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Focusing on the Text

The ideas described in this section are intended to engage the student directly with the text of Buddy. There are two sections.  The first is  “ Topics.”  Here, various questions for discussion, writing, or other activities are organized according to several specific topics.   The second section is “Questions.”  Here, the questions are not organized by topic but more by particular moments in the story.  Often the two sections contain overlapping ideas.



“The universe is not made up of atoms.  It is made up of an infinite number of tiny stories.”

To some extent, Buddy is about storytelling.  The entire text is Li’l T’s telling of his story, and other stories are embedded within the overall story.  Why does anyone tell a story?  Why do we listen?  Why do we crave them (think of how much storytelling we experience daily even if we never read a book—television, computer games, movies, magazines, gossip)?  Kenneth Burke said, “Stories are equipment for living.”  I believe we use them not just to understand our lives but also to create our lives.  We make our own lives meaningful within our chosen larger context when we tell our own stories.  Everybody has a story.  Everybody wants to hear one.

1.  What exactly IS a story?  How is a story different from real life? What does Granpa T mean when he says in church that he needs help with the end of the story?  Why can’t the end of the story just be, “And so we brought the dog to church.”

2.  What difference does it make WHO is telling the story?  For example, this book begins with Li’l T making the point that he, not his grandfather, is the storyteller here.  If Granpa T had been the storyteller, how would the beginning be different?  For example, is there any comment in Granpa T’s imagined beginning that Li’l T might disagree with? If Granpa T were the storyteller, how would the whole story be different?  For example, just looking at the imagined beginning of Granpa T’s story, what does it suggest he might focus on that is different from what Li’l T focuses on?  (See further ideas under Point of View below.)

3.  Find several places in the text where Li’l T describes himself as telling a story.  Who is he telling the story to?  What is the purpose of telling the story?  Is the purpose fulfilled?

4.  Li’l T thinks of his Granpa T as a story-teller.  What are some of the stories that Granpa T tells?  Why does he tell them?  How might the story be affected by the reason for telling it?

5.  Tanya tells the story of her dream.   Think about the way that each member of the family reacts to her story.  To what extent do they see the story as a dream,a real event, a message, etc.  What insight does this give us about each listener?  What insight does this give us about the art of storytelling?

6.  Think about Brother James’ prayers.  Can they be considered stories?  What would be the purpose of such stories?

7.  Lyric poetry is often described as having no story.  It is an art form that captures a moment and expresses the emotion or sense experience of the poet.  Yet often there is an abstract kind of story buried in the poetry.  Consider Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”  On a more challenging level, consider William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.”  In both these poems, the reader is engaged at the narrative level in the sense that there is a beginning, middle, and end in the described experience.  Students might be encouraged to read such poems and imagine or write the embedded story using the elements of fiction in their work.

8.  Stories are also told through media other than words.  Film instantly comes to mind although it often contains some dialogue.  A notable current exception is the movie The Artist where dialogue is completely unnecessary. We can also certainly follow the story of a ballet such as Swan Lake without words because we watch the events unfold through time.  The visual arts can mimic this unfolding with a triptych.  After Katrina, one teacher had students create triptychs of their experiences and thus engaged them in the basic concepts of beginning, middle, and end.

9.  Artists, however, do not always need three different works to create a story.  Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808 is a story in one work.  As the viewer, we mentally fill in the events that led up to the scene we are witnessing as well as the events that will follow.  Powerful photographs accomplish the same type of storytelling.  Students can be challenged to find artwork that tells a story or to create it.

10.  The “unanswered questions” aspect of paintings like Goya’s exists in other types of art work with which students will be extremely familiar—movie trailers and book covers.  The goal of both is to tell enough of the story to get the audience interested in learning the rest.

