A Roarin’ ’20s Book Club: “Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter”

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Some books just scream out for a special event, and that’s exactly what happened when I read Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter.  I knew it would make a fantastic book club pick – not only because it offers myriads of possibilities for a special event, but because Fantaskey did an amazing job writing a book that highlights the danger and turmoil of the 1920s while keeping it kid-friendly and fun.

Yes.  It’s about murder and mayhem, but it’s kid friendly and fun.

Yes, those things are complete opposites.  No, the danger and depth of the topic is not downplayed, and no, I don’t know how she did it, either.  She’s that good of a writer.

So what’s Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter all about?  Check it out:

It’s 1920s Chicago—the guns-and-gangster era of Al Capone—and it’s unusual for a girl to be selling the Tribune on the street corner. But ten-year-old Isabel Feeney is unusual . . . unusually obsessed with being a news reporter. She can’t believe her luck when she stumbles into a real-life murder scene and her hero, the famous journalist Maude Collier. The story of how Isabel fights to defend the honor of her accused friend and latches on to the murder case makes for a winning middle grade mystery.
 
Isabel Feeney
 
With the 1920s as our theme for the evening and murder and mayhem the idea, I set out to create an unforgettable book club experience, and, as soon as My Big Helper started to read the book, she joined in the fun.
 Isabel Feeney
 
Isabel Feeney
 
The girls arrived mid-afternoon with lots of gear in tow, prepared for an all-night book club event (because it just seemed wrong to talk about Isabel’s adventures in broad daylight when so many of them occurred at night).  They immediately changed into dresses and strands of pearls, then were made over by local high school students did their hair and make-up in perfect ’20s style.  With old showtunes playing in the background, they giggled and styled their way through updo’s and mascara until they rivaled Maude Collier for fashion flair.
 
Isabel Feeney
 
Then, with glass goblets of Kool-Aid clutched tightly in their hands (because Kool-Aid was invented in the 1920s, didn’t you know?), we talked about the book, focusing on the plot, the fate of Isabel, the role of friendship throughout the story, and how the girls felt about the events of the era.  All the while, they munched on the snacks researched as time-period friendly by My Big Helper:  salted nuts, carrots and celery, and cheese.
 
Isabel Feeney
 
Next, the girls broke into teams for a rousing game of Pictionary.  I prepared the materials ahead, with all of the items to be drawn chosen from the book and written on slips of paper.  I tucked these into a Mason jar, and, armed, with white boards and markers. the girls tried to draw each one. 
 
They really got into this game.  They played for a long time, until they had drawn out every slip of paper, sometimes asking me for more information about the buildings or terms from the story.  Some laughed until they fell over, and the competition of the game fell by the wayside as they giggled their way through drawing things like ‘crutches’ and ‘the Chicago-Tribune Tower.’
 
Isabel Feeney
 
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After a short break, they moved to the kitchen for dinner.  Again, my Big Helper had planned the menu after researching popular foods of the era, and while this meal wasn’t something eaten by Isabel in the story, we think she would have enjoyed it.  The fancy dinner she planned required similar decoration, and so, with the incredible help of good friends, the girls ate under black and gold streamers, with gold lame curtains in the doorways, foil confetti on the tables, candles everywhere, and jazz playing softly in the background.  We served baked ham, mashed potatoes, green beans, Jell-O salad, and bread with peach butter.  The giggles continued as the girls pretended to be Maude’s counterparts but couldn’t look at each other without bursting out into laughter.  Dinner wasn’t over quickly, but it was a most enjoyable meal.
 
Isabel Feeney
 
Afterwards the girls got down to business.  With full tummies and the fall of night, it was time to be like Isabel and solve a murder mystery.  After so much time researching, planning, and prepping, my brain was exhausted by this point – and so I purchased a for-kids mystery online.  The girls broke into two teams and scoured fact sheets to find clues.  They answered questions, made charts, and came up empty – so they shared their information, and, as they talked it out, they solved the mystery.
 
Isabel Feeney
 
That success deserved a treat, so we served dessert next – ice cream sundaes with warm chocolate sauce and chocolate sprinkles – because, you guessed it, they were popular in the 1920s!  Having a kid who loves research is a beautiful thing.  The giggling continued as they downed the ice cream and moved to the living room, where they settled in to watch the original Cheaper by the Dozen.
 
Isabel Feeney
 
After a much-too-short night, we served bacon, eggs, and toast for breakfast.  We cleaned up quickly, because Isabel author Beth Fantaskey was available to Skype!  This was a real treat.  I love when authors not only choose to write quality books for kids, but they’re also willing to invest some time in connecting in a real-world way with them.  The girls were nervous heading into this experience, but they had prepped questions in advance and were eager to ask them.  The time delay caused by the technology threw them for a loop at times, but they persevered and asked every question.  They wanted to know about writing history, story experience, personal experiences, and more.  The best part – to me – was when Fantaskey shared that there might be another Isabel story in the future.  As Isabel is smart, brave, and has big dreams for the future, I’d like to see another story featuring her.
 
Isabel Feeney
 
Our last activity was to attempt the Charleston.  While Isabel only got a glimpse into a speakeasy and didn’t live the glitzy life of the ’20s, she knew it existed and wanted parts of it for herself.  Armed with a YouTube tutorial and more giggles, the girls attempted to nail the steps while understanding the gist of the whole thing.  Nobody got very far, but it was fun!
 
Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter is the perfect book for someone teaching about American life in the 1920s.  It made a great book club pick and introduction to our history unit of that time.  Because Fantaskey sets the scene so well, I wrote a unit study to accompany this book.  My Big Helper worked her way through that as she read Isabel, and she was well prepared for both book club and our historical studies.  If you’d like more information about this unit study, can find it in my Teachers Pay Teachers store here.  There’s much to be learned from this book, but it’s great fun, too, and includes many deep questions about culture, gender roles, and friendship.  It’s suitable for tweens, but I can see people much older reading and falling in love with Isabel.  Give it a try!
 
What are your kids reading right now?       
 
Check out these resources to get your Isabel Feeney party started!
 


 

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