Tag Archive: Susanna Reich


Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich. 2017. Illustrated by Adam Gustavson. New York: Bloomsbury.

Genre: Biographical picture book

Levels: Grades 4 and up, including adults (must reading for fans of Pete Seeger and folk music)

Features: Striking illustrations, Foreword by the one and only Peter Yarrow, moving Author’s Note on how this book came to be, outstanding and diverse source list that will encourage students to expand their own research beyond books 

 

Overview

Pete Seeger. His very name sends chills down the spine of anyone who was alive and singing in the 1960s. Especially someone who has memorized recordings by those Pete inspired—singers like Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Kingston Trio, and the Smothers Brothers, to name just a handful. Lyrics to songs like “If I Had a Hammer” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” are so deeply engraved in our consciousness it’s as if we were born knowing them. Even contemporary musicians owe a debt to this song writer and spokesperson for social justice. How do we thank someone like Pete Seeger, who so selflessly opened his heart to the world? With a book, of course.

Lucky for us, we don’t have to write it ourselves. Author Susanna Reich has done that for us, creating a beautiful, brilliant bio Pete himself would surely have loved. Reich’s rhythmic language brings Pete to life in a way that makes us feel we’re still part of his audience, clapping, stamping our feet, singing our hearts out. Reich tells Pete’s story from his days as a dancing, drumming toddler in the early 1920s right through to his unforgettable performance of “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 2009. Throughout, we see how this legendary musician’s beliefs and dreams were shaped by the events he witnessed—and oh, how much he saw to change.

Pete Seeger’s life of 94 years spanned several wars, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement and changes in voting laws, and growing awareness of the threat pollution poses to the earth’s very existence. Almost miraculously, no matter the cause, no matter the location, there was Pete, right on the front lines, using his voice to generate passion and hope. Though he is often associated with the Vietnam protests of the 1960s (probably because singers of the time adapted and sang so much of his music), Pete’s legacy reaches back to far earlier days, and continues through the present. He began protesting for workers’ rights the first time he witnessed Depression era bread lines—and his boat, the Clearwater, sails the Hudson River even now, reminding us to keep our precious water clean.

As Reich shows us in her timely book, Seeger’s protests had a singularity about them. Though outraged by unfairness, Seeger was never violent. Instead, he emerges in this thoughtfully crafted bio as someone profoundly capable of optimism even in the face of humanity’s darkest moments. He was a leader of infinite charisma, gentle and peace loving, yet incredibly strong in his convictions. Seeger insisted on performing with African American friends despite prevalent racist views of the time, refused to betray other performers to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and stood fast when network television executives objected to his daring song lyrics criticizing then-President Lyndon Johnson. Always focused on the other guy, Pete gave little thought to his own welfare or safety. His gratification lay in following the path he’d determined was right. Though he lived much of his life in the most modest circumstances—sometimes unable to afford heat for his home—he wasn’t one to fuss about comforts. As Reich tells us, “Pete didn’t mind the cold. It felt good to be making a difference in the world.”

Adam Gustavson’s soft pastel illustrations harmonize beautifully with this portrait of a kind, selfless person, always ready with a smile, and nearly always singing or playing an instrument of one sort or another. In one of the book’s most memorable lines, a family friend is quoted as saying, “He played all night, and played all day, and after a while, you wanted to ship him off somewhere.” We can’t help laughing affectionately at this image of a man making his family crazy with nonstop singing. Now, in his silent wake, we find ourselves wishing him back.

Make no mistake. Not everyone loved Pete Seeger’s music. It wasn’t the continuous strumming of the banjo they minded; it was the lyrics. They were honest—and blunt. Champions of the status quo felt threatened—as Pete hoped they would—yet they were helpless to stop the tide. As Reich’s book shows so clearly, music has power to inspire and unify. People who heard Pete’s voice felt his unmistakable message to their very core. His songs became part of them, and part of America’s landscape and culture. Before long, followers were singing those songs in marches, at meetings, around campfires, and in their homes. One voice became the voice of millions. Even today, someone, somewhere, is almost surely singing one of Pete’s songs. As Peter Yarrow so perfectly expresses it in the Foreword, Pete’s “spirit travels beyond his time on earth.”

