MTYT: The Pirate of Kindergarten

Mary, Christopher and Leslie have chosen another picture book with a young protagonist for this weeks’ My Take/Your Take. George Ella Lyon’s The Pirate of Kindergarten tells the story of Ginny and her struggles with double vision. Avril’s illustrations help readers experience for themselves what Ginny sees when she looks out into her world–two of everything. When she tries to read the words in a book there are twice as many words. Frustrated, but determined, Ginny desperately wants to read.

First Ginny moves closer to the book, hoping that will help. But Ms. Cleo, the teacher, tells her, “We read with our eyes, not our noses.” With the book at arm’s length, Ginny closes one eye to help her focus. But Ms. Cleo tells her, “Don’t squint.” It appears that everyone in the story is oblivious to Ginny’s vision problem! Finally, on Vision Screening Day, the nurse diagnoses Ginny as having double vision and explains that double vision can be fixed. After a visit to the optometrist, Ginny wears an eye patch. The eye patch helps Ginny, the pirate of kindergarten, see only one of everything including words in a book. The story concludes with Ginny sitting in Reading Circle, ready to read!

MARY: Today we share our take on The Pirate of Kindergarten. Usually I like books by George Ella Lyon, but I am not thrilled with this one. What did you both think?

LESILE: We are outsiders watching Ginny struggle as she goes through the motions of her daily school experience. I didn’t enjoy it, however, I like the illustrations! It makes me feel what Ginny feels. I see what she sees. Looking at the first picture, she sees double chairs, double carpet, a white board, paper and other things in the classroom. It’s fuzzy looking. Throughout the book, objects stay doubled and fuzzy. Towards the end, everything starts to be clearer and concise. The illustrations are the part I like best about this book.

CHRISTOPHER: In picturebooks, illustrations are just as important as the text. I paid attention to the illustrations; the illustrations show Ginny’s struggle. To Leslie’s point, I do feel like an outsider because of how the story is told and how it flows.

MARY: I agree with being an outsider looking into the story. None of the characters gaze out at us, inviting us into the story. One way readers are invited into a story is through the character’s gaze. They invite readers in when they make eye contact with the reader. In this book, like the two other books, nobody looks out at us inviting us in, so we’re positioned outside the story.

(All watching Leslie turn pages)

Lyon tries to emphasize the theme or message of the story through the illustrations more than through the text. This is what Ginny’s world looks like. Lyon keeps the text simple so that it is accessible to readers. Readers, especially young children, can read the text and better understand the story through the illustrations. Yes?

(Christopher and Leslie ponder this idea)

I wonder about the believability of this picturebook. Is it likely that a child such as Ginny would get to first grade, around age six, and think that the world she is seeing is normal? Or would she know something is wrong with her vision because she keeps bumping into things and struggling with her school work? Wouldn’t the child recognize earlier in life, like age three or four, that there was something different?

LESILE: Definitely! It’s not believable that Ginny would show up to first grade and finally notice this issue. Ginny’s parents would have noticed her bumping into chairs and trying to reach for something that is sitting a couple inches over. That would have been something the parents would have brought up with their doctor as Ginny grew up.

Even for Ms. Cleo, the teacher, to not notice Ginny’s struggle in the classroom is crazy to me. Most teachers sense when students are struggling and what they may be struggling with. In this story, it takes a while for Ms. Cleo to recognize that Ginny has a problem. And then the problem is not addressed until the school nurse discovers Ginny’s vision issues.

MARY: Right! For example, a teacher would wonder why a child is holding a book really close to her face. Instead Ms. Cleo reprimands Ginny saying, “We read with our eyes, not our nose.” All teachers consider that a sign of a vision issue along with Ginny’s squinting when she reads. The way teachers are portrayed as unaware and incompetent is one of the things that I don’t like about these books we’ve been reading.

CHRISTOPHER: Ms. Cleo’s inability to recognize Ginny’s impairment reminds me of Miss Catnip in the story Back to Front and Upside Down that we read last week. Miss Catnip is also portrayed as incompetent. As I read The Pirate of Kindergarten, I make a text-to-text connection about how the teachers are portrayed as clueless. The teachers are painted in a bad light.

MARY: Sometimes cluelessness or incompetence is part of the plot. Authors make characters incompetent because it’s humorous or it plays into the significance of the climax of the story. For this story, it doesn’t.


MARY: Even though I like the style of the illustrations, some of them confuse me. This one in the back (turns pages in book) where the class is lined up to see the nurse at the Vision Screening Day. The illustration shows the nurse talking to Ms. Cleo, but he has his backpack in his hands. In the text, the nurse diagnoses Ginny’s vision, but in the illustration, he looks like he’s leaving. I don’t understand the illustration.

(All look at illustration)

In a picturebook the words and the pictures can work together to tell a story. In this story there are confusing parts when I look at the illustrations and read the text on the page. Another confusing part is (turns to another page) the metaphor of Ginny tightening her mind like a rope. I do not get that metaphor.

LESILE: I do not understand that either. That metaphor has me confused. But I put it in the back of my mind.

MARY: Did it connect with you, Chris?

CHRISTOPHER: No. I wonder what tightening her mind has to do with her exceptionality. To me, it doesn’t connect. The metaphor isn’t necessary.

