Teacher’s Notes

written by Sherryl Clark (author)

  1. Outline of the story
    Dawn is in Grade 6 and not coping very well. All around her, other girls are getting into makeup and teen magazines, and she feels left behind. But she’s not ready to give up games and footy and playing with toys. Melissa Banner is the class style queen – she’s always bringing cool stuff to school and has her own little fan club. Dawn knows she doesn’t want to join in – but what does she want?
    Complications arise when Dawn realizes that her best friend, Emily, is drifting towards joining Melissa’s group. At home, long-time tension between Dawn’s parents becomes a series of fights that finally results in Dad moving out. Dawn has to spend weekends with Dad, where she doesn’t know what to say or how to deal with a solo dad. And the separation doesn’t stop the fighting!
    At school, Dawn enjoys her teacher’s experiments with different approaches to learning and it leads to her making a new friend, a boy called Paul. She discovers Paul’s parents are divorced and he understands how she feels. When Dawn can’t stand her parents’ fights for one more minute and runs away, it’s Paul and his mum who help.
    Dawn’s reconciliation with her parents leads to negotiated peace at last.

  2. What are the issues and themes?
    There are several entertwining themes in the story:
    a) Dawn’s feeling of isolation as the other Grade 6 girls seem to be leaving her behind, and her own stubborn refusal to give up the things she loves. Issues of maturity and media influence on young girls has filtered down now to primary schools – what effect does the media have? Are girls growing up too fast?
    b) The effects of divorce on the children in the family – it is a common experience for children to have to endure the fallout from parents fighting and being unable to resolve their differences. Kids are forced to change schools, to be “go betweens” for warring parents, or simply are kept in the dark about major changes happening in the family. Should kids have a voice? Why can’t parents behave better?
    c) Where does self esteem come from? It can’t be bestowed on someone like a gift. What helps someone to feel better about themselves? How do you become a stronger person who can make good decisions?
  1. Writer’s Notes
    Where did the idea come from? Like many adults, I’ve seen families break up and observed how different situations affect children differently. Often, it’s been the way in which parents behaved that had the most adverse effects on their children. And I’ve been through it myself, and made some of the usual mistakes. I wanted to tell the story of a family break-up from the child’s point of view, to show how powerless kids are when parents become so involved and immersed in their own problems and pain that they forget about who else is suffering. I also wanted kids who have been through this (or are going through it) to read something that perhaps helped them to feel not so alone and more able to speak up.

    Why is this a verse novel? This is a very emotional subject. I wanted to be able to show how everyone was feeling and acting and reacting without being melodramatic, without having to explain every little thing that was happening. Poems allow me to focus on moments and small experiences which then convey the wider story.
    As in Farm Kid, I was able to focus on description, action and emotion much more clearly, and also allow the reader to enter the story more through the imagery. To me, the verse novel is closer to a graphic novel than anything, because it’s a series of word pictures that tells what happens.

    What does the ending mean to you? I wanted to show that Dawn had found a way to speak out, to “broker” family peace, if you like, by being brave and being able to have a voice. She is helped in this by Paul and his mother, who have already been through her experience, but ultimately it’s Dawn who finds a way to move forward. The haircut in the last poem symbolises her new-found freedom from the family trauma and her journey to healing.

    Why don’t the poems rhyme? Rhyming poetry is really hard to do well. There is a tendency with rhymes to let them trap you into using weaker words, and also it’s easy to fall into a boring rhythm that doesn’t add anything to the poem. Without rhyme, I’m free to use all the other poetic devices such as line breaks, imagery, white space and strong endings to create better poems.

  2. Possible questions for your students.

    a) How do people make friends? Is it because you have things in common? Why do friendships break up?
    b) What influence does the media – magazines, newspapers, TV, celebrities – have on your life? Does it affect what you choose to wear? What you eat? The music you listen to? What career you think you might have? Look at some popular magazines and celebrities – what messages do you think they are sending you?
    c) Do you understand what demographics are? Who is in your class? How could you divide your class up demographically? Look at how demographics work in TV ratings, and how TV programmers decide what time a TV show should be broadcast.
    d) Do you know anyone whose parents are divorced? What happens to a family in this situation? (Teachers – you may not want to enter into a class discussion about this, but you might also be surprised at the reactions from students if you use the book as the basis for this discussion rather than focusing on personal experiences. The book may allow enough distance for your students to talk about it, but it can be a very emotional subject for many kids.)
    d) Have you read poems before? Do you know how to read a poem? Have you written any poems yourself? Have you read a verse novel before? What do you think of the idea that a verse novel is made up of tiny chapters? Can you think of other ways to describe it?

  3. Writing Activities
    There are a number of poetry writing exercises on my website, including some for beginners – – and here are a few more.
    a) Write a poem about your neighbourhood – start by listing ten things that you see in your street. Make each thing into a word picture, e.g. one item might be ‘crooked footpaths – tree roots have pushed the concrete up’. To turn this into a word picture you could write ‘the concrete slabs pile up like crooked dominoes’. Put your images together in small stanzas.
    b) Write a poem about someone in your family or a friend. Use active words to describe them – similes, metaphors and imagery, e.g. Dad’s hair is a broom that catches spider webs.
    c) Open the dictionary at random and, with your eyes closed, point to a word. Write it down. Do this three times more, then write a poem that uses all four words.

  4. About the author and this book
    In my family, we had four kids – I had two sisters and a brother, all older than me. We lived on a farm and had what most people would say was a normal kind of family.
    Except when I was fourteen, my mother died of a heart attack. This completely changed my life. Probably some of my desire to write about family trauma (although I chose divorce) came from this experience. I had no one to talk to about it, and even though I was fourteen, no one really wanted to hear how I felt about what happened.
    I grew up, started writing when I was about eighteen and have never stopped. While I was overseas in my early twenties, I wrote long letters to my dad every week, and was astonished to find later that he kept them all. So maybe, after all that time, he was listening!

  5. Reviews
    Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!) has received excellent reviews in Magpies and Reading Time, as well as the Bendigo Advertiser and several other newspapers.

  6. Further relevant titles
    My other verse novel, Farm Kid, is about the effects of the drought on a farming family. It’s told from the point of view of Zack, a twelve-year-old boy, and also deals with family and “sticking together”.
    Up a Tree is set in a small country town – it’s a humorous novel about a sister and brother, a flying fox, an eccentric grandma and saving a possum up a gum tree.
    Boots And All (Penguin Chomp) is about a boy who wants to be a cartoonist, but his dad wants him to be a star footy player. Tony fights to be able to follow his dream and make the most of his artistic talent.