Friday, September 02, 2011


Giesla Zech, a graduate student in one of my summer courses created this thorough readers' guide for the novel in verse, Displacement, by Thalia Chaltas.

Chaltas,Thalia. 2011. Displacement. New York: Viking Children's Books. ISBN 978-0-670-01199-5

Recommended Age Levels:
12 and Up

Summary of Book:
A young girl named Vera is running away from a past life in the hopes of forgetting everything and everyone. She wants to leave the painful memories of her mother’s absence and her sister’s death behind her by starting a new life in a little mining town called Garrett. However, Vera’s attempts at escape and finding peace are proving unsuccessful since she cannot seem to stop the memories of the past from haunting her.

Chaltas’s novel in verse combines the best of both worlds in order to create a complicated protagonist whose layers of emotions and secrets slowly become exposed through the combination of free verse and dialogue. “So why are you suddenly here in Garrett? /Taking some summertime away from home, is what I come up with.” “It’s the closest truth I have said/ I am uncomfortable stating the reason I left.” Readers will be able to see Vera’s pain and sympathize with her struggles thanks to the use of flashback which allows readers to witness the stressed relationship Vera has with her family. The story is further brought to life by Chaltas’s use of simile and personification which help describe the setting and the characters. “Lon is still as a serpent/Peg is sprinting over grinning like a joyous demon/The desert doesn’t trust outsiders/Vegetation lounges luxuriantly.” Readers will relate to this dynamic and believable character’s struggles since her various problems are the kind that we all have faced.

Review Excerpts/Awards:
1. Kirkus Review (May 1, 2011)
In first-person free verse with halting rhythm, 17-year-old Vera narrates her sojourn in a tiny desert town she's never seen and doesn't know. Vera wants to be someplace unfamiliar, someplace that doesn't invoke her younger sister, who died in a drunken ocean swim, nor her older sister, who's tried to replace their absent mother but seems aloof, so she hitch hikes to the desert and gets out at Garrett, where "nobody knows me." Despite her obvious grief, Vera's voice doesn't easily inspire sympathy. In a mostly abandoned mining town characterized by "scraping-the-bean-can / unapologetic / starkness," Vera squats in a deserted house and scoffs at the two part-time jobs she finds ("It's certainly not what my once best friend Rob / would have called 'rocket surgery' "). Mercantile owner Tilly lisps, her pronunciations mercilessly spelled out: "He'th an artitht! / Bowlth, jugth, plateth, / thellth it all it all on the Internet." Vera crushes on Lon, a businessman whose Indian identity is frequently reiterated: "I glare at him, / leaning forward / having dumped the heaviest words / directly onto his black-feathered Native head." Lon doesn't live up to Vera's expectations ("Frickin' noncommunicating-handsome-half-Hopi," she stews), and the text casts him as bad guy; only Milo the ceramicist is truly likable here. The verse's irregular, faltering beat matches Vera's defensive grief well, but Vera herself retains an unlikable air of entitlement even as she moves on from the desert and back into her real life.(Fiction. 12-15)

2. Publishers Weekly (April 4, 2011)
An exploration of grief, guilt, and redemption, Chaltas's second novel in verse covers rocky terrain both physical and mental, as recent high school graduate Vera wrestles with the drowning death of her younger sister, Amy. Feeling abandoned by her disengaged, globe-trotting mother and cerebral older sister, Vera decamps for the desolate mining town of Garrett, which she discovers by accident. Despite Vera's abundant pain over Amy's death and her family's inability to prevent it, Chaltas (Because I Am Furniture) doesn't let it overwhelm her story, giving Vera a voice that flits between acerbic and self-deprecating, a passion for geology, and a lust interest in gorgeous, half-Hopi Lon, who provides Vera with part-time employment. As pared down as the desert landscape into which Vera immerses herself, Chaltas's verse regularly surprises with economically graceful descriptions that make her settings and characters come alive (of Lon: "And then/ that smile flashes on,/ Vegas neon, baby,/ so genuine it hurts"). A delicate suggestion of ghostly horror gives the novel further dimension, without distracting from the insights and truths Vera slowly unearths. Ages 12-up. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