MARY: Tightening is closing your mind. If I were in Ginny’s shoes, I would have to open my mind to pay attention because I have to make decisions about things that are visually confusing.

CHRISTOPHER: Maybe that’s what the author is trying to say with the metaphor, instead of just using the word focus. For example, “Ginny needs to focus more.” Using the metaphor of the rope isn’t necessary for the story.

MARY: I like your word, Chris. Focus.

CHRISTOPHER: Another thing I thought about is the title of this story. The title doesn’t go with the story. It isn’t appropriate. Ginny doesn’t get an eye patch from the doctor until the end of the story. The author could have chosen a better title for what the story is about. Near the end is when it emphasizes the whole thing about being a pirate. The whole pirate thing is kind of inappropriate.

LESILE: I agree with what you’re saying, Chris. Lyon could have made it apparent that Ginny calls herself a pirate in kindergarten by starting the story with image of Ginny wearing the eye patch. Then set up a flashback in a way where Ginny tells her story of how she became a pirate. This would have made Ginny’s story more believable (turns pages to the end of the book). This is the only page where Ginny looks out at readers. In fact, this is the only page where any of the characters look out at readers. And it’s the first page where Ginny is shown wearing an eye patch.

CHRISTOPHER: So, Ginny claims herself to be the pirate?

(Leslie and Mary read text to confirm Christopher’s question)

It’s good in the sense Ginny has that self-confidence to where she looks at wearing the patch as a positive. I would have liked to see the students and teacher make this a community thing. At the beginning of the story, it seems as if all the students are laughing at Ginny. It would have been nice to bring back the students and have them embrace the idea of Ginny being a pirate.

MARY: In response to your question, Ginny doesn’t think of herself as a pirate. The narrator does. The narrator names her the kindergarten pirate.

(Christopher and Leslie nod)

I’m left wondering how the students respond. The story ends before Ginny goes back to school wearing her eye patch. If Ginny’s classmates make fun of her for bumping into chairs and such, how will she be perceived now that she wears an eye patch? How will Ms. Cleo help with this transition?

(All pause to ponder)

Even though I like the illustrations, I am not fond of the plot. The story could be shared with children and then a discussion could follow where children share their ideas about what happens when Ginny returns to school. The story ends before we find out how Ginny gets along with her classmates once she begins to wear the eye patch.

LESILE: It’s important to teach students that it isn’t appropriate to call someone a pirate when they are wearing an eye patch for issues with their eyes. This is a huge takeaway from the story. From my own experience, my mom had to have surgery on her eye. Going through the whole process was painful for her and she used to joke about wearing an eye patch during that time. She was joking about it to cover it up and make it seem like it wasn’t a big deal. But it was.

MARY: It is interesting that this book won a Schneider Family Award. It won an award for its depiction of a child with an exceptionality.

CHRISTOPHER: I can see where the story might be derogatory. Do these authors or the people who publish these children’s books interview people with that exceptionality? Do they go talk to people with that certain exceptionality and get their feedback, especially the books that aren’t a biography?

I wonder from what point of view they are writing this. I would be interested to know if the authors do their due diligence. Do they base the story on what they know, or do they interview people with a exceptionality to find what they go through?

MARY: Kathy Short and Dana Fox edited a book called Stories Matter (2003). In the book, authors and illustrators talk about authenticity in their work. Should authors and illustrators have experienced something before they can write or illustrate a story about it? In Stories Matter, Jacqueline Woodson says something to the effect that before you tell my story you need to sit at my table and dip your bread of experience in my stew. (Woodson, 2003). I like that explanation.

(Christopher and Leslie nod)

What I know about Lyon is that she wrote several picturebooks about science and those books are very accurate. I can’t imagine that she would sit down and pen something without researching it first. That would be interesting to investigate. Some of the authors in Stories Matter say if the story is fictitious, it doesn’t have to be accurate.

LESILE: Many authors and illustrators try to get as much accurate information as they can. Sometimes, though, it becomes an issue of cultural authenticity and sensitivity. Stories don’t always have to be accurate because it’s a made-up story. That can be problematic because readers often take made up stories as truth. It’s hard to talk about cultural authenticity because what makes something authentic? Who can write about a certain group of people or certain events and have the story be culturally authentic? It’s a huge issue, defining cultural authenticity and what should be considered authentic.

CHRISTOPHER: Even if it’s fictional, if the meaning of the story deals with a real concept that’s going on, you have to be accurate and sensitive. You are telling the story with real concepts that are going to affect real people. Teachers might have a child in their classroom that might not have double vision but has a similar vision impairment. That child can connect to this story, so it needs to be accurate and sensitive.

MARY: Chris, you had the solution to portraying exceptionalities accurately and sensitively when you suggested putting books together into text sets. This is a good book to put in a text set, so it doesn’t stand alone as an authoritative book.

(All agree)

-Schneider Family Children’s Book Award (ALA)

Author: George Ella Lyon
Illustrator: Lynne Avril
Publisher: Atheneum/Richard Jackson Books
ISBN: 978-1416950240
Copyright: 2010

This is the third installment of February 2018’s My Take/Your Take. To follow the whole conversation, start with Emmanuel’s Dream and continue with Back to Front and Upside Down. To continue these conversations, check back next Wednesday.

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