Committee for Children Blog

Book Review: Flying Solo

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by Ralph Fletcher
Reading level: Grades 5–8

What happens in a sixth-grade classroom when kids rule? When the regular, beloved teacher is absent, and the sub doesn’t show up? The students have several choices. They could go straight to the principal’s office to report the situation. They could take the Lord of the Flies route and go wild until they are caught. As one of the students’ dads, a lawyer, says, “Without the law there would be total anarchy.” Or…they could secretly run the class themselves for the day. After all, they know the routine. The trick is—as any teacher knows—how to manage the different needs, interests, and motives of each student, especially in such unusually free circumstances.

In Ralph Fletcher’s Flying Solo, class leader Karen wants to go by the book, following the schedule, abiding by their teacher’s favorite quotation: “Character is how you act when nobody’s watching.” Self-proclaimed Air Force brat Bastian is preoccupied with his imminent move (his eighth in twelve years), but up to his usual teasing and trouble-making. Jessica, the lawyer’s daughter, is against the whole idea, but agrees to keep her mouth shut and go along. Some of the boys are all for playing computer games and clowning around all day. Rachel, a “selective mute” ever since classmate Tommy Feathers unexpectedly died six months ago, observes and makes her opinions known by notes and gestures.

The day proceeds without too many hitches until the rock ritual. Their absent teacher believes in making up rituals for things that matter, and Bastian moving away, the kids agree, is one of those things. As they pass around a special rock chosen by Bastian, each student shares a memory about him. The situation turns ugly when silent Rachel, overcome by emotion on this day, the six-month anniversary of Tommy’s death, lashes out in her note to Bastian, reminding him of times he was cruel to the developmentally delayed boy. In fact, Rachel is consumed with guilt over her own treatment of their classmate. Although Tommy had adored her, she mocked she offerings and small kindnesses, even on the last day he was alive. The experiment in self-government is close to exploding in chaos when level-headed Karen suggests everyone spend the last few minutes of class time writing about Tommy. The exercise, not surprisingly, results in some weighty insights.

Social and Emotional Lessons in Flying Solo

Bullying can take many shapes. In Flying Solo, Bastian does the most obvious bullying, dispensing cruel nicknames and exploiting vulnerabilities. But, as another boy points out, even Tommy was no saint. He had been known to push down younger kids and make them cry. And of course Rachel played a common but sometimes overlooked role in the classroom bullying dynamic by scorning a boy’s genuine interest in her.

Activity for Flying Solo

The mostly off-stage teacher in Flying Solo places a strong emphasis on writing in his classroom. Often ideas and revelations come out in writing that might not in a public forum. Teachers can try this exercise with their own classes: after reading and discussing the book, students spend 20 minutes writing in journals about bullying they have experienced, whether as witness, participant, or victim. If they prefer, they can write a letter (which does not have to be sent) to someone who has hurt them, or whom they have hurt. Another discussion about the exercise will follow, during which students have the option of reading their writing to the class; the important lesson will come in the writing itself and the discussions.

Some post-writing discussion questions:

  • What did you learn about your own attitude toward bullying when you spent some time writing about it?
  • Have you ever felt uncomfortable about the way you and others are treating someone? What could you do about it next time?
  • What do you wish you could say to someone who hurts your feelings? Do you think you could actually say it next time this happens?
  • What do you think about the teacher’s belief that “Character is how you act when nobody’s watching”?

Emilie Coulter
Book Reviewer
Committee for Children