Posts Tagged imagery

How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle

Well done, Mr. Tingle.

Imagine a class full of anxious 5th graders sitting on the rug at your feet begging for the next chapter in our read aloud, How I Became a Ghost by Choctaw native and story teller Tim Tingle.

As a teacher, I incorporate every moment into a teaching moment, and storytelling is no different. This is my third year reading this book aloud and a common comment after each session is how much my students love this story.

A couple of years ago, I sent two students on an errand, and they later burst through the classroom doors out of breath. They said they had run as fast as they could across the campus to get back before I started reading. I realized then, that I shouldn’t send kids on errands or make kids do catch-up work when we were visiting the land of the Choctaw on the Trail of Tears.

How I Became a Ghost is not only entertaining, it is also brutally honest. It is a tale of the Trail of Tears, when  Native Americans were forced to leave their homes in Mississippi and relocate to land now called Arkansas and Oklahoma.

The story is told through the eyes of Issac, a ten-year old Choctaw. In the very beginning, Isaac announces to his readers (or listeners in this case) that he is going to be a ghost soon. And because of his condition, premonitions of grisly events begin to plague him.

This is where the brutally honest part comes in. There are many disturbing scenes that are so well-told, that the kids shriek in shock. But they get it. And they are anxious for you to keep reading. For example, during one of Isaac’s premonitions, he sees an old Choctaw couple burning in flames. Soon after, the same couple die when soldiers sneak into the neighborhood at night to set everyone’s homes on fire. And then there is the premonition of pus-filled sores covering some of the tribe’s bodies. You guessed it. Soldiers ride into camp and offer the shivering population blankets exposed to Smallpox.

Choctaws were removed west of the Mississippi started in 1831. Louisiana Indians Walking Along a Bayou by Alfred Boisseau was painted in 1846.

Smallpox became a huge topic in the classroom and I had to teach a mini-lesson on communicable diseases (which ties into our Health curriculum) and the use of diseased blankets.  The bigger story, which we discussed several times, was the relationship between native tribes, societal beliefs, and the government in the 1830s.

Because Tim Tingle is a master storyteller, tie-ins to Native American culture are seamlessly woven into the story. We learn how the spiritual world is part of the family unit and how those who have passed on look after and protect those still walking the earth.  When Isaac becomes a ghost, his story does not stop there. As a ghost he is able to assist the living as they continue their fight to stay alive while walking the trail.

As with most great books, and one that has won many awards, the literary elements are rich. Besides profound sayings worthy of insightful discussion, we examined how imagery comes from the imagination. The scene goes from text on paper to an image inside our heads. In the following scene, Isaac’s feet are frozen in a puddle, and when he pulls his feet up the skin tears off. The kids cringe when this happens, but they understand how bitter cold can affect the body and the desperate conditions of the Choctaw. It is interesting to see imagery taking shape through the imagination of a fifth grader.

Some conversations: What is the author saying? Why does the author make a point of one hundred footprints turning into a thousand? Why were the footprints bloody and not regular footprints?

Isaac looking back and seeing a bloody trail of footprints.

Isaac covered with a blue blanket leaning against a tree with his feet frozen in ice.

One of the reasons I originally chose to read a book on Native American history is because it helps students to build a broader concept of how the U.S. was formed. Books can be powerful tools and it is a tool that sits at the top of my teacher toolbox.



Using Humor to Lighten Heavy Topics


E.B. White once famously said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” And yet, analyzing how other authors have used humor is one of the best ways to learn how to do it in your own work. When asked to think of middle-grade authors who write humor well, folks like Dav Pilkey, Tom Angleberger, Brandon Sanderson, and Jeff Kinney come to mind. Their books make readers of all ages laugh out loud.

But what I want to talk about today is using humor to lighten up heavy topics in middle-grade. Humor arises when authors set readers up with certain expectations and then subvert them in an unexpected way. There are many ways to do this, but here are some of the most common:

Humorous Language:
Puns, plays on words, and even just words that sound funny (just try saying collywobbles, blubber, or discombobulated without laughing) are a great way to interject humor into a story that is otherwise serious. Including a character who often says the wrong word (saying prism instead of prison), who regularly gets idioms wrong (another one bites the rust), or who often makes punny jokes is a great way to inject a little humor. Metaphors and similes are great humor-generators, especially when they’re unexpected. So is freshening up an old cliché. A great example of this is when Trudy Trueit uses “scare the fingernail polish off of me” to describe a teacher in My Top Secret Dares & Don’ts. “Scare the pants off” would have been a cliché, but she makes it into the perfect MG-appropriate phrase with humorous results.

When two characters misunderstand each other, comedy can ensue. In Rosanne Parry’s The Turn of the Tide, the cultural misunderstandings between two cousins, one raised in the US and one raised in Japan, add a dose of levity to a story that deals with the aftermath of a devastating tsunami.

Book jacket for Kate Messner's The Seventh WishHumor as a Motif:
Although Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish nearly broke my heart, the family plays a somewhat absurd word game throughout the story that adds some much-needed levity and sweetness.

Using Physicality for Laughs:
This is the Larry Curly and Moe style of humor that involves trips, spills, fights, and other humorous incidents involving movement and the human body. John David Anderson uses this effectively in Ms. Bixby’s Last Day to add a little humor to a real tear-jerker of a story.

Book Jacket for I Am FartacusToilet Humor:
Never underestimate the power of a good fart joke. Just ask Mark Maciejewski, whose debut, I Am Fartacus, has as many fart jokes as the name implies.

The Magical or Unexpected
Whether it’s the magical wish-granting talking fish in The Seventh Wish or a talking monument in Tricia Springstubb’s Every Single Second, the magical or unexpected is a great way to add humor.

The Absurd
Using absurd characters or situations is a great way to inject some unexpected humor into your story. Dobby from Harry Potter is probably one of my favorite examples of this (and one of my favorite heroes in the series) because he’s always doing something ridiculous and ridiculously funny. But so is the bakery owner, who is extremely devoted to the quality of his very highly priced cheesecake, in Ms. Bixby’s Last Day.

An unexpected or unusual voice can add humor to a story too. Part of the reason the combination of Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly in Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale works so well is because they are such unusual characters who are different from each other. The cementing of their friendship and their somewhat absurd adventure to rescue a library book, a caged bird, and a dog, is a story full of laugh-out-loud moments even though all three girls are dealing with heavy family situations. Gary Schmidt’s Okay For Now is another example of two contrasting characters, sarcastic/angry Doug and his friend Lil Spicer, have voices that add humor to a story colored by abuse and bullying.

Additional Resources: