pages; ISBN 0-679-72866-X
Preparing to read
Understanding the text
Exploring the text:
Point of View and Voice
Extending the text
"Old Ellen," as the
eponymous narrator of Kaye Gibbons's first novel calls herself, is actually
a spirited, indomitable eleven-year-old girl from the backwoods of the
Deep South. Ellen Foster is her story, which Gibbons tells us entirely
in Ellen's own unique and immediate voice, a voice that seems to come
from a place deep inside her, "spoken" on the page as much to herself
as it is to the readers of this remarkable book.
unfolds as a series of events both past and present: the often harrowing
situations that occurred as Ellen grew up, and what is happening right
before our eyes in the "now" of the pages we are turning. This gives
the reader the opportunity to simultaneously live, relive, and reflect
upon the experiences of Ellen's life.
Kaye Gibbons uses
Ellen's voice not to evoke the pity or simple sympathy we often feel
for a child in a coming-of-age story, but instead to make the reader
feel the rage that has been Ellen's experience of growing up. The book
begins with a sentence that is at once chilling, funny, and resoundingly
honest: "When I was young, I would think of ways to kill my daddy."
It becomes apparent early in the novel why Ellen harbors such thoughts.
Her father is a terrible drunk, a cruel husband, a self-centered profligate
who seems hell-bent on destroying himselfand his family. Ellen's
mother has borne the trials of marriage as best she could, but wracked
by physical pain and reduced to silent domestic servitude by her abusive
husband, she can scarcely shield her child from what she herself has
endured for so long. As far as Ellen is concerned, "Everything was so
wrong like somebody had knocked something loose and my family was shaking
itself to death" [p. 2].
The death of Ellen's
mothera death for which her husband is responsible, and which
Ellen is helpless to prevent, as much as she is haunted by how she tried
to stop itsets in motion the story of Ellen's Dickensian struggle
for atonement and for a place in the world. She must build her own life
by a series of willful choices, unflagging faith in her own ability
to survive, and dauntless self-assessment. She must do so even in the
face of her father's clumsy but menacing sexual advances and his abandonment
of his daughter's basic human needs for food and clothing.
another theme in Ellen Foster with the character of Starletta,
Ellen's only friend and her possible salvation. Starletta and her family
are "colored," and thus Ellen's attempts to find comfort, happiness
and the sheer joys of childhood with Starletta and her family are tempered
by her own feelings about racefeelings that Ellen has unwittingly
inherited from her family and her community. For example, Gibbons artfully
portrays Starletta and her family's poverty and hardship through the
veil of Ellen's ambivalence and racist attitudes: Ellen tells us that
she will not drink from a glass that has touched their lips, that she
cannot understand how they live in such tight quarters ("All three of
them stay in one room. I myself could not stand it. . ." [p. 30]); yet
she often wishes to be part of their world.
travails, Ellen shows a perspicacity and tenaciousness beyond her years.
Her reflections on her life and the disturbed characters who enter and
leave it bring her a new understanding of real human nature, even as
the events in Ellen Foster teach this young heroineand
the readerthings about race, class, gender, and perhaps the most
complex issue of all: how to love one another. Ellen's observations
about other people's values and actions touch on larger themes of fate,
circumstance, and personal responsibility. Her eye on herself and others
is unflinching, but her faith in herself is her salvation: "I am not
exactly a vision. But Lord I have good intentions that count" [p. 61].
is a work of fiction written in the first-person, a work that uses colloquial
language and speech patterns appropriate to its eleven-year-old narrator.
You may want to discuss with your students how the coming-of-age genre,
as told in the voice of its protagonist, differs from biography or autobiography.
Key concepts include the difference between the documented facts and substantiated
opinions found in nonfiction as compared with the point-of-view and imaginative
narrative process at work in a fictional piece.
with reading Ellen Foster, you may also want to consider having
your students compare it with other coming-of-age, first-person narratives
such as Charles Dickens's David Copperfield; Mark Twain's The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the
Rye; Frank Conroy's Stop-Time; Alice Walker's The Color
Purple; Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye; Sandra Cisneros's
The House on Mango Street; or Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia
Girls Lost Their Accents.
The teaching plan
that follows is designed to guide your students through Ellen Foster,
whether you are involved in whole-class or small-group classroom management.
Understanding the Text includes the kind of comprehension questions
that are critical to students' ability to understand the story; Exploring
the Text directs student attention to the structure and themes at work
in the text. The suggested student activities in Extending the Text
are suitable for independent or cooperative work.
- Ellen uses different
verb tenses in telling her story. When is this story taking place?
How can you know?
- Ellen says she
knew her daddy was evil, but ". . . I did not have the proof" [p.
9]. What proof does she now have?
- How does Ellen
feel about her aunt Nadine and her cousin Dora?
- What clues indicate
how Ellen might regard her "new mama"?
- At the funeral,
Ellen seems to survey the attendees and describe whom she sees [pp.
19-22]. Which characters does she seem connected to? Which disconnected
- How does Ellen's
narrative answer her own question: "Do I have to watch?" [p. 21]
- Who is the magician?
- What details
hint at Ellen's age?
- What transaction
takes place among Ellen's father and his brothers?
- Ellen shops for
and wraps her own Christmas presents. Why does she do this and why
does she feel she has to? What does Ellen mean when she declares she
was "very surprised in the spirit of Christmas" [p. 28]?
- Ellen's description
of Starletta's home reveals much about Ellen herself. What details
show her assumptions about race and class?
- Again, Ellen
asks "Do I have to watch?" [p. 31]; she reminds herself "I could go"
[p. 31], but she doesn't leave Starletta's home. Why not?
- In talking about
her father and his drinking friends, what does Ellen mean when she
says, "You get out before they dream about the honey pie and the sugar
plums." [p. 37].
- What exactly
are the events that cause the narrator to keep repeating "I am Ellen.
I am Ellen"? [p. 38]
- Ellen makes several
moves in this chapter: to Starletta's house, to Aunt Betsy's house,
finally to wherever the school is willing to send her. What is she
trying to escape? What is she trying to find?
- When Ellen moves
in with her art teacher, Julia, and her husband, Roy, she says, "I
had no idea people could live like that" [p. 47]. What way of life
is she commenting upon? Does Ellen approve or disapprove?
- Why do Julia,
Roy, and Ellen have to go to court?
- How does Ellen's
"mama's mama" compare to her "new mama"?
- What does Ellen's
description of her household tell you about her mama's background
and her mama's mama's personality?
- What does the
story of Mavis and her family further reveal about Ellen's attitudes
toward race? Toward family?
- Why does Ellen's
mama's mama slap her [p. 69] at the news of the death of Ellen's father?
- What system did
Ellen's mama's mama set up to keep track of her grandchild?
- What reasons
does Ellen's mama's mama give for treating her own granddaughter so
- When her grandmother
dies, Ellen says, "The score is two to one now" [p. 80]. What does
- Ellen describes
the daily routine at her new mama's. What does this description say
about the household and its inhabitants?
- What new understandings
has Ellen come to about Starletta? How do you see this process of
- Why does Ellen
rename herself and where does the name come from?
- What is it that
Ellen finds out by spying on Mavis and her family?
- Why is it so
important to Ellen that Starletta visit her for the weekend? Why is
it also important that everyone in school, especially Dora, find out
- What does the
Christmas scene reveal about Dora and Nadine?
- Why does Ellen
say, "And all I wonder is why I do not hate Starletta" [p. 110].
- How well does
Ellen carry out her plan to get a new mama?
- What does Ellen
have to "straighten out" [p. 121] with Starletta?
- On pages 125
and 126, Ellen seems to come to two very major philosophical conclusions.
What are they?
Exploring the text
- Some of the words
or phrases Ellen and other characters use, such as "colored," "nigger,"
and "white trash," while rooted in the book's locale and its characters'
social and economic class, are blatantly offensive. To what purpose
do you think Kaye Gibbons nonetheless included this language in Ellen
- Colloquial writing
approximates the sound of speech; such writing is by nature informal.
What examples of colloquialisms can you find throughout Ellen Foster?
What do you think the use of words like "his/her/my own self" [pp.
2, 8, etc.]; "folks" [pp. 6, 16, etc.]; "dingleballs" [p. 5]; "what-nots"
[p. 41]; "chewed their cud" and "so-and-so" [p. 75] contribute to
the narration? What do they reveal about the narrator?
- Ellen's narration
is rich with metaphors as well as idiomatic phrases and turns of speech.