  • The Buddy trailer, available on Youtube here, is a good place to start getting students to consider what parts of a story are important to reveal in a trailer.   Schools with the facilities will be able to have students create trailers for other works (or create one they like better for Buddy).
  • Students can redesign the book cover for Buddy or design a book cover for a different book (or for their own stories).  What do they want the audience to know about the story based on the covers they design?  If the entire class does the same book (or a selected few books), it is inevitable that the covers will be different.  What does this say about how an artist interprets his subject?  Some students will be drawn to one cover and some to others.  What does this say about audiences?

11.  When we talk about news, we say to one another, “Did you hear that story on the news about —-?”   What is the difference between a news and a fictional story (besides the fact that one consists of invented facts)?

Writing letters

Letters appear frequently in this book.  Perhaps in a day of instant communication and computers, letters seem like an anachronism.  Factually, in terms of this particular story, there is no reason to believe that Li’l T or his family had access to a computer other than through school.  Certainly after the storm, any access they may have had was gone.  Factually it is also very accurate that no letter addressed to Li’l T after the storm would ever have reached him.  In non-flooded areas, mail service did not become regular until March 2006.  In flooded areas, mail service did not return for well over a year, if then.

1.  How is letter writing related to storytelling?

2.  How is letter writing different from a telephone call, email, Facebook message, or Twitter?  Imagine, for example, that you were going to write a letter to a distant friend, knowing it would be a while before the friend read it.  What details of your life would you choose to include?  What would you decide was not important enough—or would not be important by the time the friend read the letter?  One way to think about it is to think of letters as containing the facts that represent a sustained view of who you are and what your life is rather than the moment-by-moment or even day-by-day changes that other media represent.

3.  It is not hard to imagine the letter Li’l T writes to Jamilla when he is Mississippi.  Instead, imagine and write the letter that someone else in the story would send.  For example:

  • Granpa T to Alice (either when he is a young man or during the evacuation)
  • Mrs. Washington to her nephew
  • Brother James to the man with the airplane tickets
  • Mama to Jamilla’s aunt
  • Eddie to one of his buddies in Iraq

Point of View

Buddy is a first person narrative.  When a writer writes a first person narrative, the writer is limited to the character’s vocabulary.  Moreover, the writer can only include events that the speaker is both knowledgeable about and willing to relate.  Finally, the writer can only explain what the speaker himself understands.  Nevertheless, the writer must always tell a story that includes much more.

1.  Can you find an instance when Li’l T uses a word where you can definitely think of a better or clearer choice of words.  (An easy example is when Li’l T claims that he is not a good “drawer” on page 20.  “Artist” seems like an obviously clearer choice of words.)

2.  Are there parts of the story that Li’l T is not able to tell because he didn’t participate in them?  Try writing (and maybe acting) some of these scenes.  Will your point of view be one of the character’s or a third person’s?

  • Granpa T speaks to Daddy about allowing Li’l T to have Buddy.
  • Daddy speaks to Mama about allowing Li’l T to have Buddy.
  • Jamilla gets Li’l T’s first letter.
  • J-Boy’s mother gives him the five dollars to pay Li’l T.
  • Mrs. Washington writes a letter to Eddie about Li’l T.
  • Granpa T visits Mrs. Washington before the storm.
  • Tanya plays and talks with her friends at the shelter.
  • J-Boy and his mother evacuate to the SuperDome.
  • Eddie in Iraq gets news about Hurricane Katrina.
  • Brother James visits Eddie in jail.
  • Brian and his mother get the letter from Li’l T and decide what to do.
  • Brian writes Li’l T a letter after Li’l T goes home.

3.  Are there parts of the story that Li’l T is not willing to tell?  (A particular example would be the story of his skipping school.)

4.  Are there parts of the story that Li’l T is not able to tell because he himself does not understand them.  (Some examples might include his own motivations and feelings.)

