Where can you find the coolest books around, to read for fun or for school assignments? Look no further—the following list contains summaries of some of the best books for 6th through 8th graders. We read them; we liked them; you’ll love them!
After choosing a book, follow the links below each summary to the Reader’s Guide to Author’s Techniques. Here you’ll find definitions, questions, and examples to help you turn a fabulous read into an even-more-fabulous Response to Literature. The Reader’s Guide to Author’s Techniques coordinates with the 6th through 8th grade Gorman Learning Center prompts for Response to Literature. You can read the prompts here.
All of these books are on the 6th through 8th grade Recommended Literature list of the California Department of Education (http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/rl/ll/ap/litsearch.asp).
Baseball in April, and Other Stories, by Gary Soto (1990)
This book of short stories has the flavor of a sunny California afternoon. You’ll read about kids your age whose lives revolve around karate, guitars, talent shows, abuelos [grandparents], and first loves. Each short story is like a mini book, using realistic dialogue and details that will make you feel like you are part of the characters’ world. The author, Gary Soto, was born and raised in central California.
Reader’s Guide: Explore Genre and Diction in Baseball in April.
The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich (1999)
Omakayas is a young Ojibwa girl who lives on an island in Lake Superior. The Birchbark House traces her adventures during an unforgettable summer, fall, winter, and spring, a year when her life will change forever. Set in the year 1847, this novel includes vivid descriptions of the natural world—you’ll be able to see every tree in the forest and even smell the breath of an angry mother bear. If you enjoyed reading the Little House on the Prairie series, you will love Omakayas’s story.
Reader’s Guide: Explore Characterization and Historical Setting in The Birchbark House.
Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis (1999)
An orphan at age ten, Bud Caldwell is much too cool for anyone to call him Buddy. He’s got adults all figured out with his set of Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself… that is, until he leaves Flint, Michigan to search for the most elusive adult of all: his father. Will Bud find Herman E. Calloway, bassist for the jazz band the Dusky Devastators of the Depression? What else will he find out in the process? You’ll laugh out loud as you learn the answers.
Reader’s Guide: Explore Foreshadowing and Theme in Bud, Not Buddy.
The Conch Bearer, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (2003)
Anand is just an ordinary twelve-year-old boy from Kolkata, India, but he is about to embark on a mystical journey through deserts, rivers, and high mountain peaks. When a most unusual stranger entrusts Anand with a sacred conch [sea shell], he and two companions must travel far and wide to return the conch to its rightful home. But will the evil Surabhanu get it first? Expect to be amazed by giant snakes, water spirits, and a heartbreaking final choice.
Reader’s Guide: Explore Imagery and Theme in The Conch Bearer.
Cuba 15, by Nancy Osa (2003)
When Violet Paz turned fifteen, she never expected that she’d be spending months planning an enormous party with music, pink dresses, and speeches—much less reading a book called Quinceañero for the Gringo Dummy. But at her grandmother’s urging, Violet is about to become a “quince-babe.” Hopefully, she’ll have enough time to plan her quince, win the Original Comedy competition for Tri-District High, catch Clarence Williams’s eye, and squeeze in a few rounds of domino with her family. You will love the details of fashion and culture in this hilarious book for eighth-graders.
Reader’s Guide: Explore Characterization and Diction in Cuba 15.
Eragon, by Christopher Paolini (2003)
Teenager Eragon must leave his home in the empire of Alagaësia after making an unexpected discovery: a polished, dark blue oval stone that falls from the sky. But wait… is there something inside that stone? Join Eragon as the answer leads him to learn about battling with bows, swords, and magic; speaking an ancient language; believing the unbelievable; and making tough decisions. This is the first book in the Inheritance trilogy. Fun fact: Author Christopher Paolini was home-schooled. He started writing this book when he was just fifteen years old.
Reader’s Guide: Explore Plot Structure and Characterization in Eragon.
Heartbeat, by Sharon Creech (2004)
What’s unusual about this fast-paced novel? You’ll notice right away that it’s written not in sentences and paragraphs, but in poems! The unrhymed verse is easy to read as it follows the rhythms of Annie’s daily run: “weaving through the trees/ skimming over the ground… knowing I could fly fly fly.” In a year when her mom is expecting a new baby, her best friend is acting different, and her grandfather is getting older, Annie runs, draws, and writes to stay centered. Don’t be surprised if you’re inspired to keep a journal or go running after reading this great book.
