Family can be inspiring, as Shawn Stout discovered when writing her eighth novel A Tiny Piece of Sky. In an interview for KidsPost/WashingtonPost, Stout talked about the prejudice her German-American grandfather dealt with right before World War II. Shawn fictionalized her family’s experiences, but she asked her mother and aunts many questions about their childhood. She wanted to convey a child’s perspective of the townspeople’s boycott of her grandfather’s restaurant and of their (false) perception of him as a German spy.
Below are writing lessons for the classroom or for individual writers ages 8 and up. Stout’s website http://shawnkstout.com/ includes a teachers’ guide.
RETURN TO THE PAST: As the youngest in her family, 10-year-old Frankie Baum feels she lacks the respect and privileges accorded her two older siblings. She is determined to prove that her father is no spy. As she gets to know some of the African American staff in her father’s restaurant, Frankie also becomes more aware of the injustices suffered by blacks in the segregated Maryland town. She speaks frequently about her favorite book “The Wizard of Oz” and its movie adaptation.
Classroom Discussion, Part 1: Ask students to read the book and to jot down some details of clothing, food, transportation that have changed since the late 1930s. What were some examples of prejudice experienced by Frankie and her family? By the African-American staff? In their own families, where are students in the birth order (oldest, youngest, middle)? Do they ever feel like Frankie, trapped in a particular family role (responsible one, jokester, lazy lout, etc.)? Do the students try to break out? What do they do/have they done?
Classroom Writing: Ask students to interview a parent or grandparent to get a view of certain events that is both personal and reflective of childhood at the time. (They can do this orally or ask for written answers.) Kids might ask adults to go back to a certain age–10 years old, for example. Questions might include:
1. What was your family pet? Describe one or two adventures or times you shared with this pet. (Frankie has a dog and a pony.)
2. What was your favorite restaurant as a kid? Name three things about its appearance, sound , or smells that you remember. What dish did you like best? Least? Why?
3. What chores or responsibilities did you have as a kid? Which did you like least? Most? Why?
4. What was your favorite book? Movie? Why? Can you describe the first time you read or saw this?
5. What was your favorite item of clothing? Toy or game? Can you briefly describe?
6. Did you ever witness or experience prejudice? What did you say or do? How do you feel about that incident now?
7. What were some important events of that year (war, presidential election, Civil Rights movement, etc.)? How did you feel about them then?
Students might then take one of these answers and write a short description or fictional tale, much as Stout did.
Classroom Discussion, Part 2: Once they have done the interviewing and writing, ask students what they learned, both about the time period and parent.