5.  A story is not just a series of events.  It is a series of events told in a particular way.  Thus, the same series of events that makes up Buddy might be told by somebody else but it would be a very different story.  Imagine how some scenes would change if they were told from a different point of view.  Try writing some of these:

  • Buddy’s accident—from the Tomato Man’s viewpoint
  • Buddy’s final checkup—from the vet’s viewpoint
  • Protecting the baby bird—from Buddy’s viewpoint
  • Dressing up Buddy—from Tanya’s viewpoint
  • Stealing the lawnmower—from J-Boy’s viewpoint
  • Selling the bike—from the “lady’s” viewpoint
  • Protecting Baby Terrell—from Buddy’s viewpoint
  • Life in the shelter—from Granpa T’s viewpoint
  • Daddy and Li’l T’s first return to the church—from Brother James’ viewpoint
  • Finding rats in the bushes—from Rover’s viewpoint
  • Selling lunches out of a wagon—from Mama’s viewpoint
  • Two tickets to California—from Eddie’s viewpoint
  • Visiting the beach—from Brian’s viewpoint

6.  Another way to tell this series of events is in omniscient, third person.  Using this technique, the first few moments might be rewritten this way:

It was a still, Sunday morning on St. Roch Avenue in New Orleans, Louisiana.  All along the street, live oaks spread their dusty arms wide, casting dappled shadows over sidewalks lifted and split by the trees’ bulging roots.  A skinny, black dog passed in and out of the shadows and stepped carefully over the gaps in the sidewalk.  He sniffed at an overturned garbage can.  He had not eaten in twenty-four hours and all his senses were focused on finding his next mouthful.  Across the street, a man sat at his vegetable stand gnawing at the last piece of fried chicken in his lunch.  He dropped the greasy bone in a brown sack and licked his fingers.  The dog’s ears stood high and taut.  He crept forward, his one white paw so dirty it was brown.   The man crushed the sack in his hands and dropped it to the ground.  Instantly, the dog lept into the street.  The man looked up.  Brakes screamed. A thud echoed off the quiet oaks.  And all was still again.

Try rewriting another scene from omniscient, third person point of view.  What can you know and say that Li’l T does not?

When talking is written to be read

Li’l T is telling his story, not writing it.   Visit the “How We Talk” section on the website that accompanies Buddy for an introductory discussion of the various difficulties in writing and reading spoken language.

1.  Colloquialisms

  • Students can be challenged to isolate colloquial and idiomatic phrases and to translate them into Standard English.  (This website’s tab “Colloquialisms and Idioms” provides a list of some of these terms.)    A reverse activity might be even more fun.  Students could take a more formally written text and rewrite passages as if Li’l T or the students themselves were actually speaking.
  • Multi-lingual students or students of foreign languages might also enjoy the challenge of translating Li’l T’s speech into another language.  Idioms, of course, do not directly translate.  A French teacher told the story of asking her students to translate passages from a cops-and-robbers story.  The students were stumped at the correct translation of “Freeze!”

2.  Non-standard grammar

  • If Li’l T turned in a paper in English class written the way he speaks, he would find hundreds of corrections markedon it.  Some of his consistent non-standard usages include using the word “ain’t,” using double negatives, using “lay” instead of “lie,” and using an improper form of the third person verb.  Students may delight in playing teacher, discovering his mistakes, and correcting them.

3.  Present Tense

  • Students may not instantly recognize that one of the unusual aspects of Li’l T’s spoken storytelling is that he tells his story in present tense.    How does this affect the feel of the story?  Why are stories usually told in past tense?  Would a third-person, omniscient tale work in present tense?  Can the students rewrite a section in past tense?

4.  Onomatopoeia

  • Li’l T’s speech is full of onomatopoeia.  Students will be able to find examples easily and then listen for onomatopoeia in their own speech or write—especially poetry—using it.

Making a plan

Li’l T likes to make plans.  Because he and his family are Christians, he also thinks in terms of God’s plan.  But one does not have to believe in God in order to wonder about the effectiveness of one’s own actions to change one’s world.  Nor is it necessary to believe in God to understand as one matures that the picture one sees of events is not complete, that the importance that one personally assigns to something may not be shared by others, and that one’s plans, even when successful, should be abandoned because the intended end is not the best end for everyone.  Moreover, making plans must always be done in context.  No matter how determined a person may be, some things cannot be changed and some choices are not the person’s to make.

