I love Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. Lilly is one of the richest picture book characters that I know and I am always excited by the depth of understanding that students arrive at when challenged to consider her as a character. But getting them to this point always takes a bit of nudging because when they start to think about Lilly’s behavior and feelings, they want to use words like “nice” and “happy” to describe her. I explain to children that “nice” and “happy” just don’t seem to really capture who Lilly is and I push them to think of more specific words that help them to unpeel the layers that compose Lilly’s character.
When forced to reconsider their ideas at the beginning of the story, they think to call her “enthusiastic” and “excited.” Those are words that do capture Lilly’s essence when she stands on line for the buses even though she doesn’t ride one and the way that she asks for her own set of deluxe picture encyclopedias. As they move to the middle of the story and Lilly gets her movie star sun glasses and fancy purple purse and wants to share them with the class, they arrive at words like “hyperactive” and “impatient” and “diva-like.” They want to call her “anxious” and we get the opportunity to talk about the difference between “anxious” and “eager.” They decide that she is eager.
When the students see Lilly stick the nasty picture of Mr. Slinger into his bookbag, their jaws drop and they call her “mean” and “disrespectful.” They begin to consider whether she really means this or if she is just being “impulsive.” The discussion is animated and rich with ideas as well as precise vocabulary.
In her article, “Advancing Our Students Language and Literacy” that appeared in American Educator in winter 2010-2011, Marilyn Jager Adams wrote, “Words are not just words. They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought. When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge. What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford.” (p. 8) As children gaze through the lens of behavior and feelings at Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, words act as this conduit to meaning-making that Adams hints at in her article, making me understand the shift toward academic vocabulary in the Common Core. New words means new ideas.