Cynthia Cotten, Virginia Childrens Author, fiction and poetry

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cover copyright 2007
art, James Bernardin
design, Robbin Gourley

Fair Has Nothing To Do with It Every year, twelve-year-old Michael looks forward to his summer visit to his grandparents' farm, to the sights and sounds of the country that always make him feel so alive, and especially to spending time with his grandfather. When Grandpa dies suddenly right before Michael's visit, the loss hits Michael hard. It seems as if nothing is going right in his life right now: his dad is always working on his dissertation and has no time for Michael, and, when school starts, his math teacher seems to hate him and his best friends are never around. About the only thing that makes him feel better is picking up his sketchbook and pencil and drawing. Michael begins taking private art lessons with Charlie Andrews, a retired art teacher, and the two become friends. But then Michael learns that Charlie might be dying, too.

Background: Cynthia Cotten is the author of a number of books for young people, including Snow Ponies, a 2002 Children]s Book Council/International Reading Association "Children's Choices" book, and Abbie in Stitches, a Bank Street College "Best Book" for 2007. Her books have been included in numerous notable lists.

Pre-Reading Activity:

Talk about the title. What do you think it means? Has anything ever happened to you where you felt things just weren't fair?

Thematic Connections:

Grief/Death: According to psychologists, we go through stages of grief when we lose a loved one. Those stages are anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Find examples that Michael is going through the different stages of grief.

Intergenerational relationships: Even though we never really meet Grandpa, the reader learns a lot about him. How? How would you describe him? Talk about Michael's relationship with Grandpa. Talk about Michael's relationship with Charlie.

Family: Describe Michael's family. What do you think Michael wants from his father? Do you think his father is doing the wrong thing in pursuing his PhD? Why or why not? How does it affect the family?

Michael and Grandpa were very close. Is there someone in your family you're really close to? What kinds of things do you do together?

Friendship: Talk about Michael's friendship with TJ and Brad. Michael thinks it's changing. Why might that be happening?

Talk about Michael's friendship with Melanie. Do you think it's easy for a boy and a girl to be friends? Why/why not?

Discussion Questions:

Why do you think Michael didn't go to Grandpa's funeral? Has there ever been a time when there was something just too hard for you to do? Did other people understand?

What are some of the ways that the author shows Michael's grief at the loss of his grandfather?

Michael seems to be drifting away from his friends. Why do you think this is happening? Has this ever happened to you? How did that make you feel? Did you do anything about it?

Michael resists becoming friends with Charlie at first. Why? At what point do his feelings change? What do you think their relationship will be like after the ending?

Why do you think Michael hesitated before he took the cigarette from the skateboarder? Why do you think it bothered him to think that Charlie saw him? Have you ever done something you knew you shouldn't? How did you feel afterwards? Talk about peer pressure.

The arts competition theme is "We Each Need A Hero." What qualities do you think a hero has? Who is a hero to you?

If you were having difficulties with a teacher the way Michael is with Mr. Wolf, how would you handle it?

Dad could probably help Michael with math, but Michael is reluctant to ask him because of the stress he's under with his PhD work. Has there ever been a time when you've needed help and have been reluctant or afraid to ask for it? Why? What did you end up doing?

On page 133, after offering Michael "his" space at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Charlie says, "All you have to do is want it badly enough." What do you think he meant? Do you agree?

When Michael was working on the portrait of Grandpa (p. 138), he lost all track of time. Is there some activity you enjoy so much that you forget about everything else?

Do you like the conclusion of the book? Why or why not? If not, how would you change it?


Language arts: Sometimes, when you]re angry or upset with someone, it helps to write that person a letter, even if you never mail it. Why? Brainstorm the kinds of things Michael might write to Grandpa. To his father. To Charlie. To Mr. Wolf. To TJ. Choose one of those people and write the letter Michael might write.

The farm is a very special place for Michael. Think of a place that's special to you. Write a description that puts the reader right there, and tell why it's special.

Michael treasured his visits to the farm and his time with Grandpa. Write about a treasured memory, keepsake or souvenir. Use descriptive words, tell its history and why it's important to you.

At the farm, Michael looks through an old family photograph album. Find an old photograph of a person (a family member, or one in a book). Imagine you are that person and write about yourself.

Write a three-paragraph essay about your hero (this can be a famous person, a relative, a friend--anyone you look up to). In the first paragraph, give some biographical information (research in the library or on the Internet if necessary). In the second paragraph, tell what this person has done to become your hero. Use character traits, and describe the event(s) or what this person did that relate to these traits. In the third paragraph, tell why you admire this person.

In a journal, at the end of each chapter, write what you think might happen next. Tell why.

Vocabulary: make a note of any unfamiliar words and try to figure out their definitions from the context of the story. Then look them up in the dictionary Such words might include dissertation (p.4), alfalfa (p. 21), spigot (p. 53), caricature (p. 57), and condensation (p. 60).

Social Studies: Charlie mentions the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to Michael. Use the library or the Internet to find out about this museum and other art museums in New York and in other cities (both in the U.S. and abroad).

Use the library or the Internet to find examples of portraits painted by famous artists, and about the artists themselves.

Art: Using the library or the Internet, find out about the artist Norman Rockwell. Look at some of his work. Discuss it.

Using the library or the Internet, find examples of self-portraits done by famous artists. If possible, display some of these.

Create a portrait of someone you know. First, try to make it look the way they really look. Then make it look the way you see them--your impression of them, using drawing, collage, even words--whatever works for you. Display these portraits.

Selected Internet Resources:

Metropolitan Museum of Art: or

Other museums: (a guide to American museums with websites "designed to be entertaining and educational for students.")

Norman Rockwell: (The official website for Mr. Rockwell. Contains, among other things, biographical info and an online gallery arranged by theme.)

From Reviewers:

"...this earnest, welcome example of realistic middle-grade fiction stands out among the continuing glut of fantasy novels." --Kirkus Reviews

"This story is touching and accurate in its portrayal of the grieving process." --School Library Journal

"An excellent book for discussion." --Booklist

"Cotton writes with great sensitivity about a difficult subject in a story with compelling characters and a well-developed plot. The title, Fair Has Nothing To Do With It, is right on. Life is not fair, but learning to cope with what life hands out is crucial to our children's mental health. This book should be in every library and on your child's summer reading list."

Other Books by Cynthia Cotten:

Snow Ponies (illustrated by Jason Cockcroft; Henry Holt and Company, 2001): A Children's Book Council/IRA "Children's Choices" book for 2002

At The Edge of the Woods: A Counting Book (illustrated by Reg Cartwright; Holt, 2002): Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Award, 2003; Texas Library Association "2X2 List", 2003; Center for Children's Books 'Best Books' list, 2002

Abbie in Stitches (illustrated by Beth Peck; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006): Children's Book Council/National Association for Social Studies "Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People", 2007; 2007 Amelia Bloomer Project Recommended Titles List (sponsored by the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association), Bank Street College's 2007 "Best Children's Books" list; 2007 Kansas State Reading Circle Recommended List

This Is The Stable (illustrated by Delana Bettoli; Holt, 2006): starred review from Kirkus Reviews; 2007 Kansas State Reading Circle Recommended List; one of Horn Book's "Holiday Highlights" (Nov./Dec/ 2006); Children's Book of the Month Club selection; 2007 Paterson Poetry Prize (K-3)

This guide was prepared with the help of Mary Jeanne Kellogg, Library Media Specialist at John F. Pattie Elementary School, Montclair, Virginia

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