Reader’s Guide: Explore Imagery and Genre in Heartbeat.
Holes, by Louis Sachar (1998)
Unlucky Stanley Yelnats did not commit the crime that sends him to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention center that isn’t green and doesn’t have a lake. Now Stanley has a new nickname—Caveman—and a new task: to dig a five-foot-deep, five-foot-wide hole every day, in the company of campmates with names like X-Ray, Armpit, and Zero. When he finds a small gold tube in the rock-hard lake bed, Stanley begins to suspect that there’s more than dirt at the bottom of these holes. After enjoying this stylish mystery solved by Stanley and Zero, you’ll want to check out the just-released sequel, Small Steps.
Reader’s Guide: Explore Foreshadowing and Plot Structure in Holes.
My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier (1974)
An “oldie-but-goodie,” My Brother Sam Is Dead combines American history, suspense, and tragic family drama. When Sam Meeker leaves Redding, Connecticut to join the Minutemen in 1775, his younger brother Tim has no way of predicting how much the American Revolution will change his world. Although Tim’s story takes place over two hundred years in the past, you will find yourself drawn into the everyday details and extraordinary events of his life. The title says it all—but you’ll still be surprised at what happens to Sam and Tim.
Reader’s Guide: Explore Theme and Historical Setting in My Brother Sam Is Dead.
Witness, by Karen Hesse (2001)
In 1921, life in a small Vermont town is disrupted by the coming of the Ku Klux Klan. Through a series of monologues [speeches] within each of the five acts, characters like Leonora Sutter and Esther Hirsh speak to readers in their own voices. This structure makes Witness both a hard-hitting novel and a play that you can act out with classmates or siblings. Because Witness depicts serious situations of violence and racism, it is a good book to read and discuss together with a parent or teacher.
Reader’s Guide: Explore Diction and Theme in Witness.
With every sentence and every word, an author makes choices about what to write and how to write it. We can refer to these choices as the author’s techniques. Studying techniques like plot structure and diction helps us understand what we read in a deeper way. We can also use the same techniques to add spice to our own writing.
Authors have many different ways of helping us imagine and understand a character. For example, an author can show us what a character looks like (description), talks like (dialogue), and acts or thinks like (actions). Authors can also show how characters change throughout the course of the book, or can contrast one character with another (called a foil) to teach us something about both characters. If you have ever read a book with a character so lifelike that he or she felt like a real friend, you have seen the power of characterization at work.
Characterization in: The Birchbark House
1) Most novels have both a protagonist (main character) and an antagonist (a character or thing that comes into conflict with the protagonist). The struggle between protagonist and antagonist is typically the most important conflict of the book. If Omakayas is the protagonist of The Birchbark House, who or what do you think the antagonist is? (Hint: it does not necessarily have to be a person or even an animal—it can also be an idea or an event that the protagonist struggles against.) Look for quotes or scenes from the book to support your choice.
2) Old Tallow is an unusual character because the way she looks, talks, and acts are all different from each other, and even seem to contradict each other. If you only read Old Tallow’s physical description (her appearance, her cabin, her possessions), what kind of character would you think she is? What about if you only read her dialogue (what she says and how she says it)? How about her actions (what she thinks and does throughout the book)? Take time to describe these three aspects of her character, using quotes from the book to support your ideas. Then, looking at all three aspects, decide how you would define Old Tallow as a character. What kind of person is she, really?
1) Physical description and dialogue are both important elements of Cuba 15. Author Nancy Osa tells us a great deal about what the characters look like, the words they say, their tones of voice, and even their fashion sense. For example, look at this passage describing Abuela at the beginning of Chapter 9: “Abuela scrunched up her face, cracking the thick whitish-pink lipstick she’d applied with a steamroller. ‘No love and lunch,’ she said. She began to try to explain, then shook her head. ‘These things, they do not translate literal-mente.’” Pick your favorite character from Cuba 15 and create a ‘character sketch’ using what you have learned about him or her from description and dialogue. How do description and dialogue reveal the character’s personality?
