Pam Munoz Ryan is an author to be trusted. If you have ever read one of her stories, you know you’re bound to have a captivating and emotional experience when you pick up one of her books. Pam Munoz Ryan is the perfect writer to begin an author study within the classroom. Her books contain profound life lessons and deep themes.
Pam Munoz Ryan is a winner of multiple awards. Two such are the Newberry Honor Medal and a NAPPA Gold award, among countless others. She is a New York Times Bestseller author. Her novels are perfect for upper elementary to middle school readers. Ryan is known for her multi-cultural literature, strong protagonists, and deep themes written in an age-appropriate way.
I first found Pam Munoz Ryan when teaching elementary grades. I taught her novel, Esperanza Rising. It is a wonderful historical-fictional book based on true events surrounding her own grandmother Esperanza Ortega’s life and immigration to the United States.
In Esperanza Rising, we are taken on a journey of loss. Quickly into the story, the reader learns Esperanza’s loving and wealthy rancher father is killed at the hands of bandits. Esperanza, her mother, and their servants who are like family must move. This is due their beautiful Mexican ranch is burned down by Esperanza’s uncle. They leave behind her abuelita, whom she was very close with, in a convent. The death of her father, separation from her beloved grandmother, and a series of events causes Esperanza to grieve and grow so much within a year.
Pam Munoz Ryan weaves real history in her novel as detailed through the Mexican Revolution, the Dust Bowl, discrimination, immigration, Repatriation, migrant farms, the Great Depression, and labor strikes. During these major events, Esperanza must contend with losing all her material possessions, living extremely poorly, losing her father and possibly her mother, and growing up very quickly through the process. This novel is recommended for grades 4 and up.
If you are interested in teaching this novel, hop on over to our other blog post: 5 Activities for Teaching Esperanza Rising.
Becoming Naomi Leon
Another treasure of Pam Munoz Ryan’s is Becoming Naomi Leon. When I read this novel, I immediately noticed similar details to Esperanza Rising, but Becoming Naomi Leon had more modern elements. Similarities include the Mexican landscape, heritage, and food, as well as a journey of the female protagonist finding herself while dealing with trauma.
Naomi Soledad León Outlaw has had a lot to contend with in her young life, her name for one. Then there are her clothes (sewn in polyester by Gram), her difficulty speaking up, and her status at school as “nobody special.” But according to Gram’s self-prophecies, most problems can be overcome with positive thinking. Luckily, Naomi also has her carving to strengthen her spirit. And life with Gram and her little brother, Owen, is happy and peaceful. That is, until their mother reappears for the first time in seven years, stirring up all sorts of questions and challenging Naomi to discover who she really is.
Naomi, her great-grandmother Gram, and her little brother Owen all live in a small trailer/RV. Naomi and Owen are happy and cared for, enjoying evenings with pork-chops and Wheel of Fortune. Their mother, an alcoholic who abandoned Naomi and Owen seven years prior, shows up suddenly wanting to be part of their lives. Naomi and Owen’s trauma resurfaces from the neglect they had faced under her care and with the threat of her mother, Skyla, taking only Naomi to go live with her and her new boyfriend in Las Vegas.
There are deep themes such as child neglect, abandonment, alcoholism, inter-generational living, and custody hearings, so please choose this book wisely for your students. Nevertheless, Ryan has a way of making these topics age-appropriate without too much detail and just the right amount of discretion and subtlety. The reader is taken on a journey of Gram fighting for her great-grandkids, Naomi finding her father and her voice to be used for justice and redemption.
I was drawn into this book immediately. The quirky characters, the desert backdrop, the Mexican landscape and food, the Spanish language and the warmth of family and friends all draw the reader in. With Naomi’s soap carvings and the big woodcarving event in Mexico they attend in which Naomi finds her gifts, will excite younger readers. This book has heart and soul, uniqueness, and strong characters.
