Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Detectives ~ Homer Price

We had our fifth meeting of the Book Detectives this evening. It was our first attempt at reading a chapter book at home and coming ready to discuss. (Last month we read and talked about the picture book Miss Rumphius. It was a great discussion, and I’ll try to post our notes from that meeting, as well.)

Rather than jumping straight into a full chapter book analysis, we chose to chart a single chapter. Homer Price by Robert McCloskey was a perfect book choice. Each chapter is also a stand-alone story. We read chapter 3, The Doughnuts. I first read Homer Price as an adult, but this chapter was a crazy deja vu moment for me. I distinctly remembered watching it as a movie during my childhood, and it made a strong impression on me! Lo, and behold, I was researching McCloskey on Wikipedia for some quick notes, and it turns out that that particular chapter (and only that chapter) was made into a short film in 1963! Not only that, but all hail YouTube, there it is. It is in three parts, and I’ll embed them at the end of this post for your viewing pleasure. The film follows the book very closely!

Of course, we had to sweeten the book club meeting by serving a heaping plate of mini doughnuts and a pitcher of milk!



I showed everyone several other books written by Robert McCloskey: Lentil (his first book and one of my favorites), Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings, One Morning in Maine, A Time of Wonder, and Burt Dow: Deep-Water Man. Not only did he write children’s books, but he was a fantastic illustrator, as well. His characters exude personality!!  McCloskey was married in 1940 to the daughter of children’s book author Ruth Sawyer (best known for Roller Skates but also the author of my childhood favorite, Maggie Rose: Her Birthday Christmas, and one of our favorite Christmas picture books, The Remarkable Christmas of the Cobbler’s Sons). McCloskey and his mother-in-law also collaborated on the picture book Journey Cake, Ho! He and his wife, Peggy, had two little girls named Jane and Sally. (Perfect names for the daughters of a 1940s children’s author, aren’t they?)


The book was published in 1943. We talked about the United States being involved in WWII at that time. We tried to imagine grandfathers or great-grandfathers as boys. I asked the kids how they felt when reading Homer Price. Was it sad? Mysterious? Scary? Adventurous? Everyone agreed that it made them smile and laugh. We discussed what kind of books kids might want to read during stressful or scary times. I said that the two words that came to my mind when reading Robert McCloskey’s books were ‘indomitable optimism.’ I looked up the word indomitable, it means ‘unconquerable, brave, determined, or impossible to defeat or frighten.’ We decided Robert McCloskey may have been very intentional about the message he was sending to kids!

The introduction to Homer Price states that it is set in Mid-Western America. Did the story take place in a real or imaginary world? We agreed that it was a real world (a quintessential mid-century, Mid-Western town with quintessential ‘citizens’), but the stories were sometimes a little hard to believe. The intro also states that the book contains ‘six preposterous tales.’ I explained that preposterous means ‘absurd, fanciful, nonsensical, unreal, or wild.’ Everyone seemed to agree that the stories were indeed wild.


When, Where, Who? What were they like? What did they say and do?

Friday night in November. The town of Centerburg. The (up and coming) Lunch Room.

Mom and Aunt Agnes (at the Ladies Club)
Homer (boy, resourceful, cheerful, creative) (We had a little side discussion comparing Homer and Tom Sawyer.)
Uncle Ulysses (loves labor saving devices and frittering time talking and playing cards at the barber’s with the sheriff)
Mr. Gabby (customer, advertising man)
Rich Lady (jewelry, furs, and a chauffer named Charles, customer, not snobby)
Sheriff (always getting his words mixed up)

The lady helps Homer make dough for doughnuts. Hinting at upcoming conflict: “It looks like an awful lot of batter…It’s about ten times as much as Uncle Ulysses ever makes.” pg 56


What is the first sign of a problem?
The doughnut machine won’t turn off.

“Homer pushed the button marked ‘Stop’ and there was a little click, but nothing happened. The rings of batter kept right on dropping into the hot fat, and an automatic gadget kept right on turning them over, and another automatic gadget kept right on giving them a little push and the doughnuts kept right on rolling down the little chute, all ready to eat.” pg 58

What does Homer do first?
He tries another button. Then he calls Uncle Ulysses.

Why is this a problem?
There are more doughnuts than people will buy and eat!

“There are almost as many doughnuts as there are people in Centerburg, and I wonder how in tarnation Ulysses thinks he can sell all of ‘em!” pg 59

(The illustrations at this point are priceless!)

“The lunch room was a calamity of doughnuts!...And doughnuts still rolling down the little chute, just as regular as a clock can tick.” pg 62

What does Homer need? (our go-to conflict question)
He needs to sell those doughnuts!

Do you hope Homer succeeds? Yes. Is he racing against time? He needs to sell them before Aunt Aggy sees them!)

What two things happen to create more tension in the story?
The first idea (advertising a sale on doughnuts) doesn’t work.
The lady returns to look for her missing diamond bracelet. They realize it is in one of the doughnuts. Uncle Ulysses is distressed about the mess that will be made when all the doughnuts are broken to find the bracelet.


Looking back, when do we first know the problem is going to be solved? What is the turning point?
”Nope, said Homer. “We won’t have to break them up. I’ve got a plan.” pg 66

They advertise the doughnuts with a $100 reward for the person that finds the diamond bracelet inside!


What happens next?
”THEN…The doughnuts began to sell! Everybody wanted to buy doughnuts, dozens of doughnuts!” pg 67 (notice the author’s emphasis!)

All the citizens of Centerburg buy doughnuts and something to drink, too! Most of the doughnuts are sold by the time problem #2 is solved: the bracelet is found!

“When all but the last couple of hundred doughnuts had been sold, Rupert Black shouted, ‘I GAWT IT!!’ and sure enough…there was the diamond bracelet inside of his doughnut!” pg 76

(We talked about the fact that it was a black boy in worn clothing sitting at the counter of the lunch room that finds the reward. The adults discussed the fact that this book obviously wasn’t set in the south and wondered why the author named the boy Rupert Black.)


Rupert (the needy boy) goes home with the reward money. The citizens go home with bellies full of doughnuts (their satisfaction apparently not diminished by the fact that they didn’t get the reward). The lady and her chauffer drive off with the recovered diamond bracelet. Homer goes home with his mother. The advertising man comments on the “neatest trick of merchandising I ever seen.” Uncle Ulysses brags about his labor saving device with a skeptical (but not furious) Aunt Aggy looking on.


Will Homer be able to sell all the doughnuts?

Man v. Society.

Homer has to convince the citizens that they want those doughnuts!


What is this story about? What is the author really trying to tell us?
On the surface it is a story about supply and demand. Make the demand meet your supply!

“There are almost as many doughnuts as there are people in Centerburg [supply], and I wonder how in tarnation Ulysses thinks he can sell all of ‘em! [demand]” pg 59

We decided that the deeper meaning of this chapter (and the overarching theme of the whole book) is a celebration of creativity, resourcefulness, and ingenuity. Turn problems into opportunity!

The adults discussed the historical relevance of Homer Price and what the following decade held for America. We agreed that Robert McCloskey was involved in a bit of foreshadowing!

Homer Price continues his adventures in the book Centerburg Tales.


Heather said...

Thank you for posting this! I did read Homer Price as a young person, several times I believe and the doughnut chapter was indeed the highlight of the book. I had no idea there was a movie made of that chapter so thank you for posting those videos.
And married to Ruth Sawyer's daughter, didn't know that either. thanks for keeping us informed. :)

Brandy @ The Prudent Homemaker said...

I love Robert McCloskey's books! My son just finished reading Homer Price; I will show him this movie!