2) Violet has two best friends, Leda and Janell. Like all best friends, they have many similarities. However, Leda and Janell are also different from Violet in ways that make them effective foils for her character: we can learn more about Violet by looking at the contrast between her and her friends. Pick one scene where the friends have a difference of opinion (one example is Janell and Violet’s disagreement about the poem “Phenomenal Woman”). Describe each person’s point of view, using quotes from the book. What do you learn about Violet’s character through the disagreement or argument? Now describe how the disagreement is resolved. What does this teach you about Violet?
1) Eragon is an epic fantasy novel with numerous characters. Some are obviously heroes, while some are villains. With other characters, it is harder to tell if they are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ A character may exhibit both noble and cruel behaviors, or have intentions that are hard to understand. Pick three memorable characters from the novel: one who is definitely a hero in your eyes, one who is definitely a villain, and one who you’re not quite sure about. Explain your choices, using quotes from the book (description, dialogue, action) that support your opinion. In particular, what makes you unsure about the intentions of the third character you chose? Then, predict how you expect each character to behave in the next book of the trilogy. (Afterwards, you’ll want to read Eldest to see if your predictions are correct!)
2) Eragon, the protagonist and title character (his name is also the book’s title), experiences changes throughout this novel, just as real people do throughout their lives. Describe Eragon’s personality and way of life at the beginning of the novel (hint: description, dialogue, action). Next, describe his personality and way of life at the very end of the novel. How has he changed, and why has he changed? Identify ways that he has changed, plus events and experiences that caused him to change. (As an example, does Brom influence or change Eragon’s personality?) In your opinion, which of these changes are positive, and which are negative? Be sure to explain why.
The term diction encompasses all of the word choices that authors make in their writing. One author might employ descriptive, flowery language, while another uses simple nouns and verbs. Dialogue showcases word choices in a different way: characters may speak differently, depending on their personalities, ages, and contexts. Fantasy books like Eragon include words from invented ‘ancient languages,’ while realistic books like Cuba 15 use words in languages like Spanish to reflect the characters’ knowledge and culture. Diction can also include point of view: the author may choose to narrate the story in first person (“One afternoon, I was sitting outside when…”) or third person (“One afternoon, Kim was sitting outside when…”).
Diction in: Baseball in April, and Other Stories
1) Pick your favorite short story from this collection and re-read it carefully, looking at Gary Soto’s word choices. As you re-read, jot down a few words that characterize his style of writing, the same way you would if you were describing how someone dresses or speaks. For example, does he use flowery ‘vocabulary’ words that send you racing to the dictionary? Does he use a lot of description of people or settings, or does he focus more on action and what the characters do? Are his sentences long and winding, or short and abrupt? After you have finished re-reading the story, turn your jotted-down words and thoughts into a paragraph, describing Soto’s writing style and diction to people who might want to read his books. Of the people you know, who do you think would like this particular writing style, and why? Use quotes from the book to support your ideas about Soto’s diction.
2) This book is told in third person, meaning that the narrator is not a character in the stories: there is no “I” character at all. Third-person point of view can be objective (does not describe the thoughts and feelings of the characters), limited (describes the thoughts and feelings of the main character), or omniscient (“all-knowing,” describes the thoughts and feelings of all the characters). Re-read “Barbie” or “No-Guitar Blues,” searching for evidence of characters’ thoughts and feelings. Underline or highlight quotes where the narrator describes thoughts or feelings. Then, decide if you think the story is third person objective, third person limited, or third person omniscient, and explain why. Use the quotes you have underlined or highlighted to help you.
1) This novel has a first-person narrator: Violet Paz, the “I” character. We ‘hear’ Violet’s voice as we read Cuba 15, and we come to know a great deal about her thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Violet has her own unique diction and way of communicating to the reader; how would you describe her voice? Pick three adjectives (a few examples of adjectives: sarcastic, innocent, angry, casual or fussy) that describe Violet’s voice to you. For each one, explain why you chose this adjective and find a quote from the book—something Violet says as the narrator—to support your choice.
