ESL Book Club – Thunder Cake

Our book club read several books by Patricia Polacco last spring and we all fell in love with Patricia Polacco. I was not familiar with her book Thunder Cake when I found it at Half Price Books a few months ago. It looked like another good one, plus it included a recipe! If you are not familiar with the book, it is based on events from the author’s life and tells the story of how her Russian grandmother helped Patricia overcome her fear of thunderstorms.

Of course, I had to bake a Thunder Cake for book club. The skies were clear and sunny as I baked, so I guess it didn’t really qualify as a Thunder Cake. Oh well…

I didn’t have any secret-ingredient-fresh-off-the-vine-overripe tomatoes either, so I drained some canned tomatoes and pureed what I needed in the food processor. I made two single layer cakes instead of a two-layer as I thought it would be easier to transport and serve. The cake tasted just like a chocolate cake should, but I thought it was a little dry and crumbly. Maybe it was lacking the humidity and electricity a thunderstorm would add to the mix. It rose very nicely – maybe due to the acidity of the tomatoes?

As I was preparing a few discussion questions, I realized what a good lesson in verbs this book provides. Patricia Polacco gives us so many verbs to help us hear the thunder and see the lightning and hear her grandmother’s voice. I made a list of most of the verbs used in the story and added a few discussion questions just to have some talking points to fall back on if needed.

The cake was a fun surprise and no one could taste the secret ingredient. As we settled in with our wedges of cake, I went over the list of verbs as a pre-reading activity. Many, if not most, of the verbs were unfamiliar to my students.

As expected, everyone could relate to the story in one way or another. One student (from Ukraine) is Babushka to her grandson. Another student was reminded of her husband, who was a nervous, nail-biting child. Instead of helping him with his fears, his parents focussed only on his bad habit. A wife told how, during an eight-year war with a neighboring country, her husband would take their son to the basement when the daily bombing began. He had the gift of entertaining their son so that he was never afraid. Meanwhile, she was frozen with fear. Everyone agreed that Patricia’s Babushka is awesome and aspired to be like her.

This time I added a rating system at the end of the discussion questions. As I expected, everyone gave it 5 stars – because they always swear they love every book we read. After class, a student who had read the previous Patricia Polacco books, told me she loves her books so much that all of her books will get 5 stars from her.

There was one piece of cake left, so I took it over to my friend, Pastor Cathy. She knew that the cake had been baked under clear skies, so not really a Thunder Cake. She asked what fear I contemplated while baking it. Uh … None? In true pastor fashion, she “invited” me to give it some thought.

Here is what I prepared for discussion:

Thunder Cake
by Patricia Polacco

So many verbs! As I reread the book, I noticed how many different verbs the author used to make the story interesting and to help the reader “feel” and “hear” the story.

Instead of just using the verb said:
cooed
stammered
crowed
exclaimed
croaked
whispered

Instead of just saying the thunder was loud and bright:
shook the house
rattled the windows
flashed
slit the sky
crashed
bellowed
growled
rumbled

Instead of using the verbs walk or run:
strode
scurried
crept

Other verbs of interest:
drew a deep breath
grab her close
surveyed
fingered
penned
gather
peck
spread out the tablecloth
beamed

And a few interesting adjectives:
loud clap of thunder
worn hands
creased spot
jagged edge of lightning
secret ingredient
overripe
luscious
glistening

Discussion questions:

What is your first reaction to the story?

Does the story remind you of something in your life?

How did Patricia’s grandmother help her overcome her fear of thunderstorms?

Was Patricia only afraid of thunderstorms?

Has someone helped you overcome a fear?

Have you helped someone overcome a fear?

Have you overcome a fear on your own (without help)?

Do you have a recipe with a secret ingredient?

Is this a book you would like to share with a child you know? Why or why not?

How do you rate this story?

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