This sort of vernacular writing is directly connected to the language
of a country or region, as opposed to more formal, less regionalized
"literary" language. What are some examples of vernacular writing
in Ellen Foster? What does Ellen mean when she says "The preacher
. . . goes straight to the green valleys and the streets of silver
and gold"? [p. 20]; "I have not seen hide nor hair" [p. 32]; ". .
. you know yours was never a Roman pillar but is and always has been
crumbly old brick?" [p. 56]; " . . . her mind was still wound up tight
as a tick" [p. 77]; "It is the kind of dress that decorates you in
the front and back both" [p. 98]? What examples of vernacular writing
can you find? How do vernacular and colloquial writing differ from
each other? How do they complement each other? What affect does each
technique have on the reader?
- Two of the primary
metaphors that recur throughout the novel are the magician and the
microscope. What do you think they each symbolize?
- In writing Ellen
Foster, Kaye Gibbons made very deliberate punctuation choices:
for example, there are no quotation marks for attribution of speech.
Look at passages like the ones on pages 32; 47 and 48; or 112. How
do you know who is speaking? Are we listening only to Ellen, or listening
in on a private conversation? How does the author's decision not to
use quotation marks affect the reading experience?
- Throughout the
book, there are references to what Ellen is reading at home because
she "can hardly tolerate the stories we read for school." Why does
she feel this way about the books that are assigned to her at school?
Which literary references can you identify?
- Despite the fact
that Ellen is the sole narrator of her book, Kaye Gibbons creates
a world of characters who are powerful presences in Ellen Foster.
What are the strongest descriptions Ellen gives of her "daddy"? What
impression do you get when she calls him things like "big wind-up
toy of a man" [p. 3]? How would you contrast Ellen's mama, who had
"romantic fever" [p. 3], with her new mama, who's "healthy as a horse"
[p. 119]? What other details about each mother's character can you
find? Is Ellen's grandmother, with her "churning hate" [p. 21] and
who acts "touched" [p. 65], a woman to be feared or pitied? What examples
support either view? Ellen hotly tells her aunt Nadine and cousin
Dora: "You two are bumping around in this house lost and foolish over
each other" [p. 114]. How does that sentence sum up their characters
and their relationship?
- In telling the
events of her life story, Ellen reveals quite a bit about her own
character and her own value system. She is a person who is inclined
to keep "lists," primarily of things to share with Starletta, or make
a project out of reading "everything of some count." Why do you think
she does these things?
- Ellen is also
a person who is very concerned with order. In her room at the new
mama's "everything matches" [p. 5]; she "will not color with a broke
crayon" [p. 31] and tapes together all Starletta's crayon pieces "like
they are supposed to be" [p. 31]; she wishes autumn leaves were "fall-colored
at the same time" [p. 16]; and primly sits up front in the bus because
". . . this is a ride to school, not a circus" [p. 83]. What do you
think is the source of this need for order and what light does it
shed on the personality of the narrator? What other examples can you
find? How does this character trait contribute to the resolution of
- Another of Ellen's
principal characteristics is her self-awareness and her desire to
create a good life for herself. How does Ellen's visit to the school
psychologist [pp. 86-89] demonstrate this? Was she actually able to
carry through on statements like " . . . I decided if I quit wasting
time I could be as happy as anybody else in the future . . ." [p.
95]? What happens when reality ("There is no Santa Claus" [p. 107])
jars with what Ellen wishes were true? [See page 109.] What do declarations
like "I do not control the clouds or the thunder" [p. 7] tell you
about Ellen's understanding of her self or her place in the world?
- The issue of
privacy is very important to Ellen, and even though she seems to spend
an enormous amount of time alone, she still feels the absence of privacy
keenly. For example, when she has to blow out the candles on her birthday
cake, she says, "I wished I could make the wish later when I could
think to myself" [p. 51]. What other examples of Ellen's desire to
be alone at critical times can you find? What does this contribute
to the picture you get of Ellen? Do you think this is unusual for
a child of her age?
Point of View and
- Ellen Foster
is a first-person narrative, told from Ellen's own point of view.
However, Kaye Gibbons, as the author, is also expressing a point of
view both about Ellen and about the events her heroine describes.
Look at the paragraph on page 3 that begins with "She could not help
getting sick but nobody made her marry him." What is Ellen trying
to tell us about her mother's condition? What is the author saying
about Ellen? In describing Starletta's parents, Ellen states, "People
say they do not try to be white" [p. 29]. What point is the author
making beyond what the narrator is saying? Do narrator and author
share the same views? How would you compare Ellen's level of awareness
with the author's in the passage about the school psychologist [pp.
