I am continuing my mission to select and celebrate books of yore. The ones which may have once been dearly cherished, but are now at risk of being pushed aside. So, with that aim in mind I would like to continue in this endeavour with a small but perfectly formed gem hidden amongst the immense output of one our most enduring and popular authors: Jacqueline Wilson’s The Suitcase Kid.
Let me start with the elephant in the room; I have never been a big fan of Jacqueline Wilson’s books. There I’ve said it. And I feel I have read enough of them to make an informed decision about this – my middle child went through the ‘Jacqueline Wilson Phase’ and every night was one of her stories – so I know them well. But this one is a little bit special and it’s worked wonders in the classroom over the years.
A is for Agony Aunt
Andrea (Andy) is in trouble as her parents have divorced and nothing in her world will ever be the same again. Andy is our protagonist who addresses us the reader throughout the book confiding in us her problems and worries as events unfurl.
This diminutive novel tracks Andy from the early aftermath of the split and having to see a family counsellor right through the custody process and onto her having to find a way to navigate the dark, treacherous waters of learning to deal with two new patchwork families.
Along the way we are introduced to an overly health conscious step-mum, a vindictive and spiteful step-sister, a potential alibi in her new nerdy brother and the shock, horror and disgust at her dad having a baby with his new wife.
Clearly, we are in tricky waters here dealing with real life issues but it has been my experience that this potent little text never fails to generate deep, reflective and respectful discussion within the classroom. And the writing that comes from it? Staggering.
B is for Brevity
This book ticks a huge box for me with its short and snappy chapters. This isn’t a must for me, but here the author exercises a tight control over her word count. The writing is efficient and to the point.
Characters and situations rush at you so the shortened chapters (one for each letter of the alphabet, A-Z) offer the class regular and natural breaks in the narrative during which you have the chance to unpick and debrief the class on whatever has just occurred.
Believe me, there will be lots to talk about. Also, rather like with Ros ‘Big Writing’ Wilson’s ‘Bells Activities’ the short chapters fit in beautifully to those parts of the day where you need to ‘fill’ 5-10 minutes. But don’t underestimate the impact these rapid-fire chapters can have… less is definitely more.
C is for Caution
When planning and delivering this book I treat it as a Health and Wellbeing unit of work with a huge emphasis on Listening and Talking, role-play and discussion. It is likely the subject of divorce will be something that someone in your class has already or is midway through experiencing and as such needs to be treated with delicacy and tact.
We draw up a contract establishing the sensitivity of the subject and the importance of respecting each other’s experiences and feelings. Lots of talk about never really knowing what someone in the class around us may be going through so the need for sensitivity is highly important.
Has there been tears and walkouts? Yes. Have we had deep discussions over break-time with those struggling with the content? Yes again. But the opportunities to engage in powerful and meaningful dialogues through the prism of Andy can result in quite profound moments with your class.
D is for Developing Writing
A couple of ways (not exhaustive) in which I’ve used the book as a stimulus for writing:
Letter writing: As we read through the chapters we generate a list of all the things that have happened to Andy and the ways in which they are preying upon her mind. We then use these as a basis for a letter to an agony aunt seeking for help through the mess.
This is particularly great for developing and experimenting with language around emotions and then using comparative and causal connectives to help us as writers to further develop and extend our ideas and sentences.
Persuasive writing: Here the children get to play as being estate agents trying to sell the house that Andy’s family leave behind. The children love exploring real estate agent websites collecting phrases and investigating the way in which language can be manipulated to help sell properties.