ESL Book Club – Thunder Cake

Our book club read several books by Patricia Polacco last spring and we all fell in love with Patricia Polacco. I was not familiar with her book Thunder Cake when I found it at Half Price Books a few months ago. It looked like another good one, plus it included a recipe! If you are not familiar with the book, it is based on events from the author’s life and tells the story of how her Russian grandmother helped Patricia overcome her fear of thunderstorms.

Of course, I had to bake a Thunder Cake for book club. The skies were clear and sunny as I baked, so I guess it didn’t really qualify as a Thunder Cake. Oh well…

I didn’t have any secret-ingredient-fresh-off-the-vine-overripe tomatoes either, so I drained some canned tomatoes and pureed what I needed in the food processor. I made two single layer cakes instead of a two-layer as I thought it would be easier to transport and serve. The cake tasted just like a chocolate cake should, but I thought it was a little dry and crumbly. Maybe it was lacking the humidity and electricity a thunderstorm would add to the mix. It rose very nicely – maybe due to the acidity of the tomatoes?

As I was preparing a few discussion questions, I realized what a good lesson in verbs this book provides. Patricia Polacco gives us so many verbs to help us hear the thunder and see the lightning and hear her grandmother’s voice. I made a list of most of the verbs used in the story and added a few discussion questions just to have some talking points to fall back on if needed.

The cake was a fun surprise and no one could taste the secret ingredient. As we settled in with our wedges of cake, I went over the list of verbs as a pre-reading activity. Many, if not most, of the verbs were unfamiliar to my students.

As expected, everyone could relate to the story in one way or another. One student (from Ukraine) is Babushka to her grandson. Another student was reminded of her husband, who was a nervous, nail-biting child. Instead of helping him with his fears, his parents focussed only on his bad habit. A wife told how, during an eight-year war with a neighboring country, her husband would take their son to the basement when the daily bombing began. He had the gift of entertaining their son so that he was never afraid. Meanwhile, she was frozen with fear. Everyone agreed that Patricia’s Babushka is awesome and aspired to be like her.

This time I added a rating system at the end of the discussion questions. As I expected, everyone gave it 5 stars – because they always swear they love every book we read. After class, a student who had read the previous Patricia Polacco books, told me she loves her books so much that all of her books will get 5 stars from her.

There was one piece of cake left, so I took it over to my friend, Pastor Cathy. She knew that the cake had been baked under clear skies, so not really a Thunder Cake. She asked what fear I contemplated while baking it. Uh … None? In true pastor fashion, she “invited” me to give it some thought.

Here is what I prepared for discussion:

Thunder Cake
by Patricia Polacco

So many verbs! As I reread the book, I noticed how many different verbs the author used to make the story interesting and to help the reader “feel” and “hear” the story.

Instead of just using the verb said:
cooed
stammered
crowed
exclaimed
croaked
whispered

Instead of just saying the thunder was loud and bright:
shook the house
rattled the windows
flashed
slit the sky
crashed
bellowed
growled
rumbled

Instead of using the verbs walk or run:
strode
scurried
crept

Other verbs of interest:
drew a deep breath
grab her close
surveyed
fingered
penned
gather
peck
spread out the tablecloth
beamed

And a few interesting adjectives:
loud clap of thunder
worn hands
creased spot
jagged edge of lightning
secret ingredient
overripe
luscious
glistening

Discussion questions:

What is your first reaction to the story?

Does the story remind you of something in your life?

How did Patricia’s grandmother help her overcome her fear of thunderstorms?

Was Patricia only afraid of thunderstorms?

Has someone helped you overcome a fear?

Have you helped someone overcome a fear?

Have you overcome a fear on your own (without help)?

Do you have a recipe with a secret ingredient?

Is this a book you would like to share with a child you know? Why or why not?

How do you rate this story?

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*****

Breezes of Joy

A leaf fluttered in through the window this morning, as if supported by the rays of the sun, a bird settled on the fire escape, joy in the taste of coffee, joy accompanied me as I walked. ~ Anais Nin, Diary of Anais Nin

One of the gifts given to me by cancer was singularly ordinary moments experienced as pure and simple joy. These moments came most often sitting on our back porch, just looking out at the back yard and the greenbelt beyond and seeing and feeling what was there. A bird at the feeder. Butterflies at a flower. A symphony of birdsong. A soft breeze with a particular cool lightness. And I would smile. And it felt like joy.

