Reading Group Guide
Ms. Hempel Chronicles
By Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Ms. Beatrice Hempel, teacher of seventh grade, is new to teaching, new to the school, newly engaged, and newly bereft of her idiosyncratic father. Grappling awkwardly with her newness, she struggles to figure out what is expected of her in life and at work. Is it acceptable to introduce swear words into the English curriculum, enlist students to write their own report cards, or bring up personal experiences while teaching a sex-education class? Sarah Shun-lien Bynum finds characters at their most vulnerable, then explores those precarious moments in sharp, graceful prose. This most innovative of young writers takes us on another journey down the rabbit hole to the wonderland of middle school, memory, daydreaming, and the extraordinary business of growing up.
1. Ms. Hempel Chronicles begins with a school talent show. Why do you think the author chose to start the book this way? Did you find it an effective way to introduce many of the teachers and students who would become regulars throughout the book?
2. “Ms. Hempel was not, she knew, a very good teacher” (p. 5). Why does Ms. Hempel think this? Do you agree? What are the qualities of a good teacher? Her students assume she always wanted to be a teacher, but how does Ms. Hempel feel about being a teacher, and how do you make sense of these sometimes complicated feelings?
3. Do you find Ms. Hempel’s assignments controversial? Should seventh graders be assigned books full of swear words? How did you view Ms. Hempel’s decision to let her students write their own anecdotals? What are the differences between the words Ms. Hempel thinks to herself for the anecdotals (“Ms. Hempel would write, Conscientious” (p. 27) and who her students really are?
4. Discuss the significance of the story Beatrice tells at her father’s funeral. Afterward, her aunt says it’s “beautiful,” but Beatrice meant it to be “a tale of danger, intrigue” (p. 47). What was she trying to convey about her father? And about herself?
5. In “Sandman,” passages about Ms. Hempel’s own sexual life are interspersed with her concern for her children and the sexual predators she imagines dressed as clowns lurking around every corner with their stained vans. Why do you think Ms. Hempel sees her girls as strong but her boys as “ripe for abduction” (p. 54)? What did you make of the sexual tension that sometimes arose between Ms. Hempel and her male students—for example, her two friends’ suggestion that students got “pup tents” when they looked at her (p. 58), or when Jonathan Hamish asks, “Whose the best lover you’ve ever had?” (p. 70)?
6. In “Creep,” why do you think Beatrice is drawn in by the phone calls of a stranger? Discuss what you think young Beatrice is really trying to achieve, and how her brother, Calvin, is affected by her phone calls, radio show, and music.
7. In “Crossing,” Ms. Hempel considers the stories, both true and untrue, told in the name of history. When she sees that many books contradict the accepted historical facts, why does she feel betrayed? Later, Ms. Hempel falls asleep on the bus and has a dream. What does that dream say about Ms. Hempel’s personal history?
8. In “Yurt,” when Ms. Duffy becomes pregnant and resigns as a teacher, Ms. Hempel sees it as a “brilliant” escape. Why does Ms. Hempel see it this way? In what way does this story foreshadow the final story in the book?
9. Discuss Ms. Hempel’s relationship with Amit. Were you surprised when it didn’t work out? How might Ms. Hempel’s teaching position have impeded things?
10. What do Ms. Hempel’s feelings about visiting home for the weekend reveal about her (in “Satellite”)? What is Ms. Hempel’s relationship with her younger sister? What does Ms. Hempel reveal about herself in editing Maggie’s essay? How is Maggie both like and unlike Ms. Hempel’s students?
11. When visiting home, Ms. Hempel is reminded that her father is dead: “It was impossible to come home and not think this thought every hour you were there” (p. 164). She imagines that her mother, too, is already gone. How does she see her family home—and specifically her own bedroom—now? Do you sympathize with her feelings toward her mother’s plans for the house? Why or why not?
12. In “Bump,” when Ms. Hempel runs into Sophie, a former student who is now an adult, she finds herself reminding Sophie that she’s not her teacher anymore. “But herein lay their problem, precisely—if she wasn’t Sophie’s teacher, then who was she? And who was Sophie now, if not a bright-eyed seventh grader?” (p. 183). Do you think this is generally true of relationships—that we will always think of a person as we first got to know them? As a teacher, or a child? How does this story illustrate the idea?
13. What does Sophie tell Ms. Hempel that fills Ms. Hempel with joy? Discuss Ms. Hempel’s reaction, and identify how other stories and incidents in the book have led to this moment.
14. The book ends with descriptions of dreams Ms. Hempel has been having. Who or what are these dreams about? Why do you think she wishes for the steps to be smaller and the passage longer? As a reader, can you relate to Ms. Hempel’s wish?
15. Ms. Hempel Chronicles is presented as a series of related stories, but they are not in chronological order and each story stands alone. How effective did you find this format for painting a full picture of Ms. Hempel, her feelings, her dreams, and her fears? How different would the book have been if it was presented as a straight narrative from beginning to end?
Copyright © 2009 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Discussion questions written by Ally Peltier.