Paint the Wind
Ryan’s novel Paint the Wind has similarities to Esperanza Rising and Becoming Naomi Leon as well. The female protagonist, Maya, lives with her grandmother, but it is not a great situation. Her grandmother is an avid liar and has woven lies about Maya’s dead mother and her whole personal history. Maya, herself, tells lies in order to save face and impress. Through a series of events, Maya must move from California to Wyoming to live with her mother’s family, who are adamant against lying. They push her to find out the truth about who she really is and her mother’s horse helps her do this. Ryan has a knack for describing settings in her novels and the Wyoming wilderness is described beautifully, coupled with her description of the wild horse, Paint.
This epic horse story, in the tradition of BLACK STALLION, marks exciting new territory for one of our most treasured and celebrated novelists.
A puzzling photograph, a box filled with faded toy horses, and a single fractured memory are all that Maya has left of her mother. In her grandmother’s house, she lives like a captive, tethered by rules… until a shocking event changes everything. A world away, in the rugged Wyoming wilderness, a wild mustang called Artemisia runs free, belonging only to the stars. In a land where mountain lions pose an ever-present threat, she must vigilantly defend her foal… until a devastating act separates them from their band. Like a braided rein, Maya’s and Artemisia’s lives will ultimately intertwine.
Paint the Wind left me gripping with emotion. As an adult, the story carried me through a roller coaster of sadness, grief, fear, and shock. You don’t have to be a horse person to enjoy this book. The book, Paint the Wind, has extensive vocabulary, exciting plot twists, so much heart, and the ever-present strong female lead that Ryan is known for.
Exposing students to a variety of authors is crucial for them to became diversified readers and writers, learning from many different writing styles and enjoying many genres of books; however, completely focusing on one writer and investigating author studies in the classroom has added benefits as well. Here are three ways to complete author studies in your classroom.
Completing a series of read-alouds from the same author opens the class up to great discussion on writing styles. They discuss comparing and contrasting, author’s craft, and so much more. Even by using book series as read-alouds, students can see similarities of how a particular author creates a story arc. The students can also see if it is similar or different from book to book within a series. Students will connect each novel naturally. They will make inferences about the author, and find consistency among different novels.
For reasons to utilize a read-aloud in the Middle School Classroom, read our blog about it here!
2. Pair a Read-Aloud with a Novel Unit
As you teach a novel unit, simultaneously choose a read-aloud by the same author. I did this when we studied Mighty Miss Malone. I used Christopher Paul Curtis’s novel Bud, Not Buddy as our read-aloud at the same time. In fact, in Bud, Not Buddy, worlds collide when Deza from Mighty Miss Malone is featured. It was an awesome moment when students realized this. (I got bonus points for not revealing this meet-up until we came across it.)
My students were able to compare and contrast Curtis’ books. They realized that Curtis loved to write about similar themes of poverty and real life history of the Great Depression. He also loved including riding the rails. Furthermore, he included many mentions of Michigan and similar places between both novels, and even humor. Curtis has a way of executing humor beautifully in normally sad topics. My students made so many connections as we studied both of his books.
Students will be able to learn so much as they study two novels by the same author simultaneously.
3. Independent Reading Projects
As a middle school English teacher, I assigned one independent reading project per quarter. One particular student had a penchant for reading Gary Paulsen books. So for each independent reading project he completed, he read a different Gary Paulsen book. For the last independent reading project, he compared and contrasted all four books he had read by him that year. He made deep connections throughout the novels, inferences about Paulsen’s personality, and formed a deep attachment to this author’s books.
By forming a deep bond with an author, this student developed a love of reading. He also could easily recognize the specific author’s craft. By reading an author’s work in a variety of books, students are able to learn and recognize different writing styles. Thus, in turn, become amazing writers too.
As a teacher, you can assign an Independent Reading Project. Students will read two books by the same author, any writer of their choosing, and form connections between the two.
Here is a FREE project that does just that: Author Study Independent Reading Project.
If you’re interested in exploring Gary Paulsen projects for the classroom, take a look at our resource here.
Pam Munoz Ryan is an author you must add to your bookshelves if you have not done so. Her books are enthralling, contain profound life lessons and deep themes, and are always hopeful. By completing an author study in the classroom, students gain the benefit of learning a particular author’s writing style. They also form deep connections between books and attachments to an author. Consider using Pam Munoz Ryan as an author study in your classroom to begin!