The Reading Quilt: Bluish by Virginia HamiltonFeb 16, 2021 08:00AM ● By Dr. R.A.Slaughter
If we are honest with ourselves, we have teased someone at some point. Teasing, or playfully provoking someone, is a language that young people speak. Although it has the potential to get out of control quickly, teasing is a tool. As a defense mechanism, teasing can hide vulnerability. As a power tool, it can destroy a sensitive soul. In some cases, teasing is a love language.
Each month, “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book that a teacher may use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help students understand human behavior. Using the acronym QUILT, Slaughter offers readers information about the Quality of writing, Imaginative plot, as well as a mini Lesson plan, and Talking points that stem from the book’s premise. This month, Virginia Hamilton’s Bluish (Scholastic, 1999), which details the life of a sick girl and her classmates is the focus of QUILT.
Virginia Hamilton, who wrote 41 books in various genres, was a prolific writer. She was born in Ohio on March 12, 1936, during The Great Depression. The youngest of five children born to Kenneth James and Etta Belle Perry Hamilton, Hamilton was encouraged to value literacy as a child growing up in Ohio where her roots were strong. The Hamiltons’ legacy started in the 1850’s when Virginia’s grandfather Levi Perry was brought to Ohio on the Underground Railroad as an infant. Once Levi touched the soil, the family’s roots were set since the family never left the state.
Quality: Through journal entries, Dreenie, the narrator tells the story of her middle school experiences in Bethune Cookman School (BCS), an alternative public school in New York. Hamilton, whose style of writing has been compared to William Faulkner, gives the Nobel Prize laureate a nod with her well developed characters who help the readers conjure up the typical middle school classroom. Realistic dialogue complete with authentic vitriol worthy of “the dozens” brings to mind Faulkner’s sentiment: “I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself.”
Universal theme: Friendship is a wonderful relationship. Often, with young people, friendship is complicated. Some days, it is a delicate cloak woven with thread thin as gossamer. Other days, it is a garment of comfort or one that smothers. In her book Bluish, through cringe-worthy or heartwarming character interactions, Hamilton details a friendship between a sick girl and her savvy classmate.
Imaginative story: The friendship that develops between Dreenie and Natalie is an unusual one since young people sometimes shy away from kids with disabilities. Wintery NYC as a backdrop is an eerie setting for the plot and the girls’ friendship which runs cold to lukewarm at times. Ultimately, it is the love of the kids in Natalie’s fifth-grade class who teach Dreenie and Natalie the meaning of true friendship.
Lesson Plan: People with disabilities are often ignored in literature with able-bodied people being the main or celebrated focus. In 2019, the Cooperative Children’s Book Council released a study that reports a miserable statistic: only 3.4% of children’s literature published in 2019 included main characters with physical or mental challenges. A lesson related to “Bluish” may center on the lack of representation of physically or mentally disabled people in literature. For example, students could do an audit of their classroom or school libraries to calculate the number of books featuring people with disabilities as the protagonists.
Talking Points: In the book Bluish, Hamilton weaves a story of a quizzical friendship between two fifth grade girls: one who is able-bodied and one who has a life-threatening sickness. Dreenie, who seems to be socially strong, seems to have difficulty in maintaining a sincere friendship with Natalie who the fifth-grade class treats like a porcelain doll.
Do you find it difficult to form a relationship with a physically or mentally handicapped person? Why or why not?
Why do you think physically or mentally handicapped people are ignored in children’s literature?
When you encounter a physically or mentally handicapped person, what are your initial thoughts?
Do you have any friends who identify as physically or mentally handicapped?
Dr. R. A. Slaughter earned her doctoral degree in Cognitive Studies in Reading at Widener University. Her dissertation explores multicultural literature in private schools through the lens of Critical Pedagogy. Her new book titled “Turning the Page: The Ultimate Guide for Teachers to Multicultural Literature,”published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available for order. To contact her, email [email protected]. For other multicultural book suggestions, visit literacyuniversity.org.