Beginning the Year with Because of the Rabbit
Because of the Rabbit
Written by Cynthia Lord
Published in 2019 by Scholastic
Grades 3 – 6
It’s the start of the school year and Emma is facing more changes than the average rising fifth grader. Emma, her parents, and her older brother Owen live in northern Maine, where Emma’s father works as a game warden. Used to days filled with a mix of kayaking, science experiments like hatching frog eggs in the bathroom, and cozy afternoons reading with her mother, previously homeschooled Emma is beginning school at Lakeview Elementary. Her brother Owen has taken this step ahead of her, beginning at the public high school the previous year. The night before school, Emma accompanies her father to rescue a domesticated rabbit, which has become wedged in a fence. Emma quickly becomes attached, naming the golden bunny Lapi, after Monsieur Lapin, a trickster rabbit featured in stories told to her by her beloved Pépère. Emma’s grandparents have passed on, but she cherishes her memories of time spent in Quebec on their farm and her Pépère’s stories continue to echo in her daily life. As the first days of school unfold, Emma explores the complexities of making friends with Jack, a classmate on the autism spectrum; adjusting to new requirements and routines; and wondering whether she will be able to keep Lapi. First person narration brings immediacy to Emma’s story, which is specific, yet universally recognizable. Author Cynthia Lord includes a detailed author’s note describing the “seeds that started Emma’s story,” many of which are autobiographical. Replete with opportunities to discuss the layered themes of being yourself, differences, making friends, and growing up – the real life dilemmas that middle schoolers face each and every day. Because of the Rabbit is a perfect read aloud to launch a school year full of book and character explorations.
Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom
Making Friends. While she anticipates meeting her new classmates, Emma makes a list of criteria for a “best friend” (see pages 14 and 15). As she experiences the ups and downs of her first week at school, Emma struggles with the tension between “being yourself” and “belonging.” Throughout your reading of Because of the Rabbit, invite your students to engage with the question: What makes a good friendship? Keep a running list of students observations about characteristics and behaviors of friends. Be sure to dig in to the quote on page 165: “Maybe it was too much to expect one person to be my ‘everything’ best friend. Maybe I already had what I needed, just spread out across a bunch of people.” Consider extending your study of the theme of friendship across the school year, reading novels that feature friends and the joys and challenges of friendship. Classroom Bookshelf entries to support you in this study include You Go First, Hello, Universe, How to Two, Rescue & Jessica, The Way to Bea, Booked, Crenshaw, Wishtree, and New Kid.
Author’s Craft: Describing Strong Emotions. Author Cynthia Lord employs a unique device to describe Emma’s feelings throughout the novel. Emma and her brother Owen have a history of anthropomorphizing their feelings: “When we were little, whenever we had mixed feelings about something, Owen and I’d pretend they were running in a race” (page 2). Throughout the novel, Emma describes her feelings as they compete with one another. Invite your students to brainstorm different metaphors that they might use to describe strong feelings – posing the question: what does having strong feelings feel like? Create a list of possibilities and invite students to pay attention to how authors describe strong feelings in the novels and picture books that they read throughout the year.
Storytelling. Throughout the novel, Emma recounts several of the stories told to her by her grandfather, Pépère. These stories feature animal characters, particularly Monsieur Lapin, a trickster rabbit, and the tales impart a moral or message. Emma describes how the tales also include specific language at the start (“It happened once.”) and at the conclusion (“And so it was.”). Discuss how Pépère’s and Emma’s stories are used throughout the novel. How do they reinforce important themes of the novel? What do the stories reveal? What ideas and character traits do they enhance? Discuss Emma’s statement on page 110 that stories are somewhere in between lies and truth. Learn more about storytelling techniques using the online resources listed below. You may also be interested in exploring additional books that feature storytelling in our Classroom Bookshelf entries such as Alma and How She Got Her Name and Hello, Universe.
Author Study. Cynthia Lord is the author of many celebrated novels for the intermediate and middle grades, including Rules, which won a Newbery Honor award. Launch a study of Cynthia Lord’s novels by reading aloud Because of the Rabbit, including the Author’s Note. In this Author’s note, Lord describes how her stories grow from the seeds of her experiences. Share Lord’s website and the author interviews linked in the Further Explorations section below. Next, divide students up into literature circle groups to read a selection of Lord’s novels. When finished reading, groups should create a presentation to share their novel with the other groups. As groups present discuss the patterns that emerge from the writing: themes, characterization, settings, and literary techniques.
