Wonder. R.J. Palacio. 2012. Alfred A. Knopf.
Wonder is a story about a 10-year-old-boy born with a craniofacial abnormality who has undergone countless surgeries in his young life. After being homeschooled all of his life, Auggie faces the reality of attending school for the first time. His parents, while knowing that he is scared, are also aware that Auggie needs a more well-rounded education than what they can provide for him at home. As he begins fifth grade at Beecher Prep Middle School, Auggie maneuvers the many social challenges he encounters including making friends, fitting in, and dealing with betrayal. Although he has the unwavering support of his family, faculty, and friends, he also faces some mean-spirited behavior from peers and their parents. Throughout all of Auggie’s many trials and tribulations, he shows the people around him the real meaning of courage, compassion, and understanding.
There are countless themes that could describe Wonder: family, friendship, coming of age, kindness, isolation, empathy. For my particular group of fourth-grade students, I focus on the theme of identity. Who are we? Do we act differently at home as opposed to at school? What masks do we wear to protect our insecurities? Does a disability, deformity, or diagnosis change who we are? Are we the best versions of ourselves? Are we open to change? Here are a few supporting activities for promoting the theme of identity.
Cross-Curricular Connections: language arts, science, fine arts, social studies
Ideas for Classroom Use
In the story, Mr. Browne, Auggie’s teacher, uses precepts or quotes to teach his students about life. An interesting classroom activity is to set up a wall or space in your classroom dedicated to a weekly or monthly precept. Include a stack of sticky notes nearby so that students can add a brief reflection about the precept or make a personal/world connection to it. Initially, you can use Mr. Browne’s precepts, but students who are inspired by the process may want to start adding their own.
The characters in the story are complex, each struggling to deal with Auggie’s deformity in the best way they know. Students can choose a character from the story and create journal entries on the basis of a particular conflict that character experiences. Students should include adequate text support for each journal entry.
Break the class into partners or small groups and have the students research Treacher Collins syndrome. The research should include information about causes, treatments, difficulties, genetic makeup, and life expectancy. Students can showcase their research in a variety of ways such as posters, media presentations, and informational brochures. Students can present these projects to other classrooms, at PTA meetings, and at Science Fair/STEM nights to start an open discussion about this syndrome and other childhood diseases.
The illustrations in Wonder are minimal yet thought-provoking silhouettes of the characters. Most of the pictures include only one eye, leading readers to ponder whether this is meant to show people’s reactions to Auggie. What parts of Auggie do they really see? Are they seeing only his deformity?
In this activity, have students reflect upon their own positive and negative character and physical traits. They can then input these traits into Wordle (a web-based tool) and create a graphic similar to the silhouettes in the novel. Filling in their silhouettes with the word cloud made from both their positive and negative traits shows how we are all a juxtaposition of emotions, much like the characters in Wonder. Have a gallery wall in the classroom dedicated to hanging students’ works of art.
Treacher Collins Syndrome Guide: This website provides detailed information on genetic conditions, including diagnosis and management, and offers additional resources.
StopBullying.gov: This website provides one-stop access to U.S. Government information on bullying topics.
Suzanne Cline is an advanced academics teacher at McVey and Jones Elementary Schools in Newark, DE, and Christiana, DE.
Suzy, known as “Zu”, is devastated when she hears the three words from her mom: “Franny Jackson drowned.” Franny was Zu’s best friend. Zu couldn’t believe that Franny had drowned during her vacation in Maryland because Franny was a good swimmer. The only explanation that made sense to Zu is that an Irukandji jellyfish sting caused Franny’s death. In her notebook, Zu wrote, “Maybe she is dead because of that jellyfish sting.” To prove her theory, Zu studies jellyfish and secretly plans her trip to Cairns, Australia, to meet a jellyfish expert. As Zu recalls her memories with Franny, it is revealed that Zu’s friendship with Franny was over long before Franny’s death. Zu felt sad and betrayed as Franny, who used to be her best friend, was fading out in Zu’s life. While Zu clung to the long-gone friendship with Franny, Franny hung out with other girls who didn’t care much about Zu. Zu’s emotional journey begins before and continues after Franny’s death.
