fires are left to do their jobs. However, in July of 1988 during a very dry summer, the natural wildfires began spreading uncontrollably so that park officials decided to begin fighting all fires. Firefighters recruited from across the country use every available method to fight the fires, but by September the fires reach Old Faithful Village. The historic buildings were saved with brilliant emergency plans and efficient firefighting, and on September 11th snow began to help put out the fires. A harsh summer was followed by a harsh winter, but nature knew what to do once spring came again.

This book is a beautiful example of the glory of Yellowstone National Park. Vogel and Goldner have proven the importance of all our national parks and reminded us that even the scariest changes are necessary.

So, you’ve finished reading The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty. I hope I haven’t made you wait too long for the review, but I wanted you to savor every page of this book. As I was reading through it myself (for the third time) I realized just how many important lessons we can learn from this book.

From the main characters, we learn individual lessons.

  • Lydia: A girl who wants to be a writer but believes she will never succeed. Her wild imagination constantly keeps her out of the grip of reality because she experiences only fear and failure when she acknowledges that life is not her own perfect creation.
  • Emily: A bit of an airhead, she has a love of life that borders on recklessness. Emily appears to only care about having fun every chance she gets, but she will fight heart and soul for the things she believes in and the people she loves.
  • Cassie: A tender and caring friend, Cassie lost her father to cancer a year ago. She doesn’t want to burden Emily and Lydia with her pain any longer, so she begins slipping away from them and follows her therapist’s advice to confide in a stranger.
  • Sebastian: Lydia’s Brookfield penfriend, Sebastian struggles with abominably low grades and a volatile temper. He is Lydia’s perfect counterpart. He plays along with and, eventually, encourages her games, but he maintains a rational and practical view of life (even when he compares it to a soccer match).
  • Charlie: Emily’s penfriend, Charlie is the unassuming scapegoat. Self-absorbed, though not arrogant, he is always the last to pick up on the significance of each situation he encounters. By no means stupid, Charlie learns that, with Emily, it is just easier to go along for the ride and ask for details later.
  • Matthew: Cassie’s penfriend, Matthew Dunlop is the catalyst in this entire story. He responds to each of Cassie’s letters with venomous hatred. When she keeps writing, he finally decides to befriend her, only to throw her goodwill back in her face and stomp on it (figuratively). In actuality, Matthew Dunlop is Paul Wilson. A top student at Brookfield, he is respected by every teacher, desired by every girl, and loathed by every self-respecting male student in the school. His craving for power and praise becomes his demise by the end of the book.

First of all, each of these characters proves that teenagers are capable of much greater things than adults usually give them credit for. Even though this book is fictional and maybe a bit exaggerated (but what is the point of fiction if it must be believable, eh?) it teaches a lot about how we treat others. New friendships were forged, and old friendships withstood numerous attacks. Oh, and the good guys caught the bad guy.

So, here’s your secret assignment: Pick a character and tell me what you learned from that character. Did you see yourself in that character? Would you have responded differently in the same position? Are there any qualities you admire in this character? Is this your favorite character, or your least favorite? Why?

Answer one or all of these questions in the comments or with a link to your own blog post. Tomorrow, 15 June 2012, I’ll post my own answers to some of these questions. See you then!

So, you’ve finished reading Frindle by Andrew Clements. How was it?

I personally enjoy this book because I love the ingenuity and creativity of Nick Allen. Nick’s teachers and parents would declare him a troublemaker who doesn’t find much use for school, but he is one of those bright students who will do anything for a challenge, and he found one in Mrs. Granger. Mrs. Granger teaches the rules of the English language, and she runs her classroom on the strictest rules, and she expects everyone to abide by the rules – all of them! When rules are broken she serves out punishments with absolute sternness and the most piercing eyes. Every student is afraid of Mrs. Granger’s eyes. It’s almost as if she knows what mischief will occur even before the mischief maker knows himself! These aren’t the only characters in the book, and they certainly don’t tell the whole story, but Nick and Mrs. Granger are the driving purpose behind the story.

As a punishment from Mrs. Granger, Nick has to write a report on the origin of words and the dictionary, and he soon learns that words are created by people. The words we use every day, the words we shouldn’t use, and the words we should use more often, haven’t always existed. Instead, they had to be created because someone needed to communicate. So, Nick decides he’ll create his own word, frindle, and just to show Mrs. Granger that she doesn’t own the English language, he convinces his friends to substitute the word frindle for pen. Mrs. Granger is infuriated that her students show such utter disrespect for the word pen, but she can’t make them stop. Soon, she realizes that Nick has created something so big that it cannot be stopped. Nick owns this word, legally and figuratively, and it has begun to spread across the country. By the end of the book, frindle has entered into the American vernacular, and even Nick hardly feels that he can lay claim to it. When frindle is added to the dictionary, Mrs. Granger finally congratulates Nick on creating a new word.

On the surface, Mrs. Granger is the teacher that every student would be afraid to know. She is strict and maintains high expectations. Yet, she cares for her students. She requires that they follow the rules because she knows that students need boundaries in order to learn what is proper and healthy. However, she also knows that many students need to push those boundaries before they will find any purpose. At first, Mrs. Granger is fighting a battle against Nick to prove to him the importance of the rules. After a while, though, she realizes that as soon as she stops fighting, Nick will stop creating. Without an antagonist, Nick would never have created such a permanent word.

As teachers, this is our challenge. With so many students and so many regulations, how can we encourage creativity? How do we ensure that students follow the rules but still find the desire to strike out on the own? Can we, the teachers, push the boundaries in order to find our own creativity? Whatever the answers, Frindle is a book that begs every student and teacher to explore life and continue learning at every stage in life.

To kick start this reading adventure, we will begin reading Frindle by Andrew Clements. If I am not mistaken, this is one of his most popular books, and it certainly one of my favorites. This book truly shows what kind of positive impression teachers can have on their students.

So, go to your local library or bookstore and find Frindle. On Friday, 1 June 2012 we will begin reviewing and discussing this book. While you are reading, consider how this book portrays the ideas of creativity, a child’s inquisitive spirit, and the importance of rules in schools and society. Also, as a teacher, how could you use this book in your own classroom?

Have fun reading, and I’ll see you again next week!