I recently sent out a text to a handful of my adult friends who are life-long readers asking them if they have a favorite fictional character, and if they do, why? I was blasted with immediate responses and, frankly amazed by the well of insight:
“Raskolnikov, from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who starts off bitter, self-centered, and unable to see his own flaws, blames his hardship on others, and becomes a forgiving and self-reflective person by the end.”
“I love Samwise Gamgee. He is unassuming but willing to go where he needs to be, to silently be the support someone else needs. By the end he becomes even more brave. He is confident to stand for what he believes in, to take risks, and be a voice of hope in a time of darkness.”
“Marlow from Heart of Darkness. He starts off ignorant to the evils of the people around him but learns what evils humans are capable of. He is able to see through the lies he is told instead of assuming they are truths.”
“Ferdinand the Bull for not fighting the instigator. For staying true to himself.”
“Sirius Black. He was misunderstood. And a misfit. He stood for what he believed in. Even though his family was considered “evil”.
And he sacrificed. He was flawed and reckless. But good. Kind.”
“Aragorn is so overwhelmed and unsure of who he is despite the many prophecies declaring his life’s purpose. However, he pushes on because of those around him and his desire to serve them and truth.”
For me it’s hands-down Francie Nolan who, like the tree in Brooklyn, thrives under impoverished conditions—emotionally, intellectually, and physically. Francie demonstrates the tenacity that is seeded in us all. She works hard but doesn’t let work squelch her imagination. Francie is a hero in my eyes, ghost of the American Dream.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was my grandma’s favorite book. And this is saying something seeing that, as a young person, she read her way through the Santa Monica Public Library.
I never understood why this particular book tangled itself in her heart until I re-read it a few years ago and it dawned on me that my grandma saw herself in Francie.
Grandma’s father, for most of her childhood, like Francie’s, was an alcoholic (thankfully, he recovered, but much later in life). And she grew up in the tumultuous 30s, a product of Great Depression. fairly impoverished until later in life.
Pretty sure I know why, as an adult, just starting a family of her own, she fell in love with Betty Smith’s 1943 semi-autobiographical masterpiece. And, now, when I read this book (over and over for sure), I will see my Grandmother in Francie.
I am constantly struck by the unique insights readers bring to the characters they encounter. But I am also saddened that often times stories are simply read to get to the end and check off a box. None of the friends who texted back with lightning speed read to check off a box. They have spent a lifetime cultivating a friendship with books. And this is the heart we have built into our curriculum.
So where do we begin?
First, we encourage all readers to be the tortoise, not the hare. We believe that readers should never race through a story.
Second, never belabor a story to the point of derailment. You know what I’m talking about, those “literature” programs that slice and dice and teach and preach until the story is a sad, small reflection of its true self. We believe in balance. It is important to enable our students to read closely while challenging them to think creatively as they construct ideas. Along the way, when it comes to discovering the depth of a great character, we need to help our students acquire the skills necessary to articulate their observations.
Our program allows students to:
Keep a journal of individual observations of characters.
Develop a collection of words to describe the characters they encounter.
As we get ready to begin another school year, we’ve created a brand new tool to help students get started—our downloadable character lexicon. Simply print in color or black and white. Your student can cut cards to create a deck that can be used to describe the characters they explore.
Enjoy this little treat, and feel free to pass the link on to your friends.
~Kimberly Bredberg, MFA