Once again Vivian Paley takes us into the inquiring minds and the dramatic worlds of young children learning in the kindergarten classroom.
As she enters her final year of teaching, Paley tells in this book a story of farewell and a story of self-discovery—through the thoughts and blossoming spirit of Reeny, a little girl with a fondness for the color brown and an astonishing sense of herself. “This brown girl dancing is me,” Reeny announces, as her crayoned figures flit across the classroom walls. Soon enough we are drawn into Reeny’s remarkable dance of self-revelation and celebration, and into the literary turn it takes when Reeny discovers a kindred spirit in Leo Lionni—a writer of books and a teller of tales. Led by Reeny, Paley takes us on a tour through the landscape of characters created by Lionni. These characters come to dominate a whole year of discussion and debate, as the children argue the virtues and weaknesses of Lionni’s creations and his themes of self-definition and an individual’s place in the community.
The Girl with the Brown Crayon tells a simple personal story of a teacher and a child, interweaving the themes of race, identity, gender, and the essential human needs to create and to belong. With characteristic charm and wonder, Paley discovers how the unexplored territory unfolding before her and Reeny comes to mark the very essence of school, a common core of reference, something to ponder deeply and expand on extravagantly.
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.