Thursday, August 12, 2010

Taking Flight: The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco

My heart sang as I walked to school with all the kids on my Grammie's block on the first day of school.

In my old school the kids knew that I had just learned to read . . .that I used to be dumb. Everyone knew that I was always in special classes.

Proud to be free of the stigma of being a special education kid, Trisha is dismayed to learn that unlike her new friend Kay, she is assigned to Mrs. Peterson's class, known to all the kids in school as "the Junkyard."

And her classmates do seem unusual. "Everyone seemed really different in one way or another. I couldn't put my finger on it," Trisha thinks. But Thom invites her to sit next to him, and Mrs. Peterson, while a large and somewhat imposing figure, looks with friendly and delighted eyes at her class of misfits, as she booms, "Welcome to the Junkyard." On the board she writes the class's motto:


And Mrs. Peterson has creativity to spare. She first swabs each one of her "Junkyard wonders'" wrists with a mysterious substance, and tells the kids to sniff each arm and sort themselves into groups by the scent--vanilla, cinnamon, lemon, or almond--that they detect. With giggles and quick introductions the groups are sorted into the four study groups Mrs. Peterson calls their "tribes." Then she leads the tribes to the local junkyard, which she declares to be "a place full of wondrous possibilities." Each tribe finds something interesting, and all of their class lessons are organized around their projects to make something wonderful out of their chosen piece of junk. Trisha's tribe, the Vanillas, led by the airplane-crazy Gibbie, determines that the broken model plane they drag out of the dump will "defy gravity and fly to the moon."

Trisha is still uncomfortable with the teasing the "Junkyard Wonders" suffer in the schoolyard, but she loves Mrs. Peterson, whose faith in them inspires the kids, each with his own personal problems, to rise to the challenge. The team spirit bonds the class into an effective learning machine, and Trisha finds herself reading and working at levels she never expected.

Finally the big day comes. The Tribes have produced some amazing projects, a musical "Vibrophonium," a "Perpetual Motion Machine," and a "Hanging Wall Maze" that is a compendium of working simple machines that Rube Goldberg would applaud. Trisha's Vanillas have even raised funds to buy a powerful motor for their airplane, rebuilt bigger and better, and on launch day it takes off and soars out of sight of the cheering assembled school.

"This baby is going all the way to the moon!" Gibbie shouts.

And Mrs. Peterson was right about her "Junkyard Wonders." Although Jody dies at the end of the year from the acromegaly which made him grow so big that he was a natural to defend his classmates from the school bully, the rest of the "Wonders" go on to adult success. Award-winning author-illustrator Patricia Polacco, whose childhood memoir, Junkyard Wonders (Philomel, 2010) retells her own story, includes an author's note which describes the adult successes of her classmates: Ravanne, the artistic member of the "Vanillas," becomes a Paris fabric designer; Thom goes on to direct the American Ballet Theatre; and Gibbie becomes an aeronautical engineer who works on the Apollo lunar module, even stowing away a photo of the Junkyard Wonders with their model airplane on its launch day, making sure that "All of us "Wonders" really did make it to the moon after all."

Engagingly illustrated in Polacco's recognizable style, Junkyard Wonders is an testament to the power of a single gifted teacher and the power that remains to be revealed in each student, even the ones resigned to the "junkyard," an engaging account which will encourage youngsters who read or listen to this inspiring true story to appreciate the abilities which may be hidden in them all, even the "special" students among them.

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