2007. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Genre: Fictional picture book
Ages: Clearly aimed at primary and early elementary, this book has a message to touch all hearts.
Everyone, it seems, is getting a pair: those jazzy black high tops with the two white stripes. Everyone but Jeremy, that is. His grandmother explains that there is no money or room in their lives for “want”–just for “need.” What Jeremy needs are new boots for winter. Snow is coming. It can be hard to think about what you need, however, when everything seems to be going wrong. Not only can Jeremy not afford the shoes he wants so badly, but the guidance counselor, Mr. Alfrey, has given him shoes from a box of hand-me-downs reserved for “kids who need things”–and worst of all, they’re Velcro, decorated with a cartoon character no self-respecting kid would choose for himself. It’s especially humiliating when the other kids (all but one) laugh at these “new” shoes. Then, things look up when Jeremy and his grandmother find a used pair of the high tops in a secondhand store. Will they change Jeremy’s life?
This deceptively simple little book brims with the honest voice of someone who understands what life is about. On every page there’s an event or scene to tug at your heart, and yet the writing is restrained–never overdone. You will feel how deeply Jeremy’s grandmother aches to make things right for her grandson. And you will cheer for Jeremy as he makes his way through some difficult choices. This is a book about love and friendship–and getting through life. It has depth, soul, and meaning. Pictures by Noah Z. Jones set off the themes of love, choice, and sacrifice beautifully. Like the text, they are elemental, yet the carefully chosen details allow for expansive interpretation. It’s a book you’ll want to read more than once, and one that will leave you thinking about how unfair it can be to make children want what families cannot afford. The book doesn’t overtly attack commercialism; it’s a subtle message, but all the more powerful for that. And the loving relationship between Jeremy and his grandmother is touching and inspiring without being sentimental.
In the Classroom
1. Most people want something, at some point in their lives, that they just can’t have. It may be too expensive, or there could be another reason. For some people, like Jeremy, it might be a special pair of shoes. For others, it could be something else entirely–a pet, a bicycle, sports equipment, or whatever. Set the story up by asking students to just think about a time they wanted something they just could not have–or could not have right then. Thinking about how they felt can help them identify with Jeremy.
2. Show students the book cover and share the title. Ask what they can predict about the story just by looking at the cover.
3. Read the story, inviting students to sit close or using a document projector to help them appreciate the art. Notice that the story opens with Jeremy looking up at an advertisement on a billboard. Be sure students understand that he is looking at an ad.
4. Some students may benefit from hearing this story a second time. Though it is told in simple language, the ideas behind the story are anything but simple, and a second reading may help the author’s meaning sink in. If you read the book a second time, ask students to look for small details in the art, such as expressions on the faces of various characters.
5. Talk about the shoes. Why does Jeremy want them so much? What would change if he had them? Ask how many of your students have wanted something after seeing it in an ad. How do we resist wanting things when ads are all around us, every day?
6. Talk about Jeremy’s grandmother. Does she want to get the shoes for Jeremy? How do you know?
7. When Jeremy takes the hand-me-down shoes from Mr. Alfrey, everyone (except Antonio) laughs. How do your students feel about this? How do they imagine Jeremy is feeling when others laugh at his shoes? Is laughing at someone a kind of bullying? Does Jeremy feel even worse when his grandmother says, “How kind of Mr. Alfrey”? Why?
8. Jeremy has some tough choices to make in this story. See if your students can recall what some of them are. Talk about whether Jeremy makes good decisions in each case. Possibilities: Deciding he wants the shoes, telling his grandmother he wants the shoes, taking the Velcro shoes from Mr. Alfrey, using his own money to buy shoes that don’t fit, giving the shoes he loves to Antonio.
9. Read the final two pages again and talk about the ending. What is the author trying to show us about Jeremy and Antonio? Is this a good ending? Why?
10. Explain that books with voice make us, as readers, feel something. What do we feel as we read or listen to this story? Is this a book with voice?
11. Invite students to write about an experience of their own that involved wanting something they could not have–or had to wait for. Encourage students to write with voice; that means, in this case, helping their readers understand their feelings.
12. On the back cover, you will notice that this book is recommended for students ages 5 through 8. Do your students agree with this choice? Is this a book older students or adults might enjoy also? Why? If you have interesting thoughts to share about the book, do an online class review.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
Have you heard of the Maldives? If so, you might be just in the nick of time. This country of 1,200 tiny coral islands, just off the coast of India, is feeling the effects of climate change like almost nowhere else on Earth. “With sea level rising at just under half an inch a year, the Maldives will be gone in a century, and long before that, the islands will be uninhabitable” (Nicola Davies, Gaia Warriors, 2011, 29). To learn more, check out our upcoming review of Gaia Warriors, the brilliant new nonfiction book by Nicola Davies, with an afterword by James Lovelock, creator of the Gaia theory. If you teach upper elementary or middle school science or nonfiction writing, you don’t want to miss this book. Thanks for dropping by–and come again soon!