The title Stand Up and Sing! is more than a gentle reminder. It’s the author’s challenge to us all, especially in a time of discord, division, and unrest. Will we, like Pete Seeger, have the insight to recognize injustice when it’s right before our eyes—and the courage to make our voices heard? If so, then perhaps we shall, indeed, overcome.

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. The book is compact enough to share aloud in one or two readings. Use a document projector so students can linger over the telling illustrations. It’s also a terrific small-group choice for students interested in music (particularly folk music, guitar, or banjo) or in social justice and its history. In addition, the combined conciseness and completeness of the book make it an outstanding model for teaching students to write a good biography.

Background. Any discussion of Pete Seeger must begin with his music. If you’re lucky enough to have recordings available, play them. In addition, search for online video clips of Seeger singing to and with his audiences. Share some from recent times, and others from Pete’s early days to help students appreciate how long Pete kept the music going! Be sure to notice and discuss Seeger’s signature interaction with his audience, how he not only invites them to sing along, but coaxes them into doing it. Gradually, even the shyest, most reluctant singers in the crowd begin mouthing lyrics and clapping hands, swept up in the irresistible joy of the moment.

Foreword—and beyond. Students who have studied music in some capacity have likely heard of Pete Seeger. His death was very recent (January 27, 2014), and he performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. In addition, his songs, both those he wrote and others he popularized, have been recorded by numerous artists, many of whom—like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springstein—are extremely well known in their own right. Few students, however, are likely to know many details of Pete’s life beyond his singing and songwriting prowess.

Start by sharing the book’s engaging Foreword, written by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary). It’s a heartfelt tribute, coming from someone who not only appreciates the book’s message, but who knew Pete Seeger personally and has sung his music for years. Yarrow touches on highlights of Pete Seeger’s history, but . . .

. . . if you wish your students to have a broader, richer context for appreciating the book, here are some relevant topics they might research—perhaps in small teams of two or three—then  share with the class:

  • The labor movement (1940s and 1950s)
  • Civil Rights Movement (1950s and 1960s)
  • Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations (1960s)
  • Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger: the mentor and the legend
  • Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger: the electric guitar controversy
  • House Un-American Activities Committee
  • Blacklisting and the Hollywood 10
  • Charles Seeger, musicologist (Pete’s father)
  • Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, concert violinist (Pete’s mother)
  • The Newport Folk Festival
  • “We Shall Overcome,” gospel turned folk and protest song
  • Awards received by Pete Seeger, including Induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Kennedy Center Honor, National Medal of Arts, Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album of 2008, George Peabody Medal, Woodie Guthrie Prize, and many, many more.

“Everybody, sing it!” How does one begin a book about a legend? With a list of awards and accomplishments? His date of birth? Most memorable achievement?

Or perhaps—as Susanna Reich does here—with a scene that depicts the quintessential Pete Seeger. There he is, smiling, hands up, banjo at the ready, engaging the crowd. Asking them to sing along. Don’t know the words? Sorry, but at a Pete Seeger concert that’s no excuse. As I noted earlier, if you look up videos online, you will see Pete eagerly feeding words to the audience time and again. “This isn’t just my song,” he seems to be saying. “These are your lyrics—meant to be sung in your voice.”

What makes this image of Pete such a great lead for this particular book? Discuss this with students.

Are your writers working on a biographical piece currently? If so, have them consider a similar approach to writing a lead of their own. This calls for carefully, thoughtfully choosing a defining moment or activity that encapsulates a person’s identity and character. For Pete, becoming one with his audience is that moment.