3. The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, June 2011 (Vol. 64, No. 10)
At seventeen, Vera’s feeling pushed out of her relationships: her mother has never paid attention to her three daughters, preferring to stay away for extended periods as a flight attendant; her eldest sister is a cold and distant caretaker, while her middle sister grows more and more out of control; her two best friends have started dating each other and left her out of their happy coupledom. When her middle sister drowns during a drunken late-night swim, Vera decides that she needs to own her feelings of displacement and actually take herself away for a while, so she runs away from home and settles in a small, out-of-the-way mining town. Here she grieves and sorts out her feelings in the company of Milo, a quiet potter grieving a loss of his own, Tilly, a tacky and careworn diner owner, and Lon, a hot but infuriating guy who hires her to do the books for his suspicious packaging business. This events in this verse novel are few, but each has metaphorical significance for Vera’s increasing self-awareness and helps both Vera and the reader understand the value of taking time out and then letting people back in. Milo, as a gay man who has lost his partner, is a kind and generous example of wisdom earned through hardship, while Tilly gives Vera a glimpse of what staying closed-off looks like. It is Lon, though, who eventually forces Vera to understand what it means to mature emotionally as she comes to realize how stunted he is. Although this constellation seems programmatic in summary, it works well with the verse-novel form, as the plot, setting, and characterization are as restrained and carefully chosen as the language itself. Readers looking for a verse novel that ably works with the potential of the form would do well to explore this well-wrought maturation tale. Review Code: R -- Recommended. (c) Copyright 2006, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 2011, Viking, 368p.; Reviewed from galleys, $16.99. Grades 7-10.

Questions to ask before reading book:
Students will be invited to participate in the following discussion activities:
1. Students will analyze the front and back cover of the book in order to make a prediction of what this book is about. Some questions for students to consider include: Who is the girl on the cover? What is she doing? Where is this girl? When do you think this story took place? Why are her eyes closed? Once students have had enough time examining the book cover, they will share their answers.
2. Students will answer the following question: What do you think displacement means? Do you think the cover of this book is a clue? Why or why not?
3. Do you think it’s possible for an entire book to be a poem in and of itself? Or do you think it’s impossible for an entire book to be a poem? How long are poems usually? What kind of book is this?
4. Before students read this novel in verse, familiarize them with the literary devices that they will encounter. For instance, this novel in verse contains many examples of personification. Explain to students what personification is and then provide them with examples. Then, have students create and share their own examples to check for understanding.
5. Finally, before reading this verse novel, students will pair up in order to read to each other a poem. One student will have a free verse poem, and the other will have a poem that rhymes. Each student will take turns reading their poem to their partner. Once students are finished sharing their poems, they will be asked to discuss what differences they saw between the two poems. This activity will help students understand free verse and thus prepare them to read this book.

Suggestions for reading aloud:
1. Modeling Reading: The teacher will invite the school librarian into her classroom in order to “hook” the students by having her/him read the beginning of the novel out loud to them. This will help students understand what good reading looks and sounds like. Students will learn that expressive reading helps a book’s story come to life and make more sense.
2. Think Aloud: Students will learn how to be effective readers by using the think aloud strategy. The teacher will first model this strategy by reading a short poem to the class making sure to stop and ask questions along the way as well as voice any thoughts that she/he might be thinking as she/he reads the text. She/he will then explain to students that these actions are what effective readers do in order to understand text. Once students see how this strategy works, they will be given an opportunity to demonstrate their comprehension by reading a section of the story and then sharing with the class something about the text they found interesting, confusing, etc. If you feel like your students might be too shy to share their thoughts with the entire class, another option for teachers would be to have their students turn to their neighbors and share their thoughts.
3. Readers Theatre: Students will be placed in pairs. They will choose a scene from Displacement and create a short skit which will be presented to the class. Students will choose a character from the story and will read their character’s dialogue. Students are encouraged to use props and should rehearse their scene until they are ready to perform it. Once students have acted out the scene they will be asked to summarize it and explain how their actions and props complemented the scene.

