The Night the Bells Rang
by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock. Novel. 132 pages. Grades 4-7.
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This story, told in 80 pages, is of life in small town Vermont in 1918. Mason's life is enviable in its simplicity and love: his work on the farm, days at school, and fun with the other boys. It's marred, however, by the existence of Aden, a bully of an older boy who delights in tormenting Mason. One night, however, Aden risks his life to do a small kindness for Mason, unseen by anyone else. Confused by Aden's action, Mason does not thank him and tells no one.
Soon after, Aden goes off to war where he is killed in action. When the Armistice is announced, the small town celebrates by ringing the church bell, each citizen lining up to get his chance to ring the bell. Mason spies Aden's mother standing alone and goes over to speak to her. She is mourning not only her son's death but the fact that no one but her is sorry he is dead. He wasn't all bad, she says. Mason agrees, "He did something for me once and I never thanked him. I wish he were coming back." He then goes off to ring the bell.
How deeply you go into this book will depend on the age of the children who read it. It can be understood, at least on its simplest level by most third graders, but even upper grade readers should find plenty to sink their teeth into.
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Things to Talk About and Notice
- Mason finds himself bullying his younger brother and recognizes the bully in himself. Children might like to turn their attention to the bullying on their own playground. Who is frightened out there? Is there anything they can do to make recess more pleasant by eliminating some bullying behavior?
- Sometimes we know why a bully is a bully. Other times it's a mystery. In The Night the Bells Rang, we find out that Aden is quite probably an abused child and that's another avenue to investigate. There are many books about child abuse and many children could benefit by a discussion of what abused children can do to seek help.
- Finally, there's the celebration. The war is over! Ring out the bells! Children should be able to find people who remember that night when the Great War ended. What did they do to celebrate? It's even easier to find people who celebrated the two ends to World War II. The end to the next two wars: Korea and Vietnam are very different. Few people remember what they did when those two wars came to an end and many veterans can be found who will tell you of their heartbreaking returns. We got back to celebrating after The Gulf War. A look at how the nation marked the end of these conflicts should open up a heated discussion.
- The story is simple and gentle and gives the point of view of the people who don't fight but bear the scars. It may remind you as it did us of Gary Paulsen's The Foxman (Puffin, 1977 ISBN 0-14-034311-3).
The life on the farm: the birth of a colt, maple sugaring, the chores, all bear discussion and, maybe, a look at such books as William Kurelek's A Prairie Boy's Winter (Houghton, 1984 ISBN 0-395-17708-1.) The comparison between farming on the plains and farming in Vermont would make a further point of departure with that one. Isenbart's Birth of a Foal (Carolrhoda, 1986 ISBN 0-87614-239-0) might be good here. Mordecai Gerstein's Anytime Mapleson and the Hungry Bears (HarperCollins 1990 ISBN 0-06-02215-0) will provide more maple sugar action.
- You might also want to compare Mason's life with that of Soup in Robert Newton Peck's books because they deal with life in rural Vermont at about the same time but have a totally different focus. Is there a bully in Soup's books? How does he deal with her?
- Speaking of bullies in children's literature, there are many: Marvin Hammerman from Betsy Byars' The Eighteenth Emergency (Puffin, 1981 ISBN 0-8161-4432-X,) Kevin Henkes' "older boys" in Chester's Way (Greenwillow, 1988 ISBN 0-688-07608-4.) Maniac Magee has to deal with several bullies in the book Maniac Magee. There are even more ominous bullies such as Weasel , the title character in Cynthis DeFelice's book Weasel(Avon, 1991 ISBN 0-380-71358-6) and Aunt Bea in The Village by the Sea by Paula Fox (Orchard, 1988 ISBN 0-531-05788-7.) Those last two are also villains. When does a bully become a villain? An analysis of villains could make a whole theme.
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