 

Argument. Does music today have the same political clout that it had, say, during the anti-war marches of the 1960s? Can your students name any current songs they would label as “protest songs”? Or if not, can they name songs that inspire social justice or compel us to do what is right? Note: This can be a hard thing to come up with off the top of your head, so give students a day to investigate song titles and lyrics before delving too deeply into this discussion. Also, in case not all students have discovered this, it’s easy to look up song lyrics online. Just type in “lyrics to Little Boxes,” or whatever. (The results can surprise you. As I learned when I looked up “Rocket Man,” we don’t always “hear” what the composer wrote!)

Following your discussion, have students craft an argument supporting (or denying) the idea that music is a vital form of protest in today’s world. Advocates of social protest through music should be able to cite specific songs or quote lyrics that exemplify such protest.

 Organizational strategy: Letting go of trivia. In her Author’s Note, Susanna Reich admits, “In compressing Pete’s story into a picture book, there was much I had to leave out.” This revelation marks the perfect place to kick off instruction in organization.

Students often think the biggest challenge in writing nonfiction lies in coming up with enough to say. In truth, good research typically yields volumes of information. The real problem lies in deciding what to omit. Leaving some things on the cutting room floor makes it infinitely easier to organize what’s left.

Reich does a masterful job of choosing salient moments that reveal just who Pete Seeger is. After reading the entire book, go through a short segment, perhaps four to six pages, this time noting which stand-out moments from Seeger’s life made the cut.

For example, immediately following the opening page (which shows Seeger leading an audience in song), we learn how he loved music as a child and admired the “share everything” philosophy of Native American tribes. On the following page, we learned that Pete started his own newspaper, and cared more about a new banjo than sweaters and underwear. Talk with students about what these and similar details reveal about Pete as a person. Then have students imagine some of the details Reich might have left out. For example, she doesn’t tell us what Pete’s favorite food was, if he ever had a pet, or how well he did on spelling quizzes. Why? Because she had to make choices—and some details were more important than others.

As students write their own bio pieces (or any nonfiction, for that matter), encourage them to set priorities, ranking details from their research into three categories: (1) what’s critical, (2) what’s less essential but still fascinating enough to include if space permits, and finally, (3) what can go. Now they’re ready to put things in order!

Expanding research. Take a minute to share the list of “Selected Sources” at the back of the book. It shows that Susanna Reich investigated a wide range of sources in preparing to write Stand Up and Sing! Not just books, but films, taped interviews, and recordings. What sources do your students rely upon most when writing informational or other nonfiction pieces? Discuss possibilities and make a list that goes beyond the world of print, encouraging students to expand their fields of research.

Illustrations and voice. Seldom have I seen a book where illustrations so beautifully complemented the subject. Do your students agree? What is the overall tone of Adam Gustavson’s  illustrations? In other words, how do they make us feel, and what contributes to those feelings? Imagine this book with photographs rather than paintings of Pete Seeger. Would the book seem very different even if the text were unchanged? What makes these soft-hued illustrations such a good choice?

What words would your students use to describe the tone or voice of the text? Is it authoritative? Reverent? Joyful? Peaceful? Playful? Honest? Serious? Comical? Or something else?

Noticing the little things. Adam Gustavson’s illustrations are simple yet deceptively detailed. With each depiction of Pete Seeger, it’s almost as if we can get inside his thinking. We can sense when he’s troubled, and when he’s at peace. And if we take time to study his surroundings, they show us even more. Here’s one example . . .

Consider the illustration showing Pete Seeger shaving. Using a document projector, have students examine and respond to this picture. What do these visual details reveal about Pete’s life at this moment? As students continue looking, read the accompanying text aloud. Does it reinforce what you see in the image? What do the words tell us that we cannot get from the illustration—and vice versa?

What’s the big idea? The purpose of any biography, of course, is to share important elements of a person’s life. But why this person, and why now? Is Stand Up and Sing! of particular significance at this time when protests regarding so many issues are common throughout the world? What message or messages is the author hoping we take away from our reading of Pete Seeger’s biography? Have students write about this briefly, then meet in small groups to share and discuss their ideas. Once they’ve had a chance to share ideas in small groups, discuss the core messages of the book as a class.

