Teacher's Guide to
Life Studies

prepared by Susan Vreeland

Stories with young characters particularly suitable for students:

The Yellow Jacket

An adolescent just before reporting for duty in the French army poses for a portrait by van Gogh, and receives a new image of himself. A coming of age story involving disillusion with a best friend.

Of These Stones

Influenced by bullies, a small boy throws figs at Czanne and his painting, then learns deep lessons as he serves his punishment in Cézanne's garden. Deals with sibling dominance and mistreatment, as well as parental narrowness and religious hypocrisy.

In the Absence of Memory

Haunted by taunts from schoolmates, the orphaned daughter of painter Amadeo Modigliani seeks to discover what kind of people her parents actually were. Examines loneliness, search for identity, and issues of resentment and forgiveness.

Crayon, 1955

An elementary school girl snooping in her neighbor's house discovers a culturally broader world which enables her to learn something about life as her grandfather is dying. Considers the questions of truth and falsity between parent and child. Semi-autobiographical.

Five Hundred Words, with Sincerity and Honesty

A lonely foster child in a Catholic school cleverly designs an outrageous plan of disobedience in order to be reunited with her mother. Involves the dynamics and results of exclusion among students, differences in social class, and a smarter-than-average protagonist who doesn't "fit in:"

Their Lady Tristeza

A student's drawing of a Matisse nude in a classroom miraculously evolves into an image of the Virgin Mary which can't be erased and serves different needs for various students. Shows the positive effects students can have to teach a teacher about human need and the misconceptions of "high" and "low" class cultures.

There are nearly seventy questions story-by-story in the Discussion Questions section which includes these stories just named. Please take a look. In addition, here are some more questions designed for class discussion on these selected stories, followed by writing suggestions which can be used for any story in the collection, and a fiction writing lesson based on "Crayon, 1955."

The Yellow Jacket

Why does Armand hit his friend and why does doing so bother him?

What qualities does Armand notice in van Gogh?

Describe the relationship between Armand and Gustave. Between Armand and his father. Between Armand and van Gogh.

Consider for a moment what it might feel like for a teenager to be painted by a famous artist, particularly one so odd and so misunderstood. Speculate on the effect of the experience of being painted by van Gogh.

How might Armand's thoughts on Gustave and Jacqueline change after he comes back from Tunisia.

Of These Stones

Which is the strongest influence on Anatole--peer pressure or family pressure? In what ways is this a story about loyalty?

Why does Marc behave the way he does toward Anatole? What would make a child develop the cruelty that Marc exhibits? Is this realistic? Consider the time and place.

Speculate as to what kind of a future Anatole will have at home and in school. How is he changed, or how might his attitudes be changed by the encounters with Cézanne and Madame Cézanne. Will he be more equipped to handle situations in his family, or will he continue to be victimized by them?

Madame Cézanne acts differently than Anatole expects. How does this affect him?

Paul Cézanne wrote, "The labor which brings about progress in one's own calling is sufficient compensation for a lack of comprehension on the part of fools." Do you think, in spite of this, it was difficult for Cézanne to deal with criticism? What resources did he turn to in order to bolster himself against criticism?

In the Absence of Memory

Examine the relationship between Giovanna and Colette. What motivated each of them in their actions?

Who understood Giovanna's anguish and needs?

Whom do you feel for the most? Giovanna? Margherita? Nonna?

What is the irony between Genevieve and the concierge in the cemetery? What is suggested by it?

What do you think it must be like to have a famous but disreputable father? What kind of burden does that place on a young person?

Crayon, 1955

In what way was Jenny engaging in archeology? How does Jenny's experience with her grandfather affect her actions in Miss Haskin's house?

What passed between Jenny and Gramp in the last days of his life? How was it a rich experience, as Miss Haskin said?

At one point, Jenny lies to her mother about what she was doing in Miss Haskin's house. What understanding of her mother necessitated this lie? How aware is Jenny of the difference between the two houses and the two types of lives?

Why did Jennie tear up the paper she had typed on?

This story is drawn from two events in the author's life. What do you think may have made her want to write about them?

Five Hundred Words, with Sincerity and Honesty

What is motivating Josie? Was there another course of action that Josie might have taken to satisfy her longings?

Why do the other girls treat her badly? Or, is that only her imagination?

Does it take courage to write this letter, or is it only the writing of a smart aleck? What is at stake?

What do Giovanna from "In the Absence of Memory" and Josie have in common?

"Five Hundred Words, With Sincerity and Honesty" and "Their Lady Tristeza" both take place in high schools, but very different high schools. Which one seems truer to you? Would you prefer to have a teacher like Sister Wilhelmina or Miss Talmadge? Which set of students would provide a healthier atmosphere?

Their Lady Tristeza

Rosie, Anita, and Eddie each have different interpretations of the drawing. Why?

What's your interpretation? Why does it keep coming back? What about the tear?