Cross-Curricular Connections: Language arts, science, geography
Ideas for Classroom Use
Changes in Friendship
Zu and Franny used to be best friends, but their friendship falls apart as they enter middle school. Franny made new friends, leaving Zu alone. Do you think the friendship between Zu and Franny naturally fell apart or do you think Franny intended to break up with Zu? Do you have friends like Franny who you like but the friendship falls apart? What do you want to say to Zu or Franny about the change in their friendship?
In the YouTube video, the author of The Thing About Jellyfish, Ali Benjamin, said this book is about a lot of things. What do you think this book is about? If you have to pick one keyword for the theme of this book, what word that will be? In class, each student can take turns, and students will be able to hear the recurring words as well as with the new words that they didn’t say.
Zu attempts to fly to Cairns, Australia, to meet Dr. Jamie Seymour, professor of biology and jellyfish expert. Find Cairns, Australia on the map. How far is it from your home? If you were Zu, what would your travel route look like? Plan your trip from your home to Cairns, Australia. How long it will take? What do you need to prepare for this trip? What do you need to know about Australia before you fly?
K-W-L Chart on Jellyfish
Zu studied the topic of jellyfish and gave a presentation in class. Make a K-W-L chart on jellyfish. K: What do you know about jellyfish? W: What do you want to know about jellyfish? L: What did you learn about jellyfish? Briefly research jellyfish online. Share your findings with your small group members.
A Note to Zu
Zu thinks to herself in the book, “I knew I didn’t deserve happiness.” Assume you happen to hear this when Zu was saying it to herself, and you want to write a note to her. What do you want to say in your note as a friend? How might your note help her to feel better about herself?
Author Ali Benjamin on The Thing About Jellyfish: A short video clip on the author’s introduction of the book, The Thing About Jellyfish. Some of publishers’ online reviews are included at the end of the clip.
Author Ali Benjamin’s homepage: More information about Ali Benjamin and her books.
Additional Literature With Similar Themes
Addie on the Inside. James Howe. 2012. Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Fish in a Tree. Lynda Mullaly Hunt. 2015. Nancy Paulsen.
Jongsun Wee is an associate professor at Winona State University in Winona, MN, where she teaches Children’s Literature and Language Arts method courses.
Chaz Bono. Martin Gitlin.
Caitlyn Jenner. Carla Mooney.
Lana Wachowski. Jeff Mupua.
Laverne Cox. Erin Staley.
Transgender Pioneers is a four-book series written as short, factual reads that should appeal to teens of all ages. These books, written in a breezy fanzine style, focus on transgender trailblazers who are not only famous in their own right but also have become well known because of their sexual identities, which are different from those with which they were born.
Chaz Bono, the child of superstars Sonny Bono and Cher, grew up as sweet Chastity in the public spotlight and under the scrutinizing glare of the media. His story is told with sensitivity, highlighting the emotional and mental upheavals Chaz undergoes as he transitions into a young man. Bruce Jenner attracted fame and garnered awards, both athletic and monetary, after he claimed the title of World’s Greatest Athlete as the 1976 Summer Olympics decathlon gold medal winner. Contemporary audiences know Jenner as the stepfather of the Kardashian clan through their lucrative foray into the phenomenon of reality TV. Her struggles with her identity now as Caitlyn Jenner have been lifelong, and her transition from one role to another while in the public eye makes for an emotional read.
Lana Wachowski’s transition story weaves through the timeline of her impressive film career and features the challenges she faces with media relations, celebrity status, and family. Laverne Cox’s success as an entertainer gives her a platform for promoting awareness of issues that affect the transgender community while she publically embraces her transgender identity.
These four volumes not only reveal the unique aspects of each transgender celebrity but also detail the differences faced by each; their stories are written with sensitivity and accuracy. Considering the misconceptions and lack of understanding about transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, the series’ biggest impact could be in the factual information about these well-known persons, their private and public agonies and triumphs.