Folk songs. Some people see Pete Seeger as a singer foremost, others as an activist who packaged his message in song. Either way, Pete is widely regarded as the king of folk music. But what exactly is folk music? Where does this term come from?

Discussion. Is the genre of folk music still alive today? What does it sound like? Ask students to search out some recordings of contemporary folk music and play them for the class. As part of their research, they are likely to discover that folk music has evolved into a wide range of sub-genres, including Celtic, neofolk, rogue folk, Americana, and many others. And of course it’s worth noting that many songs from the 1960s and even earlier are still being recorded in updated versions today.

Argument: The right choice? At one point in the narrative, Reich shares a critical moment in Pete’s life:

At college Pete couldn’t stop talking about workers’ strikes and unions, the civil war in Spain, and the Nazis in Germany. He talked so much that he didn’t do his homework. He lost his scholarship and had to drop out of school.

Losing a scholarship to Harvard is no small thing. Pete might have gone on to become a successful journalist—and what a different bio Reich would have had to write then!

On the other hand, when he left Harvard, Pete went to New York, where eventually he met blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly—and later Arlo Guthrie, with whom he would travel and perform across the U.S. Both had enormous influence on Seeger’s singing career. So the question is, Did Pete make the right choice? Is it the choice your students would make?

Discuss this, and have students craft an argument supporting or opposing Pete’s life changing decision to devote his time to music and social causes. Consider the ramifications of his traveling down one road versus the other.

Sentences that sing. The voice in any piece of writing is highly dependent upon sentence fluency. We don’t always think of this when reading for information, but author Susanna Reich is a master at crafting sentences. To better appreciate her skill and talent, slow down, read one or two pages aloud while showing them on a document projector, and ask students to notice some particulars that contribute to sentence fluency. They may mention highly varied sentence beginnings, variations in length, and a delightful mix of sentence styles—declarative sentences, exclamations, questions, effective fragments, and quotations.

Read-around: Learning to listen for fluency. Here’s something to try with small groups of three or four students each. Ask each group to select one short passage from the book; the amount of text on any given page is perfect. Ask them to read the passage aloud, round robin fashion, taking turns. Each reader can start and stop at any point—after one sentence, two, a whole paragraph, or whatever. But here’s the trick: Groups must continue reading for seven or eight minutes, long enough to go through the whole passage two or three times, perhaps reading a different section of text each time. Why? Because with each reading, fluency and inflection increase. Readers begin to really notice sentence beginnings, punctuation, word order and other factors that create drama. They become more adept at putting emphasis on the right words, using fluency to bring out meaning and voice. Like performers in a play, they uncover the power within the words they are uttering instead of mechanically reciting them. This is oral reading as it’s meant to be.

When groups finish rehearsing their passages, ask one or two to perform their selection for the class. Don’t be surprised if you have multiple volunteers! After listening, talk about the difference thoughtful oral reading makes. Is fluency especially important for this book? Why?

Research: Blacklisting. One powerful illustration in the book shows Pete sitting somewhere in a bus or train station, head resting on his hand, musical instruments unopened by his feet. If he appears forlorn, he has reason. His singing group, the Weavers, has just been blacklisted. Do your students know this term—blacklist? Have them do enough research to learn how the term originated and how common it was during the 1930s and 1940s.

The irony of it all.  Talk about why the Weavers—and others—were blacklisted. Their behaviors were considered unpatriotic or un-American. Do your students find this ironic? In other words, is the practice of blacklisting itself un-American? Why?

More questions for discussion. Is blacklisting still legal? And is it practiced in the U.S.? Have students write a personal response about how they view this practice. Note that when brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Pete Seeger refused to provide any information that would incriminate his friends. For this, he faced blacklisting himself, as well as potential jail time. How brave was this act of defiance? Would your students be this courageous in a similar situation? The answer makes a good topic for personal writing journals.

Freedom then—versus freedom now. One of Gustavson’s illustrations shows Pete Seeger singing in front of a television camera. In the text opposite, we learn that Seeger was invited to appear on television in 1967, for the first time in seventeen years. He sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a song about a captain leading soldiers across a treacherous river, and eventually drowning. The song was believed to be a protest of Lyndon Johnson’s support for the Vietnam War, and it was cut from the show before it aired.

