Toppling - Sally Murphy (2010)
Murphy) follows a boy named John through much of Year Five. John loves setting up record-setting domino displays. That, and hanging out with his best friends at school. But when his closest friend, Dom, gets sick and ends up in the hospital, John and his friends are left behind, wondering what to do for him.
This book is unique, in that Sally Murphy chose to write it as a free verse poem. This doesn’t really affect the reading of the story, and after a while, it may go unnoticed. Toppling is well-written; Murphy doesn’t waste words. It engages audiences in middle and upper primary years. While the language is easy enough for many kids in the middle of primary school, the story, and ideas in it, make it suitable for all ages. Another area where Toppling succeeds, is that it is very realistic. The concerns that John has, and his complaints about the way adults treat kids, have all been described as believable by primary students.
How can I use this with students?
While easier to decode than many stories focused on Year Five students, Toppling has some teaching points to offer, both in terms of crafting language, and exploring themes.
Analysing language - repetition:
Because it is written like a poem, Murphy gets away with breaking many rules. She will use repetition for effect throughout, using a word over again for 3-4 lines in a row. It will sound different to other texts when read aloud. When this occurs, it can lead students to question, “Why is she doing this?”
Analysing language – metaphor:
She also uses a recurring metaphor, about toppling and people falling ill. In some editions, this begins with the front cover, with the group of friends trying to help one person from falling over the side of a giant domino. If students are introduced to the idea that authors may use a metaphor throughout a book, they may begin to notice when she is doing this. John is repeatedly trying to stand dominoes up, as a way of taking his mind off what is happening to his friend. Murphy is more explicit at a few times, as John refers to the possibility of his friend toppling.
The book offers students a chance to talk about what the major themes are, with ample evidence for some of the more obvious ones (friendship, resilience, bullying). With accessible themes, this could be a regular discussion point in a lit circle.
Aside from these, it can just be used to engage students. Students respond to it. It may also lead some of Murphy’s other texts (Pearl vs. The World; Roses are Blue), also written as free verse with characters experiencing similar adversities.