Cousins of Clouds

Cousins of Clouds
Tracie's NEW BOOK!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Brother's Keeper

My Brother’s Keeper by Patricia McCormick

Discussion Guide: (For small groups and literacy circles, book clubs)

  1.   How does Mr. D’s gift of a Stargell rookie card incite the conflict in the book? Discuss how the brother’s relationship has changed over time. Why do you think this happened? Could it have been prevented? Could either of them acted differently? How?

  1.   Why do you think Toby never tells his mom about Jake’s drug use? How do you think she would have reacted if he had told? What makes you think so? At one point his mother says, “A person only sees what they want to see.” (p. 62, printout) What does she mean by this? Give examples of how this is true.

  1.   Discuss Toby’s friendships with Arthur and Mr. D. What do they have in common? What qualities make them both good friends? How does Toby describe both of them? How would you? Why do you think Toby wants to be with someone (Mr. D) “who’s the same every time you see them.”

  1.  Mr. D tells Toby that “Living is all about letting go.” What does he mean by this? Do you agree? What things does Toby need to let go of? Does he let go by the end of the novel or not?

  1. To whom would you recommend this book? Why? What will stay with you after reading this book a month from now? Take turns reading aloud a couple of your favorite passages. Why did you pick this part? Why do you think it is so well-written? How can you apply that to your own writing?

  1. How is betrayal an important theme of the book? How does it affect both Toby and Jake’s behavior? Did any other characters betray anyone? Who?

  1. Toby often acts as a parental figure in the book. Discuss what effect this has on him and the family. Is this a better situation than no parent figure at all? Why or why not?

Language Arts:
Patricia McCormick is a master of writing in the voice of a teenage boy. Using her writing as an example, try to write a school scene through the eyes of someone of the opposite sex. Try to be as realistic as possible.

The scenes where Jake and Toby fight bristle with conflict and emotion without being melodramatic. Write a scene between two siblings who are disagreeing over something.

Research the value of a collectible that you are interested in like Toby Malone’s baseball card collection. Find out the top ten most valuable items in the category of your choice. Share where you found your information.

Create an anti-drug campaign advertisement that would be published in a magazine that you often read. You can use computer graphics, sketches or any other media that you think represents your message in the most compelling way.

Social Studies:
Research one of the following topics and create a three fold pamphlet about what you learned.

Effects of divorce on children
long-term effects of marijuana use
Television and children’s development
symptoms of depression
effects of acid use

Act out a scene which is off-screen in the book. For example, when the police officer found Eli on the highway riding his bike. Brainstorm a list of scenes that are missing (at least five) and create the one that most appeals to you with a  partner.

Vocabulary Corner:
Fill out this chart as you read the text:

Unknown Words:
Word in context of sentence:
Using the context, predict the meaning:
Dictionary meaning:

Discussion Guide for My Brother’s Keeper
By: Patricia McCormick

What do you think the title means? Who do you think will be the main characters in the story? How do you get to know a character?

Genre: Contemporary Realistic Fiction
Good readers often make predictions about what they think will happen next as they read. At the end of each chapter write one question you hope is answered in the next chapter. For example: Will Toby try drugs to be like Jake?

In small groups discuss the questions you asked and how you were surprised by the answers.

Comprehension Check:
  1. Describe the relationship between Toby and his brothers.
  2. Find a quote for each major character that best represents their personality.
  3. Cite at least two examples of where Toby’s mom should have realized that things were wrong with Jake.
  4. Draw a picture of the climax scene of the book and explain why you chose it.
  5. Predict what this family will be like in five years. Explain your answer.
  6. How would this story differ if told through the eyes of Jake instead of Toby?
  7. Create a timeline of the major events in the story.
  8. How does Toby change from the beginning of the novel to the end?
  9. How would you handle Jake if he were your brother? What would you do?
  10.  What was your favorite part of the story? Why?