Crafting an argument. Compare this situation to the political and social climate in America today. Would that song likely be cut if performed now? How common is it to see or hear people criticize political figures, including a sitting president? Can such criticism ever go too far—or does this in fact make for a healthier social environment? Have students write an argument defending or opposing the kind of political free speech symbolized by protest songs like “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”

 

A “link in the chain.” In her Author’s Note at the end of the book, Susanna Reich says, “As I researched this book, I came to understand why Pete saw himself as a link in a chain.” After sharing both the book and the Author’s Note with students, ask them to comment on the significance of this remark. What did Seeger probably mean by this? Clearly the chain is a metaphor—but what does it represent?

Reich goes on to say, “This book is meant to be a link in that chain.” How can a book serve as a “link” in the kind of chain Seeger was talking about? Do we, as readers, play a role in making this happen?

What can we do? Pete Seeger was part of a legacy of peaceful protest often represented by people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Like Pete Seeger, Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi both believed there were ways to get their message of equality and justice across without resorting to violence. Have students write a short response piece suggesting specific peaceful ways we can keep the “chain” going in our everyday lives. Pete Seeger wrote and sang songs. Susanna Reich wrote a book. What more can we do?

About the Author . . .

Susanna Reich’s resume reads like a best-selling adventure story. She is an accomplished professional dancer, who has done graduate work in the ancient Hawaiian hula, and written about dance extensively, both for professional journals and in her 2005 book José! Born to Dance. She’s also been a professional flower arranger, designing flowers for Julia Child’s eightieth birthday and many other events of note. She’s even driven big trucks, something not many writers can brag about. But none of these accomplishments, she professes, has been as much fun as writing children’s books, something Susanna began doing in 1994. Awards and honors have rained upon her ever since.

Susanna’s first book, Clara Schumann, Piano Virtuoso, won an Orbis Pictus Honor from the National Council of Teachers of English, and was also an ALA Notable and Best Book for Young Adults, as well as a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.

Recent books include Minette’s Feast: A Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat (Abrams, 2012), about the bestselling chef’s first cat, a Parisian who lapped up Child’s leftovers but preferred mice. The book received starred reviews in School Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, and Shelf Awareness and was on the best-books-of-the-year list, CCBC Choices.

In 2015 Susanna published another picture book bio, Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt), which recounts the early years of the bestselling band in history.

Susanna’s newest release, Stand Up and Sing!, makes us eager to know what’s next on her list. To learn more about Susanna, watch a video of her discussing Minette’s Feast, or schedule a classroom visit, please visit her website: www.susannareich.com

 Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Gurus is taking a hiatus for Spring Break. Please watch for our return in May. Meanwhile, have a look at my current . . .

 Book Recommendation for Adult Readers

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. 2015. New York: HarperCollins.

Author Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Department of History, University of Jerusalem, holds a PhD in history from the University of Oxford, and specializes in world history. His 2015 book Sapiens is both fascinating and controversial.

Sapiens is described by numerous reviewers as “sweeping” in scope—a hilarious understatement. It spans more than thirteen billion years of history, from the Big Bang onward. Best of all, Harari will have you turning pages with a style that’s delightfully conversational and sometimes comic. I couldn’t put it down. Does it have voice? And how. The language is vivid and precise, the pace as fast as a roller coaster ride. I read numerous passages twice just for fun.

I particularly appreciated the small details inherent in many discussions—like this one on how we became a “race of cooks.” As you might expect, we owe much to fire:

The advent of cooking enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to devote less time to eating, and to make do with smaller teeth and shorter intestines. Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the intestinal track, and the growth of the human brain. Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it’s hard to have both.

So—big brains are connected to short intestines. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. I didn’t.

