ESL Book Club – Who is your “Swimmy”?

It never ceases to amaze me how a simple little book written for children can offer so much food for thought – for adults.

1964 Caldecott Honor Book Swimmy, by Leo Lionni, did not disappoint our ESL Book Club. If you are not familiar with the book, I’ve included a video below.

As a Caldecott book, of course we loved the art! That was the first comment made after reading the book. We selected a few of our favorite illustrations:

“He saw a medusa made of rainbow jelly …”  


forest of seaweeds growing from sugar-candy rocks”

Our conversation turned to interpretations of the story. M connected the story to people in her home country standing up against the regime with the words, “Do not be afraid. We are together,” leading us into the theme that, for the weak, there is power and safety when we stand together.

A comment from R surprised all of us a little, I think: “This story is like the story of immigrants. Immigrants have to leave their home and live in a new place, sometimes escaping danger.”

This idea had not crossed my mind as I prepared for book club and when I said as much, several students said they had not made this connection either. But they quickly jumped in with shared experiences as immigrants and many saw themselves as those little red fish “hidden in the dark shade of rocks and weeds” who did not go out and experience their new country, choosing instead the safety of their home.

Y suggested that she was “lazy” in comparison to her friend because she does not get out and do more and expose herself to the bigger world outside her home. E assured her that she is not lazy, but that we progress in our own time. For an immigrant everything is new and it is not always possible to be brave in every new situation.

A shared that when she came to the US, she focussed on what she thought was most important – being independent and doing things on her own. She has learned to practice gratitude every day and now has a much more positive attitude.

We also considered the theme that life goes on after a loss or other bad situation. Although it seems like the author moved quickly to Swimmy’s recovery, we went back and looked at the illustrations. After all the fish in his school were eaten by the big fish, the next illustration is not colorful like the previous pages, but dull and nearly empty.

“He swam away in the deep wet world. He was scared, lonely and very sad.”

And then Swimmy begins to notice something beautiful or interesting on each subsequent page. We don’t know how long it took Swimmy to begin to heal, but by the time he reaches the school of red fish who are hiding, he is ready to engage the world: “to go and swim and play and SEE things!”

We also touched on:
* cooperation
* the power of nature to help us heal
* Swimmy taking his place as the eye – the one who sees for the others what is possible
* Swimmy is different in color and speed – sometimes our difference is our strength
* If we think about a problem and do the work, we can solve it.

We had so much to discuss that we never got around to the metaphors and descriptive language that make the story memorable.

One of the students reflected on our discussion by writing the following. My thanks to Ming-I for allowing me to share her words:

My Swimmy

‘Then, hidden in the dark shade of rocks and weeds, he saw a school of little fish, just like his own.
“Let’s go and swim and play and SEE things!” he said happily.
“We can’t,” said the little red fish. “The big fish will eat us all.”
“But you can’t just lie there,” said Swimmy. “We must THINK of something.” ’
——by Leo Lionni, Swimmy

These little red fish triggered the memories of my first two years in Austin. I spent most of the time at home. I only went to the UT apartments ESL classes or visited other housewives living at UT apartments by walking or shuttles. My world was so little, but I hesitated to leave my comfort zone.

Then I met a girl, J. She brought me to various ESL classes and hung out with me in a lot of places l had never been to. She showed me where to take the bus and how to make connection. We always met up on the bus and talked during our rides. She really expended my comfort zone in a friendly way. I appreciated it when I looked back.

I shared my story in the book club while we were discussing the picture book Swimmy. The leader of the book club, Kathy, spoke to me with a flicker of a smile, ”So J is your swimmy!”
“Yes, she is.” I said heartily.
“And she swims.” there is a flicker in Kathy’s eyes.

“I love swimming. I even swim in my dreams.” I recalled J’s own words.

“A happy school of little fish lived in a corner of the sea somewhere. They were all red. Only one of them was as black as a mussel shell. He swam faster than his brothers and sisters. His name was swimmy.”
——by Leo Lionni, Swimmy

As we walked out of the building together, S told Ming-I, “You are my Swimmy!”

