Standard Lesson

Book Report Alternative: Creating a Childhood for a Character

6 - 8
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Four 50-minute sessions
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In this lesson, students are introduced to familiar characters, from literature and from popular culture, whom readers first encounter as adults, but whose childhood stories are only told later. Students first discuss Merlin from the stories of King Arthur before reading Jane Yolen's Merlin and the Dragon. They then discuss the characteristics and stories of other familiar literary characters who are first introduced as adults. Then, in groups, students plan their own versions of a childhood for a selected character, and describe that childhood in the form of a short story, journal entry, or time capsule letter. This lesson uses Jane Yolen's Merlin and the Dragon to model the concept, as well as several examples from literature and popular culture. A suggested booklist is also provided.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

In her English Journal article "Fifty Alternatives to the Book Report," Diana Mitchell explains "Students tire of responding to novels in the same ways. They want new ways to think about a piece of literature and new ways to dig into it" (92).

Mitchell's observation is supported by Jim Cope's survey of 272 high school seniors in five Georgia high schools. In the article reporting his findings, Cope states, "Book reports were listed as the third most negative school reading experience, and can be considered a subset of students' general disdain for assigned reading" (21). Like Mitchell, Cope suggests that teachers "move away from the traditional book report and consider more exciting activities" in order to raise students' interest and engagement in reading. The end result of book report alternatives, such as the one explored in this lesson plan, is that the activities "whet the interest of students in exploring new directions and in responding with greater depth to the books they read" (Mitchell 92).

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Materials and Technology

Merlin and the Dragon by Jane Yolen




  • Before the lesson, have students choose and read a book from the booklist provided or another book that features an adult character.

  • If you are not already, familiarize yourself with the Arthurian legend. You may also want to be familiar with Star Wars: Episode I , the 2005 movie version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and/or other resources familiar to students that would be useful for discussion in session 2.

  • Make enough copies of the Character's Childhood Planning Sheet for each group, as well as each student. Make extras in case students want to explore more than one character.

  • Make copies of the writing instruction sheets and project options for each student.

  • If students are not familiar with foreshadowing, plot and narrative perspective, review these concepts briefly before beginning the lesson.

  • Test the Interactive Chart, Letter Generator, Plot Diagram, and Stapleless Book tools on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tools and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • identify character traits of an adult character from a novel.

  • use the character traits they have identified to create a childhood for a character.

  • review several writing formats, including short story, time capsule letter, and journal.

  • write about the character's childhood using one of those formats.

Session One

  1. As a group, discuss what students know about the stories of King Arthur. Who was his famous advisor and mentor? What do they know about the character Merlin?

  2. As you discuss, brainstorm a list of Merlin’s major characteristics on the board or chart paper. Encourage students to think of some of the feats for which he was known to get ideas.

  3. Ask students to imagine what Merlin might have been like as a child and have a few students share their ideas.

  4. Introduce Jane Yolen’s Merlin and the Dragon, which portrays a pivotal experience in Merlin’s childhood. Read the story aloud to the class. (Note that this story is based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, which is an early story of Merlin; but most people are more familiar with the adult Merlin and his part in the story of King Arthur.)

  5. Discuss the reading, beginning with the following questions:

    • How does Yolen’s version of Merlin’s childhood compare with their ideas?

    • What is surprising?

    • Is it believable that this childhood experience may have helped create the man Merlin becomes? Why or why not?

    • In what ways does the story from Merlin’s childhood foreshadow some of the events that happen later in Merlin’s life, in the more familiar tales of King Arthur?
  6. Ask students to discuss some elements of Merlin’s childhood that Yolen included in her story (where he lived; how family and neighbors treated him; an experience that changed his life/foreshadowed his adult life). List these elements on the board or chart paper.

  7. Have students identify which of the adult Merlin’s characteristics the story helps explain or demonstrate. Ask them to look at the list of elements and the list of Merlin’s characteristics that was brainstormed earlier. Have the class discuss how each of the elements in Yolen’s story relates to the characteristics of Merlin as an adult. As students share their ideas, draw lines to tie each element to the characteristics or actions to which it relates.

Session Two

  1. Briefly discuss other familiar characters from books or movies that were first introduced as adults, but whose childhood was later detailed. Some examples include:

    • Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

    • Darth Vader/Annakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode I

    • Willy Wonka in the 2005 movie version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  2. Discuss the relationship of the childhoods created for these characters to the adult characters.

    • What were the major events in these characters’ childhoods?

    • In what ways were these childhoods surprising? Predictable?

    • How did knowing about their childhoods help you to better understand these characters?

    • Did knowing about their childhoods make you feel differently about the characters? In what ways?
  3. Divide students into groups to plan their own versions of a childhood for one of these characters, or another character with which the group is familiar.

  4. Pass out the Character's Childhood Planning Sheet, or have students to access the interactive chart version.

  5. Demonstrate how to complete the sheet, using the information about Merlin that you modeled in the first session and or/the sample planning sheet. Groups should:

    • Brainstorm a list of major characteristics and actions of the character they have chosen.

    • Create a list of things it would be interesting to know about the character’s childhood or that they, as a reader, wish they knew. They can refer back to the list of elements in Yolen’s story for ideas.

    • Fill in details for each of the elements they want to address in their story. As they work, groups should self-check to make sure their details relate to the adult character by listing the related characteristics for each detail and describing how that detail relates back to the characteristic (i.e. foreshadows something that will happen to the adult character or explains how a character trait may have developed).
  6. Allow groups to share their work with the class and provide any feedback.

Session Three

  1. For this session, have students bring the book on which they will base their work to class for reference.

  2. Give a copy of the Character's Childhood Planning Sheet to each student, or have students access the interactive chart version.

  3. Explain that students will use the Character's Childhood Planning Sheet to plan a childhood for an adult character from the book they have read. They will later write a short story, journal entry, or time capsule letter to convey important elements of the character’s childhood.

  4. Students should work independently to complete the planning sheet, referring back to their books as necessary.

  5. Have students self-check their work by listing the related characteristics for each detail and describing how each detail relates to the characteristic.

  6. When students have finished, have them look over their sheets and jot down some ideas for writing story, journal entry, or time capsule letter depicting the characters’ childhoods.

  7. If students cannot generate ideas at this point, they may need to revisit the planning sheet to include additional information, or they may want to complete a planning sheet for another character from their book.

  8. Allow students time to discuss their ideas in small groups and time to revise their planning sheets or complete one for a different character if they so desire.

  9. When students have finished and are satisfied with the ideas they have for their character, collect the planning sheets. Review them and provide any feedback before the next session.

Session Four

  1. Pass the Character's Childhood Planning Sheets back to students.

  2. Tell students that they are now going to use their planning sheets to write a short story, series of diary entries, or time capsule letter describing the character’s childhood. Explain that they should focus on a key event in their character’s childhood, but include general and background information as well.

  3. Review the elements of the short story, journal, and time capsule letter formats using the writing instructions and the project options.

  4. Depending on which format students choose, they might find the following tools useful for writing or prewriting:

  5. Allow students time in class to write.

  6. When students have completed their writing, have them complete a self-assessment using the handout provided.

  7. Allow students time to revise their writing.


Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Observe students as they work in small groups and as they share their individual planning sheets and story ideas with each other.

  • Use the rubric provided to assess student’s writing.

  • Look at the planning sheet and written work, together with the student’s self-assessment to assess the student’s understanding of the assignment and thought process while working on the assignment.

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