Cross-Curricular Connections: English, health, science, art, social studies
Ideas for Classroom Use
Creating a Visual Biography
For one of the subjects in the series, create a poster or infographic that depicts significant moments in that individual’s life. This might look like a timeline, a web, or a flowchart, but you are not limited to these suggestions. Using the timeline at the end of each biography, write a balanced and succinct summary of the book. Trade with a partner or another set of partners and evaluate using the following questions: Is there anything important that was left out? Is there anything unimportant that could be left out? If you hadn’t read the book, would you understand what the timeline was about? There are several poster creation websites; canva.com and PowerPoint offer options.
Assign small groups one of the six chapters of any of the books. Each group will form a list of significant events from their chapter on a large sticky note that has been folded in half. From this list, each group will generate a one- or two-sentence summary of the chapter. Groups will rotate, repeat listing and summarizing activities for the next chapter (on the same sheet of paper—bottom half). Groups will rotate once more to read and evaluate peers’ work. Students will then unfold paper and compare the summaries, asking: Is there anything important that one group/both groups left out? Is there anything unimportant that one group/both groups could leave out? Do you understand what the chapter was about? After students have considered these questions, each group will share their findings with the whole class. The teacher will create a list of common strengths of the summaries and areas for improvement that can be posted in the room.
“A Possibility Model”
Laverne Cox draws attention to the statistics of discrimination and violence against the transgender community and promotes open conversations and encourages love and empathy through her “possibility model.” Possibilities grow out of accurate definitions. Have students participate in a team project where team members research a specific aspect of the sexual spectrum, gather reliable information and resources, and present research findings to the rest of the class. Using the data gathered, teams will prepare and come to the next class ready to set up graphic organizers illustrating their understanding at the beginning of the class. Create a gallery walk of organizers and have students prepare an evaluation sheet of the effectiveness of team creations. Several graphic representations of the sexual spectrum appear on the Internet. A reliable source for LGBT Terms and Definitions is found at this link: https://internationalspectrum.umich.edu/life/definitions
Conduct a Socratic seminar, using the following questions to guide discussion:
Developing an Action Plan
The Anti-Defamation League website provides a lesson plan involving videos of transgender teens in the news. After viewing and discussing, have students brainstorm an action plan using the grid provided on the site. Draft a proposal for developing a plan to build a safe and secure environment for all students and begin to implement the plan in your classroom and eventually in the school. This site also provides guidelines for teachers who want to teach sensitive topics but need reassurance and support.
Resources and Additional Recent Children’s/YA Texts With Similar Themes
Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out. Susan Kuklin. 2015. Candlewick.
Gracefully Grayson. Ami Polonsky. 2014. Disney-Hyperion.
I Am Jazz. Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings. 2014. Dial.
Jacob's New Dress. Sarah Hoffman and Ian Hoffman. 2014. Albert Whitman & Company.
Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition. Katie Rain Hill. 2014. Simon & Schuster Books for Young People.
Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen. Arin Andrews. 2014. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
The Teaching Transgender Toolkit: A Facilitator’s Guide to Increasing Knowledge, Decreasing Prejudice & Building Skills. Eli R. Green and Luca Maurer. 2015. Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes: Out for Health.
Judith A. Hayn is professor of Secondary Education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She is a member and past chair of SIGNAL, the Special Interest Group Network on Adolescent Literature of ILA, which focuses on using young adult literature in the classroom. Jay Cobernis an English Education graduate student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Laura Langley is a teacher at Mills High School outside of Little Rock.
The Bitter Side of Sweet. Tara Sullivan. 2016. G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
The Bitter Side of Sweet, which received four-star reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal, tells the story of Amadou, Seydou and Khadija, but in reality it is the story of thousands of children whose names, faces and fates are unknown to us. A word of caution about this young adult novel and its topics—the events in the story are difficult to read about, and readers will likely finish the book with an altered view of the world. In addition, it is a story that will remain with readers for a long time, if not forever.
Fifteen-year-old Amadou is from Mali, however, he and his 8-year-old brother, Seydou, find themselves working on a cacao farm in the Ivory Coast. Like many young people from their village, and across Mali, Amadou and Seydou left home to find work as the droughts and poverty that plague the country have made survival a daily struggle. The brothers planned to work for a season in the Ivory Coast and then return to their home and family with their earnings. But that was over two years ago and before they realized that they wouldn’t be workers on a farm, but rather slaves. If someone doesn’t meet the day’s quota, talks back, attempts to run away, or commits any other kind of infraction that person faces a severe beating, withholding of food, other forms of torture, such as being locked overnight in the tool shed, or worse.