Follow up activities:
1. Writing: Throughout the book, Vera writes messages on postcards to her sister Carole yet she never writes one to her mother. Pretend that Vera is writing a postcard to her mother. What would she say to her? Write your postcard as if you were Vera and discuss your thoughts on your life in Garret, your sisters, and your relationship with your mother.

2. Social Studies: In this story, pieces of Vera’s life are revealed through flashbacks that she has. This causes Vera’s story to be somewhat out of order. In order to understand Vera and the events that have helped shaped her, students will create a timeline of her life starting with her childhood and ending with Vera accepting her position at Long Valley Caldera, California. Students will illustrate their timelines with simple pictures/images.

3. Art: In Displacement several of the characters in this story are involved in art in some way or another. For instance, Milo creates and sells his own pottery; Lon owns a business called “Secondary Packaging” which distributes Hopi art and pottery. Even Vera’s character plays a role in helping to create and distribute art because she works for both Lon and Milo. She even tries her hand at making pottery herself and realizes that pottery is not as easy as it seems. This experience causes Vera to understand and appreciate art more. Art teachers can use this book as an opportunity to teach students about the characteristics and history of Hopi art. Once students are familiar with the style of Hopi art, then they can try their hand at creating their own pieces. The purpose of this activity is to teach students about Hopi art so that they can fully appreciate it.

4. History: The setting in Displacement is an unfriendly gritty environment to live in; thus, residents of Garrett must be on the alert for dangerous sand storms. The characters in this story do the best they can to live in this dusty hot environment. At one point Vera even compares it to the dust bowl when she states, “Not a romantic photography…A stagnant dust bowl of the Old West” (p.183). In fact during the story, a horrible sand storm hits so hard that Vera is trapped in her dust filled home and at one point has to put a damp mask over her face in order to breath. In order for students to understand why Vera made this comparison and so that they can understand just how harsh the elements can be, students will research the Dust Bowl using various types of resources such as databases, the internet, encyclopedias, and maps. They will use these resources to answer the following questions: What was the Dust Bowl? When did it happen? Why did it happen? Which states were affected by it? How did residents deal with these dust storms? Do these dust storms still happen? Where? Once students have completed their research, they will create a short power point presentation in order to demonstrate their findings. Pictures of the Dust Bowl will be included in this presentation.

Related Websites:
1. Thalia Chaltas’s Website-Use this website to learn more about Chaltas and her writing.

2. Use the following websites to learn about the Dust Bowl

3. Use the following websites to learn about the Hopi tribe and their art

4. These websites discuss grief and how to deal with tragedy

Related books:
1. Poetry
A) Lomatewama, Ramson.1987. Silent Winds: Poetry of One Hopi. Heard Museum.
B) Young, Kevin. 2010. The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing. Bloomsbury USA.
C) Fox, William L. 2002. Reading Sand: Selected Desert Poems, 1976-2000. University of Nevada Press.

2. Nonfiction
A) Foster, Lynne. 1997. Adventuring in the California Desert. Sierra Club Books.
B) Pritzker, Barry. 2011. The Hopi. Chelsea House.
C) Bahti, Tom. 1997. Southwestern Indian Arts & Crafts. KC Publications.
D) Ruiz, Ruth Ann. 2001. Coping With the Death of a Brother or Sister. Rosen Publishing Group.
E) Myers, Edward. 2006. Teens, Loss, and Grief: The Ultimate Teen Guide. Scarecrow Press.
F) Canfield, Jack, and Mark Victor Hansen. 2003. Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul: Stories About Life, Death and Overcoming the Loss of a Loved One. Health Communications.

3. Fiction
A) Sones, Sonya. 2004. One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
B) Nelson, Jandy. 2010. The Sky is Everywhere. Dial Books.
C) Smith, Kirsten. 2007. The Geography of Girlhood. Little, Brown.
D) Dessen, Sarah. 2004. The Truth About Forever. Viking.
E) Fullerton, Alma. 2007. Walking on Glass. Harper Tempest.

Used with permission of Giesla Zech.

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