I am a school librarian who has been sharing your book with my fifth graders for the last 8 years. I am presently teaching in an urban, high poverty district in NJ. Translation: poor minority population. I want you to know that your book speaks to the inner life of children. It awakens their “adult” senses for thew first time, and leads them to question who they are and what they believe as individuals. I use the text as a springboard for discussions on world religions, and funeral customs and practices around the world. The students are hungry to talk about the mysteries of life and death and to make sense of their own experiences. We delve into the near-death experience, and the belief that we are all here for the purpose of our own unique gift that we bring to the world.
In addition to studying the dramatic tension and flow of your work, which I liken to the rises and falls of a roller coaster ride (appropriate, don’t you think? for a setting in an amusement park), the students appreciate the structure of your work, which utilizes a circle with no beginning and no end — just like your concept of “no story sits by itself”. I usually take from 8 to 10 periods to complete the readings and discussions: the “glamorous” appeal of becoming a soldier versus the ugly reality and life shattering experiences that result. We discuss freak shows, and how as a culture we have evolved (somewhat) to feeling discomfort at relegating misfortunate individuals as objects of curiosities in side shows. In this sense, your story presents a historical perspective on life in our country.
The topic of alcoholism and it’s concommitant abuse of children strikes a loud cord in my classroom. I am happy to provide a safe place for my students to discuss their own personal experiences in this arena. I could go on and on about the teachable moments your book provides. You have transmitted a great gift to at least one generation of children, who have seen themselves and their lives mirrored in your writing. A gift from your heart to the many young hearts and minds to which I have had the privilege of introducing your work.
About halfway through the book, I make the offer to my students of obtaining copies of the book which they may keep. Three or four students in each class will bring in the $7.00 which allows me to troll ebay for discounted hardcover editions. It is a great tribute to you that these children of poverty so value a book as to wish to own it. These small miracles in a school where 90% of the students qualify for a free lunch. Mr. Albom, I believe I have now read your book 24 times (in addition to my initial, personal reading) to over 1200 5th graders, and there are large portions of it which I can now recite to the children by heart, enabling me to hold their gazes at particularly moving portions of your story.
I close the reading with a challenge to my students, that they come up with 5 people of their own that they may one day see in heaven. Their stories will now sit upon yours.
Thank you for this most beautiful work, and continued successes in your life.
Sincerely, Olga Dytyniak
Institution: Mott Elementary School, Trenton, NJ
Class Name: Library
Class Grade: Grade 5