In this week’s My Take/Your Take Mary, Christopher and Leslie share their takes on Back to Front and Upside Down by Claire Alexander. The story begins with a morning visit from the school principal, Mr. Slippers, to Stan’s kindergarten classroom. It’s Mr. Slippers birthday and he invites the class to his birthday party that afternoon. Stan’s troubles begin when he tries to write “Happy Birthday” on a card for Mr. Slippers. The letters come out muddled and Stan is afraid to ask Miss Catnip for help. After some encouraging words from his classmate, Mimi, Stan asks for help. With instructions from Miss Catnip, Stan practices and practices and practices until he can write the letters conventionally on Mr. Slipper’s card. The story closes with Stan proudly telling Mr. Slippers that “I wrote it all by myself” (Alexander, 2012, n.p.).
MARY: I like this book. When I taught first grade, it seemed like a few of the students would transpose their letters. That seems to be what’s happening with Stan, the main character. He can’t write the letters for the principal’s birthday card. That’s why I bought it, sort of like a teaching tool.
I like the illustrations. I also like the way the text is not typed in a traditional font like Chicago or Times New Roman. This makes it playful, warmer and more inviting.
CHRISTOPHER: As I read, the illustrations are inviting to me. There’s color on every page, so it is appealing to the eye. If I was a first or second grader looking at the text, it would be welcoming.
It seems like all the characters are positive and motivating. Stan’s friends, the teacher and the principal are happy. It’s such a positive story.
LESLIE:: I like the illustration that shows Stan by himself, mostly because it focuses on him, how he feels, and what he experiences. When you have a big problem and you don’t want to speak out in class, you feel like you’re alone. This illustration gives the reader a good idea of how Stan really feels. This makes the story relatable.
MARY: The double page spread has a black background, the only illustration that has it. The words say, “Even his name was coming out in a muddle.” With the black background and Stan sitting very small in the corner of the page, this mass of black color represents that muddle. I can see where his mind is cluttered, and he can’t get the writing out. This must be how he thinks.
(All pause to look at the double page illustration)
I do have some criticisms about this book. I am troubled by the fact that Stan has to practice writing the letters “Happy Birthday” because he is writing them upside down and backward. If you look at the capital “H,” you can’t write that upside down or backward. If you write “H” upside down or backward, it’s still a capital “H”.
I wish that the book focused more on the letters that might be troubling instead of all the letters. The story implies that all of the letters are troubling but they’re not. An interesting extension for this story would be to have the students explore cutout letters, like for bulletin boards. Teachers can ask students to turn the letters upside down and backward, then ask, “Is this a letter Stan needed to practice? Why or why not?”
LESLIE: I agree. Let’s assume what grade Stan may be in, maybe first grade or kindergarten, somewhere around that age group. Usually the letters “P,” “D” and “B” end up getting turned backward. I see what you’re saying there.
MARY: My other criticism focuses on the realistic-ness of the problem in the story. Isn’t transposing ALL the letters the problem in the story?
Leslie: Yes, that sticks out to me too. Also, in the beginning, Mr. Slippers (the principal) tells the students “It’s my birthday,” while inviting them to his party that afternoon. As the story goes on, Stan finally gets the confidence to ask Miss Catnip, the teacher, for help. She works with Stan to practice, and practice, and practice with his classmate, Mimi. I thought, “Well, I thought that had taken place over a couple of days?” I forgot about the short time frame of this story. It is not realistic for Stan to practice writing letters for a couple hours and then be able to write the letters correctly, finishing his card by the afternoon. I don’t believe that; the treatment is too quick. As a teacher of young children, I would have asked my students, “What do you think is going on and how do you think that makes Stan feel?” I anticipate a student saying, “Well, he probably can’t write because he has paws and dogs can’t write!”
I looked at the illustration where four characters are writing on their individual cards, and thought, “How are they even able to grip their pencils?”
MARY: That makes me wonder why the illustrator used animals as characters? Why didn’t the illustrator portray actual children?
LESLIE: I also wonder why the main character is portrayed as a boy or has the male name, Stan. Thinking of dyslexia, males tend to be diagnosed with dyslexia more often than females. I don’t know if the author knows that or what the reasons are for making the main character male.
CHRISTOPHER: Now that you mention it, I didn’t even think about that potential bias. I know those statistics of males having dyslexia at a higher rate, but I don’t know if the author is aware of that potential bias. Another thing that stands out to me is that the message seems to be, “If you keep practicing, you’ll eventually get it.” In some cases, that can be true. However, we know that many other reasons why Stan transposes the letters. Yes, it is okay to practice writing, but the author could have gone into just a little more detail about a possible strategy that the teacher could use to help Stan and Mimi rather than repetitious writing.
Additionally, the fact that they use animals as the characters was confusing. Young students might not connect Stan’s problem to that of a human child who transposes letters or may have dyslexia. Some children might ask, “can a cow or a dog really write their letters?” What would make this a bit more realistic or would create a better connection for students is if the illustrator had used humans in the illustrations.
MARY: Which race would you choose for Stan? First of all, you’d have to choose a gender. Then you’d have to choose a race and a physical appearance. Maybe that’s why the writer uses animals, so that we couldn’t say, “That’s a male, Asian child.” Maybe the illustrator uses animals as an attempt to eliminate some of those biases.
CHRISTOPHER: That is something for authors and illustrators to think about. You do not want to come across as portraying biases. Would the character be Asian, Hispanic, African-American or…?
MARY: Would they have glasses, or…? These sorts of things come into consideration. I wonder if that’s why the author chooses animals for characters. Even if you look at the animals without knowing their names, could you tell if this were a female (points to illustration)? It looks like a bull or a steer. Is that male and female?
LESLIE: You could assume that’s a male.