My weirdest experience of this was at the dentist’s office. If you are going to have a stem cell transplant, your dentist has to give the okay. I was sitting in the examination room waiting for her to return with my paperwork and I was overcome by a sense of happiness. I don’t know why. Nothing had transpired between us to make me feel joyful. I hate going to the dentist and procrastinate for years rather than going for annual checkups. Not exactly my happy place. So why was I happy? I have no clue. But in that ordinary moment, a smile and a glad heart were my response.

Years have passed now, but these unexplained and unanticipated moments of joy still visit me now and then. I was moved to write this because it happened a few moments ago. Just sitting on the back porch, watching some wispy clouds move through a blue sky, partially blocked by the leaves and branches of the trees in our back yard. A few butterflies circling each other or hanging on a limb, looking more like a leaf than a butterfly. Then a light breeze, with just a slight coolness touched my face and it felt so good. What could I do but smile at the moment and soak it in?

A few minutes later, I looked through the daily devotional book I’ve been using this year – a gift from a friend when I was in the hospital for the transplant. I didn’t read it then, but this has been the perfect year for it. I flipped back through the book for pages I have dog-eared and stumbled on a page with the quote used at the beginning of this post. A poetic response to little moments of joy.

Here is the full devotional for June 29, The President’s Devotional by Joshua Dubois

ESL Book Club – The Relatives Came

I am a volunteer teacher of English as a Second Language at the church I attend. I started a Book Club that meets for one hour once a week after our regular class to read and discuss books written for children that adults can enjoy.

I read the book to the students first so that they can just listen or read along and hear the book read with expression and correct pronunciation. After sharing initial reactions to the book, we read the book page by page around the table (if it is short enough). Then we discuss questions I have prepared or comments the students want to make. At least that’s what usually happens.

Even though it is fall, I thought that summer travels would still be fresh on our minds and chose a book about visiting relatives. This week’s book selection was a 1986 Caldecott Honor book, “The Relatives Came,” written by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Stephen Gammell.

Before reading the book, I gave the students a little background information about the author and illustrator to set the stage, including this quote from CliffsNotes: “Rylant’s grandparents’ four-room house was on a dirt road away from the main highway. They had no running water or electricity. The house was often shared with cousins, aunts, and uncles. Rylant’s grandparents grew and hunted most of the food they ate. Because the family had no car, Rylant never traveled very far from home.”

Students initially responded by sharing similar memories of family visits. Most looked back fondly on these occasions, but a couple had less than fond feelings about their experience visiting relatives when they were children.

One student paid particular attention to the illustrations and pointed out some things that we hadn’t noticed. Her favorite was the one that included a boy getting a haircut. I had not noticed the unhappy boy walking away who had already been in the barber’s chair. This was particularly funny to me because my husband’s grandfather was a barber and my husband and his brother and their boy cousins always got a haircut when they went to his house – whether they wanted one or not!

As we read around the table for our second time through the book, we stopped to discuss vocabulary and questions about meaning. These included:
station wagon
why did their station wagon smell like a real car?
ice chest
bologna
all the uses of “up” – up from Virginia, ate up, traveled up …
wrinkled
after a big supper two or three times around until we all got a turn at the table
in twos and threes
particular
tend the garden

One student had read the book ahead of time and said that the first time through, he thought it was just an easy story and wasn’t very impressed. He read it a second time and paid more attention to the illustrations. By his third reading, he decided that it is a very good book.

The author writes this story with no proper names, no specified family relationships, and no dialog. It is the perfect vehicle for each of us to enter the story with our own memories, our own family names and relationships. We can recall the words and hugs we have experienced. And maybe even remember the smell of the station wagon as we traveled to visit relatives.

We gave “The Relatives Came” a thumbs up.

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I brought a short list of questions for discussion and, since we had not been over any useful vocabulary for discussing books in over a year, I added a few of those too.

Discussion questions:

* Does the story remind you of an experience in your life?
* This book was recognized as a Caldecott Honor Book. This award is for books that combine excellent illustration with a story. How do the pictures help to tell the story?
* What is your opinion of the author’s writing style – no names, no dialog?
* Is this a book you would read to your child or grandchild? Why or why not?

Vocabulary for talking about books:

Author – a person who writes books, stories, or articles.
Illustrate – to explain or decorate a story or book with pictures
Illustrator – a person who adds pictures to explain or decorate a book or story
Fiction – written stories that are about people and events that are not real
Non-Fiction – writing that is about facts or real events
Characters – the people in a book or story
Setting – the time and place in which a story takes place. The setting can also include the mood and social environment.