by Jerry Spinelli. (HarperTeen, 2004. ISBN 9780060592820. Order Info.) Novel. 256 pages. Grades 5-8.
In this town the killing of the pigeons has become a yearly event in which the whole community participates. The men shoot them as they are released on the town green and the ten year old boys are wringers who run out and twist the necks of the birds that are only wounded. Palmer has just gained tentative acceptance by some of his peers including the neighborhood bully, Beans. With them he has harassed his one time only friend Dorothy whose handling of the matter is wonderful. Palmer is already dreading the day when he takes his place on the field as a wringer when a pigeon appears at his window and demands entrance. Palmer names the bird Nipper and hides his attachment to it from his friends. It's the much maligned Dorothy who helps him get Nipper out of town. Spinelli tells his grim tale with an understanding of the rites of childhood and with flashes of humor to lighten our load.
On one level, this book deals with peer pressure and its effects. On a surface level, it deals with pets, giving it yet another hook for middle school readers. Although the boy in this novel is just approaching his tenth birthday, the novel itself is probably best understood by kids from fifth grade up. The idea that the adults in the town are participating in a barbaric rite into which they bring young boys is at the crux of the novel and should lead students into discussions about other such rites in their worlds. Like all Spinelli novels, this one is accessible and should appeal to boys at least as much as to girls. There are large questions addressed here such as what to do when society (in this case one town) mandates behavior which we think is wrong and how to deal with bullies and peer pressure. It deals with violence as condoned by society and the choices we make in life. The dynamics of Palmer's peer group also make for good discussion. The need for face-saving, the need to torment someone perceived as weaker and the effect of passive resistance are also part of the action.
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. (1974, Knopf. ISBN 9780375829871. Order Info.) Novel. 272 pages. Gr 5-9.
It's not a whole town here but a private school where violence is condoned and encouraged. Sinister Brother Leon, the assistant headmaster of the school, conducts a fund-raising activity and, to insure its success, he enlists the help of the school's secret society, The Vigils. The head of the Vigils, Archie, is equally ruthless and the coming together of these two nearly results in the death of Jerry, a newcomer who refuses to sell the chocolates. For some in the school, Jerry is a hero for others he is a target for their pent-up hatred.
Sees Behind Trees by Michael Dorris. (1996, Hyperion. ISBN 9780786813575. Order Info.) Novel. 128 pages. Gr 4-6.
Walnut has limited vision and his mother, whose job it is to prepare him for the rites of manhood, teaches him to use his other senses to see what others cannot. He earns the name Sees Behind Trees and one of the elders, Gray Fire, asks Sees Behind Trees to accompany him on a quest. This short book is remarkably well done.
Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn. (2009, Sandpiper. ISBN 9780547076607. Order Info.) Novel. 224 pages. Gr 4-7.
Like Palmer, Margaret and Elizabeth face torment by a bully. They are next door neighbors and best friends with vastly different personalities. Both have brothers who are serving in World War II 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. Read more.
The Night the Bells Rang by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock. (1991, Cobblehill. ISBN 0525650741. Order Info.) Novel. 132 pages. Gr 4-7.
Here's another story that concerns a bully. 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.
A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck. (1994, Laural Leaf. ISBN 9780679853060. Order Info.) Novel. 176 pages. Gr 4-8.
Like Palmer, in Wringer, our narrator must confront the death of a beloved pet. This brief novel is at times tender and other times harsh. It deals with the abrupt end of a childhood (supposedly the author's) when the realities of farm life mean that he must kill his pet pig. There is fine characterization here and the Yankee values of the thirties in Vermont come to the fore.
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