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Going Through the Gate by Janet S. Anderson (Dutton, 1997 ISBN 0-525-45836-0. Hardcover. Grades 5-9) is a wonderful book for young adult readers. In this suspenseful fantasy, first time author Anderson has given us a teacher to rival Mr. Chips and a graduation that makes all others pale in comparison. Miss Clough has been teaching in the town's one room school house for years. She had the parents of many of this year's sixth grade graduates and there is no doubt that she commands great respect. She rules with an iron hand, and somehow, we learn, she has changed the town. Most of the people are vegetarian and no one hunts. On graduation day, the whole town closes down but one man, a peddler with one eye, who has forgotten that this is graduation day. When he sees the sixth graders heading to school, he insists that they remember him to Miss Clough -- an ominous sign that the day may be dangerous.
It is quickly established that the graduation ceremony has two parts. There is the public, formal ceremony where parents and friends gather and then there is the private one, wonderful and frightening. The five children who will be "going through the gate" this year have been preparing for it all year. They have been carefully and intensely observing and researching an animal whose home is at the creek in back of the school and through the gate. They chose the animal but none of them got their first choice -- and there's a reason for that, we later learn. Each of them has given Miss Clough a small object which represents home and family to them. Also, they've been practicing keeping track of time, awakening themselves before the alarm. Time is important. Again, Miss Clough has her reasons.
When the graduates go through the gate, they will become, for a few hours, the creature they have been studying -- flying, swimming, living that life. Although there is no lock on the gate, today is supposed to be the first time any of the children has ever gone through it. However, one of the children has cheated and there are nearly fatal results.
The book is short -- only 134 pages. It's an excellent read-aloud choice for kids in fifth grade and up. Such is Anderson's skill that the suspense and wonder are sustained throughout. You should have no trouble getting dialogue started during and after the reading. Imagine becoming a creature! What would it feel like to fly? What might have happened if the children got their first choices? Why is Miss Clough exhausted? Why was it so dangerous? Why did Mary Margaret cheat?
Joanne Ryder has written a whole series of picture books in her Just for a Day series in which we become an animal and experience a day in its life. Those books take on new meaning after reading Through the Gate. Some students might like to compose their own transformation picture book, poem or short story.
Another writing or discussion activity based on Going Through the Gate might include favorite or unforgettable teachers real and fictional.
Going through the gate is, of course, a rite of passage and you might want to go on from there to a study of various rite of passage ceremonies formal and otherwise in this culture and in others. Besides religious ceremonies which are easily identified as rites of passage, don't forget the less formalized ones: being old enough to babysit, get a driver's permit, and take a part-time job.
Other outstanding young adult books with rites of passage as their theme include: Budge Wilson's short story collection, The Leaving and Other Stories (Scholastic, 1990 ISBN 0-590-46933-9 Paperback) and Betsy Byars' anthology Growing Up Stories (Kingfisher, 1995 ISBN 1-85697-543-6 Paperback). Novels about rites of passage include: John Knowles' A Separate Peace (Bantam, 1985 ISBN 0-553-28041-4 Paperback), Robert Newton Peck's A Day No Pigs Would Die (Random, 1994 ISBN 0-679-85306-5 Paperback), Suzanne Staples' Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind (Knopf, 1989 ISBN 0-394-94815-7 Library Binding), and Michael Dorris's Guests (Hyperion, 1994 ISBN 0-7868-0047-X Hardcover).
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