Overall, Sapiens is intended to show why our species, Homo sapiens, emerged as dominant. It covers the consequences of three decisive turning points in human history, the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific Revolutions, posing provocative questions like these: Did these revolutions advance our quality of life—or create problems with which we still struggle? Are we happier than our ancestors, and what creates happiness anyway? Do we have a bright future—or any future, for that matter? Will artificial intelligence take over the world, leaving unemployed humans too much time to get into even more trouble? Are we getting smarter? And what makes us believe in the value of money, the rule of law, or the existence of nations?

Many passages ask readers to question fundamental beliefs about humanity, laws, rights, or religious faith. Some readers find this uncomfortable. I think that’s unfortunate. The book asks us to think—it doesn’t compel us to agree. When is the last time you agreed with everything in any nonfiction book? My recommendation is to get a copy for yourself and make up your own mind. Agree or not, you’ll definitely be entertained.

A sidebar: Get the hardcover version. It’s filled with color photos you won’t want to miss. Be warned, though: It is startlingly heavy, printed on gorgeous thick paper meant to last through multiple readings. Find a comfy chair. Don’t read this book in bed. I very much doubt anyone would fall asleep reading Sapiens, but if you did drop it on your head . . .

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Thank you for stopping by. Our goal is to feature writers who deserve recognition, so please tell friends about our posts—and peruse Gurus for past reviews you may have missed. Authors, if you’d like someone to review your book who will actually read it and spend time with it, please send a copy to me in care of Six Trait Gurus, POB 8000 PMB 8284, Sisters OR 97759. Until next time, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

Photo courtesy of Lynn Woodward.

Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat. 2012. Susanna Reich. Illustrated by Amy Bates. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers. 40 pages.

Genre: Non-fiction, picture book

Ages: Grade K and up. The reading level makes this text accessible for younger readers, though there is a sprinkling of French language here and there (the setting is Paris). Readers are supported through contextual definitions and a glossary to assist with both meaning and pronunciations.  Of course, Minette’s owner is the iconic Julia Child, making the story equally appealing to older students, adults, foodies, and aspiring chefs.

Features: Afterword (Julia Child’s life after Paris), Notes, Sources, Glossary and Pronunciation Guide, Author’s Note

Summary

Susanna Reich’s latest book should come with several warning labels.

WARNING: Experiencing this book may lead to a strong desire for international travel, especially to the city of lights, Paris, France.

WARNING: Do not read this book on an empty stomach. You may be overcome with hunger pangs for rich, savory foods!

WARNING: Reading this book may lead you to your kitchen resulting in a flurry of slicing, blanching, roasting, and whisking, and of course, many dishes to wash.

WARNING: Dog lovers may find themselves feeling a bit warm and fuzzy about cats in general, and specifically, a cat named Minette. Be careful not to do anything rash, like rushing out to get a cat. (Not all cats are as charming as Minette. Trust me.)

Though I remember watching the PBS series, The French Chef with Julia Child, I never knew she had a cat or anything about her personal life. She was always just the tall, wacky cooking lady whose voice I loved to imitate. Recently, with the film Julie & Julia and several books, viewers and readers have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about the person behind the cooking legend. Susanna Reich’s latest book, Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, offers readers a close up view—thanks in no small part to Amy Bates’ tender, detailed illustrations—into Julia’s life in Paris, and the roots of her love for cooking. Susanna’s factual story of Julia Child’s training, perseverance, and ultimate rise to cooking fame, comes to readers through the equally factual story of Julia’s adopted cat, Minette, “the luckiest cat in Paris.” Now, you might think that a cat living with someone who loves to cook would grow fat and spoiled on all the rich food being prepared daily right in front of her. Not Minette! She is a finicky French cat, who may sample a taste here and there but much prefers to follow her hunting instincts and dine on a bird or mouse. Readers, however, will wish they could join Julia and her husband Paul at the dining room table for a plateful of anything she is serving.  Ooh-la-la! Bon Appétit!

