Monday, August 3, 2015

The Raft
By Jim LaMarche

Awards: IRA/CBC Teachers' Choice; Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee
Irma S. and James H. Black Award for Excellence in Children's Literature

The Raft gracefully weaves together the memories of the Wisconsin childhood of the author/illustrator Jim LaMarche to create a masterfully written and illustrated portrayal of a young boy's summer adventures and discoveries.  LaMarche concedes in his Author Note at the beginning of the book that much of the story is drawn from his own experiences with a grandparent that encouraged not only his potential as an artist, but nurtured his love for the outdoors.

The Raft is a superb mentor text to use for a Personal Narrative writing unit of study, or even Memoir (or possibly Small Moment).  In Reading Workshop, strategies such as connecting, inferring and synthesizing can be explored. In both Reading and Writing Workshop, transformation of the character should be analyzed.

Jim LaMarche considers himself an artist first and foremost.  If you are outdoorsy yourself (or your students are), you (and they) will truly connect and appreciate his gorgeous illustrations of the river habitat, that in many ways, as the setting of the story, plays an important ‘character’ role as well.

I think it is always interesting to hear or read authors/artists talk of their own work and I think it can be inspirational for students. (We just never know who of our students we will touch and inspire with our efforts to expose them to wonderful authors and illustrated!! Makes the journey and effort worth it, I say!!)  Listed after the review is a bio on Jim LaMarche as well as a link to an interview with Jim LaMarche done by Chronicle Books.

Book Talk
NIcky is sent to spend the summer with his Grandmother in the back woods of Wisconsin.
Grandma is quite a character / independent woman—living in a small cabin near a river by herself and mostly living off the land by fishing, growing vegetables to happily survive.

NIcky is dreading spending time with Grandma in the woods—he is convinced it will be boring, there will be nothing to do, there will be no other kids around to play with AND Grandma does not even own a TV!!! 

Grandma senses Nicky reluctance and handles him with love by gently encouraging him to learn how to fish. Nicky feels that Grandma’s advice about fishing is silly, so he tries what makes sense to him….with horrible results! Grandma wisely lets Nicky make mistakes, yet nudges him to begin to explore and uncover the wonders of the woods and the river.

As luck would have it, one day as Nicky is exploring the river bank, an old raft comes by. He brings it to shore, removes all the leaves and branches on it, and as he does, he discovers many interesting sketches and paintings of animals on the raft. He wonders where the raft came from and who sketched the animals on it?

Grandma offers a lesson or two on how to navigate the raft…and the summer magically transforms for Nicky. He spends countless hours on the raft deeply exploring the river habitat with all it wonders.  The animals treat him like one of them—-some of them actually start riding on the raft! Grandma and Nicky refer to them as hitchhikers. They even frame a tent on the raft and Nicky begins to spend the hot, sticky nights floating on the raft in the cool river. Grandma insists that Nicky carry a mask and snorkel on the tent—which is a good thing as Nicky starts wearing it to actually play with an otter family underwater!

Some favorite lines: "Grandma had been right about the mask and snorkel coming in handy. I slipped them on, then hung my head over the raft and watched the otters play--chasing fish, chasing each other, sometimes just chasing their own tails. I kept very still, but they didn't seem to mind me watching. They played keep away with a small stone, then tug-of-war with a rope. It was like they wre showing off for me. They even let me feed them right out of my hand."

Eventually, Nicky asks Grandma for some sketch paper, and he too, begins sketching the wondrous animals that he has begun to interact with and who have become his friends that summer.  He also learns to just appreciate time with Grandma—showing off to her his ability to do cannonballs into the river from the raft. 

On the last day of Nicky’s summer in the woods, he ends up rescuing a fawn that gets stuck in the mud as she is trying to cross the river. Both doe and fawn sense his kindness and ability to help—and he is able to pull the fawn out to safety.  He sketches her picture on the raft—the finest sketching of the summer.

Suggested Uses as a Mentor Test:
Book Genre: Realistic Fiction
Reading Workshop strategies: Character development/change over time, Connecting, Inferring, Synthesizing, Visualizing
Writing Workshop genre: Personal Narrative/ Memoir, Character development, Strong female character (Grandma), Strong Lead, Elaboration

An interview with Jim LaMarche by Chronicle Books:

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