Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Childhood Challenge: SIGN OF THE BEAVER

This month I chose to re-read Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare, who also wrote the Newberry Medal winners The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Bronze Bow. I don't remember reading any of her other books (though they may be more well-known to many readers), yet I formed a strong attachment to Sign of the Beaver when I read it as a child.

From my memory
I read this book in the fourth grade for a lit group; after reading the book, we had to--as a group--come up with an activity to do to share with the rest of the class based on the book. My group chose to do a play inspired by the characters (I fancied myself an actress at a young age), and I got to play the part of an Indian (er, Native American) girl. The headband I made for the play was red and blue, and I put my hair into two braids--there’s nothing quite like a pale, blonde-haired girl trying her hardest to be an Indian girl. While I remember really enjoying the book, I don’t remember anything else about it...

After reading the book
The most integral thing I had remembered about the book was that there was a girl in the Indian tribe, yet that girl only showed up for one of the 25 chapters in the book. I had completely forgotten that the primary story was that Matt, a 12-year-old (going on 13) boy was left by his father in the wilderness of Maine while his father returned to bring his family back to the cabin they had made. While his father was gone, Matt got into some trouble with a tree full of bees, and two Indians saved his life. Matt befriends a young Indian boy named Attean and begins to learn the ways of Attean’s tribe to snare animals, gather food from the forest, and make tools from parts of trees. The focus of the book is on that friendship and the personal journey Matt takes from thinking that the Indians in the area are savages to realizing that they were people he respected.

Reading it now was an adventure. The book didn’t necessarily lure me in so that I was hooked, but it did make me want to read a little every day. I can see why it has won so many awards and why elementary schools everywhere use it as a book for their classrooms. It spurs discussions with ideas readers of all ages can take part in, and the chapters are short and low-key, making it possible for young readers to read several chapters at one time or read one chapter and focus on it in discussions.

I found especially intriguing the stories of how Attean helped Matt grow in terms of survival skills and of broadening Matt’s understanding of the world and how each chapter often featured one such story without really focusing in on those insights. It lets readers form their own opinions and--in many cases--conclusions. I think that's a perfect combination for getting young readers to think outside the printed page.

While I probably wouldn't suggest this as prime reading for grown-up readers, I would definitely suggest it for people trying to get young readers to interact with material in books. This book can teach those readers how to talk about and deal with fear and how, if we open our minds, we can possibly learn valuable lessons from those people who are different than us.

Have you re-read any of your favorite childhood books lately? I'd love to hear about your experience if you did.

Happy re-reading childhood favorites!

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