2) If you noticed that Cuba 15 contains many descriptions of fashion and outfits, as well as many words and phrases in Spanish, you are absolutely right. The novel would be very different, and maybe not as much fun, without Violet’s description of the “peppermint ice cream” quince dresses or Abuela’s lively use of two languages. Choose one of these two elements of diction, whichever is your favorite. Find at least two passages (about a paragraph long) that use this element of diction, and pick important words and phrases. In your own words, describe how author Nancy Osa uses fashion descriptions or Spanish phrases in the passages. How and why does this element of diction make the book more effective, believable, or fun to read?
1) Because Witness is written as a play, with a series of monologues spoken by different characters, there is not a single narrator. Eleven different characters tell their parts of the story, using first-person point of view (“I”) to reveal their thoughts and feelings. Why do you think author Karen Hesse chose to write the book with lots of different “I” characters, instead of writing it as a traditional story with one narrator or “I” character? As you think about this question, look at some of your favorite monologues from Witness. What can be learned from the different “I” characters that cannot be learned from a single narrator?
2) Different characters in this play speak in different ways—that is, they have different diction. For example, six-year-old Esther Hirsh uses funny phrases like “sara chickering had takings of the baby kittens” instead of “sara chickering took the baby kittens.” The preacher, Johnny Reeves, uses the word “neighbor” numerous times in his monologues. Pick two characters that interest you, and brainstorm a list to describe each character’s diction. What unique words, phrases, and ways of speaking do the two characters have? Now compare and contrast the two characters’ diction. What similarities and differences in diction do they have? Why do you think these similarities and differences exist?
Foreshadowing plays a crucial role in books that involve mystery or suspense. Think about a wall on which you see a person’s shadow. Although you do not know exactly what the person looks like, the shadow gives you clues: he or she wears a hat, is very tall, or carries a bulky bag. Similarly, foreshadowing in books takes the form of clues, hints, dialogue, objects, descriptions, or even dreams that give the reader suspenseful hints about events that have not happened yet.
Foreshadowing in: Bud, Not Buddy
1) **Do this one before you have finished reading the book!** Bud has a suitcase filled with his treasured possessions, especially flyers, a photograph, and some unusual rocks. Look at the parts of the book that describe the contents of his suitcase, including parts of Chapter 1, Chapter 5, and Chapter 8. What do Bud’s possessions tell you about Bud’s family, and his mother’s feelings about her family? What do they foreshadow about the things Bud might learn later on in the book? And… what do you think the mysterious rocks mean? Make a few predictions, based on the contents of Bud’s suitcase, of what Bud will eventually discover about his family.
2) An interesting and unique part of Bud, Not Buddy is Bud’s list of Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself. In many instances, these rules also serve as foreshadowing—they offer hints about what is going to come next in the story. Pick one of your favorite rules, such as Number 16 in Chapter 7, Number 87 in Chapter 10, or Number 83 in Chapter 5. Based on what the rule says, what do you think will happen next in the story? Now, what actually does happen in the story? Did Bud’s rule turn out right or wrong? Why do you think the author made the rule turn out right or wrong?
1) As you read Holes, you will soon suspect that events or things from the past help to predict—to foreshadow—what will happen in Stanley’s life at Camp Green Lake. Pick one of the following:
* The “If Only” song in Chapter 3
*Stanley’s grandfather’s curse in Chapter 7
* Katherine Barlow’s spiced peaches in Chapter 23
* Sam’s onions in Chapter 25
What does this part of the past foreshadow about what will happen in Stanley’s life? Try to think of all the possible connections.
2) What is one event in Holes that really took you by surprise—that you did not expect? Explain how you felt when you came across this part of the book, and why you were so surprised. Once you have finished the book, look back at the surprising event. Were there any foreshadowing clues that led up to the event, but that you might have missed the first time you read? If so, what were they?
Literature comes in many different forms, also called genres. A 200-page novel is not the same as a ten-page short story, and a collection of ten short stories is different from both. Some genres that you may have read already include novels, short stories, short story collections, poems, and dramas [plays]. A single genre, like dramas or novels, can even display smaller divisions, called subgenres. For example, a drama in verse, like a Shakespeare play, has characters who speak in lines of poetry; in a contemporary drama, characters tend to speak in unrhymed sentences. Within the genre of novels, we can find historical novels like My Brother Sam Is Dead, fantasy novels like The Conch Bearer, and poetic novels like Heartbeat.