In the Classroom

1. Background. Julia was born in the United States—Pasadena, California—but is living in Paris, France, as readers meet her and Minette. How many of your students know where France is? What do they know about France and Paris? Are any of them familiar with the Eiffel Tower—name or shape? Locate both the country and the city on a map. Perhaps some of your younger students have seen Disney’s The Aristocats. (Yes, it’s a cartoon, but it may serve as a beginning reference point.) The focus of the book isn’t Paris, but the culture and setting are important to understanding the lives of both Minette and Julia. Paris is filled with outdoor restaurants and sidewalk cafés. Maybe some of your students have eaten at a sidewalk café. The internet is such a great resource for images, videos, and information that will help you with any frontloading your students may need to get the most out of this book. Some older students (and adults) may notice a couple artistic references/tributes by the illustrator. For instance, the drawing of Minette on the dedication page, I believe, is a tip of the hat to Theophile Steinlein’s “Le Chat Noir.” The advertising art of Alphonse Mucha (another possible inspiration) could be compared to Amy Bates’ watercolor/pen/ink illustrations.

2. Reading. As always, you’ll want to preview the book prior to sharing. I like to read picture books through at least twice before sharing them with students. During my second (or third) preview reading, I use sticky notes to mark pages/passages/illustrations I want to emphasize—interesting word choices, fluent sentences, particularly sharp details, evocative illustrations, any “extras” the book has to offer, etc. Don’t miss the opportunity to share Amy Bates’ illustrations—a document camera is a great tool for this, as is simply holding the book up or passing it around.  This book can be read easily in a single sitting yet may, in fact, require a second or third reading for the fun of experiencing all the tasty language.

3. Personal connections. How many of your students have cats for pets? What are the animals’ names? Is there a story behind each pet’s name? Minette’s full name is Minette Mimosa McWilliams Child. Check the Afterword section to find out how she earned the Mimosa part of her lengthy name. What do your students’ cats eat? Compare Minette’s dietary preferences with your students’ cats. The Child’s adopt Minette, who appears to be a stray cat. Are any of your students’ cats adopted, either from an agency or because they found a stray like Julia and Paul? Perhaps some of your students feel as if they were the ones being adopted by their cats. Do any of your students have an interest in cooking? What are of some of things they are both able and allowed to cook on their own? Are there student’s who like to watch cooking programs? Do they have a favorite celebrity chef—Rachel Ray, Bobby Flay, Jamie Oliver, etc.?

4. Comparing Day-to-Day Life. Julia and her husband, Paul, love to spend their weekends strolling down the streets of Paris. These walks always included taking in a fine meal from one of the many cafes they discovered during their wanderings. That sounds very pleasant and leisurely to me, yet it’s very different from the way I spend most of my weekends. How does this compare with the way your students spend their Saturdays and Sundays? Do any of your students have parents who work during the weekend? Are there students in your classroom who participate in sports activities on Saturdays or spend part of their weekend time at church or involved in church functions? Julia also spends part of each day shopping at the marketplace or going to individual shops for bread, meat, milk, and other necessaries. (Be sure to check out the glossary in the back for pronunciation help with the French names for each of the shops.) Students could compare this with the way that their family shops for food. Do any of them help with the shopping—pushing the cart, retrieving items from the shelf, or checking items off a list?  There is also a page where the author tells about Julia and Paul’s apartment. This description begins as a series of complaints—it’s cold, dark, lacking important amenities—and ends with the wonderful line, “But this was home…” Students could imitate this page about something from their own life (home, family, etc.) focusing first on honest complaints and finishing with an equally honest, realistic, assessment—But he’s my big brother…But it’s the only car we have…But at least I get to talk to her on the phone once a week…Writing about real life experiences, even things which may sound too dull and ordinary, allows students to energize their writing with authentic details, the kind readers can connect with in a personal way.

5. Word Choice #1—Adjectives. Each word a writer chooses is important, of course, and the words used to describe the people, places, things, and animals are especially important if readers are going to be able to see and understand what the writer is describing. Ask your students to pay close attention to the words chosen to describe both Minette’s personality and the way she looks. Your students could draw pictures of “Mischievous Minette,” or “Energetic Minette.” After hearing Minette’s story and seeing the illustrations, are there any other describing words that would also help complete the “picture” of Minette?  Students could write reflective pieces describing themselves—physical and/or personality—to practice choosing the just-right adjectives to help readers understand them better. You could also have students write about a partner, and with their partner’s permission, share their writing aloud.