I recommend sharing the book Swimmy with ESL students of all ages.

And consider for yourself who has been a Swimmy in your life.


And I’ll add the theme image for Sepia Saturday this week – Helsinki residents waiting for evacuation at the railway station. (1939)

Sepia Saturday Theme Image 416

Please pack your bags and take a journey to Sepia Saturday and see where others have gone.

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:

Instead of just saying the thunder was loud and bright:
shook the house
rattled the windows
slit the sky

Instead of using the verbs walk or run:

Other verbs of interest:
drew a deep breath
grab her close
spread out the tablecloth

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

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?


ESL Book Club – The Relatives Came

I am a volunteer teacher of English as a Second Language at the church I attend. I started a Book Club that meets for one hour once a week after our regular class to read and discuss books written for children that adults can enjoy.

I read the book to the students first so that they can just listen or read along and hear the book read with expression and correct pronunciation. After sharing initial reactions to the book, we read the book page by page around the table (if it is short enough). Then we discuss questions I have prepared or comments the students want to make. At least that’s what usually happens.

Even though it is fall, I thought that summer travels would still be fresh on our minds and chose a book about visiting relatives. This week’s book selection was a 1986 Caldecott Honor book, “The Relatives Came,” written by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Stephen Gammell.

Before reading the book, I gave the students a little background information about the author and illustrator to set the stage, including this quote from CliffsNotes: “Rylant’s grandparents’ four-room house was on a dirt road away from the main highway. They had no running water or electricity. The house was often shared with cousins, aunts, and uncles. Rylant’s grandparents grew and hunted most of the food they ate. Because the family had no car, Rylant never traveled very far from home.”

Students initially responded by sharing similar memories of family visits. Most looked back fondly on these occasions, but a couple had less than fond feelings about their experience visiting relatives when they were children.

One student paid particular attention to the illustrations and pointed out some things that we hadn’t noticed. Her favorite was the one that included a boy getting a haircut. I had not noticed the unhappy boy walking away who had already been in the barber’s chair. This was particularly funny to me because my husband’s grandfather was a barber and my husband and his brother and their boy cousins always got a haircut when they went to his house – whether they wanted one or not!

As we read around the table for our second time through the book, we stopped to discuss vocabulary and questions about meaning. These included:
station wagon
why did their station wagon smell like a real car?
ice chest
all the uses of “up” – up from Virginia, ate up, traveled up …
after a big supper two or three times around until we all got a turn at the table
in twos and threes
tend the garden

One student had read the book ahead of time and said that the first time through, he thought it was just an easy story and wasn’t very impressed. He read it a second time and paid more attention to the illustrations. By his third reading, he decided that it is a very good book.

The author writes this story with no proper names, no specified family relationships, and no dialog. It is the perfect vehicle for each of us to enter the story with our own memories, our own family names and relationships. We can recall the words and hugs we have experienced. And maybe even remember the smell of the station wagon as we traveled to visit relatives.

We gave “The Relatives Came” a thumbs up.

I brought a short list of questions for discussion and, since we had not been over any useful vocabulary for discussing books in over a year, I added a few of those too.

Discussion questions:

* Does the story remind you of an experience in your life?
* This book was recognized as a Caldecott Honor Book. This award is for books that combine excellent illustration with a story. How do the pictures help to tell the story?
* What is your opinion of the author’s writing style – no names, no dialog?
* Is this a book you would read to your child or grandchild? Why or why not?

Vocabulary for talking about books:

Author – a person who writes books, stories, or articles.
Illustrate – to explain or decorate a story or book with pictures
Illustrator – a person who adds pictures to explain or decorate a book or story
Fiction – written stories that are about people and events that are not real
Non-Fiction – writing that is about facts or real events
Characters – the people in a book or story
Setting – the time and place in which a story takes place. The setting can also include the mood and social environment.