Friday, November 19, 2010

Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of ReadingTitle: Deconstructing Penguins
Author: Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone
Pages: 204
Published: 2005 Ballantine
My Rating: 4 stars

Analyzing literature, at whatever age, needn't be a dreadfully boring, confusing process.  If peeling back the layers of a book in the attempt to discover the underlying meaning has ever struck you as a meaningless, mystical quest, you may be happy to know that Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone have developed a simple way to go about figuring out what a book is all about.

Their method evolved while running a parent/child book group, and though it is geared towards discussing children's books, it is simplified enough to be useful regardless of the application.  In fact, some of the books that they discuss with their 5th grade groups might surprise you: Lost Horizon by James Hilton, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Regardless of what you are reading, the dissection process begins in the same way.

You see, regardless of what genre of book you are reading, you can approach each one as a mystery: What is this book really about?  To aid in that discovery, the Goldstones lead the parents and children in their book groups through a simple process of identifying the protagonist (who is moving the action forward?) and antagonist (who is trying to slow down or stop the action?) as well as the setting, plot, and conflict.  After the mystery is solved, the discussion moves into a courtroom setting where the author goes on trial.  Did the author play fair? Did the characters and plot agree with the underlying message?

Deconstructing Penguins is filled with more tips on how to help guide these thoughts and discussions, and includes real examples from their groups.  They go through quite a few books in detail, giving ample illustrations of how the process works, as well as a chapter focusing on poetry.

While I was very happy to find an effective way for efficiently teaching and practicing literature analysis, I do think that this book relied too heavily on examples, avoiding a concise layout of their method.  I took notes while reading, to make the information more usable for me.  The book could be improved by including some sort of outline or checklist for someone wishing to put their method into practice, but that's a small complaint compared to what I got out of the book.

I especially enjoyed their thoughts on challenging children with some of the great books:
What makes great books great is that these moral questions are posed in a fair and thought-provoking way, whereas in lesser books, the characters or the story is structured so as to make resolution easy and obvious.
I'll be putting this book to practical use with my kiddos after the first of the year.  Has anyone heard of another book on this topic?  I want to know more!


  1. This is a weird coincidence - I'm a teacher and every time we read a book in my class we become "book detectives". We put on Sherlock Holmes style hats and figure out what the themes of the books were, relate it to our lives and discuss the message of the book. I teach seven - eight year olds and it works really well; they don't even realise they are doing what they are doing.

  2. That's great to hear! I'm always excited to find a simple, efficient way of accomplishing a complicated task. It seems like one of those things that would get easier the more you practice it.


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