Thursday, April 10, 2008
Greetings from Nowhere
Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O'Connor is an amazing book -- I truly love it! I love it so much, that I abandoned a wonderful historical fiction I was reading aloud to my 5th grade class to read this book instead! I have never, ever done that before, but I read Greetings from Nowhere in one night, and just knew I had to read it aloud to my class as soon as possible!
When we came to our class meeting area the first day, I turned my desire to read aloud Greetings from Nowhere into a lesson about our reading lives. I asked my students if they had ever stumbled across a new book that just grabbed them so much that they had to read it, and were willing to temporarily abandon the book they were currently reading. There were many head nods. I told them that is what happened to me after I read Greetings from Nowhere -- I just had to share it with our class. So, from the very beginning, my students understood that I thought this was a book worthy of our time, which is so very precious.
We started this read aloud just like all our others -- I had copied the front, back, and inside flaps for the kids. We then looked at one part at a time, making predictions using the clues that we saw on the flaps. While looking at the front cover, I had one student notice how much it looked like a postcard they had once seen, that had started with the words, "Greetings From..." (a postcard plays a part later on). Another student noticed that the setting looked like it was in the hills or mountains (the story takes place in the Great Smoky Mountains). Yet another student made inferences about the differences between a motel and the hotels he was used to staying in.
I then had the kids read the back flap, where we learned the name of one of the main characters, Aggie, and that she had plans to sell the Sleepy Time Motel. Finally, we looked at the inside flap, and things got really interesting! We learned some other characters' names and a little snippet about each of them -- Harold, Kirby, Loretta, Clyde Dover, and Willow. As the class was processing all this information, one of the students mentioned that she thought this was going to be a lot like The Van Gogh Cafe by Cynthia Rylant (an earlier read aloud this year). When I asked her why she thought this, she said that she thought that each of these characters was going to come together and make a difference in other characters' lives. The inside flap says, " ... find just the friends they need at the shabby motel in the middle of nowhere." This student likened the motel in this book to the cafe in The Van Gogh Cafe. All of this was amazing, and we hadn't even started reading the book yet!
The first four chapters in Greetings from Nowhere introduce us to the main characters -- Aggie, Willow, Loretta, and Kirby. In addition, we meet some very important supporting characters as well -- Willow's dad, Loretta's mom and dad, and Kirby's mom. Barbara O'Connor is masterful at using the characters' actions, thoughts, feelings, and words to really tell the entire story. As an adult reader, I was pulled in by the very first chapter about Aggie. It took some of my students a few more chapters, but, if there were any doubters about my decision to read this book, they quickly changed their minds after the chapter on Kirby. There's something about the rebellious, yet sad and unloved part of Kirby that really hooked them. The fact that he was headed to a reform school, just made him even more interesting and intriguing to my students.
The title of each chapter of this book has a character's name, and each chapter is told using that character's voice. O'Connor is a gifted storyteller who seamlessly weaves the story using one character at a time. I say gifted because she plants clues in one chapter that we don't even realize are clues to what will happen next until we get to the next chapter, and then you say to yourself, "Oh! That's why that happened!"
Greetings From Nowhere also contains beautiful language. One of my favorite words that is used often in the chapters on Aggie is "ponder" -- what a fabulous word, and it's the perfect word for what Aggie does -- she doesn't "think" about things, she "ponders". O'Connor's words also are wonderful for setting the mood. For instance, at the end of the first chapter on Aggie: "Aggie watched the sun sinking lower and lower behind the mountains until the sky was totally dark. Then she closed her eyes and waited for another day." Those 2 sentences really convey how empty Aggie's life has become -- it sounds like a dreary existence. Then, in the next chapter about Willow: "He had set his mouth into a straight hard line that told Willow he had locked the door to his heart and thrown away the key." This sentence does a wonderful job of describing Willow's dad and how hurt and upset he can become when Willow mentions the mom who left her. I could go on and on!
This story is very character driven, and that's why it appeals to me so much. Each character is unique, and I found myself rooting for all of them, and they each had a place in my heart. Aggie is appealing because she's seen so much of life and its happiness, but mostly loneliness and sadness lately. For me, she became the "wise" one of the story. Willow is the character who learns how to reach down deep for courage when something really matters. Loretta has such an unbelieveably positive outlook on life, it's refreshing! Kirby's behaviors get between him and most of the other characters for much of the book, but he appeals to me because I want to "mother" him. The power of the book is the individual characters, and how they change each other's lives forever.
There are many reasons I love Greetings from Nowhere, but the the cover illustration was high on the list of those reasons. When I was young, my aunt and uncle owned a motel that looked just like the Sleepy Time Motel. It was called the Plaza Motel and it was located in northwest Ohio. I have many fond memories of my time spent at that motel. I was glad that Barbara O'Connor had a motel like that play such a prominent part in her story.
Did I mention I love this book?! After loving her How to Steal a Dog, Barbara O'Connor has made me a fan for life with Greetings from Nowhere!
For more good reviews of Greetings from Nowhere, check out both Franki's post at A Year of Reading and Megan's post at Read, Read, Read, also.