Today I taught K and N how to write a very simple, superficial literary essay. I have no idea if it’s appropriate to their grade levels, and frankly I don’t care: I think they’re both capable of grasping the format.
We worked with a book they’re both very familiar with: The Secret Garden. They’ve heard the Broadway musical of it at least a hundred times and we just finished a read-aloud of the book. They know the plot forward, backward, and sideways. They love it, too, which actually caused a bit of a problem:
“Please don’t make us write about it! I love this book and now you’re about to RUIN it for me!!!!” K implored.
“If you really love it, the love will recover with time,” I said drily. “Now, let’s talk about themes.”
I drew a mind map as we talked, first identifying themes, then examples, then details and proof. They were reluctant to participate at first, but the story is so familiar that after a few minutes they just blurted things out—which was exactly what I was hoping for.
Here was our mind map:
Then we took the mind map over to the computer and wrote an essay collaboratively. In case you’re wondering what that looked like, here’s an example:
ME: Somebody give me a sentence that tells the reader what we want to say in this essay.
K: The Secret Garden is about change.
N: No, not change. Transformation is a better word!
ME: Okay, we also need to say what examples we’re going to bring up. Somebody check our mind map and make up a sentence about that.
K: How about, Three examples of transformation are Mary, Colin, and the garden.
ME: Not bad.
N: Garden needs an adjective. It sounds too boring.
ME: Do you guys know the word “eponymous?” It means “the one from the title.”
N: Yeah! Yeah! Use That! “The eponymous garden!”
ME: Okay, we have an introductory paragraph. Now somebody decide which example we’re talking about, and give me a sentence to introduce it.
… and so on.
The Secret Garden is, at its heart, a book about transformation. Three examples of transformation are Colin, Mary, and the eponymous garden.
One example of transformation is Colin. Colin transforms from being a spoiled brat to a slightly less spoiled brat. Colin also goes from being a very sick, bedridden child to a boy who can stand and walk. His outlook undergoes the most striking transformation of all, from his declaration that “I shan’t live.” (p. 32) to “I am going to live forever and ever!” (p. 297)
Another fascinating example of transformation is Mary. At the beginning, Mary is described as “…the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.” (p.3) By the end of the book, Mrs. Medlock says of Mary, “She’s begun to be downright pretty since she’s filled out and lost her ugly little sour look.” (p.272)
Of course, the garden itself is transformed over the course of the book. It changes from a secret, dead garden to a beautiful, live garden.
In conclusion, the central theme of transformation in The Secret Garden is shown through the development of characters, like Mary and Colin, and the setting—the garden itself.
It’s pretty basic, but the kids have now been part of the essay writing process from start to finish. I was also pleasantly surprised by how excited they were to replace simple words with multisyllabic ones. I think that trait is probably genetic.