Seydou is the youngest on their cacao farm and Amadou, as his older brother, is extremely protective of him. Amadou is also wracked with guilt for what he sees as his part in getting Seydou into this inhumane situation. As a result of this protectiveness and guilt Amadou lets Seydou do very little of the more difficult or dangerous work, especially wielding a machete. Therefore, Amadou must often complete the work of two in order to keep himself and Seydou fed and safe from beatings. And when he isn’t able to do the work of two, he sacrifices his food for Seydou and takes the beatings in his place.
Amadou’s dreams and life change radically as the result of two unimaginable events. The first event, which ultimately leads to the second, is the arrival of Khadija. It’s not unusual for new boys to be brought to the cacao farm to slave away alongside the others. However, they are usually brought in groups—Khadija arrives alone. Most new boys arrive scared and meek—Khadija arrives like a wildcat, fighting, biting, and trying to escape. Finally, in the two years that Amadou and Seydou have been on this cacao farm all the boys who have arrived have been boys—Khadija is a girl, which may be the most shocking part.
Khadija is undeterred and continues her fighting and attempts at escape. During one of her earlier escape attempts Khadija, who has been tied to a cacao tree by one of the bosses, tricks Seydou into getting close enough that she can snatch his machete and cut the rope that binds her. When Amadou discovers what happened he fears for Seydou’s life as the retribution from the bosses for “helping” Khadija escape will no doubt be severe. Amadou quickly assumes the blame for Khadija’s escape and while the bosses are not very convinced by his flimsy explanation of what happened, they are all too happy to punish someone. Amadou is forced to accompany one of the bosses, Moussa, as he tracks and recaptures Khadija. When the three return to camp Amadou receives the most vicious beating of his life.
Amadou is forced to stay and work at the camp, with Khadija, for several days as his injuries are still too bad to allow for him to easily climb cacao trees and chop down the cacao pods. His anxiety over Seydou’s safety is eased slightly by Seydou’s first successful day without him, but it continues to consume him as he tries to get enough work done at camp to impress the bosses and return to their good side. But these efforts are short lived as after a few days of being forced to work at the camp, Moussa returns from the day’s work with news of the second event that radically changes Amadou’s dreams and life. Moussa informs Amadou that he will be returning to work in the fields tomorrow as the crew lost a boy that day. When Amadou asks which boy, Moussa responds “Seydou.”
The rest of The Bitter Side of Sweet tells of their journey to freedom and the horrors, kindnesses and realities they encounter on the way. Khadija shares her story and Amadou begins to understand why she is how she is, but even as he gets to know her better he feels like he knows less and less about her and her life. Along the way they, and the reader, learn more about the cacao and chocolate industry including the vast expanse of land and people, willingly and unwillingly, involved in the business of producing chocolate and the lengths that are gone to for profit and power. After reading this gripping novel chocolate will never taste as sweet.
Social studies/history, geography, economics, journalism, and math
Dying to Tell a Story
As Khadija shares her story with Amadou she explains that she ended up at the cacao farm because she was kidnapped from her home. She also reveals that her mother is a journalist and has been researching a secret topic, one that has prompted threatening phone calls to their home. Khadija believes that there is a connection between her mother’s research and her kidnapping.
Unlike journalists in the United States who have the protection of the First Amendment, journalists in other places around the world often face retribution, threats, and even death as a result of the stories they research and publish. This can happen in the United States as well, but it is more widespread in other parts of the world.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 69 journalists died on the job in 2015. Of these 69 deaths, 47 were victims of murder, with at least 28 of these 47 murder victims receiving death threats before they were killed.
The topics presented above provide a wealth of teaching and learning opportunities. Some of the issues or ideas that can be explored are as follows:
“I count the things that matter.”
The first line of The Bitter Side of Sweet is “I count the things that matter.” Amadou goes on, “Only twenty-five pods. Our sacks need to be full, at least forty or forty-five each, so I can get Seydou out of a beating. Really full if I want to get out of one too.” Amadou spends his days obsessed with meeting the daily quota of cacao pods in order to protect him and his brother from a beating and hopefully to get them some food for the day.
