Written by: Ann M. Martin
For parents of independent readers, we provide a set of questions that should give you insight into what your child is reading and help you engage him/her in meaningful conversations about literature. We recommend using the questions provided here as a springboard for deeper conversation about Belle Teal and what your child takes away from the book. Enjoy!
A young white girl witnesses the integration of her public school in the early 1960s South. Belle Teal and her best friend Clarice have been looking forward to the fifth grade for years, ever since the lovely and kind Miss Casey began teaching it. This year is remarkable not only for Miss Casey, however, but for the arrival of Darryl and two other African-American students, the first the school has ever seen. Belle Teal, a spunky, generous girl who copes at home with a loving but feckless mother and a beloved but increasingly senile grandmother, finds herself caught in the middle of the integration conflict, as she must balance her old friendship with the bigoted Little Boss against her new friendship with Darryl. (Kirkus Review)
Create a K-W-L Chart and have your child fill in the first two columns with information that s/he knows and wants to find out about the story. S/he can fill in the last column, "What I Learned", once s/he has finished the story.
What I Know
After reading the summary of the story, let your child think about what s/he already knows about the story. Consider questions like, "Who is the main character? When/where does the story take place? What are the issues that Belle Teal and her community are grappling with? What genre does this story fall under? (Historical Fiction) Have you read any historical fiction books? What were they about? What are some common elements in these stories?"
What I Want to Know
If your child is not familiar with what integration means, have a brief discussion about what the word means and what happened in schools in the United States during the time this story takes place. Then discuss what your child wants to learn about the story. Include questions that your child might have about the plot, characters and setting. Think about including questions like, "How will her school deal with integration? What will happen between Belle Teal, her old friends and her new friends? What role will Belle Teal's family play in this story? How will life in the 1960s be portrayed?"
Maintain Vocabulary Journal
Encourage your child to stop when s/he gets to an unfamiliar word. See if s/he can discover its meaning by using context clues like prefixes and suffixes as well as the words surrounding it. Help him/her by keeping a “Vocabulary Journal” nearby when reading so that your child can write down new words, that s/he has either already defined or wishes to look up in the dictionary.
- Describe Belle Teal's character. Can you relate to her? Why/why not? How are you similar to her? How are the two of you different?
- Belle Teal has several important relationships in her life. With whom does she have strong relationships? How are these relationships different from each other? How are they similar? Is one more important than the others?
- What is the plan that Belle Teal devises to trick people into realizing that they too can be friends with Darryl. Is her plan successful?
- What is the secret that Vanessa is hiding? Does this explain her behavior? Why/why not?
- Why is Darryl afraid to speak in his class? Have you ever felt scared to present or talk in class? How can classmates help each other feel more comfortable in the classroom?
- What is prejudice? How is the way that Little Boss's father shows prejudice different from the way Vanessa's father shows prejudice? What are some other things that prejudice can be based on besides race?
- How do you think Darryl and the two other students felt about this transition? If you had been at this school, how would you have helped welcome the new students?
Above all, be sure to engage your child in a discussion about the plot line and his/her thoughts and feelings about the book. Ask what s/he likes, encourage exploration related to the book, and every now and again, offer to read parts of the book aloud, just for fun!
Extending the Story
Integration of schools was an incredibly difficult time in United States history. There were many who felt that students should continue to be separated based on race, and this story addresses this very sensitive topic. Work with your child to research this time in history and compare events that occur at Coker Elementary School to events at Little Rock Nine. Check out the Little Rock Nine Foundation to learn more about important people in this movement as well as ways people can help ensure equality.