  1. How did you get interested in writing for children?

Even though I’m technically a grown-up, I think I must be developmentally stuck at about age thirteen. I think that’s why I still need to revisit and try to decode the feelings and experiences of being a teenager. And although the challenges that teenagers today face are far more complex and weighty than what I confronted, I think the emotional truth is the same: that the teenage years are inherently confusing, exciting, alienating and exhilarating.

  1. What inspired your new book, My Brother’s Keeper?

A few years ago, I was out walking in a neighborhood park when I saw a young man in a bright orange vest picking up trash as part of a court-ordered community service program for drug users. Our eyes met for only a moment, but he seemed to telegraph both great embarrassment at his situation and a real yearning to connect. I’ve never seen him since, but my imagination went to work wondering how he ended up there and what it would be like for him to be seen and recognized by a by a friend or family member. At some point, I decided to tell the story from the point of view of his fictional younger brother.

I also have two beloved family members who’ve struggled with and overcome addiction. This book is not at all their story or mine. But my hope is that it gives voice to the experience of the many, many people who are affected by the substance abuse problems of their family members.

  1. How did you manage to write in a boy’s voice?

Fortunately, I have a fourteen-year-old son who unwittingly contributed a great deal to the voice of the main character – especially his sense of humor.

But it took a lot of rewriting to winnow out words or observations that were clearly mine, not Toby’s. For instance, at one point I saw the word “lovely” in the manuscript. I was mortified because I know there’s no a 13-year-old boy on the planet who uses the word lovely. After that, I went through every passage and put it to a test by asking myself “Would a boy really say this?”

Perhaps just as import, I found my way into Toby’s voice by putting myself in his emotional shoes, wondering what it would feel like to keeping a secret for someone else, to feel worried, angry and left behind by a brother you adore.

  1. What advice do you give to young writers?

My suggestion would be to cultivate the ability to be alone. Writing requires a lot of solitude, something not easy to come by – or to tolerate – in a world of cel phones and instant messages. If you can stake out and protect a portion of quiet, uninterrupted time for writing each day, my guess is that you will come to both need and love it.

  1. Which is hardest for you as a writer: the blank page or revision? Why?

I don’t mind the blank page. At that point, anything and everything is possible. I also come from a newspaper background where daily deadlines force you to confront – and fill – a blank page virtually every day. Revisions are harder for me because I take criticism so much to heart. I tend to fall into a trench of worry when I hear that something’s wrong with my work. My confidence goes into free fall, taking my imagination with it. Eventually, a small, sane voice in my head reminds me that I’ve done revisions before and little by little, I find my way back. What I often find is that a revision doesn’t need to be a major overhaul; sometimes the change of a word or a gesture – or simply deleting a scene that’s troublesome – is all it takes.

  1. What do you want kids to take away from Brother’s Keeper?

There’s no particular moral to the story. But I hope that readers will come away with compassion for both brothers – especially for the unkind, unwise things we sometimes do to the people we love. I would also hope that readers will see that forgiveness is possible – if we first forgive ourselves.

  1. You capture the relationship between the brothers so realistically. How were you able to do that?

Like all kids, my children wrestle with each other, argue over the remote control and fight over the last potato chip in the bag. Watching them, I realized that a lot is conveyed in those everyday moments – that wrestling, for instance, is sometimes just a way to connect, to show affection. And that fighting over the remote can sometimes represent a lot more than a simple choice between “The O.C.” and the hockey game. Whether we know it or not, we’re often working out big, complicated feelings in those moments. It’s the writer’s job to show what’s really being expressed and what’s at stake in what seems like an otherwise unimportant interaction. Add up a series of those interactions and you have a portrait of a relationship.

It’s important to keep in mind that people – especially teenage boys -- rarely actually say what they’re feeling. (When was the last time you heard a 13-year-old boy say “I love you” to his brother? Or, for that matter, “I’m sorry.”) The trick, I think, was to find gestures and actions that convey those feelings in the clumsy, indirect ways real people do.

