Grace for Gus
Grace for Gus
Written and illustrated by Harry Bliss
Published by Katherine Tegen Books, 2018
At Midtown Elementary School in New York City, Grace’s class is raising money for the Gus Buddy Fund. Gus, the class guinea pig, spends most of his day in a cage and needs a friend. Spending much of her day quietly studying and observing everyone else, Grace knows something of what Gus must feel like. When she shares a special look with Gus at the end of the day, Grace knows what she must do. In this graphic picture book by New York Times bestselling artist and children’s illustrator Harry Bliss shares the comic adventures of a young girl who is determined to help a four-legged friend. Unassuming and well-mannered by day, Grace dons an alter ego once night falls and she’s kissed her two dads goodnight. As we become privy to Grace’s secret exploits through the city, Bliss also treats us to an abundance of pop culture treats, paying homage to the history of comics, the icons of the Big Apple, and beyond. Pop culture connoisseurs will delight in identifying the characters, celebrities, and famed images sprinkled throughout the scenes, while readers who might not recognize such symbols will still find plenty of word play and sight gags to discover in the background. And while each panel holds a wealth of visual discoveries, the result of Grace’s after-hours escapades is heartwarming tale. With multiple uses for classroom instruction, from explorations about class pets to storytelling activities, Grace for Gus is simply a treat to read and experience.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Grades K and up
- Animal Sociality. The goal of the Gus Buddy Fund is to raise enough money to purchase another guinea pig for the class so Gus doesn’t feel lonely. The guinea pig is one example of an animal species that thrives better in groups. Have students research animal sociality to learn more about which animals are social animals (i.e., live in groups with other members of their species) and how their social relationships with each other benefits them. Some websites that may be helpful starting points for research include the CK-12 Foundation and Mental Floss. Have students create a class bulletin board or website that presents their findings about animal sociality.
- Class Pets. Many classrooms have class pets, but do students really know what the benefits of having a class pet are? Share the 2015 findings of the American Humane Association with students, and discuss with students the pros and cons of having a class pet for their own classroom. What supplies do they need? How might they collectively care (better) for it? Would they need to get it a buddy, just like Gus? How might they engage in regular activities to bond with it? If you currently don’t have a class/program pet, would they want one? Which kind of pet would make the most sense for them, considering allergies, phobias, and other challenges? With the help of your school or local librarian, share some other fiction books about class pets, such as The World According to Humphrey, Sammy: The Classroom Guinea Pig, Duck for a Day, and The Great Pet Escape, as well as nonfiction books about caring for class pets. You and your students might also want to apply for a Pets in the Classroom Grant to get your first class pet or a buddy for your current one(s).
- Bootstrap Fundraising. Grace utilized her own skills, talents, and resources to raise enough money for the Gus Buddy Fund. Ask your students what causes are of particular interest to them, and then ask what skills, talents, and resources they might have to raise money for that cause. On a class anchor chart, list the various causes or charities they name, as well as the possible ways they might engage in bootstrap fundraising. Discuss the benefits and challenges of this kind of fundraising, and guide students through the pros and cons of each of the items on the anchor chart. If it seems there are several plausible ideas (or even just one), design a class project to carry out the fundraising efforts, making sure to guide students through the planning and implementing of their ideas. Invite family and community members to help as well.
- Cameos, Allusions, and References. Throughout the book’s illustrations, Harry Bliss cleverly inserts various cameos, allusions, and other references from popular culture. In fact, Bliss is known for doing so in much of his work. Challenge readers to find as many of these as they can, making sure they also explain these references. For example, some cameos include Vincent Van Gogh, Spike Lee, Patti Smith, and Edward Gorey. Allusions to famous paintings (e.g., Still Life Vase with Twelve Sunflowers) and comic characters (e.g., Tin Tin, Nancy, Hobbes) are sprinkled throughout various scenes. One might even argue that Grace bears a striking resemblance to Marcie from the Peanuts Ask students to consider why Harry Bliss included them and how they enhance the story with more layers of meaning.
- Word Play. Introduce students to the different ways that one can engage in word play, from puns to spoonerisms to double entendres. Help students identify the different ways that despite having created a wordless picture book, Harry Bliss plays with words in Grace for Gus. Guide them to look carefully at any semblance of text in the illustrations: signs, posters, bags, books, etc. Discuss the examples they’ve found. How did Bliss play with the words? What effect does that word play have on the overall meaning of the illustrations or the specific panel where it’s located? Take students on a community walk around the school or neighborhood to jot down some of the text they see every day (e.g., from store signs, movie posters, newspaper stands, street signs, etc.). Then challenge them to play with the words from those texts in as many ways as possible, based on the different kinds of word play you learned about together.