MARY: It’s male? And this (points to illustration). It looks like a sheep or a lamb. Male or female?
CHRISTOPHER: Probably female.
MARY: I agree. Probably female. Even within the selection of the animals, biases emerge.
LESLIE: Even with the teacher, a young, female Miss Catnip, who wears glasses. She looks perky in all the pictures!
MARY: Another part that I don’t like is that the teacher isn’t portrayed well. The teacher isn’t aware that Stan has a writing problem, so Stan sits for a while. Stan is afraid to approach Miss Catnip. I know these things happen, but I would have liked Miss Catnip to be portrayed as more aware of her students. Teachers are more aware than books portray them to be.
LESLIE: One sentence that strikes me is where Miss Catnip says your cards need to say, “Happy Birthday.” Not all cards say, “Happy Birthday.” I don’t agree with that. It could be my own philosophy of teaching and the experiences I’ve had with young students who might struggle with writing initially.
CHRISTOPHER: I am thinking about that too, but more in the sense that birthday cards could be created in different ways. Stan could draw something, write something different, or he could create it a different way. Since it is a birthday card for the principal, there could be many ways to complete the task without having to write, “Happy Birthday.”
LESLIE: They could create a card as a class!
CHRISTOPHER: Right. Why can’t they create a card together?
LESLIE: One last thing I want to discuss is Mimi (Stan’s classmate). She’s mentioned on a couple of pages towards the end. I wonder what happened to her after that? She pops up out of nowhere and needs help too. She practices writing like Stan does when the teacher works with them. There should be more to her character because their problem is solved too quickly and easily. There’s a happy ending to the story that I don’t think is realistic. The author could have done more with both characters, especially Mimi.
MARY: She isn’t as developed as a character as you would like?
MARY: The tension for me, which we talked about in our first My Take/Your Take, Emmanuel’s Dream, is about perspective. This perspective is of an outsider. A narrator tells Stan’s story. We’re outsiders watching the story as it unfolds; we are not insiders. I don’t feel empathy for Stan, Mimi or for the teacher when I read this. In fact, I am dismayed by the way the teacher is portrayed as one who is oblivious to what is happening in her classroom. I don’t believe that teachers are that oblivious!
(All laugh and nod in agreement)
The illustrations are appealing. They’re colorful, but we’re positioned as outsiders where we watch this story unfold. Nobody, none of the characters, ever gaze out at us. According to Painter, et al. (2014), a character’s gaze invites us into the story.
LESLIE: Right here on the book cover, it says that this is a “warm, sympathetic book that deals with a common childhood frustration and will remind us that everyone has to ask for help sometimes.”
CHRISTOPHER: Since you read that, I have something to say. I never liked the word “sympathy.” I get what they are trying to say with that, but I never liked the word sympathy or sympathetic. I’m more about teaching empathy. Sympathetic and sympathy is when you feel sorry for somebody. You feel sorry for Stan, or you feel sorry for people who struggle with writing. That shouldn’t be the case. It shouldn’t be as if you’re saying, “Oh, poor him or poor her. They struggle with writing, but you know what? With a lot of hard work, they got better.” Well, that’s nice!
That view doesn’t service the book, and it doesn’t do service to somebody who has that exceptionality. I like to teach empathy because we all have something that we struggle with. The good thing about being in a school setting is that there are support systems. There are friends and a teacher that can help you work on finding new strategies to become a better writer. I don’t like words like sympathetic or sympathy.
MARY: Words matter. If this word caught your attention immediately, it’s going to catch others’ attention as well.
LESLIE: You might have a student ask what sympathy means. The teacher will have to tell the student that the story says we might feel sorry for Stan. Like Chris, I don’t like that word. I don’t like books as simple as this one because it minimizes the real issue at hand, that they provide a quick “cure” or quick “treatment” for the issue when it is actually something much bigger or complex.
MARY: Do you get the feeling that Stan’s problem is solved at the end?
LESLIE: The problem of the story is that Stan can’t write, “Happy Birthday.” In the end, he is able to give the card to Mr. Slippers and say, “I wrote this myself, and it says, ‘Happy Birthday!'” Stan solves his problem by probably writing the letters over, and over, and over. But there could be a bigger problem at hand that isn’t really addressed.
MARY: I agree, because what happens the next day when Stan has to write words again?
LESLIE: Is he going to sit there until Miss Catnip notices him again in a few hours or until after recess?
MARY: And what is the helpful strategy that she has for him? In one of the pictures they’re practicing writing with chalk, working with large letters and doing kinesthetic kinds of activities. Those activities are acceptable, but what is the strategy that she teaches Mimi and Stan to help them understand conventional direction of the letters? Does she give them an alphabet strip? Does she point them to an alphabet wall? What strategy helps them? I like the story, but it has room for improvement. It could show a writing strategy, then show that Stan and Mimi will have to work with this particular strategy over time.
CHRISTOPHER: If I used this book as a teaching tool, I would incorporate my own extensions, go into more detail. This book can be used as a beginning read aloud. After that, we can have a critical discussion about it. I would do more extensions with it rather than just focus on what the book portrays.
MARY: It seems like you are saying this story shouldn’t stand alone. Maybe it becomes part of a text set where there are other books that extend this one?
LESLIE and CHRISTOPHER: Yes!
MARY: We could look at other winners of the Schneider Family award for stories to use with this one. Just an idea!
-Schneider Family Children’s Book Award (ALA)
-2013 US Paterson Prize
Title: Back to Front and Upside Down
Author and illustrator: Claire Alexander
Publisher: Erdmans Books for Young Readers
Copyright: June 6, 2012
This is the second installment of February 2018’s My Take/Your Take. To follow the whole conversation, start with Emmanuel’s Dream. To continue these conversations, check back next Wednesday.