6. Word Choice #2—Adjectives, Verbs, and Terminology. The Common Core Language Standards focus a great deal on, not only word meaning, but also word relationships, nuances in meaning, and using words acquired through reading and being read to. As you might imagine in a book about Julia Child, Susanna Reich’s writing is practically a compendium of food terminology, filling readers’ senses with sights, tastes, smells, textures, from the moment an ingredient is selected in its rawest form, to the final moment when it slides into a waiting mouth. Eliminate these words or diminish them in any way, and the reader’s experience suffers. Have students discuss the difference between the author’s actual words describing Minette’s whiskers, nose, and paws with a weaker, repetitive substitute: …Minette’s nice whiskers, her nice nose, and her nice paws.  Since verbs are the engine of every sentence, and are chosen to bring a topic to life for readers, I suggest working with your students to create a chart of Cooking Verbs (plucked, blended, whisking, etc.) and a chart of Minette’s Verbs, (gnawing, dancing, prancing, etc.) These charts could become part of your classroom word wall, a reminder of the importance of choosing the right action word, and a daily reference for your writers. Students could work in groups to learn meanings of a selected set of the chart’s words to act out for their class. Physically demonstrating the differences between verbs—blending and whisking, dancing and prancing, etc.—is a great way for students to understand word meanings, nuances, and relationships, and promote their use in student writing. And it’s a lot of fun.

7. Word Choice, Figurative Language, and Sentence Fluency. If I haven’t made it clear already, this book has to be read aloud, more than once, and even performed in parts by students. There’s so much to discover—the variety of sentence beginnings, length and structure, purposeful repetition of sentence beginnings and structure, and the use of alliteration/assonance/consonance. (There is a beautifully long sentence that contains mayonnaise, hollandaise, cassoulets, and more!) The author uses these techniques skillfully to bring rhythm and movement to each page and involve readers in the dance/music of cooking.

8. Organization/Ending. Make sure you linger on both the beginning and ending of this book to help students hear and feel how the author has brought them full circle. By repeating at the end, nearly word for word (and rather poetically), the language from the beginning, Susanna Reich underlines for readers the wonderful Parisian life that Minette leads with Julia and Paul.

9. Writing/Fun. Here are a few quick ideas to extend the ideas from this book and have some fun. Fun is good.

a) Create a class cookbook with favorite recipes from students. Have them plan the                   organization and layout.

b) Explore what your students know about table manners, for both formal and informal                   situations. Watch a video, then practice at lunch.

c) Find videos of Julia Child in action from her PBS cooking shows. Compare the real Julia                   with the way she is portrayed by illustrator Amy Bates.

10. Further Research—Biography. Share all the extras this book has to offer: Afterword, Notes (In this section, be sure students hear what the author says about the source of this book’s dialogue.), Glossary/Pronunciation Guide, and Author’s Note.  Discuss with students the depth of knowledge required by biographical writers like Susanna Reich. Ask your students if they think she included everything she learned about Minette and Julia Child in this book. Discuss why she might have decided to leave some information out.

11. More About the Author and Illustrator. Be sure to visit Susanna Reich, learn more about her, and check out all the cool books she has written, at www.susannareich.com For more information about the books and art of illustrator Amy Bates, go to www.amybates.com

(A special thanks to both Susanna Reich and Abrams Publishing for providing us at Gurus with a copy of Minette’s Feast.)

Coming up on Gurus . . .Look for a discussion of the often underrated importance of narrative writing in the classroom—coming soon. And we’ll continue making connections to the Common Core as we go along. Please remember, for the BEST in workshops integrating traits, standards, literature, process and workshop, phone us at 503-579-3034. See you next time, and bring friends! Give every child a voice…