Power, relevance of historical fiction resounds in Shooting the Moon

Shooting the Moon by Frances O’Roark Dowell; published by Scholastic, New York, 2008; 163 pages.

Jamie Dexter envies her brother, TJ.  Immediately after high school graduation, TJ enlists and deploys to Viet Nam.  TJ and Jamie, brother and sister separated by five years, grew up planning military maneuvers under the trees of Army bases from North Carolina to Texas.  They adore–no, they revere–their father, the Colonel; after all, is there anything better than Army life and war?  So when TJ announces his plan to join a medical unit rather than attend college and medical school, why does the Colonel react with such angry disapproval?  Mom must  be behind it, right?  In order to stay out of trouble after TJ leaves, Jamie volunteers at the PX, helping Private Hollister during the mornings of summer vacation.  Their friendship blooms over a game of gin (and subsequent on-going, point-gathering contest).  Hollister helps Jamie discover a little bit about herself when he encourages her to learn to develop film after her first letter from TJ arrives.  TJ’s letters to Mom and the Colonel are brief and generalized, with no details of the war that Jamie craves.  Jamie’s letters, on the other hand, offer more detail than Jamie could have hoped for, but in a unique format.  TJ sends Jamie rolls of undeveloped film.  The images provide graphic details about the boredom, horror and loss of war.  Slowly, Jamie’s idealized image of war melts away.  When Private Hollister is up for deployment, Jamie begs the Colonel to save her friend, begs him not to sign his transfer orders.  What Jamie discovers about her father changes her opinion of him forever.

Do not wait to read this book.  Don’t finish reading this review.  Go…now.  When you’re done reading the book, come back and finish reading this.

Okay, this book is an ideal example of using historical fiction to teach social studies.  Class, let’s see what life was like during the Viet Nam Era.  Wait, you know, they say that if we don’t study history we are doomed to repeat it.  Is that what’s happening now, with the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  What a discussion this book could spark between generations.  What a resource for tweens and teens with siblings off to the Middle East!

What makes this book extraordinary, to me, is the character development.  Of course Jamie’s cartharsis is obvious, almost expected.  But what we learn about the Colonel is beautiful and poignant in its subtle exposition.  Although the book is short, it is jam packed with characters and plot.  Because of its length, and because it is written simply and directly, it is a high interest book even for readers with low-vocabulary or reading skills.  I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and reaching the back cover without giving the overarching consequences of war a second thought.  I imagine this is the reason the book won the Christopher Award for 2009 in the Books for Young People ages 10-12 category.  (The Christopher Awards “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.”)

Hello, all you social studies and language arts teachers!  Here’s a perfect book to work on cross-curricular projects!

By the way, the reference to “shooting the moon” is a recurring theme in TJ’s photos.  Along with images of the war, TJ includes shots of the moon.  In his honor, Jamie continues the practice to give him a daily view of the moon when he returns from the war.  That has to spark ideas for activities to accompany this book!

4P     5Q     Grade Level: 5-8 (+ older hi-lo readers)

Cover art: I read a paperback edition with the girl and the little green Army man.  Paired with the title, I think it creates an intriguing image.  I’m not sure the hard cover edition, with an image of what I assume is a tween girl holding a photo of the moon, is as compelling.  Given the situation many of our young people face today with the conflicts overseas, I think the Army-man cover is more intriguing.

Suggested Reading List: The Way It Was (Historical Fiction) OR Survival in Love, War or Sports

This book was this month’s selection for the middle school book club.  For the first time since I’ve participated with this club (about 15 months), all the students gave Shooting the Moon a thumbs-up!  The discussion was as I’d hoped–we had the opportunity to talk about the genre; to compare and contrast the Viet Nam War (as depicted in the book) to the current conflicts overseas; and to talk about the different connotation “shooting the moon” can have, including in card games.  Some kids even commented that they were disappointed that the book was so short; they wanted more details about how Jamie and her family coped with TJ’s circumstances as well as how her photography turned out.

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