Welcoming Newcomers. Emma has never been to a school before when she starts fifth grade at Lakeview Elementary. Her situation is less common, but there are many new things for any newcomer to navigate when they begin at a new school. Discuss the new experiences that Emma had and which aspects she found challenging. As a group, brainstorm ways that a school and a class could welcome newcomers – what could be done to make the experience comfortable and enjoyable? Your students may suggest things such as sharing responsibility for mentoring new students or creating ‘how to’ manuals that could guide new experiences. Be sure to discuss options for helping new students get to know their classmates and vice versa. What other options are there beyond “two truths and a lie”?
Author’s Craft: Chapter Titles. In Because of the Rabbit, Cynthia Lord uses snippets of information about rabbits as chapter titles. Reproduce these statements on notebook paper (to imitate their appearance in the book) and hand them out to pairs or trios of students. Give students time to revisit the chapter with the goal of being able to describe how the rabbit fact relates to the content of the chapter. As an extension, examine additional novels that employ interesting chapter titles (see for example Save Me a Seat, which uses the days of the week as chapter titles). Create an anchor chart to list these techniques. Students can refer to this chart when they work on drafting titles in their own writing.
Inspirational Messages. Emma and her brother Owen have a practice of writing inspirational message on beautiful stones. Emma has a collection and carries particular rocks in her pocket for when she needs a boost throughout the day. Additionally, Owen shares rocks with Emma, offering her messages that he hopes will bolster her spirits. Discuss the role of inspirational messages / sayings and invite your students to share their favorites. Provide your students with a collection of stones large enough to hold a phrase or a sentence (or even better, take your students on a nature hike to collect these stones themselves). Students can record their favorite inspirational messages on the stones for display in the classroom. Some students may be familiar with the Kindness Rocks Project. Decide whether you want to expand this project by gifting rocks to your school community members.
Rescue Pets. “It’s a powerful thing to rescue something. It changes both of you” (page 22). Extend your reading of Because of the Rabbit by learning more about animal shelters and animal rescue societies. Invite a guest speaker from a local shelter/rescue organization to come and speak to your class about their work. Prepare for the visit by creating a list of questions that your students can ask. Be sure to discuss the idea that one does not have to adopt a pet in order to support a rescue organization. Extend your learning by working with your public or school librarian to create a text set about rescue animals. Some of our favorite fiction titles are Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin, Saving Marty by Paul Griffin, Bob Graham’s picture book, How to Heal a Broken Wing, Jessica Krensky and Scott Downes’ Rescue and Jessica.
Learning Differences. Because of the Rabbit would be an excellent addition to a text set of classroom stories that include students with learning differences. Include titles such as A Fish in a Tree, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, Wonder, Out of My Mind, Sahara Special, and Save Me a Seat. Invite students to select a book title and form literature circles. After completing the book, groups can work to create character maps, large portraits of book characters that offer a visual image and text and symbols to describe character traits. Ask group members to consider what their book can teach us about: students, learning, teaching and schools.
Looking Back and Looking Forward. As Emma adjusts to the changes in her life, she asks her brother Owen, “Do you ever wish to go backward?” Invite your students to reflect on their own schooling experiences. What have they enjoyed about their previous school experiences, and what are they looking forward to in future experiences? Students could record their reflections in drawings and or text. Be sure to provide an opportunity for students to share their happy school memories and their hopes for future school experiences with you and with their classmates.
Duet Model Reading: From Homeschool to Public School. Following a reading of Because of the Rabbit, offer your student the opportunity to read All’s Faire in Middle School, a graphic novel by Victoria Jameison. Both novels feature main characters who begin school after many years of homeschooling. Ask your students to compare Emma’s and Imogene’s entry experiences, considering aspects such as making friends, learning new routines, and changing family relationships.
Codell, E. (2004). Sahara special. White Plains, NY: Disney Hyperion.
Draper, S. (2012). Out of my mind. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Gantos, J. (2011). Joey Pigza swallowed the key. Bronx, NY: Square Fish.
Graham, B. (2008). How to heal a broken wing. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Griffin, P. (2017). Saving Marty. New York: Dial.
Jameison, V. (2017). All’s faire in middle school. New York: Dial.
Martin, A.M. (2014). Rain reign. New York: Feiwel and Friends.
Palacio, R.J. (2012). Wonder. New York, NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Weeks, S. (2016) & Varadarjan, G. (2106). Save me a seat.New York: Scholastic. Yeh, K. (2017). The way to Bea. New York: Little Brown.
About Erika Thulin Dawes
Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.
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