The back of the book describes Cynthia Rylant’s The Van Gogh Cafe as being about a place where anything can happen. The stories in The Van Gogh Cafe are all about magic, but not magic of a very supernatural kind. The unusual events in the stories are more unexpected, or maybe serendipitous, than any spooky kind of magic.
Although the book itself is short, each chapter can also be read as an individual story, which makes it a versatile teaching tool. To give you an idea of what the book is about, here are brief descriptions of two of the chapters.
The Possum – In this little story, a possum appears, hanging upside down of course, outside the Van Gogh Cafe. Soon, people start spending time watching the possum and bringing it food. The possum isn’t hungry, but the food serves to feed lots of other hungry animals that begin to show up. And the people benefit, too, because each of their lives takes a positive turn after they visit the possum.
Lightning Strikes – The cafe is hit by lightning. No real damage is done, but after the lightning strike, the food seems to cook itself, leaving time for the owner/cook to write poetry (What else?). And to add a little to the magic, each one of his poems seems to predict a future event.
In the chapter entitles “The Star,” it says, “The Van Gogh Cafe brings out the best in people,” and this seems to be the theme of the story. People make changes that have a positive effect on their lives. People behave in unexpected, but good, ways. People behave in an open-minded way. People who have given up try again. People think positively. People accept good fortune when it befalls them. This is the real magic of the Van Gogh Cafe.
Kids will enjoy the surprising turns of events that keep these stories moving.
Any of these stories, or the whole book, would be a great way to lead into a variety of writing topics. Follow-ups could include:
- Writing about an unexpected event
- Writing about a special place
- Writing about a time when someone was at their best
I’m looking forward to working on some lessons to use with this book in the future, but for now, here are some of my resources to use with other great middle grades novels: