At the beginning of The Glass Castle is a brief four-paragraph acknowledgment, the type of side note readers skip over to get to the story. The last line reads, “I can never adequately thank my husband, John Taylor, who persuaded me it was time to tell my story and then pulled it out of me.” The line is sentimental and sweet, but to me, a teacher, it speaks volumes. The idea of unfurling a sordid past like Jeanette Walls’ elevates this book from a simple autobiography to an outright journey, the same journey our students undergo as they explore their own stories.
In turn, every year, I book talk The Glass Castle, a book that sends my students on a roller coaster of emotion. In my upper level Advanced Composition course, I use the first chapter in “Part II: The Desert” as a mentor text since it begins with a brilliant snapshot in time which both startles and intrigues my students:
“I was on fire.
It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old, and we were living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town whose name I never knew. I was standing on a chair in front of the stove, wearing a pink dress my grandmother had bought for me. Pink was my favorite color. The dress’s skirt stuck out like a tutu, and I liked to spin around in front of the mirror, thinking I looked like a ballerina. But at that moment, I was wearing the dress to cook hot dogs, watching them swell and bob in the boiling water as the late-morning sunlight filtered in through the trailer’s small kitchenette window” (Walls 9).
The opening line is brilliant: “I was on fire.” It quickly ropes in my students as they are caught by the innocent voice of the next few lines: “It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old…” The interjections of childlike wonder make this passage even more haunting as students go on to learn that Jeannette’s beautiful tutu catches on fire and lands her in the emergency room with third-degree burns.
The chapter, which is six pages long, includes a plethora of craft marks that get students thinking about opening sentences, sensory details, one-sentence paragraphs, and the manipulation of time. The chapter can easily be broken down into shorter snapshot segments, which I have students dissect and analyze within smaller groups. These small discussions culminate in a larger whole class discussion that has students drawing out examples from the text to support their readings and interpretation. The best part though is after reading this mentor text most students are hooked. In turn, The Glass Castle becomes one of the most sought after books in my classroom library.