ALLen Reads 2015

Main Selection

Orphan Train
by Christina Baker Kline
(Recommended for grade 9 through adult)

Our main book this year is Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. A novel of historical fiction, it is a heart-wrenching, heart-warming blend of the stories of two women: one young, one old, who both learn and benefit from each other’s experiences.  Kline’s story is based on the true occurrence of trains that carried orphaned and other impoverished children from the slums of the east coast to the farms of the midwest, from Minnesota to Texas, in the late 1800’s – early 1900’s, in hope of better lives and opportunities.

Here are some themes from this year’s main book, Orphan Train — many of them create the link to our two companion books as well:

  • valuing the stories of our elders
  • resiliency: dealing with what life hands you
  • defining/redefining family
  • immigration/immigrants
  • ethnicity
  • “portages”
  • dealing with loss
  • forgiveness

Discussion Questions

  1. In an interview, Christina Baker Kline (CBK) states, “For both (Vivian and Molly), change has been a defining principle.” How is that true? Have you had changes in your life that you feel have “defined” you?
  2. As Vivian tells Molly her story, Molly reassures her that she understands “how it felt to be at the mercy of strangers.” What does Molly mean by this? How has this vulnerability affected both their lives? Have you ever felt this way?
  3. Why hasn’t Vivian ever shared her story with anyone? Why does she tell it now? Do you think this kind of secret‐keeping is healthy and safe or damaging in some way?
  4. In Women of the Dawn, a nonfiction book about the lives of four Wabanaki Indians excerpted in the epigraph, Bunny McBride writes: “In portaging from one river to another, Wabanakis had to carry their canoes and all other possessions. Everyone knew the value of traveling light and understood that it required leaving some things behind. Nothing encumbered movement more than fear, which was often the most difficult burden to surrender.” How does the concept of portaging reverberate throughout this novel? What fears hamper Vivian’s progress? Molly’s?
  5. What role does Vivian’s grandmother play in her life? How does the reader’s perception of her shift as the story unfolds? Who in Molly’s life does she think back to in a similar way? What do they each carry/portage that connects them to these people? Do you have a person and/or a single item that connects you to your past?
  6. Vivian’s name changes several times over the course of the novel: from Niamh Power to Dorothy Nielsen to Vivian Daly. How are these changes significant for her? How does each name represent a different phase of her life? What significance, if any, does Molly Ayer’s name have? Women experience name changes, often simply through marriage. How might these changes affect our identities?
  7. When Vivian goes to live with the Byrnes, Fanny offers her food and advises, “You got to learn to take what people are willing to give.” In what ways is this good advice for Vivian and Molly? What are some instances when their independence helped them? Is it good advice for anyone?
  8. In what ways, large and small, does Molly have an impact on Vivian’s life? How does Vivian have an impact on Molly’s? Is there someone who has impacted your life in a way you had not foreseen?
  9. When Vivian finally shares the truth about the birth of her daughter and her decision to put May up for adoption she tells Molly that she was “selfish” and “afraid.” Molly defends her and affirms Vivian’s choice. How did you perceive Vivian’s decision? Were you surprised she sent her child to be adopted after her own experiences with the Children’s Aid Society?
  10. Molly is enthusiastic about Vivian’s reunion with her daughter, but makes no further efforts to see her own mother. Why is she unwilling or unable to initiate a reunion in her own family? Do you think she will someday?

Companion Book 1

Notes from the Midnight Driver
by Jordan Sonnenblick
(Recommended for grades 6-8)

Notes from the Midnight Driver, by Jordan Sonnenblick, is a story of an angry young man in emotional crisis who is assigned community service to assist an elderly man.

“Eventually, the pair learn to deal with their past and each other in ways that are humorous, entertaining, and life‐changing.” – Amazon Review

“Sonnenblick’s characters, both major and minor, reach out to the reader, and the messages shared will resonate with all ages.” – Amazon Review

“Teens will easily connect with Alex’s epiphanies: ‘You can’t just throw someone out of your life when they displease you,’ and, ‘We’re all free to choose some people to love, and then do it.’ It all adds up to a funny, bittersweet tour de force.” – Frances Bradburn, Booklist


Companion Book 2

allen-reads-2015-matchbox-diaryThe Matchbox Diary
Written by Paul Fleischman; Illustrated by Bagram Ibatouilline
(Recommended for preschool – grade 5)

“In The Matchbox Diary, Newberry Medalist Paul Fleischman and Bagram Ibatoulline tell a breathtaking immigration tale with appeal across generations. ‘Pick whatever you like most. Then I’ll tell you its story.’ When a little girl visits her great‐grandfather at his curio‐filled home, she chooses an unusual object to learn about: an old cigar box.

What she finds inside surprises her: a collection of matchboxes making up her great-grandfather’s diary, harboring objects she can hold in her hand, each one evoking a memory. Together they tell of his journey from Italy to a new country, before he could read and write — the olive pit his mother gave him to suck on when there wasn’t enough food; a bottle cap he saw on his way to the boat; a ticket still retaining the thrill of his first baseball game.

With a narrative entirely in dialogue, Paul Fleischman makes immediate the two characters’ foray into the past. With warmth and an uncanny eye for detail, Bagram Ibatoulline gives expressive life to their journey through time — and toward each other.” ‐ Amazon Review