Friday, June 5, 2015

A Long Way From Chicago

The last chapter book read aloud is a hard one to pick. I try and alternate the books I share - switch up the genre, the gender of the protagonist, alternate between fast paced reads and slower ones. On a more practical note, time is also a consideration, and at the end of the year, even more relevant. So it was that at the start of May I was looking at less than twenty days and wondering what book I could possibly read aloud to finish off of our year together.

Enter Richard Peck's amazing book, A Long Way from Chicago.

A Long Way From Chicago has a special place in my heart. It entered the world in September of 1998, the same year I began student teaching. I remember picking it up for the first time and reading it, sharing it with my students. It took place in the same county where I was teaching - and the same county where I still teach. I poured over the chapters, trying to figure out what town it took place in. 

I still recall heading to a local bar in a town with a population of just over two hundred and fifty people. It was just down the road from my grandma's house, where Chris and I were living while we saved up money to buy our own home. I walked into the bar with the book in hand and talked to some of the farmers who were there, many friends of my grandmother. I had them help me pinpoint the location, watched them laugh as I told them the story, and saw them get excited to see locations they knew so well inside of this book. And then they shared their stories of growing up with me. It was magical. 

When you live surrounded by cornfields, halfway between Chicago and St. Louis, there aren't a lot of times you see your community in books. You might be lucky to read about other small towns, other farming communities, but you never read about your community. So when I found this book, I knew it was special. 

Joey and Mary Alice live in Chicago in 1929. Their parents have decided they need to head down and visit their grandma, Grandma Dowdel, on their own for a week every summer. Each chapter of the book is a new year, but follows that year's visit to Grandma. Grandma Dowdel, in my opinion, is one of the best characters ever written in children's literature. She is the clearest example I know of letting your actions speak for your character.

I love sharing Peck's book with my students. Not only because they can imagine themselves in Joey and Mary Alice's place, but because they often wouldn't finish it on their own. It is a masterfully crafted book. Yes, it is slower - in some ways - than some of their action packed fantasy novels, but the writing! I love teaching them to look for the clues he throws out at the start of each chapter, and how nothing he mentions is random, but will somehow come back into play at the end of each chapter. I love reading and letting them absorb the relationship between Grandma Dowdel and her grandchildren. And I absolutely love reading the last chapter, Troop Train, and trying oh so hard not to tear up, and failing each time.

A Long Way From Chicago is a book you should not miss. And once you read it, pick up the sequels, A Year Down Yonder and A Season of Gifts. These books are ones you should not miss. My students often go on to read them all. I hope you will do the same.