1.  Find the instances where Li’l T makes a plan.  What are his goals each time.  What does his plan making show about his belief in his ability to affect his world?  Is he completely right?  Is he completely wrong?

2.  A current popular phrase is “It is what it is.”  What does this mean?  Can you find moments in the story where one of the characters expresses the same sentiment?

3.  Several times Li’l T is told he doesn’t get to choose or he doesn’t have a choice or “we’re not the kind of people that can—.”  How does Li’l T react to those statements?

Accepting responsibility

Owning a pet, living in a family, growing up—all of them involve accepting responsibility.  Li’l T’s  job is to become more and more accepting of the responsibility that comes with his choices and his position as a member of a family, a community, and the world.

1.   Li’l T says several times, “It’s all on me.”  What does he mean when he says that?  Think about the first time he says it in the story and the last time he says it.  Compare and contrast those two moments.  What is at issue in those moments?  Would the Li’l T of the first moment have been able to accept the responsibility of the last moment?  Why or why not?

2.  Granpa T tells Li’l T the story of his courtship of Alice, Li’l T’s grandmother.  Why does Granpa T tell that story?  Why does he tell it WHEN he tells it?


1.  On page 20, Li’l T wants to make a paper airplane and fly it out the window—with himself on it.  Li’l T goes flying several times in the story.  Think about the different times this happens.  When he says he is flying, what is he really doing?  Why is it different after the storm (194)?  How is “real flying” different? (264-265).

2.  On page 179, Daddy cries upon finding his mother’s wedding dress.  Afterwards, he and Li’l T act as if it didn’t happen.  Li’l T says, “I figure that’s for the best. It don’t change nothing so it ain’t never happened.”  He says and does something similar on page 258 after he gets a letter from Jamilla.  Why would Li’l T say these things?  Is he right?  Is he saying exactly what he means?

3.  When it “gets to be Valentine’s Day,” Mrs. Watson teaches letter writing to Li’l T’s class.  Why does Li’l T write the letter he writes?  What are his hopes for it?  Why doesn’t he keep it when it comes back?  Li’l T is telling this story; does he tell us the answers to all these questions?  Does he know the answers?  How do you know the answers?

4.  On page 202, we find out at the same time that Li’l T’s family finds out that Li’l T is failing and skipping school.  Why doesn’t Li’l T tell us before?

5.  Li’l T begins the story playing with his GameBoy.  What happens to that GameBoy?  Why?  When does a GameBoy show up again?  Why?    Is there any relationship between Li’l T’s involvement with his GameBoy and his want/need for his/a dog?  Think about the apartment in Mississippi.  What is happening with the GameBoy there?

6.  When Li’l T is playing his GameBoy, he talks about “making it to the next level.”   When he is in the apartment in Mississippi he beats all the levels and starts over.  If you think of “making it to the next level” as meeting and succeeding at a challenge,  what can it mean that he has to start all over in Mississippi?

7.  What is a paradox?  What does Li’l T really mean when he says these things:  “He’s too old for this class but here he is anyway.” (20)  “I can’t leave Buddy.  I can’t not leave Buddy.” (122)  “I can’t think about that but it’s the only thing on my mind.” (168)

8.  Rover is a completely different dog from Buddy.  Li’l T lists specific differences at one point and later describes others.  What are some of the most important differences?  Why are they important to Li’l T?  His feeling about some of these differences changes.  Why?

9.  On page 118, Brother James suggests that Li’l T saved Buddy.  Did he?  Who saved whom?  Can you think of other places in the story where the same questions might be asked?

10.  Intertexts are texts used within another text.  Li’l T is not a big reader but still he refers at least twice to another text.  Where does the term “patience of Job” come from?  When Li’l T refers to giving his “mite,” what other story is he referencing?