The Girl with the Brown Crayon


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Promotional Information

The author was the 1997 winner of the Virginia and Warren Stone Prize.

About the Author

Vivian Gussin Paley (1929-2019), a longtime classroom teacher at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, was a MacArthur Fellow and winner of the 1998 American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.


Leo Lionni (see review above), is the focus of Paley's final year in her long career as a kindergarten teacher. Paley, the charismatic teacher and author of The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter and You Can't Say You Can't Play is taken on a metaphorical journey of discovery and self-discovery by kindergartners with inquiring minds. Led by Reeny, a five-year-old black girl who is "a natural born innovator," the children and their teacher embark on a year-long study of Lionni, one of the class's favorite authors. Through characters in Lionni's books (Mr. McMouse, Frederick, among others) the children play out little dramas of gender, inclusion and sharing as the group paint posters and discuss the behaviors of their favorites. Reeny, for example, immediately identifies with Frederick: "That brown mouse seem to be just like me!... Because I'm always usually thinking 'bout colors and words the same like him." Paley's kindergarten is an oasis, blessed with a unique curriculum and a teacher willing to be taught by her students. Paley tries to fit lessons about adult biases into this paradigm as well, but they tend to be strained: e.g. one adult interprets Mr. McMouse's encounter with an unfamiliar reflection in his mirror as "what happens to colored folks who hang out with too many white people. They lose their image." But the classroom is one that any parent or teacher would wish for their own. (Mar.)

Paley's book is the breathtaking account of a golden time she has carved out in the lives of [her school] children and herself. Essentially, she conducts a high-power kindergarten think tank in which she, the children, and some parents explore 'the artist's role in society, the conditions necessary for thinking, and the influence of music and art on the emotions.' Infected by their teacher's enthusiasm, wisdom, and human warmth, these beautiful children shape their semester of art, dance, song, and applied psychology around 14 picture books by the great writer-illustrator Leo Lionni... [Paley] render[s] tellingly the originality and sensitivity with which her kindergartners explore art and life as they skip from work to work, character to character, and back to their daily lives with persistence, eloquence, and depth... Her book is a reminder for adult readers that our task, at home and abroad, is to ensure that children may flourish with such awareness of their own worth that they can be free, then, to love another. -- Peter F. Neumeyer * Boston Sunday Globe *
Paley [tells how she] and her co-teacher turn a sizable portion of their curriculum over to a study of Lionni stories, and her students blossom with insight... Paley's book is a treasure for anyone who wants to know more about what magic is possible in a classroom where a teacher encourages what Paley calls...a 'narrative community.' -- Carol Doup Muller * San Jose Mercury-News *
To focus a year's curriculum on a single writer, no matter how acclaimed or popular, was a departure for [Vivian Gussin Paley] and her school. But as anyone can tell from reading The Girl with the Brown Crayon, Paley's experiment was a resounding success, cultivating among very young children a deep engagement with literature that they were able to share every day. -- Molly McQuade * Book Links *
I was delighted after an initial reading of The Girl with the Brown Crayon and couldn't wait to share it. However, after rereading the text and discussing it as a member of a learning community, I can more fully appreciate why it was awarded Harvard University Press's annual prize for an outstanding publication about education and society. * Reading Teacher *
[Paley describes how] she decides to give direction to her curriculum by focusing on the books of one author, Leo Lionni... The result, as recorded in the book, is a long exploration, questioning, and debate among the children and teachers about the characteristics and actions of the characters and important ideas (which become curriculum themes) as the books are read, dramatized, and portrayed in notebooks and posters. Throughout this journey, Paley shares her unique insight into the nature of young children and kindergarten learning as it could be, as it should be. * Young Children *
A beautifully realized, deceptively simple classroom memoir from a longtime kindergarten teacher and author. Paley begins the narrative of her final year of teaching by focusing on Reeny, a self-assured, thoughtful, and creative black five-year-old girl in a class that's mostly Caucasian and Asian. Reeny is a wonderful character, but it is her identification with another character, Frederick the Mouse in a Leo Lionni children's book, that is the catalyst for a truly remarkable classroom experience... Disproving the general opinion that kindergartners are unable to focus on a lengthy, ongoing project, these children show an amazing aptitude for referring back to previous discussions, understanding metaphor, relating their reading to the world around them, and using the information they glean in creative and unusual ways. Their discussions cover everything from race and friendship to gender and the artistic personality, and they are able to appreciate the Lionni titles with a maturity that is sometimes startling... The reader closes the book with the hope that Paley will, with Reeny's help and her own newfound self-awareness, overcome her ambivalence about standing out and continue to write superb books like this one. * Kirkus Reviews *
Paley, the charismatic teacher and taken on a metaphorical journey of discovery and self-discovery by kindergartners with inquiring minds... [Paley's class] is an oasis, blessed with a unique curriculum and a teacher willing to be taught by her students. * Publishers Weekly *

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