Lenny’s Book of Everything

Exploring the 2019 CBCA Short List: Older Readers

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Authors: Karen Foxlee

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Themes: Family, sibling relationships, disability/difference, acceptance, community, love, grief, hope, forgiveness, knowledge and education, science, geography, the natural world

Years: Australian Curriculum: English, Years 5–8 (Note as an aid, hover on curriculum links to check the year level).

From the publisher’s synopsis: Lenny’s younger brother has a rare form of gigantism and while Lenny is fiercely protective, it isn’t always easy being the sister of ‘the giant’. When their struggling single mother wins a ‘prize’ subscription to Burrell’s Build-It-at-Home Encyclopedia, Lenny and Davey begin to experience the wonders of the world.

Unit writer: Margo Daly

Field and context

Building field knowledge

  • Study the book cover. A flying eagle silhouette slices through a colourful children’s encyclopedia above an illustrated map showing Great Bear Lake. Will the lake be significant to the story? What might the ‘book of everything’ be? The encyclopedia? But a good title has layers of meaning. Could the novel be a record of everything dear and important to the titular Lenny? Watch the first book trailer for the novel. Can they see the cover illustration? Watch the second trailer and read the book blurb.  AC9E8LA07  AC9E6LY01  
  • Read Foxlee describing the childhood joys of her encyclopedia set in a National Geographic Kids interview. Give students an encyclopedia experience and/or watch Teens React to Encyclopedias. Did the experience ‘spark joy’? Five New York Times experts explore the print-versus-online-encyclopedia debate. Divide the five articles among groups (on A3 paper for annotation). Students define and research terms, summarise the argument and present to class. AC9E7LY07

Exploring the context of the text

  • USA setting, time period 1969–1977, means popular culture and historical references abound, from TV series Kojak and Batman, through the moon landing to comic book Sea Monkey ads — “A bowl full of happiness. Only $1.00.” Start a class Pinterest board with colourful visual references from the novel. AC9E7LE01 AC9E5LE01
  • Gigantism is caused by a benign tumour in the pituitary gland which affects the regulation of growth hormones. Research the condition, how it was treated in the 1970s and the treatment a child would receive today with medical advances. Write a newspaper report entitled, ‘Will gigantism become a thing of the past?’ AC9E6LA02 AC9E7LA03  
  •  Read ‘Books that changed me’. Foxlee loves US author Kelly Link, writer of YA fantasy and ghost stories. The Wrong Grave collection is illustrated by Shaun Tan. Encourage students to read stories from Magic For Beginners and Stranger Things Happen at the Open Library. AC9E7LE01 

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Responding and exploring

Responding to the text

  • When Lenny sleeps over at CJ’s house, the difference between her own family culture and her friend’s is apparent. There is also a strong contrast between CJ’s family’s supportive attitude towards her drumming, and Lenny’s mother’s initial intolerance for her bug obsession. Students reflect on their own family culture, then compare and contrast the cultures and attitudes of the two families. AC9E6LE01 AC9E7LE01 
  • Listen to and watch the exquisite 2JJJ  Like a Version cover of The Beatles ‘Across the Universe’ by Norwegian singer Aurora. Discuss how like Lenny’s Book of Everything, the song conveys a sense of the wonder of the universe and also the power of love and Aurora’s rendition conveys the fragility of life. Use it as a soundtrack for a slideshow of images that convey the novel’s emotions.  AC9E6LE02 AC9E7LE04 

Exploring plot character and setting

  • The novel begins with a description of the mother’s anxiety, a ‘dark heart feeling … as big as the sky kept in a thimble’. It continues to explore its characters' complex and changing emotions, including shame, fear, love, hope, optimism, anticipation, and wonder. Give each student a copy of Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion in the centre of an A3 sheet. Use it to discuss different emotions as they arise; annotate with vocabulary for other emotions and quotes and examples from the text. AC9E6LA08  AC9E7LE01 
  • ‘Baby Davey had the happiest smile in the world’ (p.8); ‘Everyone fell in love with Davey’ (page 88) The reader comes to adore Davey too, feeling great grief at his death. Discuss other lovable fictional characters. What qualities made you love them? What qualities make Davey lovable? List the positive attributes of Lenny’s friends CJ and Matthew, also easy to love. Lenny, Mother, Mrs Gaspar, Nanny Flora, Peter Spink, Great-Aunt Em and Miss Schweitzer are more difficult to love — create a table with positive qualities and negative qualities. Spin negatives into positives, for example, ‘stubborn’ becomes ‘determined’. AC9E6LE05  AC9E7LE03
  • Davey’s fantasy pet is a golden eagle. Research golden eagles in North America. Brainstorm and mind map: What qualities do Davey and the golden eagle share? In what way could the golden eagle be symbolic of Davey? Lenny is obsessed with beetles. Brainstorm and mind map: What qualities does Lenny share with beetles? In what way could a beetle symbolise Lenny?  AC9E7LE04
  • The novel explores complex, difficult emotions, including Lenny’s ‘shame of being ashamed’ (page 121). Explore the interconnection between the negative emotions of embarrassment, humiliation, shame, guilt. Use a Frayer Model to explore each of these emotions and a Venn Diagram for any overlaps. AC9E6LA07  AC9E7LA08
  • Is it a positive or a negative that Cindy Spink ‘didn’t like to take any kinds of gifts or charity’ (page 62)? A related novel, R J Palacio’s Wonder, gives the message, ‘choose kind’. But what if kindness is hard to accept? To facilitate the discussion, the teacher could read ‘Trauma makes us shun kindness when we need it most’. AC9E6LY02  AC9E7LE02
  • The children’s caring neighbour, Hungarian Mrs Gaspar, is a colourful character in both senses, with her towering orange beehive, living in an orange-tinged apartment crammed with stuff. Read the descriptions on pages 3–4 and 11–13; create a bright cartoon portrait of her in her apartment setting. Include a speech bubble quoting dialogue. AC9E6LE05  AC9E7LA01 
  •  Foxlee originally tried to set the story in Australia. How would the story and plot have been different? Read Foxlee answering, ‘Why did you decide to set the book in America?’ Take an Australian story, perhaps a personal narrative, and set it in America. How would it change? AC9E6LE05  AC9E7LE05