  1. How was writing your second novel different from your first?

Because of the topic of my first book – cutting-  I never thought a publisher would buy it. If, by chance, someone did, I was sure no one would read it. As a result, I wrote with almost no expectations – which freed me to take risks, make mistakes and write just for the sake of writing.

I put a lot of pressure on myself the second time around. I thought I should be able to write it much more quickly this time. I also thought it had to be better than Cut. These self-imposed expectations put so much pressure on me that at times I paralyzed myself. This book also went though several major revisions before I was able to get the tone – and then the plot – right. It ended up taking even longer to write than the first book!

  1. What would you be if you weren’t a writer?

Sometimes, when I have a hard time motivating myself to sit down at my computer, I wish I had a job where I could just show up and be assigned a certain number of tasks each day – something simple, like making lattes at Starbucks or working in a book store. Honestly, though, I’m sure those jobs would bore me. Or I’d get in trouble for daydreaming or writing in my notebook. Because all I’ve ever wanted to be is a writer. I feel incredibly lucky that I get to write every day and am still amazed and thrilled that people want to read what I’ve written!

  1. Which of your characters is most like you?

I think there’s a lot of me present in Toby. I’m a worrywart like he is and I tend to take on the responsibility for other people’s behavior. I’ve also been known to hold a grudge like he does and to avoid asking for help – all aspects of my character that I’m trying to change. I don’t set out to work on my own problems in my books. But somehow, unconsciously, each one allowed me to tackle in fiction things I haven’t quite mastered in my real life. That’s probably what drew me to the subjects in the first place.

  1. What do you like most about writing? What do you like least?

My favorite part of writing is getting lost in the story and finding that the characters take over. On good days, I sit down and start working and suddenly look up and hours have passed. On really good days, the characters say or do things I never expected. On excellent days, they make me laugh. (I love being in the company of funny people. The fact that they are imaginary people makes no difference to me at all.) On my worst days, they don’t talk at all. I sit at my keyboard and try to coax a few words out of them and find that they’re not speaking to me. On those days, I want to cry. Sometimes, I go out for a walk or get a cup of coffee in the hopes that they’ll be there when I get back.

  1. Do you make an outline for your book or just follow where it leads?
I don’t outline. Someone once said that writing is like driving at night. You only need to see the stretch of highway right in front of you. That’s how I like to write. With a sense of what’s just ahead, but not what’s around the bend. That way, the act of writing is a discovery for me, too, the way it is for the reader.

13. Which authors have most influenced your writing?

My favorite authors are Tobias Wolff, Carson McCullers, Carolyn Coman and Russell Banks. They all write about the confusion, alienation and potential of being a teenager with compassion and humor. With this book in particular, I would sometimes look to Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone, whenever I lost the sound of Toby’s voice. His main character, Bone, is one of the all-time great adolescent boys in fiction – funny, poignant, tough and tender all at once.

  1. What is your favorite scene from Brother’s Keeper? Why?

One of my favorite scenes is when Mr. D gives Toby the baseball card he’s been longing for. That moment seems so full of feeling that neither one can express but which they both know is right beneath the surface. I like how they hurry away from the moment, dodging it with elaborate effort, so that they don’t get too emotional.

Another favorite is the fight scene at the end of the book, prompted by Toby pouring a bag of Cheetos over his brother’s head. That seems to me like just the kind of impulsive, stupid and utterly human thing a person would do when he’s beyond expressing his anger and hurt and frustration in words. It’s also the kind of ridiculous thing that can finally break the silence between two people who love each other. 

  1. What are you working on next?

I’m currently writing a book about a young Nepalese girl who is sold from her remote mountain village into the sex trade in Calcutta. It’s based on research I did there last fall. What I saw there was so upsetting, though, it took me months to recover from it and to find a way to express what’s happening to these girls without feeling hopeless.