Armstrong & Charlie Reader's Guide
I trust you more than myself to guide your discussion of Armstrong & Charlie. Readers usually discover more in books than writers do.
But if you’re looking for a few ideas to get the conversation started—along with some writing prompts you might like— I hope the following is helpful.
Steven B. Frank
1. Throughout the book, Charlie and his parents are struggling with the loss of his older brother Andy. How do we know that there is grief hanging over their home? In what ways does Armstrong help them through this grief? Can you think of a time in your own life when you had to deal with loss? What—or who—helped you move past it?
2. Just before they have dinner at Charlie's house, Charlie tells Armstrong about the Cuss Box. And Armstrong says, “You mean you want me to talk white around here?" What does he mean by talk white? How does language play a part in defining people? Do different groups speak the same language in different ways? How are their dialects a part of their culture? Think about your own way of speaking around your friends and your family. In any given day, how often do you change your language style? What would life be like if everybody spoke exactly the same way?
3. Armstrong calls Charlie the Rules Boy. How are rules important to kids? These could be schoolyard rules, classroom rules, rules on the bus, or rules at home. What are some rules in Armstrong & Charlie that characters break? When is it right to break a rule? Can you give an example from the book? From your own life?
4. The rules that grown-ups make are called laws. As Armstrong's dad says early on, “The Supreme Court has said it's time for black and white to blend." Do a little research on segregation in schools in the United States. Read about the 1954 case, Brown vs. Board of Education that ended legal segregation in the schools. What arguments were made on both sides? (Here’s a link to a webpage about the case: https://www.oyez.org/cases/1940-1955/347us483 Do some research on today’s schools. In what ways are students blended and in what ways are they still apart? (note: here’s a link to podcast about segregation in 2016. https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/562/the-problem-we-all-live-with If you were part of a team asked to solve the problem of discrimination in the world, how would you begin?
5. Armstrong tells Charlie that he was hiding in the boys’ bathroom to avoid a test—and that his tears were just fake. Is that lie or the truth? Could there be another reason why he was hiding in there?
6. What does Armstrong mean when he tells Charlie, “You need to have your consciousness raised”?
7. Why does Armstrong count the number of people in his neighborhood who don’t mug him? What is his larger point?
8. Good and Bad Influences. Friends can have a big impact on us. Pick from the following pairs of characters and talk about how they influence each other. Charlie and Shelley. Mr. Khalil and Armstrong. Keith and Charlie. Otis and Charlie. Armstrong and Charlie. Teddy Le Rois and Marty Ross.
9. Memories good and bad. Mr Khalil tells Armstrong, “The way time moves back and forth in a person’s mind, that’s memory.” What are some memories—or flashbacks—that characters in this book have? Are they good or bad? Imagine Armstrong and Charlie all grown up. What memories from their 6th grade year do you think will stay with them? What memories from your 6th grade year do you think will stay with you?
Other Ways to Respond
1. Facts into fiction. Go online to your local library and click on the Research & Homework tab (or similar). Look for an archive that has newspaper headlines from the 1970s. Browse through and find a headline that piques your interest. Then write a short story (fiction) inspired by the headline. Try to put some historical details into your story (music/ fashion/food/politics/ pop culture) from the 1970s.
2. My Astrological Forecast: Bogus or Brilliant? Otis’s hobby is astrology, and he does charts for all the kids in his class. Find out about your astrological sign and the personality traits that it says you have. In what ways does astrology get you right, and in what ways does it get you wrong? For each trait you consider, give an example that proves or disproves that it fits you
3. Travelling! Armstrong and Charlie is a story about traveling—and not just on the basketball court. Armstrong tells Charlie, "I'm away from home every time I come to your school.” Think of a time in your own life when you've been far from home. It could be a field trip or a summer vacation or sleep-away camp experience. Write about a memory of being far from home. How did it feel to be someplace new? How did home feel after you’d been gone?
4. Incident reports. Try to adopt the style of Mrs. Gaines and write an incident report about an incident from your own school. Don’t forget to add a few comments on the incident the way Mrs. Gaines does.
5. Add a Narrator. Armstrong & Charlie is a dual-narrator book, with the two boys taking turns as they tell the story. Pick another character from the book and write a page or two from his or her perspective.
If you’d like to share a discussion question or writing prompt with the author, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org