Quotas rule the lives of many, such as those being paid by piece rate, those working on an assembly line, or those who work on commission. Piecework is when workers get paid a set amount for each item or unit they make or action they perform; for example, a seamstress may get paid for each collar she sews on to a shirt. Although not limited to the jobs held by children, women, and the working poor, the jobs held by these populations often involve quotas, piecework, assembly lines, or commissions.
In order to explore the pressures of working under a quota an assembly line can be created in the classroom. For example, students could assemble a predetermined design out of Legos, with each “worker” adding a specific piece or two to the total. There is an abundance of topics related to this type of work, including:
Where Did This Come From?
The world has become a global marketplace; a single product can pass through numerous steps and hands before it arrives at our local store for us to purchase. The Bitter Side of Sweet provides insight into some of the beginning steps and hands involved in the making of the chocolate that we love. Sullivan also provides glances at some of the other steps in the production of chocolate, such as the transport of the dried cacao seeds to large warehouses.
Have students select a product and research the steps involved in its production. Students should consider the “who” involved in each of these steps as well as the “what” of the steps. If a product has steps that occur in different locations, students can create a production map that traces the route of a product and its components as it moves towards completion.
What’s Fair About Fair Trade?
In her author’s note, Sullivan mentions fair trade chocolate. She says, “Fair trade chocolate, produced by companies that guarantee a minimum price to growers even when international prices dip, is by no means the only answer. Nor is it an answer free of its own complications, as any long-term solution must address empowerment and education as well as economics. However, it is one way of tackling the root problem: the grinding poverty of the small growers who produce cacao.” There are many aspects about the idea of fair trade products that can be taught and explored; here are some possibilities:
Additional Resources and Activities
Resources for Teachers: Chocolate Production and Child Slavery: On her website, Tara Sullivan, the author of The Bitter Side of Sweet, provides teaching resources for both of her young adult novels. Sullivan provides suggestions for what readers can do if they have been inspired to action by The Bitter Side of Sweet. She also discusses the idea of fair trade chocolate and supplies a list of other resources on the chocolate industry and modern day slavery.
“The Dark Side of Chocolate”: This 45-minute documentary is a great companion to The Bitter Side of Sweet as it provides visuals for many of the objects, locations, and events that occur in the novel such as the cacao pods themselves and how they are harvested.
Diamond Boy. Michael Williams. 2016. Little, Brown.
Iqbal. Francesco D’Adamo. 2003. Atheneum.
Sold. Patricia McCormick. 2006. Hyperion.
Trash. Andy Mulligan. 2010. Ember/Random House.
Aimee Rogers is an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota. She is a member of the reading faculty and teaches children’s literature courses. Aimee’s research interests include how readers make meaning with graphic novels as well as representation in children’s and young adult literature.
Bug Boy. Eric Luper. 2009. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
In 1934, The Great Depression crippled most of the United States. Except in Saratoga, NY, where fat cats gather together in the summer to celebrate the most famous thoroughbred racing season of the year. At the start we are introduced to Jack, an aspiring jockey who is working Fireside, a fast 3-year-old colt who is on a path to win the summer's biggest stakes race. Working for Pelton Stables under the careful eye of Mr. Hodge, the plot carries us through Jack's ascension from exercise rider to “bug boy,” a rider who has yet to win 40 races.
Immediately, Jack is offered cash for rigging a race. Framed in a rare period where Saratoga permitted bookmaking, corruption runs rampant as bookmakers try to maintain a profitable edge over bettors. Jack, the newest jockey at Saratoga, working the best horse, is a fresh target for race fixing.
Before long, Jack meets a beautiful woman, Elizabeth, who aims to capture Jack's heart. As Jack's fame grows, what is he willing to do to be the best jockey and keep his confident girl by his side?
When the big race comes, Jack is under massive stress. Tweed, his old boss, Dad, looking to make a buck, Elizabeth, hungry for notoriety on the social scene, and Mr. Hodge, the humble trainer looking for the big win, surround Jack as he must decide what to do with Fireside.