Genre in: Baseball in April, and Other Stories
1) When you read the short stories in this collection, you will notice that the characters change from story to story—you’ll meet different kids and different families throughout the book. What other differences can you find between stories? Pick two stories and write a list of all of the differences you see. Differences may have to do with characters (boys, girls, parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbors?), setting (school, home, playground?), plot structure (what happens in each story?), theme (what is the message of each story?) or any of the other author’s techniques discussed here. Try to be extra inventive and make a very long list of differences, no matter how subtle or obvious they seem.
2) Once you have your list of differences (see above), it is time to look for similarities. Brainstorm another long list of all the things the two stories have in common, using your knowledge of author’s techniques to help you. Next, with both lists in front of you, think about why Gary Soto chose to put these stories together in the same book. Why did he decide that these stories belong together? (Hint: two stories might belong together because they have a lot in common, such as similar themes, or because they form an interesting contrast with each other, or both.)
1) Although author Sharon Creech could have written Annie’s story in paragraphs and “regular” sentences, she chose to write it as a series of poems that do not rhyme and have different line lengths. Pick one of the poems that interests you (good ones to work with: “Apple,” “The Bite,” and “Eternity”). Type or write the poem out, making sure to end each line just as the author does, even if the line ends in the middle of a sentence. Next, type or write the poem again—but this time, write it as a paragraph of regular sentences, not as a poem (take out all of the extra spaces). Now, re-read the poem and the paragraph out loud. (For the poem, pause a moment at the end of every line; for the paragraph, only pause when you come to the end of a sentence.) How is reading the poem different from reading the paragraph? Based on the differences you see, why do you think Sharon Creech wanted to write this book as poems instead of paragraphs?
The setting of a book includes its time, place, and physical and cultural environment. Through descriptive diction (such as sense details) and background information, an author can make us feel as if we are “inside” the setting of a book, whether it is a windswept mountain peak or a bustling city. In a historical novel (a novel that occurs during a specific period of the past), authors must work extremely hard to make the setting realistic, accurate, and compelling. In addition to using description, they must research the historical period, finding out everything from what people wore and what kind of dwellings they lived in to the kinds of trees that grew outside their homes.
Historical Setting in: The Birchbark House
1) Omakayas’s birchbark house is first described in Chapter 1, and her winter cabin is described in Chapter 7. Going back to these chapters and any other chapters you wish, write a description of Omakayas’s two homes. What materials are they made of, how were they made, where are they located, what do they look like outside and inside, and what objects are inside them (cooking utensils, beds, toys…)? If you like, you can sketch the birchbark house and the cabin, too. Now, what similarities and differences do you see between Omakayas’s homes and your own home?
2) As you read Omakayas’s story, you will notice that author Louise Erdrich describes the outside world (the woods, the river, and the island) with as much detail as she uses to describe the inside world (the birchbark house and the cabin). Look at the description of the outside world through the four seasons of summer, fall, winter, and spring. Why do you think the author describes the outside in as much detail as the inside? Why is the outside world an important setting in this book? Think about Omakayas’s culture and the time period of the book as you write your ideas.
My Brother Sam Is Dead
1) In your opinion, did authors James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier do a good job of creating a believable and realistic historical setting in this novel? Think about how the novel affected you: did you feel like you were “inside” the setting? Could you see the places of the novel, like the tavern and the road to Verplanks Point, in your mind’s eye? Were you able to put yourself into the characters’ shoes and imagine their lives? Think about this question and explain why or why not you think the historical setting is realistic and believable. Use descriptive quotes from the book, as well as your own feelings, to explain your ideas.
2) If you were going to write a historical novel about the American Revolution, what kind of research would you need to do to create the historical setting? Look at the people and places described in the novel, and think about the books and experts you would need to consult. (For example, how could you learn what it is like to drive a team of oxen?) Write a list of at least ten books and ten expert people you could use for your own historical novel about the American Revolution. You may use the library and the Internet to find possible research sources and expert people.
