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The Year of Miss Agnes Review by Jennifer Harrison

Kirkpatrick Hill
Blackbird & Company
11613 Washington Place
Los Angeles, CA 90066

The Year of Miss Agnes is a touching story told through the eyes of Fred (short for Frederika), a young girl growing up on the Alaskan frontier in 1948. It is a difficult life in the small town with only a handful of students to attend the one-room schoolhouse. Fred has watched several teachers come and go, none staying very long. Life changes when the town's new teacher, Miss Agnes, inspires her students and teaches them to love learning. The entire town is influenced by this caring teacher. The author, having been a schoolteacher in the Alaskan "bush" herself, brings many interesting details to this tale.

Even more delightful to me than the story was the discovery of literature guides available through Blackbird & Company. With portfolios on many different books for different age groups, Blackbird & Company offers a literature guides that don't overshadow the story. In fact, they accentuate the story by helping readers discern what they are reading in a more meaningful way. Rather than lecturing them on what they should notice, the guides encourage readers to pause and observe the story. Using the guide for The Year of Miss Agnes, my son has been able to watch chapter by chapter as themes reveal more than just "what" someone did. For the first time, he is instead realizing "why" characters did what they did.

The guide is divided into five sections. Students read 4 to 5 chapters of the story and work through the corresponding pages in the Literature Guide, where they are led to note details about certain characters, describe the setting, and summarize what is happening in that section of the story (plot.) Each reading section has an accompanying vocabulary page featuring multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. Comprehension questions require readers to examine the story with more depth. There is a writing exercise for each reading section, giving students a chance to respond to what they've read by examining their own ideas and sharing them. Finally, each section concludes with discussion questions, which offer opportunities for interesting conversations about the characters and the story. Once the book is finished, there are optional assignments available in the back of the Literature Guide for added research and exploration. There was nothing in the guide that I would say was "too much" or "too little." My son, who enjoyed both the story and the guide, says that he liked the fact that the guide wasn't too difficult but that it still required him to stop and think.

The Literature Guides are well put together. With the product being less than a year old, we found a few typos here and there, but they are mild. For instance, students are told to "Write a paragraph describing something that you like to learn about?" The sentence should have a period rather than a question mark, but it isn't enough to confuse a student. Later, the reader is asked, "Why do you think Bertha doesn't try the tea when Miss Agnes offers her some?" Actually, Bertha did try the tea; she just opted out of trying milk in her tea. Another question reads, "How does Fred and Bokko know that their mother isn't mad at Miss Agnes anymore?" It should say "How do Fred and Bokko know . . . " There are more, but again, not enough to make me think less of the Literature Guide. These problems will likely be addressed in future printings.

The book is listed on Blackbird & Company's website as being intended for 1st through 3rd graders, but some of the themes in the story seemed too mature for this age range. For example, the main character decides she doesn't want to grow up and get married: "Maybe he'd get mean sometimes. Or have another girlfriend, like Martha's husband." Also, the story is written through the perspective of Fred, which includes her grammar style and colloquialism. An example would be the line: "Seemed like none of the words never were hard that way." This is how Fred spoke, and it was well portrayed. However, this might not be a grammar style you want your 1st through 3rd grader reading quite yet. Toward the end of the story, Miss Agnes does explain to her students that they need to work on their grammar and learn to speak well. Still, I feel the book is much more suited to students in grades 4 through 6.

This study has been enlightening for my older student, opening up the doors of literary analysis. Now that we've begun, it's a door we will not want to close.

Product review by Jennifer Harrison, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, February 2010