Cannibal in the Mirror. This pictorial book by Paul Fleishman pairs photographs from modern life with quotations from ancient culture or descriptions of traditions that hearken back to ancient times. For example, a photograph of a wedding cake with the bride and groom figurines on the top is paired with a description of a Javanese wedding tradition. For centuries, on their wedding night, Javanese couples have placed figurines of a bride and groom at the foot of their bed before spending their first night together. The practice began because of a fear that a predatory spirit would come during the couple’s wedding night and snatch one of them away, out of the bed, and the abandoned spouse would never see his or her mate again. Supposedly, the spirit is to be fooled by the figurines at the foot of the bed and may take one of them instead.
Another pairing features a woman decorated in jewelry: earrings and necklace, all done in turquoise and quite ornate. On the page opposite is a description of the ancient Hindu belief that jewelry at the orifices protects them from intrusion by spirits. Hence, the nose rings keeps evil spirits out of the nose, while earrings keep them out of the ears, and so on.
The purpose of the book is to demonstrate that, while we consider ourselves much more advanced and much less superstitious than our forebears, we still resemble them in many ways, and the beliefs behind these practices may well extend far into the unconscious. Under the “Appearance” section, a group of young men headed out to the clubs for the evening, clad in black and tattooed, stands opposite a description of the ancient Aryans, who would deck themselves in black and tattoo themselves before combat.
This book could have several purposes in a social studies classroom, as a commentary on human behavior. One of these could include exposing younger students to some of the cultural practices that ancient groups carried out. Another could involve the use of the book for writing prompts. The teacher could show the picture on a multimedia projector with a document camera and ask students to speculate the ancient belief that is paired with it, after giving students a few examples. Another writing prompt for this situation might ask students to explain what they think the purpose is behind some of the practices in the pictures: why do people get tattoos? Why is jewelry so popular? These and other prompts would work well, especially in the grades where students are assessed on the basis of their writing skills; those students can use as much exposure to the experience of writing off the cuff to a previously unknown topic.
For me, the book was an eye-opener on several levels. First of all, I was not aware of all of the traditions involved. Second, I was surprised to see how much of the way we present ourselves visually to others dates back with commonality to ancient millennia. I was excited to use this book in the classroom, because I believe the students will also respond with curiosity to the pictures, and I look forward to hearing and reading their responses.
Nothing But the Truth. This document-based novel by the esteemed young adult author Avi tells the story of a young man, Phillip Malloy, who really just wants to run track for his high school and ends up at the center of a nationwide media maelstrom. At odds with his English teacher, Miss Narwin, Phillip chooses to be a smart-aleck, in class and on his final exam, and he ends up with a “D” for the semester – which makes him ineligible for track tryouts. Rather than try to “go along to get along,” as his coach urges him, Phillip gets angry, and his behavior in her class deteriorates. One morning, during announcements, Phillip hums along during the playing of the national anthem – a time when students are expected to be silent – and Miss Narwin sends him to the office for breaking a school rule (which he is). The assistant principal, Dr. Palleni, suspends him for the day when he gets sent back a second day in a row. However, Phillip starts telling people that he was suspended for humming/singing along with the national anthem. Phillip’s dad is outraged and takes Phillip to see a friend of his, who happens to be running for the school board. An additional wrinkle is that, in this town, the school budget requires approval by an election vote, so the superintendent is especially sensitive to any community criticism of his school’s operations.
The story hits national talk radio and the Associated Press that a student has been suspended for singing the national anthem, as the humming becomes outright singing along, and the issue now isn’t disrespect, but patriotism. A newspaper reporter from St. Louis comes all the way to New England to do interviews for a story, and Phillip has become a national folk hero of sorts.
The story doesn’t work out very well for anyone. The school’s budget fails to pass, Miss Narwin ends up retiring instead of taking the remedial classes the district was about to force her to attend, and Phillip ends up going to a private school – that doesn’t even have track and field as a support. At the end, when the teacher asks him to lead the class in the national anthem, Phillip bursts into tears – because he doesn’t even know the words. (Remember, he was humming in Miss Narwin’s class – not singing).
The whole book takes places in the form of dialogues, memos, letters (this is from before the e-mail era) and published news stories. Instead of narration with a point of view, the reader must sort through the documents and figure out for himself or herself what the “truth” really is.
In class, I would use this to explore the element of truth in reporting. I would pair articles from news organizations with a conservative and liberal bent that are about the same event and ask students to identify examples of bias. This book would also serve well as a springboard for discussions about patriotism, free speech, and the corrosive effects of lies. Writing prompts along those ends would be natural activities as well.
Personally, I find this story highly instructive when it comes to the nature of different types of lies. Students in middle school are often testing boundaries in this area, and this story can spawn creative discussions about what “Nothing But the Truth” actually means.
Avi. Nothing But the Truth. New York: Scholastic Books, 2010.
Fleishman, Paul. Cannibal in the Mirror. Brookfield, Connecticut: Twenty-First Century Books,