Reader’s Guide: Sarah, Plain and Tall

Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia Maclachlan

Loneliness ~ Identity ~ Gender Stereotypes

By: Kylie Milosevic, Erin Cryder, Suzette Erninger, & Debbie Zlotnick

Summary:

I will come by train. I will wear a yellow bonnet. I am plain and tall.” A heartwarming story about two children, Anna and Caleb, whose lives are changed forever when their widowed papa advertises for a mail-order bride. Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton from Maine answers the ad and agrees to come for a month. Sarah brings gifts from the sea, a cat named Seal, and singing and laughter to the quiet house. But will she like it enough to stay? Anna and Caleb wait and wonder — and hope.” – http://www.goodreads.com

Pre-reading Activities:

  • Introduce the concept of “mail order” brides (and grooms). Read about this practice through various articles and then discuss why it might have been common in the early 1900s.
  • Create a “vision board” of life in the 1900s. You may include pictures of houses, families, transportation, clothing, food, working conditions, school, etc. Discuss how this is different from our life today.

Chapter 1:

  • After reading chapter one, you can see that Anna has taken on certain responsibilities within her family. What type of role has Anna taken on? Why do you think she has to do this? How would you feel about having these responsibilities? How does this relate to gender stereotypes?
  • In Sarah’s letter to Papa, she tells him that she is not mild-mannered.  Why do you think she does that?  Do you think it will be a positive or negative for the family that Sarah is not mild-mannered?
  • How is the theme of loneliness introduced? What details from the chapter support your reasoning?

Chapter 2:

  • Sarah signs her name differently at the end of every letter she writes to each family member. Why do you think she does so? What can you conclude about Sarah from her letters?
  • Activity: Imagine that you are Anna or Caleb. Write a letter to Sarah. Include what you would like her to know about you, as well as questions you would ask her of what you would like to know about her.

Chapter 3:

  • At the beginning of chapter three, you can visualize the day of the arrival of Sarah. How might this be different if it were happening today?
  • Activity: Illustrate Sarah’s arrival to show how you visualized the day. Then, illustrate how this might look if it were happening today. Share your drawings with a partner. Discuss the similarities and differences between your visualizations.

Chapter 4:

  • Anna and Caleb are beginning to bond with Sarah. What details from the chapter help you see that they are forming a bond?
  • Make a connection! Make a connection between the way the animals are acting in the story to the way your pet or a friend’s pet have acted. What predictions or conclusions can you make from these behaviors?

Chapter 5:

  • Sarah makes connections between Maine and the prairie. What are these connections and why do think they are being made? How does this relate the theme of identity?

Chapter 6:

  • Anna says “Sarah and I laughed” multiple times throughout this chapter. How are their identities becoming more intertwined? Support your answer with evidence from the text.

Chapter 7:

  • What roles do the the new characters of the story play in the life of Sarah? Why do you think Maclachlan chose to introduce these characters at this point in the story? What is their significance?
  • New character, Maggie, mentions that everyone has something that they miss. How do you think this makes Sarah feel? How does this relate to the theme of loneliness?
  • Activity: Flowers are mentioned many times in this chapter. Flowers are symbolic for many things. Draw a picture of an instance when flowers are mentioned, e.g. the first roses of summer that Papa brought for Sarah. Within your drawing, include the various symbolisms of the flowers mentioned in this chapter.  

Chapter 8:

  • Sarah’s personality shines in chapter 8. What character traits can you conclude about Sarah based on her actions? How does this relate to gender stereotypes?

Chapter 9:

  • As Sarah returns home, she bring the colors of the sea with her to complete her painting. What is the symbolism of the colors? How does this relate to the themes of loneliness and identity?
  • Maclachlan chose to italicize the last page of the story. What is the significance of this? What tone or mood does it provide?
  • Activity: The last page of the story helps you to visualize what the future will look like on the prairie. If there were a chapter 10, what might it include? Make a prediction and write to tell what would happen next.
  • Activity. Imagine that you are Sarah at the end of the story. Write a letter home to your brother, in much the same way that Sarah writes to Anna and Caleb at the beginning of the novel, to describe how your life has changed.

Extension Activities:

  • Animals are mentioned many times throughout the story.  Describe Sarah’s relationship to animals.  Give three examples of how she is with animals.  What does this tell you about her?  Draw a picture of Sarah with the animals.
  • Favorite part.  Use a graphic organizer to help visualize a favorite part in the book. Include in the graphic organizer things you can  see, things you can taste, things you can hear, things you can touch or feel, emotions in the story.
  • Is there a character in the story you are most like or is like someone you know?  Describe how that character is similar to you or someone you know?
  • Character Development. Use a graphic organizer to help show how a the main characters are in the beginning, middle, and end of the story.
  • How do you think the difference in Anna and Caleb’s ages affect the way they perceive Sarah and the different events in the story?  Provide textual evidence from the book.
  • Step into my shoes.  Choose an event in the story (e.g. the first meeting, singing together on the porch, Sarah brushing and braiding Anna’s hair, swimming in the pond, the sand dune, etc.), and write the scene from another character’s point of view. What does your character see/hear/touch/feel/taste? Describe the emotions your character feels.
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