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The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars tackles the topic of mental illness in a sensitive and thoughtful manner. The main character is Sara who is having a difficult fourteenth year. She considers her sister to be beautiful and all the things that she is not, she is irritated by a bossy aunt, and sometimes, cannot stand her young brother's demands on her time. This is the story of a very long day in Sara's life.
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Betsy Byars is a prolific author and her books hold a wide appeal for young people. She was born in North Carolina and some of her books are set in that area. Her first book, Clementine, was rejected many, many times before it was accepted. She uses this as an example to young people, that they should not get discouraged but keep on trying whatever the task.
After reading this book begin by having students write a letter to Betsy Byars. Suggest that they tell her how they felt as they read the book. The letters could be mailed to her in care of the publishing company (addresses are available at the beginning of the book).
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Have your students explore these words and their meanings.
- Page 6. What is a kaleidoscope? Is this a good word to describe Sara's feelings? Why or why not? Do you think that it describes your feelings sometimes?
- Page 18. What is a spigot ? Look the word up in a dictionary and write down the definition. Draw a picture of one.
- Page 23. What is strip mining ? You may have to use the Internet to find out about this. Is it a good or bad thing?
With your students discuss the author's use of inferred references and consider these questions.
- At the end of Chapter One and the beginning of Chapter Two, how does the author let us know that Charlie has some problems?
- Page 21. How do we know that Sara is suffering from "middle child syndrome" in her opinion ?
- Page 70. Why does Sara have such conflicted feelings about her father?
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The author uses many descriptions to help her readers understand the feelings of the characters. Have your students examine these emotions.
- Write in your own words Sara's feelings before Charlie was missing. Use Pages 6, 35, and 38 to help you. Then write down Sara's feelings in your own words after Charlie is found. Use Pages 119 and 128 to help you.
- Betsy Byars also uses humor in the story when Aunt Willa speaks. What does she mean when she says:
- Page 16. "May I grow a beard if I'm not."
- Page 62. "A hundred elephants couldn't stop me."
- Page 65. "My tongue should fall out on the floor for promising to look after your brother and not doing it."
- Page 122. "...this has been the blackest day of my life.....and I include every day I have been on earth."
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Projects to Enjoy
Present your students with these projects to further extend activities for The Summer of the Swans:
- In a group, make a large mural of the setting showing the swans arriving, the lake where they landed, the old shack, the place where Sara and Charlie watched the swans. You could add fabric scraps, felt scraps, different colored papers to give your picture more depth.
- Make a large poster advertising The Summer of the Swans book. Include a teaser about the book so that your fellow students will be curious and want to read it.
- Make a Cereal Box Book Report. Cover a cereal box with plain paper. On the front draw a picture showing a favorite part of the story, include the title and author of the book. On a side panel list the characters and a one line description of each. On the other side panel write a synopsis of the story. On the back make up a word search or a map using words or places from the story.
- Make character webs for each of the main characters. Click here for a sample.
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Invite your students to share the results of their projects with the class. Have a look at the list of other novels by Betsy Byars and take a vote on which one they would like to read next.
- Byars, Betsy. The Summer of the Swans. New York: Puffin, 1981(Original copyright 1971).