Stepping on the Cracks

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by Mary Downing Hahn. Novel. 224 pages. Grades 4-7.
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Review

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It's 1944 and World War II is raging. On the homefront in the US Margaret and Elizabeth are next-door neighbors and best friends with vastly different personalities. Both are harassed by the school bully. Both have brothers who are fighting overseas and they, like the rest of their families, are worried about them. Each, at the beginning of the book, is convinced that the war is necessary and a little bit glamorous.

When they are confronted with a sick deserter hiding out in the woods, they are, at first, horrified and convinced that he is a traitor. Soon their sympathy overrides their distaste and they end up getting help for him. Gradually the girls become aware that there are some people whose ethics are violated by any kind of warfare, no matter how just the cause may seem.

The deserter's stance against war is not simplistically portrayed and there is much food for thought in this book—ethics, cowardice, patriotism.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • A look at Hahn's considerable skills as a writer is a good discussion topic for this book. She manages to portray an era, deal with and debate the concept of pacifism while still giving us the believable characters of Elizabeth and Margaret. How she does that through the details and descriptions she includes is a study in writing.

  • Why did people hang blue and gold stars in the windows of homes where family members were in the service or had been killed in the war?

  • Notice the clothing styles the author mentions. Look at some photographs of people at that time. Do you like the look?

  • Talk about the role the radio played in people’s lives then.

  • What are the reasons for Gordy's anger and fears? Do you blame him?

  • Look at the role of the teacher. Why didn’t they ask her for help? What might she have done?

  • Notice the way each adult in the book handles his or her concerns about the war.

  • What do you think of the attitude of the people who knew Mr. Smith was abusing his family? Would people today be apt to have the same attitudes toward family violence?

  • Gordy frightens the girls by telling them there is a crazy man in the woods. Is he telling the truth?
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Activities

  • The pacifism portrayed in the book can be the focus for a debate.

  • On a lighter level, life in small town Maryland during World War II is carefully depicted in Hahn's book. The toys and pastimes of the era and the effect of rationing and shortages as well as the patriotism of the time are strong parts of the book. Students might like to investigate any of these things more carefully.

  • Make a map of your neighborhood like the one of Margaret’s in the front of the book.

  • Mark the places on your map where someone could be hidden for a few days without anyone finding him or her.

  • Find out as much as you can about each radio program that is mentioned in the book.

  • Compare Gordy to other bullies such as the ones in Spinelli's Maniac Magee and Warnock’s The Night the Bells Rang (see below).

  • Find out about the number of deserters in various wars. What were the punishments.

  • Role play a meeting of Elizabeth and Margaret years later with grown sons of their own. What will they advise their sons to do in the event of war? What would you do?

  • Compare this book to books about families in other wars. What is similar and what is different about their actions and feelings?

  • Students might like to read Shades of Gray by Caroline Reeder as well as Avi's Fighting Ground (see below) to get some idea of and perspective on arguments for and against pacifism as experienced in other wars.
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Related Books

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    Grades 3 - 9
    Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. Novel. 180 pages.
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    Meet Jeffrey Lionel Magee, sometimes known as Maniac Magee, and the people of the fictional town of Two Mills. Maniac runs away from home and ends up in Two Mills, a racially split town where he becomes a catalyst for change. This excellent novel is about prejudice, love, home, baseball, fear and understanding. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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    Grades 4 - 8
    The Fighting Ground by Avi. Novel. 157 pages.
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    Thirteen year old Jonathan goes off to fight in the Revolutionary War and discovers that the real war is being fought within himself. His brother enlisted with the Patriots and their father returned injured, strengthening Jonathan's resolve to become part of the glorious war himself. Captured shortly after joining, Jonathan learns that his captors are no less human than he. Jonathan returns bereft of his illusions about the glories of war to the family farm.

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    Grades 3 - 7
    Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway? by Avi. Novel. 176 pages.
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    Real life is less than satisfying for Frankie Wattleson in 1945 New York. His brother is home from the war wounded and depressed. A mysterious lodger has rented Frankie's room. Frankie's only refuge is listening to the radio and escaping into the adventures of Captain Midnight, The Lone Ranger and Superman. He and his best friend Mario spy on the lodger in Frankie's home whom they are convinced is either an evil scientist or spy. The entire book is relayed in dialogue only, making this an ideal book for reader's theater or for a study of the art of writing dialogue.

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    Grades 4 - 7
    Lily's Crossing by Patricia Reilly Giff. Novel. 208 pages.
    Find this book: Local Bookstore, Amazon, B&N icon

    Lily has been going to Rockaway Beach in New York every summer for as long as she can remember. This summer promises to be as good as ever. Then her father announces he is going off to fight in World War II. Her best friend is moving away so that her father can find work in a defense plant. Lily is stuck with no one but Gram and her incessant demands on Lily's time. Lily is so furious with her father's betrayal that she refuses to say goodbye.

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    Grades 4 - 7
    The Night the Bells Rang by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock. Novel. 132 pages.
    Find this book: Local Bookstore, Amazon, B&N icon

    This is a gentle story of life in northern Vermont during the first World War. Mason lives on a farm with his younger brother and parents and much of the book describes such rural pastimes, but the heart of the book lies in the perceptions Mason has toward Aden Cutler, a school bully. When every bell in town rings out for the end of the war, it is Mason who approaches Aden’s mother who stands alone grieving for her son, killed in battle, knowing that no one in the celebrating town thought kindly of her son. Read More in our Featured Book Teachers Guide with discussion questions, extension activities, related books and links.

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    Grades 4 - 8
    Autumn Street by Lois Lowry. Novel. 188 pages.
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    Elizabeth has come with her sister and pregnant mother to live with her grandparents in Philadelphia while her father is serving in World War II. The grandparents are people of wealth and respect in the community. Grandmother is severe and unyielding. Elizabeth's mother is kind and loving but it is Tatie, the black maid of the household, who is Elizabeth's rock during this time and Tatie's grandson, Charles, becomes Elizabeth's best friend. Read More.

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