If You Like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle …

Cover of "Math Rashes"

Cover of Math Rashes

Most of the books on my regular read aloud rotation have some specific source – maybe they were childhood favorites of my own, or books that were passed on to me by colleagues, or stories I sought out after reading a good review.  Math Rashes is different … so different that I can’t even really remember where I found it (a price tag on the front suggests it may have been a remaindered book from my favorite book store, but I have no memory of buying it).  I would consider this book a bit of a diamond in the rough, but one that has become a Must Read at the beginning of the school year.  I usually save one particular story to read later in the year (right before our recorder concert), so this week the class and I got back to the world of W.T. Melon Elementary School for the final story in the collection.  As I read, I was reminded of two things.  First, every third grade classroom in the country should have this book.  (Just my humble opinion.)  And secondly, there’s something magical about the chemistry of a book and a group of people, whether that group is a classroom or a family, something that can only happen when you share a truly great story.

Math Rashes (written by Douglas Evans, pictures by Larry Di Fiori) is a collection of short stories about a class of third graders at the W.T. Melon School.  Each story focuses on a different child in the class, and each child has a particular personality quirk or minor character flaw … nothing too serious, but all very, very familiar to anyone who has spent time with third graders.  (It’s no surprise that the author has experience as a teacher and great connections for teacher on his website.)  When I read this book, I often have to pause to ask, “Naming no names, does anyone know someone who acts like this character in this book?”  Typically ALL the hands in the class go up.  There’s Morgan, who chatters on and on endlessly and can’t figure out why her friends don’t want to spend time with her.  There’s George, who never quite listens to all the directions.  There’s Mimi, who can never seem to find a pencil when she needs one.  In each story, some magical intervention leads to the student learning a lesson.  For example, Andrew’s constant doodling means that he has to stay inside to finish the work he didn’t have time to do.  At first, he’s delighted when his doodles come to life and offer to complete his work for him.  But when the doodles start drawing other doodles and jumping to other students’ desks to do their work, it takes some fast work with an eraser to save the day.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Farm book cover

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm book cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The format of this book is very similar to the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories: child has a problem, magic intervenes, child fixes the problem.  I personally loved the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books when I was growing up and would still recommend them today, but I think Math Rashes is a better fit for a classroom.  The problems Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle solved seemed a bit like parent-identified problems (not wanting to go to bed, eating slowly), and I was always a little mystified by how completely helpless the children’s parents were.  I think one of the reasons my students love the stories in Math Rashes is not just that they identify with the characters, but that they identify with the friends of the characters.  Most students can see why having a “chatterbox” for a friend could be annoying.  A friend who doesn’t want to go to bed, or who eats dinner too slowly?  Not so much.

So what is it that elevates this book to the realm of Must Read?  Well, it’s not so much what happens while we read the story … it’s what happens afterwards.  Maybe it’s something about the familiarity of the setting or the “third-grade-ness” of the stories, but the characters and incidents in this book find a way of working themselves into our classroom culture.  Children will use them as a common reference, a part of our classroom language.  For example, in the story “The Pencil Loser,” Mimi is constantly missing her pencils, which she leaves all over the classroom.  She discovers that a tiny pencil-shaped creature called Ti-2 (short for Ticonderoga Number 2) is delighted by her bad habit, because it gives him a chance to collect the lost pencils, grind them into shavings, and sell the shavings to the chefs of Pennsylvania to use in their recipes.  Pencil losing is a persistent problem in the classroom.  Reading this story doesn’t exactly cure us of our curse, but it paints it in a different light.  “Look out!  Ti-2 will get that!” students will squeal as they scoop a pencil off the floor, repeating his catch phrase, “What I find, I grind!”  After reading about Andrew and his doodling problem, children may continue to doodle … but my reminders about erasing doodles in the margins are usually met with giggles and comments like, “Remember what happened to Andrew!”  In fact, students start to use the names of the characters as if they were classmates (a practice that can get confusing when they share first names with real classmates!).

The important thing is that these references are spontaneous; they come out of a real sense that these stories belong to us in a shared way.  I suspect that if I drove the conversation (say, by making a poster of Ti-2 or bringing his name up in a scolding way) the power of that ownership would be lost.  It’s only with a real sense of connection that the stories we read can become a shared experience, just like memories of a field trip or funny anecdotes from our year together.  Dr. Michael Schiro writes about the power of those shared stories in his work on oral storytelling in the classroom, and I see it through certain read alouds as well.  When a book becomes such a point of connection that the characters in it feel like members of the class … I would say that book qualifies as a Must Read.  Even if it came from the remainder bin.

