Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Book Detectives Discuss "Lentil"

A while back, I mentioned that my friend Stefani and I had started a "Book Detectives" club with our collective half dozen chilluns. Today I thought I'd share some details from our second meeting, just to satisfy all curiosity, idle and otherwise.

May I remind you that those six chilluns are a pretty gingery bunch. As a group, their favorite activities tend to be Minecraft, video games, Nerf gun battles, hide-and-seek, and lots of yelling.

But you have girls, you say. Surely they exert a gentling influence.


So, to get this bunch to sit relatively still for, say, 45 minutes and FOCUS, while keeping jokes and non sequiturs down to a dull roar can sometimes be a labor worthy of Hercules. All that to say, if we can pull this off with our kiddos, I bet just about anyone can! Ultimately, we'd like to have a few more members, but for now, we're just greasing the wheels.

For this meeting, our second, Stefani led the discussion and I hosted. She chose to read the book Lentil, by Robert McCloskey, with them. At this stage, we're still using picture books for our discussion, as we get a handle on literary structure and terms. Besides, don't the best picture book couch profound truths in the simplest terms?

Stefani gave the kids a bit of background on Robert McCloskey, who wrote the book in 1940, between the Great Depression and World War II. She asked the kids for ideas about what childhood would be like during and after the Great Depression -- my girls thought of Kit Kittredge and her egg-selling endeavors.

After reading the book aloud amid squeals over the name "Lentil" for a boy, we began building our story structure, using the Socratic method of dialoguing with the kids.

Setting: 1940, Ohio, a small town ("a podunk!" one of the kids called it).
Characters: Lentil (can't sing, can't pucker, persistent, resourceful, can play harmonica); Old Sneep (grumpy, doesn't seem to work, sucks on lemons -- "He sucks!" -- Badabing, badabing); the Colonel (generous, fought in the war, very important to the town, etc.)

Rising Action
This is when the story's main problem develops. In this case, the town is all a-twitter about the arrival of the Colonel from the war, but Old Sneep claims the Colonel is nothing special and wants to prove it.

This is the moment when, for better or worse, we know the problem will be resolved. Here, Old Sneep sucks on a lemon during the colonel's grand entrance, causing all the town musicians to pucker up in unison. Lentil steps up during a terribly awkward moment to play his harmonica.

Denouement [pause for children to show off their exaggerated French accents]
The problem (conflict) is being resolved. Here, the colonel smiles and laughs, and so does the town. Everyone heads for the colonel's house in a joyous parade -- even Old Sneep.

Lentil realizes how his harmonica playing has come in handy after all, since he didn't need to be able to pucker in order to play it, and his inability to pucker meant that he wasn't affected by Old Sneep's sabotage.

Then we talked a bit about Theme. Was Robert McCloskey trying to tell the children of the Great Depression that all their problems would be solved by learning to play the harmonica? We all agreed: Probably not. On the other hand, couldn't he be suggesting that hardships, seasoned with a bit of persistence and resourcefulness, could ultimately turn out to be helpful? Quite possibly.

We had a quick discussion of Protagonist vs. Antagonist. The protagonist isn't ALWAYS the main character, but since it's the character who pushes the main action (theme) forward, it often is. The antagonist, of course, pushes that action back. In this case, the kids all agreed on Lentil, the cheerful hard worker, as the protagonist and Old Sneep, the grumpy bench-warmer, as the antagonist.

Finally, we invited the kids to share their current reading and to take a stab at naming the protagonist and antagonist in each of their books. Did you know that it's not so easy to identify a protagonist or antagonist in The Berenstain Bears? Just something to think about as you're lying awake tonight.

It amazes me how quickly kids can pick up what's really going on in a book. All boisterousness aside, they're truly getting the hang of how to look more closely at a story, and it's great fun to volley with them and hear what comes out of their mouths (most of the time). Thanks to the great suggestions from Deconstructing Penguins, Teaching the Classics, and the Mt. Hope Book Detectives for sending us on our way!


  1. I loved reading about your book detectives meeting! Lentil is one of my favorites and I had considered using it for one of our books. We enjoyed Homer Price so much this past month. We are reading The Real Thief by Steig for our next meeting, but I haven't thought past that. I need another short, simple chapter book... One that has a straight-forward plot. Any great suggestions?

    1. How about Sarah, Plain and Tall, or Twenty and Ten? I'll let you know if I think of anything else.

  2. Wow, that is a sounds like a great club!

  3. Quesion: Do you ever run out of wonderful ideas and is there a remedy that you know of, if one feels like they have an under abundance of them? Are you going to say "google"? :)

    1. No ... "Pinterest." LOL! Just kidding. Yes, I run out of wonderful ideas -- and nearly all my ideas are stolen from more creative people! In fact, sometimes I find there are too many wonderful ideas floating around out there in the blogosphere, and I just don't have the energy and time to implement a fraction of them. I wish they each came with their own personal motivation/organization battery pack you could install upon reading! :-)

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