Guide to a Literature Unit Based on Doris Gates' "Blue Willow"

Guide to a Literature Unit Based on Doris Gates' "Blue Willow"
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An Overview

Blue Willow by Doris Gates is a thought-provoking tale of a young girl, Janey Larkin, whose parents are experiencing hard times. Mr. Larkin lost his ranch in Texas because of drought and dust storms. He has no steady job and this has necessitated moving around from place to place in search of work. This lack of consistency in Janey’s life triggers a gamut of emotions.

Grade Level:

Fourth and Fifth Grades

Global Unit Objectives:

  • The student will be able to identify the cause/s of the 1930s Dust Bowl.
  • The student will be able to analyze the effect/s of the 1930s Dust Bowl on the characters’ lives.



Explain the meaning of relevant vocabulary from the novel.

Develop a character analysis of the main characters.

Compose an acrostic poem of two characters.


Before Reading the Novel

Using dictionaries or encyclopedias, the students will record the meaning of the following terms and be able to use each word in a comprehensive sentence.

  • migrant worker
  • washboard
  • corn dodger
  • willow ware
  • two bits
  • proffered
  • swamper
  • adobe

After Reading the Novel

Do a character analysis of the main characters. Fold a sheet of chart paper vertically into two columns. Label the column on the left “Character” and label the column on the right “Character Trait". Generate a class discussion of these opinions.

Based on the character analysis of Janey and Bounce, create an acrostic (name) poem of their names. For example, J is for joyful when looking at the Blue Willow plate; B is for bossy when talking to others. Do these poems on separate sheets of paper so that they can be grouped and displayed on a bulletin board.

Discussion Questions

Do you think the protagonist (Janey) and the antagonist (Bounce) were similar in any way or completely different? Explain.

What surprised you in this novel? Explain.

Is there anything you would change in this novel? Explain.

Language Arts


Students will develop written communication skills.


Have the students go to a New Deal website and read what children wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt during the 1930s.

Generate a discussion with the students and ask what they think Janey would have asked of Mrs. Roosevelt. Students will then compose a letter from Janey. Have students share and explain their letter.

Generate a discussion with the students and ask, “If this were you, what would you ask of Mrs. Roosevelt? Do you think your requests would be different or similar to Janey’s? Have students share and explain their letters.

Social Studies


Using the Internet, students will obtain information on the Dust Bowl, the migrant worker experience, and family entertainment during the 1930s. (See resources below.)

Students will organize their findings and using examples from the novel, give their opinion as to how close the novel mirrored what they found.


Divide the class into three groups.

Group #1 will report on the dustbowl. The report should include:

  • What was the Dust Bowl?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Why did it happen?
  • Who was affected by it?

Group #2 will report on the migrant worker experience. The report should include:

  • Who were migrant workers?
  • Where did they come from?
  • Where did they mainly locate?
  • What kind of work did they do?

Group #3 will research how families entertained themselves during hard times. The report should include:

  • Games (store bought and homemade)
  • Sports (indoor and outdoor)
  • Social Gatherings (friends and relatives)

Discussion Questions

Where in the novel can the reader find evidence that Mr. Larkin’s plight was a result of the Dust Bowl?

Where in the novel can the reader find evidence that Mr. Larkin’s personality was adversely affected by his experience as a migrant worker?

Where in the novel can the reader find evidence that Mr. Larkin’s experience with hard times had a positive effect on his personality?

What did the Larkin family do for entertainment?

What do you and your family do when the family budget is tight? Is it different from or similar to the Larkin family?

Extension Activity


Students will identify methods of entertainment used by the families in the 1930s.

Procedure: Using the Internet, have the students research the history of Monopoly and Scrabble. Have the students record the following:

  • Who invented the games?
  • When were they invented?
  • Why were they so popular during the 1930s?
  • How do these games compare with games that are popular today?

2. Divide the class into groups and play both games.


Many families across the United States are experiencing hard times through no fault of their own. Lay-offs and home foreclosures have put a dent in many family budgets. These families, like the one studied in this Blue WIllow unit, have been asked to make unexpected sacrifices, including the children. Sometimes, it has meant delaying the purchase of a special item, or, in some cases, adjusting college plans.

References and Additional Resources

Gates, Doris, Blue Willow, Puffin Books, New York, New York, 1976.

Activities planned by author.

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