Social studies, health, reading, writing
Ideas for Classroom Use
As students are reading or listening, students should focus on the value of “right and wrong” when temptations and aspirations conflict with conscience. Using reading response as well as collaborative discussions, students pinpoint the ethical dilemmas positioned in Luper's narrative.
Once the dilemma is identified, readers can first identify how they might react in a similar situation. After considering background knowledge, readers then revisit the text to consider the context of the circumstance to alter or confirm their thinking. Students locate and organize text evidence to support their rationales. Students can openly debate discussed decisions, building interest to discover what happens next. Explaining and empathizing through writing is a great way for students to process thought and feelings, thereby coming to terms with whatever emotions are evoked by their reading.
Jack is an example of a boy who is forced to mature faster than perhaps he should. He faces pressures and decisions that many students face in high school and college. Jack can also be a representation of what rookie football and baseball players face when entering the big leagues. Readers can look at what forces a character to change. What influences exert pressure? How does Jack deal with money, alcohol, and risky behaviors? (Note: mature content included)
When we consider character analysis instruction, we can consider whether Jack changes for better or worse and what it really means to “come of age.” Students can engage in deep reflective writing as they evaluate the many pleasures that entice teenagers.
Life and Times
Saratoga is a magical city. A walk down Broadway will captivate the soul and images of the flat track will entrance visitors forever. Saratoga may not look the same today compared with 1934, but many structures still stand. Instead of packing up students for a field trip, slide shows and Google Earth can transport students to the bucolic upstate New York city laden in history. By using pictures, students can see the various locations Jack and his friend visited bring the story to life. Since horse racing is out of context for many readers, show pictures of Clair Court under the sweeping limps of oak trees, jogging horses emerging from the famous August mist that envelopes the track, or the architecture of the Gideon Putnam hotel, or even the YMCA on Broadway. Using Google Earth, readers can map out (pin) the same sights and imagine the travels Jack and Elizabeth took around the city.
Triple Crown/Sports – Behind the Scenes
Introducing Bug Boy in advance of one of the Triple Crown horse races invites interest in the greatest horse race of the year. Although Saratoga is a summer event, what happens at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, The Kentucky Derby, has an impact on the Saratoga racing season. Even with today's media barrage, only so many things can be seen on television. Luper's narrative takes us to the backstretch, where a vivid imagination parallels the reality of sport in a way that will ignite a love for racing yet reveal the tragedy's that athletes face when aspiring to their dreams. The Great Depression
Comparing and contrasting text is an important facet of the Common Core. When reading Bug Boy, we discover wealth did not evaporate in the Great Depression, unlike the pictures that portray destitution. Rather, greed and excess created dreams, even for boys who knew extreme poverty.
Using Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse and A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck, readers can compare and contrast, through structured activities, three special cultures that occurred during the Great Depression.
Sarasota Heritage Visitors Center: Take a step back in time to see pictures and places and to read more about the notoriety that made Saratoga famous.
New York Racing Association, New York: Explore Saratoga horse racing as it is today, still the pinnacle racing meet of the year.
Texts With Similar Themes
A Long Way From Chicago. Richard Peck. 2000. Penguin.
Azad's Camel. Erika Pal. 2010. Frances Lincoln Children's Books.
Black Gold. Marguerite Henry. Ill. Wesley Dennis. 1992. Aladdin.
Migrant Mother: How a Photograph Defined the Great Depression (Captured History Series). Don Nardo, Alexa L Sandmann, Kathleen Baxter. 2011. Compass Point.
Out of the Dust. Karen Hesse. 2009. Great Source. Seabiscuit. Laura Hillenbrand. 2001. Random House.
Ride of Their Lives Ride of Their Lives: The Triumphs and Turmoil of Today's Top Jockeys. Lenny Shulman. 2002. Eclipse Press.
The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby: The Story of Jimmy Winkfield. Crystal Hubbard. Ill. Robert McGuire. 2008. Lee & Low Books.
Justin Stygles is a sixth-grade teacher and literacy specialist in Western Maine. He has taught at a variety of levels for 12 years and is currently working with Corwin Literacy about effect, emotions, and transactional reading.