Notes on The Girl with the Brown Crayon, by Vivian Paley

As expressed in a previous post, which arose from reading The Girl with the Brown Crayon (GWBC), each of us simultaneously [1] tries to impart order according to our sense of ourself as an individual… with knowledge, capabilities, plans, and direction.  And [2] this self-directedness can be buffeted or even threatened by the order-imparting efforts of other people navigating their distributed complexities.  Yet relationships with others are a source not only of [3] necessary support (material, emotional, etc.), but also of [4] unplanned conjunctions or intersections that we draw from.   Such connections can [5] help us to not continue along previous lines and, at the same time, to [6] clarify our sense of directedness as individuals.
I transcribe here the notes I made while reading GWBC, which serve to provide some substance to the numbered points above.  However, what is more important to me is the self-exemplifying quality of my note-making on GWBC.  Taking the time to write down the quotes and thoughts stimulated by them, moreover doing this with a background of many years of such dialogic note-making, prepares me to notice conjunctions or intersections that I can draw from creatively [=4].   In this spirit, I cannot expect the experience that readers have from reading my notes to have a creative impact on them.  If the notes motivate readers to read GWBC or to undertake dialogic note-making of some other text, well and good.


Notes on

The Girl with the Brown Crayon, by Vivian Paley

p. viii “whole point of school is to find a common core of references without blurring our own special profiles”

“never been a child [as Reeny] so willing to lead… children into unexplored territory…”

p.4 “Kindergartners are passionate seekers of hidden identities [*] and quickly respond to those who keep unraveling the endless possibilities.”

[as against adults?]

* p.8 “search for the mirror of self-revelation”

p. 14 Tico [the subject of a Leo Lionni book] wishes for golden wings and does not think he is better than others.  But he is given the choice golden wings and loneliness or conformity and lots of friends.

p. 16 “struggle between self and community”

p. 20 Nisha (VP’s assistant, who will take over after she retires at the end of the school year) “I’m all for [focusing on Leo Lionni], mainly because I wasn’t sure how it can be done.”

p. 29 Reeny named the place after we read Frederick, and [Oliver’s] desperate withdrawal no longer seemed so frightening when the corner became ‘Oliver’s mouse hideout’.”

p. 33 Reeny’s grandmother tells the class about Joey, Reeny’s uncle, at age 5 or 6: “he knew that if he used Honey for his main line of thinking he could sort of hang a lot of things on that line…”

p. 37 “It’s not fair.” (Reeny on learning that Leo Lionni was too sick to answer the letters from the class.)

[A possible prompt to students reading and analyzing this book—Decenter the story:  Take a chapter.  Look for a supporting connection that is off the central strand of the story, e.g., Nisha was raised on stories from epics in India, which makes her ready to try the sustained focus on Leo Lionni’s books.]

p.46 Nisha: “This is the kind of question I would not have asked before.  I might have thought it were too abstract…”

[=Nisha’s surprise at her movement, scaffolded by what has gone on so far]

p. 46 [Reeny] “said you have to be a special problem to be in a [Leo Lionni] book.”

p. 47 Paley: Isn’t it a great feeling, to be tying together all the stories.”

Nisha: “Yes, but it doesn’t feel as if I’m tying things up.  No, it’s more like opening up, or maybe discovering things I’ve forgotten.”

[Underlying all the little stories of Paley’s book is a deeper story about a problem she has, even if it takes the year for her to articulate it.–> Revised prompt: Allow the students to identify a problem that they think they have personally and take note when the supporting connections in GWBC resonate for them.  (It’s not necessary to analyze why exactly there is resonance.)  As these resonances add up, take note if the original problem has mutated and gained a clearer name.  Take note if it has been externalized (i.e., Instead of “I am a procrastinator,” “Procrastination causes me problems from time to time.”)]

p. 49 Ritual of studying the books: read & reread; dramatize; paint; discuss fine points; compare new characters to others; characters enter our stories, plays, ordinary conversations.

[Could these re-narrations be a model for adults, allowing stories more scaffolded than linear?]

p. 50 Paley: “I resist the uninvented classroom.”

“I need the intense preoccupation of a group of children and teachers inventing new worlds as they learn to know each other’s dreams.”

[Refer here back to quote above from page 4.  In this repeated theme, are we seeing some of Paley’s problem, presumably that her colleagues thwart that reinvention?  Are we also seeing regrets (p. 54)—she is about to retire.]

[She is giving us permission not to compare ourselves with apparent heroes in public and professional life.]

p. 54 “Walter [actually “WLADYSLAW”] has shown the one-who-teaches a piece of himself. No, he has given me a piece I am missing.”

[Paley in each book explores so much and creates generative clarity.  Yet in each new book she strongly conveys that there is something important to understand.]

p. 56 “The story has been given its proper ending.”

p. 64  Paley is told a story of racial prejudice in her school and responds: “Your story happened here and there is no way to guarantee it won’t happen again.”

[This is a challenge that won’t be overcome in the course of the book.  As such, GWBC is more real than the resolutions that happen in Fleischman’s Seedfolks.]

p. 65 “a storyteller is yet another kind of Swimmy hero, bringing an otherwise distracted group of people together for the purpose of being lifted up and carried away on the wings of imagery and language.”

p. 68-71  The children bring into discussion of the books unresolved issue of gendered expectations of roles and behaviors.

[The supporting connection to Paley is to be reminded of that issue.]

p. 74 Reeny has been given stories by her grandmother to recognize “her unique talents, among which certainly is the ability to help us recognize who we are and how we are connected.”

p. 74 “Play is narrative continuity.”

p. 75 “what school usually does is interrupt any attempt on the part of children to recapture the highly focused intensity of play.”

p. 81-83 presents a story that gets interrupted by the children

[but this interruption allows compassion to be expressed.  A pause of sorts from Paley’s story (as well as a teasing counterpoint to her narrative continuity), but important nevertheless.]

p. 86 Perhaps “Reeny’s ability to use the easy tree as metaphor is due in part to the practice we’ve had in analyzing Leo Lionni.  Yet isn’t it more likely the other way around?… [C]hildren come to school knowing how to think about such matters. We need only to give them the proper context in which to demonstrate and fine-tune their natural gifts.”

[This is Paley’s ideal dynamic: Children, young enough, have remarkable talents.  The adult role is not to interrupt their use.]

p. 89 “When I no longer hear the name ‘teacher’ will I be left with no name at all?”

[More of Paley’s problem that year—see note on p. 47]

p. 95 Walter picks up on the structure of Reeny’s chapters: “Story of chapters. Once a time chapter is one and the end is coming. Until the cock crows. To be continued ha ha!”

p. 99 (last line of book) “Don’t fly away. See, we can keep talking about it, okay?'”

[In the last two quotes Paley finds her voice in the children’s and solves her problem of retiring.]


A reader may well note that all this raises the question of what my problem is that I felt directed to engage with GWBC in this way.  The first answer is that we had assigned GWBC and Seedfolks as a warmup for a 4 session “Collaborative Exploration” on “Stories to Scaffold Creative Learning.”  In brief: A lot has been written on linear narratives about how people move forward, albeit with setbacks, towards a resolution of some issue (which might be as grand as a quest for the meaning of their life) [which is more like strand 1 on its own, give or take a little 3 & 6].  But stories of how things build up over time through interactions of the “distributed complexity” indicated even in the simple six-strand schema at the start are much less developed.  “Scaffolding” is the deliberately ill-defined word we chose to invite students to explore alternatives to the dominant stories.  Thus, I wanted to gain a deeper or clearer sense of.

As mentioned in the previous post, I see how Paley tells her story

as composing episodes, each of which is a more or less conventional story, but, as a whole, have a different way of working.  Balls get thrown up in the air and the reader is left waiting to see whether they are caught by someone else and how [=4] when they have moved along a further distance (as happens in all stories, but here [1, 2] are especially relevant.)

But, why was I being attentive to the role of “unplanned conjunctions or intersections that we draw from” [4]?   Perhaps someone reading through my various posts, for example, on, can provide their own interpretation.  In the meantime, my own suggestions would be that I want to contribute to constructive—creative—change without being subordinated to it.  What is the problem there?  I have an unfinished draft post on this from months ago, but, in brief, I feel a strong need to dig down into the principles underlying how things run and try to synthesize such principles into a neat framework.  At the same time, I am aware that this reduces the social ties that keep many people from questioning what is taken as given.  So, I do not ask others to follow this path yet look for ways to be connected with others without giving up my deep—and by no means always justifiable—need.

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

One Response to Notes on The Girl with the Brown Crayon, by Vivian Paley

  1. Pingback: Bringing everything to the table: Where do we go from there? | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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