Many of the middle grade books I read impact me as a reader. Then, there are those that impact me as a teacher. This was the case with The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden.
Zoey is a 7th grader and has more responsibility than any 7th grader should ever have. She takes care of her younger siblings so that her mother can work and keep her family together. Times are tough for Zoey at home, and she thinks her life would be better if she were on octopus with eight arms to tackle all of her responsibilities.
Zoey tries not to draw attention to herself at school because she thinks she doesn't belong in the world of rich kids. However, one her teachers wants her to join the debate club. Zoey does not want to participate and even "forgets" to bring her form to school. Eventually, the debate brings Zoey to see things in new ways and to find her own place in her unfair world.
This book is about poverty, which many of my students can relate. Braden's writing illustrates what many of my students live every single day.
Kids in poverty typically have little control over the events in their lives, and this lack of control can often bring out behavior problems in school. One way that Zoey finds control is in storytelling. "And telling stories means I get to spend time in a world were the person in charge of what happens is me."
How can we give kids in poverty control in our classrooms? What decisions can they make that would make them feel like they have control? How can we use writing and storytelling to help them?
There are times when I get frustrated with my students when they don't return forms, or complete assignments, or come to class on time. Reading this book reminded me that students in poverty are not thinking about these things. They are thinking about taking care of siblings, having food on the table, or having electricity and running water. When Zoey doesn't return a completed packet about an animal she thinks, "Some people can do their homework. Some people have crushes on boys. Some have other things they've got to do." This is the life of my students.
Reading this book also brought me hope. Braden created a teacher who cared and who looked through the poverty and saw possibility. Isn't that what we should all do?
Once the teacher is gone, Ms. Rochambeau turns back to me. She says things, but I'm not listening. No one has ever connected me with being important. The things that they want me to do are important - do my homework, bring a pencil, wear sneakers for PE.
But this somehow feels different."
Kids in poverty need to feel important, and sometimes teachers may be the only ones who can provide that. Kids in poverty is not commonly found in middle grade books, and Ann Braden wrote a book that is greatly needed. A book where many students, and hopefully teachers, can see themselves.