Why is it significant to Eddie that Miss Talmadge only pays rent month to month?

Does Miss Talmadge change her mind about the town? Why or why not?

Why does the author bring in this new element of the blue of the sea right at the end of the story?

Additional Stories:

These stories would also be appropriate for high school although they do not involve young characters:

Mimi with a Watering Can

A bored and depressed man awakes to a greater zest for life because he sees his daughter as a famous painter does.

Cradle Song

A poor nursemaid is forced to sacrifice her own child so that a wealthy mother can create. Deals with social class differences.

A Flower for Ginette

The long collaboration between a gardener and a painter is threatened by the gardener's love for his wife and for beauty.

Adventures of Bernardo and Salvatore

Two country villagers in Italy in the 17th century go to Rome to see the great art of the world, hoping it will cure one of them and provide a religious experience. A humorous fable about friendship.

The Things He Didn't Know

A construction worker goes to a museum with his girlfriend, an art historian, and learns more about himself than about art.

Uncommon Clay

A daughter copes with issues of truth and imagination when caring for her mother, an Alzheimer's patient. Shows how art can be a vehicle to express pent up emotions.


A grandfather on his way to visit his wife in the penitentiary for a crime in which he shares responsibility encounters a mute girl on the bus whose drawing of him he hopes his wife will accept as a gift.

Please take a look at the Discussion Questions page for these stories.

Personal Reflection Writing Topics

1. Which was your favorite story, and why? How does it connect to you personally?

2. Which character do you understand the most? What do you know about him or her? Consider: longings, fears, self-image, worries, admirable characteristics, limitations, growth.

3. Which character are you most like? What similarities do you have?

Creative Writing Topics

4. Write a continuation of the narrative of one of the stories. You can choose a time immediately after the story ends, or far advanced from the end of the story.

5. Construct a scene that you imagine taking place between two actual scenes in the story.

6. Write a letter or a narrative diary entry from the point of view of one of the characters.

7. Write some dialogue between two characters which did not actually occur in the story. Make it touch on a central issue of the story.

(See also, "A Writing Lesson," below.)

Analytical Essay

8. Choose a word or phrase from the list below and show how two stories develop it. (Teachers, you will probably have to allow free range over the collection. Alternatively, you could narrow the story choices and call for only one story in the composition. The idea here is to encourage students to do their own matching of topic with story.)

ethical action
search for identity
self development

9. Choose one of the following quotes and relate it to one of the stories or characters.

Art is love.
Holman Hunt

Talent is only one side, perhaps the easier side, of self-development. The other side is self-knowledge.
John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal, 1963

The present task of art is to make the feeling of brotherhood and love of one's neighbor, which is now shared only by the best members of society, the customary feeling, even the instinct, of all human beings.
Tolstoy, What is Art?

What is art/But life on a larger scale.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.
Henry Ward Beecher

"There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say, that which offers no outer or inner truth."
Auguste Rodin, Art. 1912, translated by Paul Gsell.

The object of art is to give life shape.
Jean Anouilh, "The Rehearsal."

"The real question is: To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to a cultural hierarchy of relic specialists?"
John Berger, Ways of Seeing.

"Not what man knows but what man feels concerns art." Bernard Berenson, 1897.

A Writing Lesson using "Crayon, 1955" as a Model:
Finding a Deeper Truth by Turning Autobiography into Fiction

Many new writers begin with autobiographical material, but an exacting adherence to truth rarely makes good fiction. You can escape the tyranny of fact and produce something deeper by following these steps.

STEP 1: Take two events which happened at slightly different times in your life. Write two or three pages on each, separately. It could be mostly narrative summary. You will put it into scenes with direct dialogue later, unless the dialogue comes easily on this first draft. Suggest what growth or character change occurred as a result of each.

STEP 2. Think about how these events would have been impacted if they happened simultaneously. If the moods are different, would the character vacillate between them? Would one dominate over the other? Would one experience make the other experience happen differently? Would the main character learn something different, grow or change in a different way because of the two events occurring together? Most likely, yes, if you've picked well. Work toward creating an entirely new dynamic requiring new exploration and invention beyond the mere recording of memory which you did in step one. Write a narrative summary of the new story.

STEP 3. Add to the character based on you one important element you don't have, and take away one element that you do have. Such elements might be: personality characteristics; attitudes; social or regional background; nationality; level of education; ability, interest or passion. These can't just be tacked on your existing material. They must reshape it.

STEP 4: Search deeply for those issues in which the truest self of this new person resides. Now write your fiction with scenes and dialogue accordingly.

My autobiographically-based story, "Crayon, 1955" is the result of following these steps. My grandfather's death and snooping in my neighbor's house did not occur the same summer. By making them happen simultaneously, I was able to deepen the substance of these experiences. Try it!


If you find a particular story worked well with your class, please email me about it. Tell me any assignment or project that went over well. I will add it to this page for other teachers to use. Thank you!