If you guessed that the term imagery has something to do with the author’s use of images, you are absolutely right. Sensory details, vivid descriptions, and poetic comparisons such as similes (“your smile is like the sun”) and metaphors (“your smile is the sun”) – all of these language techniques create images in our minds as we read. These images can influence our feelings, describe important characters or settings, or help us to understand ideas. Special images, called symbols, are easy to spot in books because they are objects that stand for themselves, but also stand for an abstract idea (like love, pride, or fear). For example, an old violin in a dusty attic might be a symbol of beauty, creativity, or the long-ago past. The ocean might symbolize mystery or power.
Imagery in: The Conch Bearer
1) Re-read the end of Chapter 17, which describes the Arbor of Water (from the words “The Arbor of Water was off to one side of the valley” until the end of the chapter). As you read, underline every example of imagery you can find, whether it is a sensory detail, an unforgettable description, a simile or metaphor, or a symbol. (There are lots of examples in this poetic chapter!) After you have underlined all your examples, write them on a piece of paper. Then decide what kind of example each underlined word or phrase is: is it a sensory detail, a description, a simile, a metaphor, or a symbol? What kinds of imagery does the author use most? What are your three favorite images, and why?
1) Ask someone—a parent, teacher, sibling, or friend—to read the poem “Tickets” out loud to you. Have a pen and paper ready. As soon as the other person finishes reading the poem, quickly write down any images and examples of descriptive language that you can remember (without looking at the poem). Then, read the poem silently to yourself. What other examples of imagery do you see? How do you think the images contribute to the meaning or feeling that the poem gives you?
2) After finishing Heartbeat, read the last poem, “One Hundred Apples,” one more time. You will notice that the poem refers to Annie’s drawings of her apple and an apple seed. Think about all the places in the book where Annie mentions her drawings of the apple. What happens to the apple as Annie draws it every day? How does it change? Now, think about the changes that characters like Annie, her mother, and her grandfather experience in Heartbeat. What could the apple symbolize about these changes? What could the apple seed symbolize? Write down your ideas.
The term plot refers to the sequence of events in a book: what happens, and in what order. You may have learned about a five-part plot structure that includes exposition (background information), rising action (buildup of suspense and conflict), climax (turning point or major conflict), falling action (events that lead up to the conclusion of the story), and resolution (the conclusion). Many variations to this structure exist. Authors can be very creative in including several turning points, telling more than one story at once, deliberately leaving out background information, or presenting a conflict that has no immediate solution. A book like Witness presents plot structure in an unusual way—as a series of character monologues, each revealing different events in the plot.
Plot Structure in: Eragon
1) As you think about Eragon’s long journey through Alagaësia and beyond, try framing the plot into the five parts listed above: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. To make your task easier, try sketching Eragon’s journey as a timeline on a piece of paper, making dots to represent different places that Eragon visits and the events that happen there. Now, divide your timeline into five parts, to represent the five stages of the plot. (Hint: important events often, but not always, signal a transition between stages.)
2) Once you have created and divided your timeline (see above), look closely at the part that you labeled as the climax (turning point or major conflict). Why did you choose this part of Eragon as the turning point of the plot? Now, think about the outcome of the climax or turning point. What if everything had turned out differently? Brainstorm a list of possible outcomes that could have (but didn’t) happen. Pick one of the possible outcomes that didn’t happen and explain how it would have changed the rest of the book.
1) When you started reading Holes, you might have been surprised that it tells not one, but three stories: Stanley’s story, which is told in the present, Katherine Barlow’s story, which happens in the past, and Stanley’s great-grandfather’s story, also in the past. To keep track of the three stories, make a plot outline: write the numbers of Chapters 1 through 50 on a long piece of paper. Next to each chapter number, write down the ‘where’ and ‘when’ of the chapter: where it takes place, and what time period it takes place in (past or present). Also write down the names of the characters in the chapter, and the important things that happen in the chapter. (Since there are a lot of chapters, you do not need to include all the details, just the basics.)
