The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

A Home for Mr. Emerson

Written by Barbara Kerley, Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
Published by Scholastic Press, 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-35088-4
Grades 3-8
Book Review
Ralph Waldo Emerson himself ushers the reader through the front door and into his home on the title page of Barbara Kerley and Edwin Fotheringham’s latest collaboration. The title page also introduces the palette of orange, blue, and green that repeats throughout this text, offering readers early hints of both the damage that a fire makes to part of Emerson’s beloved home as well as the deep grounding Emerson gains from looking up into the sky and down to the verdant ground, filled with precious fruits and vegetables, that surrounds him in mid-nineteenth century Concord, Massachusetts. Teachers and readers seeking a cradle-to-grave biography of Emerson won’t find one here. But those seeking an understanding and affirmation of the themes that worked throughout his life and his written works will delight in this exploration of Emerson’s life in Concord and the ways in which it impacted his writing. The end pages are wallpapered with quotes from his writings, and each two-page spread includes one quote, in a larger, colored font that serves as a cue to readers. This book prompts an exploration of life and work, of the power of ideas and community to influence one another, and can serve as an introduction to young people of the deep potential that the interior life offers and positive thinking as a force multiplier. For, as Emerson tells us, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Knowing this, one might want to follow his advice and “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Emerson’s Words. The end pages are filled with quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writing, and Kerley includes a direct quote on every two-page spread. Have students select the quote that speaks to them the most. What about the quote resonates with him/her? Have them write a personal reflection on their interpretation of the quote and what it means in their contemporary life.
Journal Writing. Emerson was vigilant about writing in his journal, amassing many “volumes.” Do your students keep a journal? For a period of a month, as a “pilot,” have your students keep journals as part of the school day, separate from a writing journal. In the journal, encourage students to explore their “big ideas” about the world. They may want to cut pictures out of newspapers or magazines to include in the journal, ponder current events, or reflect on their everyday life. They might even want to name their journals, as Emerson did, too.
Author Study. Watch the book trailer on Barbara Kerley’s website and ask the students what they think her books are going to be about. Next, have students in small groups, each reading a different picture book biography and taking notes on categories that you have established. Next, armed with a graphic organizer that helps them compare and contrast categories across different books, students should reorganize into mixed groups. What do they see as the common attributes of Kerley’s writing? Introduce Kerley’s National Geographic photo essays and see how their thoughts change and grow. With middle grade students, a study of her picture book biographies is a great way to introduce the genre of biography and ground them in “what to read for” before they begin reading age-appropriate chapter-length biographies. 
Writing Biographies. Have students use A Home for Mr. Emersonas a mentor text for writing biography. Have students research a person of interest to them, and then compose a picture book biography to share with younger students in your school or district. Be sure to have students use both the illustrations and the writing style as mentor text. How can they make use of a particular color palette? How do they utilize the two page spread? How do they scaffold in actual quotes from the subject they are researching, to share his/her words with their audience? Make sure that you introduce students to the source notes that Kerley provides on the last page of the book for each and every quotation included in the book, so that they can fully understand the process of attribution. Additionally, teachers might want to take advantage of Kerley’s “Writing  an Extraordinary Biography” on her webpage. (http://www.barbarakerley.com/Site/Writing_an_Extraordinary_Biography.html
Community Action. When Ralph Waldo Emerson is building his new life in Concord, he realizes that something was missing. Friends! He goes about getting to know people in the community by talking and spending time with them, and then volunteering for different roles in the community. How are your students involved in their neighborhood, town, or village? How can they be more involved?  Pick a local organization that your class can partner with for the year, and make sure that you “sally forth” as Emerson did, volunteering students’ time and energy.
Class Savings Bank. Barbara Kerley tells us that Mr. Emerson considered each journal a “Savings Bank” for his ideas. You may or may not choose to have your students keep journals. But even if you do not, make a class savings bank. Decorate a box or container and have students come up with teaching ideas and subjects that they would like to study. As they come up with ideas, they can place them in the box. Once a month, you can withdraw one from the bank, and a week or two later, spend an entire school day focused on exploring that topic, question, or idea.
Eating Your Own Food. Ralph Waldo Emerson loved eating his apples each morning in pie, and reveled in growing his own food. Make this possible for your students! Working with the cafeteria, and/or local farmers, try to plant something in the fall that you can harvest in the early spring, or plant indoor seedlings in the winter that you can bring outdoors come spring to harvest before the last day of school.
Parlor Conversations. Emerson’s house in Concord became a busy place! People from all over the world as well as right around the corner came to Emerson’s house to talk about ideas large and small, local and global, on every subject. Host a “parlor conversation” of your own one Friday afternoon a month in your classroom. Invite different people from your community, such as first responders, town/city council or board members (or selectmen in New England), religious leaders, writers, chefs, etc. to have discussions with your students on topics agreed upon ahead of time. As preparation for each parlor conversation, students can be conducting research on the topic, asking and answering questions that are important to them. Your school librarian can be an invaluable partner in this effort!
House Fires. Contact your local fire department or local station of a citywide fire department, to see who has recently suffered damage to or the loss of a home. Have your students hold a fundraiser or bring in items to donate to that family, to model their actions after those of the citizens of Concord, Massachusetts who came to Mr. Emerson’s aide.
Reading the World. Emerson “read” the world; he “read” the people he met from around the world and around the corner. He observed nature closely, and as a home gardener “read” the natural world and the seasons closely, too. All of these daily observations fed his writing. As your students “Why is reading the world an important skill for writers? Why is reading the world an important skill as a member of a community?”  Create observation tubes using things like paper towel rolls and have students look through them for ideas for writing. What do they see when they zoom in on people, conversations, life outside the classroom window?  
Barbara Kerley’s Ideas. See the back pages of the book for Kerley’s “Build a World of Your Own.” There, she poses interesting ideas for individual readers to consider and pursue, focusing on three different themes, framed by quotes from Emerson’s writing: words, home, and community. 
Grades 6-8
Building a Life. Kerley quotes Emerson’s musings about his future: “Could he build a life around these things he loved?” How does one build a life? Brainstorm this question with your students. What do they think it means? What kind of life have they built for themselves? What do they control? To what extent is their life built by adults? Next, have students pick a “stage of life” to interview people and ask this question. Some students might interview juniors and seniors thinking about their lives after high school, some might interview recent college graduates, parents and neighbors, and senior citizens in a nearby senior living facility. How are each of these different groups working to build a life? What are they proud of? What do they still hope to do? What compromises do they make? Have students report back their findings to one another and reconsider Emerson’s life, and the advantages and disadvantages he faced in building his life.
Further Explorations
Digital Texts
Barbara Kerley’s Website
Edwin Fotheringham’s Website
Ralph Waldo Emerson, PBS
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Academy of American Poets
Ralph Waldo Emerson House, National Park Service
The Emerson Study, The Concord Museum, Concord, MA
“The Transcendentalist Riplle Effect,” Radio Open Source, March 2014
Books
For a listing of Barbara Kerley’s books, please see her website at http://www.barbarakerley.com/Site/Welcome.html
Bryant, J. (2008). A river of words: The story of William Carlos Williams. Ill. by M. Sweet.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Books. 
 
Burleigh, R. (2012). If you spent a day with Thoreau at Walden Pond. Ill. by W. Minor. New York: Holt. 
Shotter, R. (2006). The boy who loved words. Ill. by G. Potter.  New York: Schwartz and Wade. 
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity.