Literary Guide for Jane Yolen’s “Letting Swift River Go”

Letting Swift River Go
by Jane Yolen, Illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Our new Summer Reading Resource series will be featured here on Hilltown Families every week throughout the end of August, sharing downloadable guides of children’s literature from graduate students in the Integrated Learning teacher preparation program at Antioch University New England. Each literary guide pairs a featured book with suggestions for ways to help children expand their thinking, create connections to the text, and allow their literacy skills to grow. These guides contain outlines with discussion questions, art projects, outdoor adventures, and many other activities that are designed for use in classrooms but can very easily be adapted for use at home for supplemental education. Weekly featured titles will cover a wide variety of themes, lengths, and levels of difficulty – meaning there’s something for every family, and for every reader! Some are classics, some are lesser-known gems – but all of the books present potential for helping families build upon the stories that they read together.

Our first featured title is this series of literary guides is Letting Swift River Go by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Barbara Cooney…

Western Massachusetts author Jane Yolen’s book, Letting Swift River Go, tells the story of the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir through the eyes of a young girl named Sally Jane. The protagonist narrates the story, which begins when she is a mere six years old. She describes her surroundings – the buildings in her community, the low rolling hills, the plants and trees, and the trout-filled river – with love, respect, and wonder and through her description, shares with the reader her deep reverence for the Swift River Valley. She remembers playing with friends by the river and in her town’s cemetery, the privilege of walking part of the way to school by herself, having the seasons dictate the community’s chores and celebrations, and catching fireflies with a friend. Everything that she recalls about her childhood is tied to the natural world – her life, like a river, flows through the landscape.

After describing her town, Sally Jane shares her memory of when, “it all began to change.” She recounts the so-called democratic process used to plan the creation of the reservoir, and shares chilling details about the drastic changes in landscape and population that took place. Paired with beautiful illustrations by Barbara Cooney, the narrator’s words are simultaneously poetic and piercing. The story ends with Sally Jane floating in a boat atop the water, years after Quabbin’s completion. Finally, she has made peace with the past, and reflects on all she has learned.

While some of the themes addressed in the book are best addressed with older students, it can be understood and appreciated by students of many ages. Scholastic lists the reading and interest level at 5th grade, but it can be appropriate for students as early as 2nd grade, and as late as 6th grade. There are many words and ideas in the story that will likely be new to young readers. Reading the story can be a way to introduce students to the rich, fascinating history of Quabbin and can help students to understand their own connections to their physical surroundings. It can also allow students to work on developing their thinking about ethics and the importance of community.

Opportunities for expanding the story are endless, and can be as small as drawing pictures of your family’s idea of “home,” or as large as a group research project to learn more about the real history of Sally Jane’s home. Lesson plans are included in the Literature Guide: Letting Swift River Go and are written for a 4th grade classroom, but can easily be adapted to fit classrooms of different grades, multi-age homeschool groups, or informal family activities.

Quabbin Reservoir

[Photo credit: (ccl) Dan Diffendale]

To further supplement studies of the Quabbin Reservoir, take a trip to explore it for yourselves. The Massachusetts DCR periodically offers interpretive programs about the area’s history, and other local organizations provide educational events as well, including the North Quabbin Woods Quest. The Friends of Quabbin’s website offers lots of information on local and natural history, and provides information about where to go for further research. While summer is the optimal time to adventure along the shores of the reservoir, the area is beautiful and fascinating during all seasons!

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