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Eleven-year-old Genie loves to ask questions; he keeps a notebook filled with them. When his parents decide they need a summer alone to try to save their marriage, he and his older brother Ernie are sent to rural Virginia to stay with grandparents they hardly know. Compared with Brooklyn, Virginia is completely strange, and it’s not long before Genie discovers a whole new set of questions for his notebook: Why is Grandpop afraid to go outside? What’s the story behind the weird yellow house in the woods? What secret is Grandpop hiding?
When Grandpop tells the boys that he’s going to teach Ernie how to shoot a gun on his fourteenth birthday, Genie has to ask the hardest questions of his life. He learns that real courage has nothing to do with shooting a gun, and everything to do with facing your fears and admitting the truth when you’ve made a mistake.
1. Describe the similarities and differences between Ernie and Genie. How can you tell that Genie looks up to his older brother? How do you think Ernie feels about Genie?
2. Why are Ernie and Genie staying with their grandparents for the summer? How do the boys feel about spending a summer in the country? Why hasn’t Genie met his grandfather before now?
3. Genie refers to a game he calls Pete and Repeat. Based on context clues, how do you think you play the game?
4. How is life in the country different from life in the city for Genie and Ernie? What do the boys like about the country? What do they dislike about it? Have you ever spent time in a place that is totally different from your own home, like a camp or a relative’s house in a different town? What was the best thing about your experience? What was the worst thing?
5. Why didn’t Genie’s family tell him that his grandfather was blind? Do you understand Grandpop’s reasoning for keeping his blindness a secret?
6. How does Genie react when he sees his grandfather’s gun? Why is the gun so important to Grandpop?
7. Describe the development of Genie’s relationship with his grandfather. What do you think draws the two of them together?
8. Describe Grandpop’s special “outside” room. Why do you think he created this room? How is it similar to the old yellow house? What does Genie think the tree and the birds might represent?
9. Examine how guilt impacts the relationships in the novel. For example, Genie is consumed by his guilt over the death of Michael Jackson and breaking Wood’s model. Do you think either of the accidents were Genie’s fault? Why does he try to hide his mistakes from others? Who else struggles with guilt?
10. Throughout the novel, Genie demonstrates empathy for others. Find an example of a time when Genie is empathetic. Why is empathy important?
11. What is a flea market? Have you ever been to one? Based on the description of the one Genie and Ernie attend with their grandmother, how is a flea market different from a regular store? What is the most interesting thing that happens at the flea market?
12. Who is Tess? How does she show that she is a good friend to Ernie?
13. Who is Crab? How does he know Genie’s grandparents? Do you think he is a good friend? Explain your answer using evidence from the text.
14. Many of the characters in the novel struggle with fear: Genie, Ernie, Grandpop, Uncle Wood, Tess’s mother. What frightens each of these characters? How do they respond to their fear?
15. As Ernie’s fourteenth birthday approaches, what tradition does Grandpop plan to continue? Who started the tradition, and why did they feel that it was important? Why does Grandpop need Crab’s help to carry on the tradition?
16. Compare Ernie and Genie’s initial responses to the birthday tradition. Why is Genie surprised by his brother’s response? What ends up happening when Ernie tries to shoot Grandpop’s gun? How does this experience change Ernie, Genie, and Grandpop?
17. Have you ever tried to hide a mistake? What happened? Paraphrase the story Grandpop tells Genie about his father and Barnabas Saint. What does this story have to do with the themes of guilt and learning to admit to your mistakes?
18. At the end of the novel, how have the characters changed? Which character has changed the most?
19. Summarize the different response each of the characters in the book has to guns. Which character’s response is the most similar to your own?
20. After you’ve finished the book, look back at the book cover and explain what is happening in this scene. Who are the characters in the image? How can you tell? What is significant about the house on the cover? Why are there so many birds? Some of the birds in the picture resemble white doves: What do you think these birds might represent?
1. Throughout the novel, Genie keeps a running list of questions to research later. Make your own version of Genie’s question notebook and list all the questions that you have over the course of a day (or week). Using a search engine like Google, choose several of the questions to research and answer and present your findings to your classmates.
2. When Grandpop tells Genie about his family history, he mentions Jim Crow and the murder of Emmitt Till, but Genie doesn’t really understand this era of American history: “Genie had learned some of this in his social studies class—racism, slavery. Question for later: Who was Jim Crow?” Research the Jim Crow laws and the importance of Emmett Till. How does understanding this era help you understand the story of Genie’s great-grandfather and Barnabas Saint?
3. Tess sells art made from recycled art at the flea market, and when she meets Genie and Ernie, she shows them how to flatten bottle caps with a hammer and turn them into earrings. Create a piece of art from recycled materials and have a class flea market or art show displaying the creations. Pinterest can provide ideas to get you started.
4. Genie uses root words, prefixes, and suffixes to create new words like poopidity andkaratisizing. Research word etymology and learn how new words get created. How can word endings change a word’s classification as a part of speech (noun, adjective, adverb, verb)? Using a list of common prefixes and suffixes, create a class dictionary of “new words.” Define the meaning of each word, draw an illustration, and use each word in a sentence.
5. In the novel, Genie spends time with his grandfather, and he learns about his family history. Choose an elderly relative, neighbor, or family friend to interview about their life and document your interview in a report. If possible, get permission to record audio or video of the interview. The nonprofit organization Citylore has resources to help young people learn how to conduct an interview: http://tinyurl.com/j8m44bv
6. Write a short story about one of the characters in the novel that helps answer a question you have about them or further develops their character. For example, you might write a story that works as a flashback and explains why Ernie is afraid to shoot a gun or what caused Tess’s mother to become a hypochondriac. You might even choose to explore what happens to a character after the end of the novel.
7. Grandpop creates a secret space with his “outside room.”If you were able to build your own special secret space, what would it look like? Write a descriptive essay about your dream hideaway or secret room, or draw a detailed illustration. You can extend this activity by building a 3-D or virtual model of the room.
Guide written in 2016 by Amy Jurskis, English Department Chair at Oxbridge Academy.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Jason Reynolds is crazy. About stories. He is the author of critically acclaimed When I Was the Greatest, for which he was the recipient of the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent; the Coretta Scott King Honor books Boy in the Black Suit and All American Boys (cowritten with Brendan Kiely, also the winner of the Walter Dean Myers Award); As Brave As You, his stunning middle grade debut that was a Time Book of the Year and winner of the Kirkus Award; and Ghost, the first book in his middle grade Track series, which was also a National Book Award finalist. You can find his ramblings at JasonWritesBooks.com.