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A Bargain For Frances: Being Careful and Being Friends

There are some books that I save to read to my class at particular times (my stacks of holiday books come to mind) or for a particular occasion (Officer Buckle and Gloria always follows our discussion of class rules).  Then there are books that I have to read because they’re just … necessary.  This week I pulled A Bargain for Frances (written by Russell Hoban, pictures by Lillian Hoban) off the shelf, in part because it seemed to connect to our school anti-bullying initiative, but more because it’s just a necessary childhood book in my mind.  It’s a book that could easily fall between the cracks because it doesn’t quite fit into any category.  The format isn’t quite like a typical picture book, and the “I Can Read” edition I have scares away some of my more sophisticated readers.  It hasn’t won any major awards (although it was a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year in 1970).  Yet every time I read it I’m struck by what a truly wise, warm, and funny story it is.

Cover of "A Bargain for Frances"

Cover of A Bargain for Frances

In A Bargain for Frances, the young badger Frances (also featured in Bread and Jam for Frances and A Baby Sister for Frances) is going to play with her friend Thelma.  Before she leaves, her mother warns her to “be careful.”  She reminds Frances of other times Thelma has manipulated things so that they go her way, pointing out that “when you play with Thelma you always get the worst of it.”  Frances reassures her mother and sets off for a tea party with her friend.  Frances tells Thelma that she is saving up for a tea set made of real china.  Yet somehow, by the end of the tea party, Thelma has convinced Frances to give her the $2.17 she has saved up in exchange for Thelma’s plastic tea set.  When Frances learns that Thelma tricked her, Frances comes up with a trick of her own to get her money back.

I’m still not sure if it was multiple readings of this story as a child that made it stick in my mind or if it was just the power of the story itself, but the details of this book come back to me incredibly clearly every time I reread it.  I have such a strong memory of the two tea sets – the real china one with pictures all in blue and the plastic one with red flowers – that they almost seem like something I wanted myself as a child (though I wasn’t really a “tea set” girl).  The single penny at the bottom of the sugar bowl that Frances uses to trick Thelma, the expressions on the two girls’ faces throughout … these little details are part of what make this simple story such a classic.

Yet when I read this book as an adult, I’m struck even more by the realism of the relationship between the girls.  Thelma’s careful persuasion of Frances could be studied by negotiators: she starts by talking up her own tea set, then disparages china tea sets (which are “no good” because they just break).  She explains that you can’t get china tea sets any more, and tells a cautionary tale about a girl who saved up for one and never ended up getting any tea set at all.  Finally, when Frances is eager to buy Thelma’s set, Thelma demurs, declaring she might have “changed her mind.”  It’s masterful (and pretty funny), but also feels so right in imitating the ways little girls interact with each other.  I always feel my stomach give a little lurch as I read it and watch Frances getting drawn in.  This year when I asked my students how they would feel if they were Frances, one student declared, “I would feel really uncomfortable and like I wanted to get out of there!”  My thoughts exactly.  Frances’s trick to get around the “no backsies” promise she gave Thelma is also both clever and believable, precisely the plan a bright little girl might come up with.

At the end of my read aloud of this book this week, one my students made an interesting observation.  “Her mom is hardly in this story at all,” he pointed out.  “She’s there at the beginning and then she doesn’t come back.”  It was an interesting point, and I asked the class if they thought Frances’s mom knew about Thelma’s tricks.  They all agreed that she seemed to know Frances should be careful around Thelma, but Frances didn’t actually tell her mother about the sneaky trading.  “Do you think she should have told her mom?” I asked.  “Oh, yes!” most of the class chorused (carefully repeating key points of our recent conversations about telling an adult if someone is bullying you).  As an adult, I’m torn.  On the one hand, I’d like to think my students would tell me about a situation like the one in the book.  When I was a child, I tended to be quick to look for adult assistance, and I probably would have voted with the majority in my class to advise Frances to tell her mother.  And yet … part of the charm of this story is the way these two girls experience this conflict and change because of it.  When Thelma realizes she’s been tricked, she tells Frances she’ll have to “be careful” when she’s playing with her.  Frances asks her, “Do you want to be careful or do you want to be friends?”  I can’t help feeling that an adult mediator might have helped Frances to get back the tea set, but might not have helped her get to that understanding of friendships, that most powerful of lessons from this book. A recent post from the “Motherlode” blog at the New York Times echoes the importance of this lesson, calling it a Secret of Adulthood.  I’m also reminded of Michael Thompson’s excellent book about children’s relationships, Best Friends, Worst Enemies, in which he writes about the importance of healthy conflict for children’s social development.

Good conflict can create good relationships … and it certainly creates memorable literature.  If this book was part of your childhood, it’s certainly worth rereading and sharing with the children in your life.  Happy reading!