86-89]? Discuss other examples of how the author's point of view is
- Throughout Ellen
Foster, there are shifts in tone and in voice. Look at the passages
that begin with "Close the cover. Close it down" [p. 21]; or "Go ahead
and look said the magician. I do not want to look" [p. 70]. How do
these passages differ from the rest of the text? What affect do they
- Racial relationships
and attitudes are a major theme in Ellen Foster. How would
you characterize Ellen's attitudes toward race in terms of Starletta
and her family? Of Mavis and her family? Of her father's drinking
buddies? What causes changes in Ellen's consciousness about race and
prejudice? Why is Starletta's weekend visit so significant? Do you
think the author is saying that Ellen is now a person without prejudice?
- Another of the
major themes of Ellen Foster is how much responsibility or
control individuals have over their own lives. The Ellen who says
"And how the Lord moves is his business" [p. 7] is the same Ellen
who also says ". . . I think I am somebody now because I said by damn
this is how it is going to be. . ." [p. 95]. How do these two statements
reflect the question of responsibility and control? How does this
theme relate to the deaths of Ellen's mother and grandmother? What
are other examples of the development of this theme throughout the
book? How is this theme manifested in the actions or descriptions
of other characters in the book?
- Another parallel
theme is the idea of personal choice. What does Ellen's experience
living with Julia and Roy ("I had no idea people could live like that"
[p. 47]) reveal about Ellen's own ideas of what choices are possible?
Do her ideas change over the course of Ellen Foster?
- Money and the
good and bad effects of having it or not having it are a recurring
issue in Ellen Foster. Ellen baldly states, "All I really cared
about accumulating was money. I saved a bundle" [p. 61]. In the book,
economic status is often integrated into character descriptions or
included in the rationale for their actions. Use examples from the
text to sum up the book's depiction of money as a force in people's
Extending the text
- After reading
Ellen Foster, you may want to ask students to reread Ralph
Waldo Emerson's inscription to "Self-Reliance" on page ix and discuss
students' understanding both of the inscription and its relation to
the text. Then ask students to come up with other literary quotes,
phrases, or inscriptions that would also make suitable epigraphs for
- To reinforce
the difference between autobiography and first-person narrative, have
students keep a journal. On each two-page spread, one page should
be devoted to a traditional "diary"-like personal account; the other
page to a creative, first-person narrative.
- Ellen tells the
librarian she wants "to read everything of some count." Ask students
to create their own reading lists of books that are "of some count"
to them. Students' list could include books that they have read as
well as books they would like to read and the reasons for these choices.
If several students include the same books on their lists, you may
want to set up "book groups," in which a small group of students read
(or reread) and discuss the book they all share an interest in.
- In Ellen Foster,
as in many other books, plays or films that use first-person narrative,
the telling of events and the description of the story's characters
come from one source: the narrator. Ask students to choose another
character from the book and write a first-person narrative from that
character's point of view. You may also want to ask students to work
in groups, using their individual narratives, to put together a presentation
- One of the difficulties
an author faces in writing a book like Ellen Foster is that
it is hard to capture the voice of a child character. An adult writer
brings an accumulation of experience and learning to the craft of
writing, which may affect the authenticity of a child character's
ideas and language. Have students write a critical review of Ellen
Foster discussing how well Kaye Gibbons achieves this aim, giving
and vernacular language are essential parts of the narrative in Ellen
Foster. Ask students to write a self-contained passage or story,
using their own informal language. You might point out that a reader
may be unfamiliar with slang or regional expressions, so that it is
important for the students as writers to consider including context
clues if the meaning of their narrative will be obscured by informal
- Ellen, at eleven
years old, is a strong and memorable character. Ask students to write
a profile of Ellen Foster as an adult. Discuss what characteristics
from the book they used as a basis for their predictions of her adult
This teacher's guide
was written by Sheila Keenan, who is a former editorial supervisor of
the Instructional Publishing Group at Scholastic, Inc. She has also taught
secondary-school English in Boston.
1994 by VINTAGE BOOKS
For more information,
please email Random House Academic
Marketing or write to them at:
sRandom House Academic
299 Park Avenue, 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10171
to Random House, Inc. Teacher's Guides
Readers can find
a host of resources including a list of reading guides for Vintage Books
online at the Vintage Books Reading Group Center