The Common Good

James and the Giant Book

In Roald Dahl's classic children's book James and the Giant Peach, 7-year-old orphan James Henry Trotter escapes his two rotten, abusive aunts by crawling into a giant peach. The peach rolls, floats, and flies him to a new life of wonder and love.

I'm reading this book aloud for the first time, and my listeners are spellbound by the story, especially the part where the very small old man opens the bag filled with magical crocodile tongues that will help a barren, broken peach tree grow fruit as big as a house.

"There's more power and magic in those things in there than in all the rest of the world put together," says the man. 

There is.

While I'm reading about the James in the story, I'm working with a James in one of my Response to Intervention (RTI) reading groups.

My student James is 10 years old and in the fourth grade. He's growing up in economic poverty. According to Marian Wright Edelman of the Childrens Defense Fund, this poverty makes him less healthy, less likely to graduate from high school, and less likely to develop emotionally and intellectually at the same pace as his non-poor peers. It is a rotten, abusive poverty.

James wrote a poem that reflects the world as he sees and lives it:

Anger is red and black,

It smells like gunpowder,

It tastes like bullets,

It sounds like a shot,

It feels like a sharp knife,

It lives in fear.

How much is my real-life James like the James in the story?

As a reading teacher, I hope I am like the very small old magical man.

Every school day, I hold books in front of my James, just as the very small old man held the bag in front of the literary James.

"James, if you learn to read well, then you can do anything, I whisper to him. "There's more power and magic in these books than in all the rest of the world put together."

There is.

James the fourth-grader loves reading now. He's always reading. I love it!

I visited him in his classroom and his teacher showed me his big social studies test. He earned a B and was one of only three students who passed the test on the first try.

"It's magical, Mr. Barton," he said with a smile.

That is the power of reading and hard work. 

This social studies victory shows his progress. When he came to my classroom as a third-grade student, he read 20 words correctly per minute on a second-grade level. Yesterday, he read more than 70 words correctly per minute on a fourth-grade level.

My James crawled into the giant peach of literacy. I predict it will take him away from a life of poverty and fear to a new life of wonder and love. I'm thankful to be with him as he rolls, floats, and flies along the way.

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Boy reading a book, Valeriy Lebedev  /

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