Creating texts

  • Foxlee would like to impart to her readers ‘a sense of hope that these difficult things in life can be faced’ through her moving novel about grief and loss. Look at the excellent Wikipedia definition of hope. View a moving rendition of the Emily Dickenson poem, ‘Hope is a thing with feathers’, signed by a young deaf girl. Students now write an acrostic quatrain entitled ‘Hope’, using metaphor and extended metaphor. Students create their own metaphor for hope, ‘Hope is …’, then extend this figure in the following lines starting with o, p and e. As a contrast, students do the same with grief, related to the loss of Davey, then flip their two-stanza poem; start with grief then end with hope. AC9E5LE04 AC9E8LE05
  • Cynthia Spink refuses to speak to the Guinness Book of Records researcher (page 290). As Lenny ponders (also page 291), ‘I’ve since looked at the entries on the tallest people in the world … There were figures and graphs. Pictures of pants and purpose built chairs. But nothing of dreams. Nothing of love. Nothing of goodbyes.’ Read a Guinness World Records article on the world’s tallest people; discuss its ethics. Imagine you are one of Davey’s school friends and now a journalist. Write a highly emotive opinion piece about the issue.  AC9E5LY01 

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Examining text structure and organisation

  • The weekly encyclopedia arrivals and Davey’s rapid growth propel and structure the linear story. Create a simple cause and effect table. What events were caused by Davey’s gigantism? What events were influenced by the encyclopedia? AC9E6LA07 AC9E7LY04
  • Foxlee states that her novel’s message is ‘above all, love—all the different kinds of love there are in the world: neighbourly love, motherly love, sibling love, and the love between friends’. Create two star diagrams: ‘love’ at the centre with the four types of love revolving. One diagram represents love in the each student’s life; the other love in the novel. Students add examples. AC9E6LE01  AC9E7LE05
  • Students compile or create several other ‘books’, perhaps illustrated: ‘Mrs Gaspar’s Book of Dreams’, ‘Mother’s Book of Correspondence’, ‘Mother’s Book of Stories’, ‘Lenny’s Book of Beetles’ and ‘Davey’s Book of Favourite Things’. When creating the dream book, study ‘The Magic Blanket’ chapter; brainstorm the symbolism of the birds for Mrs Gasper. Create a ‘Magic Blanket’ watercolour; look at paintings by Marc Chagall, with his dreamlike images, figures floating through the air, including ‘The Bird Chase’ and ‘The Blue Circus’. Also look at artworks by Miró, El-Salahi, Ellen Gallagher and Paul NashAC9E6LY06  AC9E7LE07
  • Examine the relationship development in the correspondence between Mrs Spink and Mrs Brent. Highlight instances of the personal entering the business-like, in tone and content. Imagine they become friends after Mrs Brent comes to Davey’s funeral. Write a ‘proud mother’ letter from Mrs Spink, how Lenny is doing at three intervals: high school, college, career (make the last an email). Take into account changing times, fashions, events, songs. AC9E6LA01  AC9E7LA01

Examining grammar

  • Lenny loves the sounds of words, savouring repetition. She says her father’s name like an incantation, as if it will perhaps return him. Goliathus goliatus, she repeats, at the same time that Davey has worrying growing pains: ‘They were words. And words felt good and solid.’ Discuss how such repetition calms her, replaces uncertainty, fear and doubt, how throughout time, chanting, reciting, mantras, singing and prayer has relieved humans in time of sorrow, anxiety, pain and exhaustion. AC9E6LE02 AC9E7LA01
  • Discuss the technique of accumulation: ‘Peter Lenard Spink went to Pensacola. He went to Tuscalosa. He went to St. Louis. He went to St. Marks and St. Cloud. He went north and south. He went east and west … He went to Marietta and Blacksburg and as far away as Buffalo, Wyoming.’ Study a state map and practice the technique using place names derived from Aboriginal languages, matching sounds and syllable counts. Now develop accumulation using sounds: Peter Lenard Spink was ‘leaving sounds; rusty suitcase clasps and zippers. He was the belt-buckle jangle.’ Describe another character, listing three sounds.  AC9E5LE05  AC9E8LE05

Examining visual and multimodal features

  • Once the novel has been read, return to the publisher’s trailers. What emotions were conveyed by the music? Groups each create a slide show of up to 30 seconds (like the first trailer) to represent a different aspect of the novel, choosing related images and a soundtrack that reflects the tone of the visuals, and experimenting with animation effects on Powerpoint. AC9E6LY07 AC9E7LY06

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Additional and related resources and links to other texts: Before deciding if you want to teach the novel, you can read the first 38 pages via the Allen & Unwin website, where you can also find links to the book trailers, Teachers Notes by Esther Smith (16 pages) and Reading Notes (8 pages).

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