2) Using the plot outline you have just created, consider the ways that the three stories are connected. Draw a line between chapters every time you see a connection between the present and the past. Write a few words to explain the connection. (For example, how is the sploosh from Chapter 35 connected to the past, and to Kate Barlow? How is Madame Zeroni from Chapter 7 connected to the present, and to Zero?) Do not be surprised if you see lots of lines forming on your plot outline!
Many readers and writers define theme as the underlying meaning or message that an author wants his or her audience to take away after reading the book. Sometimes this theme or message takes the form of a specific lesson that readers can learn and apply to their own lives. At other times, the theme is more subtle: an exploration of many possible meanings that can come from a specific situation or problem. All of the author’s techniques and choices discussed above—plot structure, imagery, diction, etc.—support the theme of a literary work.
Theme in: Bud, Not Buddy
1) In Chapter 15 of Bud, Not Buddy, Bud starts to cry while eating dinner with the band at The Sweet Pea. Then, in Chapter 19, there is another crying scene—but this time, it’s Herman E. Calloway who is crying. When an author writes two scenes that have something in common, they often have a special connection. Re-read both scenes and decide why Bud and Mr. Calloway are crying. What has each of them lost? What have they discovered or gained? Do you think Bud found what he was looking for? Why or why not?
2) If theme often means the author’s message, a good place to start looking in this book is the Afterword. This is author Christopher Paul Curtis’s message to his readers about how and why he wrote the book. As you read the Afterword, especially the last two pages, think carefully about the message the author is sending to you, the reader. What does he want you to learn about by reading Bud, Not Buddy? How does he want you to use what you have learned in your own life? You can quote from the book or from the Afterword to support your ideas.
The Conch Bearer
1) In Chapter 18 of this novel, Anand must make the most difficult choice of his life, a choice that will determine the course of his future. Why does Abhaydatta ask him to make this choice? Why do you think that Anand makes the choice he does? In your opinion, did he make the right choice, and why or why not? What would you do if you were in his place?
2) When Anand, Abhaydatta, and Nisha go on their journey together, each of them contributes something to their mission. What qualities or actions does each character contribute to make sure that their mission is successful? Why do you think author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni chose to have them take their journey together? What are the three of them able to accomplish together that Anand could not accomplish all by himself? (Hint: think about all three characters’ strengths and weaknesses.) Find specific quotes or scenes from the book to support your ideas.
My Brother Sam Is Dead
1) In order to understand the theme of a novel, it is important to first understand the conflict—what is at stake in the novel. Re-read Chapter 1 of My Brother Sam Is Dead, in which Tim overhears an argument between his brother, Sam, and his father, Life. What is this argument about? How would you summarize Sam’s point of view and Life’s point of view? What are Tim’s feelings about this argument? How about you—with whom do you most agree, and why? Use examples from Sam’s and Life’s dialogue to explain your ideas.
2) The title of My Brother Sam Is Dead is interesting, because it tells us what will happen to an important character in the novel: we know that Sam will die. Imagine that the authors have decided that they do not want the title to reveal Sam’s fate. Instead, they have asked you to choose an alternate title that will exemplify the theme or message of the book. What title would you choose to express the theme of this novel? Why would you choose that title? Look for specific things that characters do and say to explain your choice.
1) After you have finished reading this book, look at Merlin Van Turnhout’s monologue on page 150 (beginning with the words “if i had done what…”) and Leonora Sutter’s monologue on page 160 (beginning with the words “when i saw merlin…”). What does Merlin say about why he almost poisoned the Sutters’ well, but did not? What does Leonora say about why she almost didn’t clear Merlin’s name, but did? What similarities and differences do you see in the choice that each character makes? In your own words, explain the message that you believe the author wants you to take away from reading these two monologues.
2) Think about the character of the preacher, Johnny Reeves. He is an unlikable character for most readers because of his violent actions and his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. Authors frequently use unlikable or “bad” characters, as well as likable or “good” ones, to reveal the theme of their books. Write a quick character sketch of Johnny Reeves: his profession, his personality, the language that he uses, and his actions during the book. What point do you think author Karen Hesse is making through Johnny Reeves’s language, actions, and behavior? Why do you think he is mentioned as a ghost at the end of Witness? What does his ghost symbolize to you as a reader?