Keeper of the Doves

by Betsy Byars. Novel. 128 pages. Grades 4-7.
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Teacher's Guide

cover art

Betsy Byars' book Keeper of the Doves is the deceptively simple story of one turn of the century family during one summer in Kentucky. Accessible to kids from fourth grade up, it speaks gently but packs a punch. The story revolves around words and their power to wound as well as heal. Chapters in alphabetical order carry the reader through this story. And there is an alphabet of invisible flowers within the book to accent that motif.

All of the children have names beginning with A. The father's name is Albert. Their mother, Lily, spends most of the time in her room, distant in fact as well as in effect, and, of course, she has a name that begins with a different letter. The sisters are all very different, sharing only their dislike of Aunt Pauline who is in charge of them most of the time.

There are six sisters in the McBee family. The youngest sister, Amen, called Amie, is our narrator. In love with words, she writes poems in order to make sense of and to commemorate the world around her. Neither she nor any of the sisters seem to resent the fact that their father desperately wanted a son. He is known to have wept bitter tears at the birth of Amen. He weeps again -- tears of joy this time -- when at last his son Adam is born.

The indistinguishable twins, Arabella and Annabella, are grouped together at all times by a single name, The Bellas. They delight in terrifying Amie with their stories and often cruel games. Many of their games and stories concern Mr. Tominsky, a mysterious man who lives in a chapel at the back of the estate. The tale is dominated by that man who is largely off-stage. He's the Keeper of the Doves.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • The very first words in the story are Mr. McBee's. "Another girl? Not another girl? Don't tell me I've got another daughter!" What do you think about that? Do you blame him? How would these words make you feel if you were one of the daughters? If you were Adam?

  • Amie is a poet and some members of the family honor her poetry while others ridicule it.

  • The alphabet is used to introduce the chapters and that motif is repeated within the story. Why?

  • Is there a moral to this story? What might it be?

  • The McBees are a wealthy and privileged family. What things in their life would change if they were not?

  • The story takes place at the turn of the nineteenth century, what would change if it were set at the turn of the twentieth?

  • At one point in the story Amie says, "As long as there are words, nobody need ever die."

  • There's little doubt that Mr. Tominski is a tragic figure in the story. Is there anyone else you consider tragic?

  • If you had to place each character in the book on a list of positive or negative characters, which ones would go where?

  • Grandmother's gift of the cameras changes things. How? What does each girl's choice of subject for her pictures show about her?

  • If Mr. McBee's first name had been Bradford, what might the children have been named?


  • Aunt Pauline and the cook have many superstitions. Add to their list of superstitions. Do any of them have any basis in fact?

  • Find other characters in books who, like Mr. Tominsky, seem to live around the edges of the lives of others. (See list.) Look for the reasons why they are isolated and the reaction of others: Are they feared? Ignored? Hated?

  • Look around you at the people who matter in your life. If you had a camera and could use it well, what would you capture those people doing that would show the most about them? Do it.

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