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Book Review and Excerpt for Close Reading, grades 4-8

at home in her tomb

Review of At Home in Her Tomb (Liu-Perkins, 2014) and excerpt for close reading.

This book joins a growing group of titles about how archaeology and forensics inform our historical knowledge. Great for STEM classrooms and also for teachers who are trying to expand students’ interest in reading informational texts. In the early 70’s a tomb from the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) was discovered in Changsha, near the capital of Hunan Province in China. What’s fascinating here is the preservation was so well done that the cadaver inside still had flesh soft and moist to the touch. Scientists discovered 138 1/2 musk melon seeds in her digestive tract. The tomb – a time capsule of sorts – revealed objects, ideas, culture that we didn’t know were part of daily life in China that long ago – there were scrolls and books and miniature dolls of servants and musical instruments and food and more.

Liu-Perkins is aware of her audience. She begins each chapter with a fictitious scene – what might have been occurring in Lady Dia’s life at a particular point – based on artifacts found in the tomb. The body of each chapter then addresses a different aspect of her life, the excavation and so forth. Clearly organized. The writing is cohesive and the content is not too dense. There are illustrations that clearly support the complex content – for example, the description of the burial chamber is supported by an illustration of the different compartments as well as detailed illustrations of the coffins that were nested within each other. Liu-Perkins weaves in historical notes about the time period and what was happening in the area. There is also a thread regarding the science behind how Lady Dai was entombed and why the tombs adjacent to hers were not as well preserved. In addition, she addresses the scientific knowledge and engineering that were part of that time period so long ago – as revealed in what we learned from artifacts found in the tomb.

My suggestion would be to “book talk” this title – read aloud the introduction and the beginning of the first chapter, but also take time to project the photographs and illustrations from the beginning of the book and discuss what the students notice. The photograph of Lady Dai – on the front cover of the book and on page 24 would be worthy of looking at alone.

Since this book is written like many others students may be picking up for independent reading, I would do a close reading of an excerpt. My purpose here would be to bring an awareness to readers of “what authors do” in these books. Below are my “close reading” notes for an excerpt from pages 38-39. The prompt for close reading might be, “What types of details does the author use to teach us about a particular aspect of Lady Dai’s life?”¬† Answering this prompt can help students identify main ideas in a text and how they are supported (Common Core Reading Informational Standard 2) and help students think about the structure of this excerpt and how the author has developed a main idea (Standard 5).

In this excerpt the author does the following:

  • Introduces the topic for that section – “lacquerware”; the word “lavish” in the subtitle has implications – this is fancy, exquisite, wealthy, expensive. (“Lavish” is a main idea in the passage.)
  • In the first paragraph, the author contrasts dishes of the poor and the wealthy; gives a supporting detail for the idea that these dishes were “lavish” and for the “wealthy” – these dishes were found in abundance in Lady Dai’s tomb.
  • In the second paragraph, the author describes what lacquer is and how it is formed.
  • In the third paragraph, the author explains¬† the labor intensive process of making and decorating the lacquerware. (I think “great deal of labor” contributes to what makes this dishware “lavish” – a main idea.)
  • In the fourth paragraph, the author describes the lacquerware as “practical” because it “resists damage” and then she gives an example of this – it lasted for over 2,000 years in Lady Dai’s tomb.

Notice the language I used in my annotations like contrasts, describes, explains. These are words students need to understand and use – to be able to articulate what they are reading and how an author structures/develops an idea. By looking across our annotations, we can see how the author introduces the importance of this dishware, describes what it is made of, explains how it is made and decorated and why it was practical in those times. We have a deeper sense of what made this dishware “lavish” and its importance in the life of the wealthy in that period. The generative value of close reading this excerpt may be a better understanding of the author’s central ideas when the student reads sections like “A Game for Fun and Fortune” and “Music for the Soul.”

If you don’t have access to this text, it is set up like many others – in an enumerative structure with an overarching topic and then sub-topics that build knowledge about the larger topic. My recommendation would be to book talk the text and then choose a section from the text to close read – the purpose for close reading would be to heighten students’ awareness of what the author is doing to convey meaning.

FYI – My understanding of copyright is I can make a copy of an excerpt from a book (less than 10% of the total text) and use it in class once. If it becomes a regular part of my teaching (every year or every semester) or part of a curriculum my school district uses, I need to get permission.

Okay…hope this helps.


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