18. Wringer by Jerry Spinelli
I was turned off by this book initially because it is, in part, about a pigeon shooting contest. But hunting- yuck. Still, it has this great reputation as a powerful book, and several Grade 5 teachers recommended it, so I gave it a go.
Glad I did! It was very powerful. Yes, it is about the main character having to decide if he is going to be a wringer- one who wrings the pigeons’ necks- if they don’t die right away at the shooting contest. But, like any truly great book, it’s really about something much bigger. It’s about a boy at the age of 10 deciding what kid of person he wants to be.
The protagonist, Palmer LeRue, is 9 and 10 years old- not 12, not 14, but 10. There are a lot of books out there with characters that are slightly older than our students and that makes using them as examples or starting points for discussion tricky sometimes. 12-14 year old children are going through puberty, and the issues are different.
Because the Palmer is the same age as our 4th and 5th grade students , they will identify with him squarely. While his interior journey is driven by distinctly ‘boy’ external events, girls will be able to identify with Palmer. His internal journey is essentially the same as what girls go through: obsessing, covering true feelings, scapegoating on other friends, treating others poorly to mask their own insecurities, and, eventually, cracking under the pressure. I just relieved my Grade 5 year writing that last sentence.
This book offers many opportunities to engage students in higher level thinking such as inference and synthesis, and to talk about emotional intelligence- empathy, sympathy. You even have the TAS values in there, as one of the themes (the theme?) of the book is honesty with yourself and with others.
A while ago, a parent of a Grade 4 student asked me “When do the kids move on from Captain Underpants and start reading ‘real’ literature?” Of course, I told them that there is a lot of children’s literature out there that is very ‘real’. But if I had read this book when I was asked the question, I would have handed Wringer over immediately as one perfect example.