One of the great storytellers of children's literature, Sid Fleischman, passed away this week.
This post is in his honor.
Sid is known for his novels and biographies, but I became acquainted with his writing through a picture book called The Scarebird.
I reread it yesterday. You could teach a whole class with this book.
You could talk about characterization through action. The main character, a kind old farmer called Lonesome John, begins to treat his scarecrow like a human. He puts a head and face on it, greets it day and night, and as time goes by he offers it his best clothes for protection from the punishing weather.
You could point out how Sid uses lively, authentic dialogue for characterization, too:
“Does that face suit you, Scarebird? You look like sunshine on stilts with them yeller-painted eyes! Well, make yourself at home.”
“Ain’t you all dressed up! Those are my town shoes, but I hardly go to town anymore so you’re welcome to them."
(I dare you to find one bland speech in the book. Or one cliché, or one lazy verb.)
You could highlight Sid’s hallmarks, musical language and the use of detail to create a vivid, believable setting. During a storm the farmer “heard the windows chattering like baby rattles." You could show how the detail of the nickle-plated harmonica, which the farmer likes to play on his porch, recurs like a leitmotiv, in this picture book that’s like a little movie.
But that’s only a fraction of what you could discuss. The Scarebird is a model of well-crafted scenes, pacing, patterns, and plot.
Most of all, you could discuss the book’s humanity. By midpoint in the story, the scarebird has become Lonesome John’s imaginary friend. They are playing checkers when
“a shadow fell across the checkerboard.
He (the farmer) looked up and saw a young man in worn jeans standing there, barefooted and bareheaded."
The farmer feeds the boy (Sam, a poor orphan) and over the next few days lets him do chores. Sam could use shoes and other protective clothes, so Lonesome John removes them in stages from the scarecrow, apologetically. At the end of the book, he looks at the scarebird for a long moment, then turns to the boy and asks “Do you play checkers?” Psychological transference, in a children’s book.
Sid, you honored young people with your brilliant, lovely stories.
Rest in peace.