Wednesday, August 19, 2009

REVIEW: The Stories Julian Tells

Cameron, A.  (1981).  The Stories Julian Tells.  New York:  Dell Yearling.


One of the many early chapter book series out there available to young'uns, this is one of the few that realistically features an African American boy (although there has been a recent trend to include more African American female characters in early chapter book series).  But Cameron was ahead of the curve with her Julian, Huey and Gloria series.  The series also features the boys' father in a caregiving role, often challenging gender stereotypes by doing activities like cooking and gardening.

The Stories Julian Tells also stands out from other early chapter books in the sense of imagination and writing (there are quite a few similes, poetic language and wordplay).  However, one of the moments of word play did make me a little uncomfortable.  After Julian and Huey eat the majority of the fresh pudding their father made for their mother, their father threatens to punish them, stating "There is going to be some beating here now!  There is going to be some whipping!" (p. 12).  As students read on, they discover the father actually means beating and whipping in the sense of cooking as the boys help to make a new batch of pudding.  But nonetheless, I would probably pause in a read aloud to assure students or address the issues of physical punishment if I felt it was necessary with that particular group of kids.

In this first installment of the series, Julian and his little brother Huey learn to make pudding, and help their father garden fresh vegetables.  Julian also loses one of his first baby teeth (and learns of some of the ways a tooth can be removed) and makes his first female friend.  Julian, while not perfect, lacks the tough attitude that parents often fault Junie B. Jones as having.  And while every now and then a key action or description is not included into the narrative, and while the book does assume a suburban background with both parents present (but then, show me an early chapter book that doesn't do at least one of these), I was surprised that I enjoyed this book more than many of the other chapter books intended for this age group.

Activities to Do with the Book:

Since the (somewhat long) chapters are episodic, this series lends itself to being read aloud to kindergardeners or first graders.  

After sharing various chapters from the book, a teacher or parent could lead students in making pudding from scratch and in contributing to a family or community garden.  A teacher could also use the discussion of catalogues to discuss how adults order from catalogues or how many ways of shopping are now available online.  This could even turn into a nutrition lesson as a teacher discusses what type of foods students could buy at a grocery store, etc.

With older students, parts of this book could be flagged as examples of metaphorical language.

Quotes of Note:

"I'm goign to make something special for your mother," my father said.
My mother was out shopping.  My father was in the kitchen, looking at the pots and the pans and the jars of this and that" (p. 1).

"My father is a big man with wild black hair.  When he laughs, the sun laughs in the windowpanes.  When he thinks, you can almost see his thoughts sitting on all the tables and chairs.  When he is angry, me and my little brother, Huey, shiver to the bottom of our shoes" (p. 2).

"It's such a big pudding," Huey said.  It can't hurt to have a little more."
"Since you took more, I'll have more," I said.
"That was a bigger lick than I took!" Huey said.  "I'm going to have more again" (p. 7).

"If you have a girl for a friend, people find out and tease you.  That's why I didn't want a girl for a friend--not until this summer, when I met Gloria" (p. 58).

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