Great Joy

December 21, 2008

The voice of Frances, a young curious girl, reaches out and grabs my attention in this book by Kate DiCamillo, Great Joy.  She notices life around her during the busy season of Christmas.  She notices someone who most see as invisible, the organ grinder man and his monkey.  Frances is intrigued and asks her mother question after question, wanting answers that only a child seems to ask.  Every little detail is important; but to a parent, the questions often seem to be a burden.  I can almost hear the mother sigh in the story.  I smile hearing the motherly tone reply, “Oh Frances.  Don’t ask me questions I can’t answer.”  But Frances is not swayed; she ponders:  where do the man and the monkey sleep?  I wonder:  what catches a child’s attention?

Bagram Ibatoulline paints the setting of Great Joy in the 1950’s, I’d presume (it’s definitely in the past with the car and hair styles).   I just realized that he also illustrated The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, also written by Kate DiCamillo.  The text, apart from the illustrations, could be set in modern times  (I’m not so sure about the organ grinder and his monkey being present day, but I’ve seen other instrumentalists playing on a street corner).  No matter.  The theme of the story is for all time.  The act of  noticing, acknowledging, respecting human life through a kind word resonates from Kate’s heart in her narrative.  Her dedication adds, “With great gratitutde for open doors….”

I think this book can lead to some interesting conversations.  Helping mankind.  Being respectful.  Having an open heart.  May we remember this during the holiday season.

Savorings for reading and in writing for Great Joy:

  • Varied sentences with the Magic of 3 – “The world was quiet.  Everyone waited.  Then, at the back of the sanctuary, the door opened.”  Most good writing does a mixture of varied sentences.  I find that Kate DiCamillo has done an extraordinary job with this craft to make a short piece of narrative stand out.
  • Questioning – why did the man play on the corner?  How can something intrigue a child so much?  Why did Frances care about the man?  Why was he so important?  Did she change the world?
  • Internal Conflict – “But Frances could not speak.  All she could think about was how cold it was outside and how sad the organ grinder eyes were, even when he smiled.”
  • Inference – The illustrator closes the story with a wordless two page scene. 

Although the scene is very satisfying (and prompted a smile), the reader is left to wonder what happens next.  You get to imagine the ending you wnat.  I want the story to be solidified with a concrete “this is what happens” ending, but it’s not.  Instead, Kate Dicamillo and Bagram Ibatoulline want to do is seep into your students’ minds, making them think and speculate.  (I’d love to hear if you try it and what some responses are.)