- Oral Storytelling and Wordless Picture books. Wordless picture books are terrific tools for helping children develop their oral language and emergent reading skills. Have pairs of students sit side by side, and encourage them to walk through the illustrations and tell the stories of what is happening on each page to each other. They can take turns with each page, or take turns telling an entire story. Other wordless pictures you might want to share with them or use to model oral storytelling for the whole class are Stephanie Graegin’s Little Fox in the Forest; Suzy Lee’s Lines; Patti Kim’s Here I Am; Molly Idle’s Flora and the Flamingo, Barbara Lehman’s The Secret Box, Chris Raschka’s A Ball for Daisy; Jeannie Baker’s Mirror. You may want to record their storytelling and provide the recordings at your classroom listening center for students to listen to and compare what their classmates say about the stories.
- Filmstrip Storytelling. Grace for Gus is based on a short film by Harry Bliss’ son, Alexander. The influence of that earlier iteration is clear, as each page feels like another scene in a fluid movie. Invite your students to study the techniques that authors use for storytelling when their medium is pictures. You may find Molly Bang’s Picture This and Scott McCloud’s Making Comics a useful guide to examining the choices authors make when telling a story visually. The artist/author makes decisions about which moments to feature, how to frame and focus the image (think camera lens), how to arrange the images to convey the flow of the story, and what medium and artistic style best match the content of the story. Have students create filmstrips of their own wordless stories, using either paper or digital storytelling software, filling each with only drawings of the scenes involved. For further examples of how the illustrations are linked together as scenes in wordless stories, check out Molly Idle’s Flora and the Flamingo; Suzy Lee’s books Lines, Wave, Mirror, or Shadow, as well as the wordless picture books we’ve blogged about already on this site. You might also consider Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid, a nonfiction book illustrated by Eric Rohmann, that also offers cinematic qualities. Don’t forget to check if the computer teacher, media specialist, and art teacher might want to collaborate with you and your students as well.
- Picture Books in New York City. New York City is a popular setting for stories in all formats and has often been referred to as a character itself. With the help of your school or local librarian or bookseller, gather a collection of picture books about the Big Apple. Some titles include Eloise, by Kay Thompson; The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats; Madlenka, by Peter Sis; the Knuffle Bunny trilogy, by Mo Willems; Blackout, by John Rocco; Tar Beach, by Faith Ringgold; and Here I Am, by Patti Kim. Have students compare and contrast the ways in which New York City’s landmarks, neighborhoods, and everyday life are presented. Then have students write and illustrate picture books about their own town from each of their own unique perspectives, using what they’ve learned from their inquiry about NYC picture books. Invite families and community members to a publishing party once students have completed their picture books.
- Illustrator Study.Harry Bliss is widely renowned for his book illustrations, cartoons, and cover illustrations for The New Yorker Gather multiple copies of his work—from examples of his cartoons in The New Yorker to his array of children’s books—to conduct an illustrator study. Survey Bliss’ illustrations, and identify his artistic style, artistic idiosyncrasies, favorite subjects and topics to draw about, and favorite artistic media to use. Gather information about him from the websites listed below, your local librarian, the Internet, and as other biographical sources.
Grades 5 and up
- Inquiring Deeper about Pop Culture Icons. Our fellow SLJ blogger Betsy Bird raised some interesting questions about the inclusion of some pop culture icons in Grace for Gus. Given the scandals and controversies that can be associated with such icons, engage students in a discussion about what a cultural icon is and whether such people should maintain that status despite controversial actions or events in their lives. What could Harry Bliss be implying by including them in this picture book? How might the way he depicted them layer meaning into a scene? What messages, assumptions, and underlying narratives might including them convey? What other pop culture icons might he have included instead to convey a different narrative?
Harry Bliss website
Harry Bliss on Twitter
Interviews and Videos of Harry Bliss
Samples of Bliss cartoons
Reading Rockets: Sharing Wordless Books
Pets in the Classroom Trust
American Humane Association
Bang, M. (2016). Picture this. Chronicle Books.
Berenzy, A. (2008). Sammy: The Classroom Guinea Pig. Square Fish.
Birney, B. (2004). The World According to Humphrey. G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.
Jamieson, V. (2016) The great pet escape. Henry Holt and Co.
McCloud, S. (2006). Making comic books. William Morrow Paperbacks.
McKinley, M. (2012). Duck for a day. Ill. By L. Rudge. Candlewick Press.
Stewart, E. (2008). The adventures of Filmore the gerbil. Ill. by C. Mazza. Eloquent Books.
Filed under: Comics & Graphic Novels, Fiction
About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
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