There's some awesome books out there about friendship, but not as many about how to attract friends (and not repel them), especially fiction ones. That makes Julia Cook's Making Friends Is an Art a rarity and one many of us own. And so it's a bit sad that...well...there's a potential race issue.
It is the brown crayon in the story that is negative, whiny, and has no friends. There's some debate on the world wide web as to whether or not students would tie this to brown skinned people - some believe kiddos are too literal and would never think of this, others believe that any child who has brown skin would be aware and could negatively internalize this.
I completely understand why the main character is brown; the lesson is that the brown crayon can be a combination of the other colors' positive traits. It's a pretty major bummer that this plot element can also be interpreted as "brown is bad/not enough." Bonus bummer when most of your students have beautiful brown skin and you hope so badly that they won't ever feel like their ethnicity is a negative. The book is also long and wordy BUT it's direct and specific about traits that push people away vs. make people want to be your friend and this makes it valuable.
I personally still use the book, but I always have a brief chat with the students first about paint and color mixing. My hope is that they go into the story already thinking of brown as awesome because he's got all the other great colors as part of him. Because almost all of my 3rd grade homerooms have met their SEL benchmark for the year, I tailored our most recent lesson to specific needs of each class. One of these was friendship and social skills - so I got another chance to put the book into action!
These are some of the comments/questions I ask as I'm reading it:
- (Before beginning) This story is about actions and qualities that make other people want (or not want!) to be your friend.
- (p. 9) Brown just told us some of the reasons people may not want to be his friend. What are they? (complain, disrespectful, negative, unkind - I write this on the board)
- (p. 15) Turn and talk to a partner. What is one thing you do that might make other students not want to spend time with you? For example, sometimes I ________.
- (p. 23) What are put downs? What does it mean to put people down? Why don't people want to be friends with someone who does this?
I also made task/discussion cards to go with the story as well. I made 11 cards specific to the 11 different colored pencils (and their traits) in the story and 13 that are more general elementary social skills. You can find them here. We used them for Quiz, Quiz, Trade and I'm thinking I'll probably use them often in small groups paired with board games, since most of my groups relate to social skills.
After QQT, the students each wrote a piece of advice to Brown Pencil on a sticky note and put it on the easel board where we'd been tracking some of his traits that pushed people away.
My teachers have thus far appreciated the mini-posters/anchor charts that I've created for lessons, and I think social skills are always clutch, so I also made a couple versions of one to go along with this story. You can download them for free here!