Why Teach a Controversial Book Like Wringer

Why Teach a Controversial Novel Like Wringer

The first time I started to read Wringer, I almost didn’t.  I love the other Jerry Spinelli books that I’ve read, but when I saw that this one was about a pigeon shoot (!), I almost stopped right there.  Reading a little further, I still wasn’t sure. Yes it addressed important themes in a thoughtful way, but was it something I could see tackling with kids?

Now, I’m glad I gave it a chance, because topics that are challenging for teachers are also challenging for kids – but in a good way.  Books like Wringer challenge kids to think and, like good suspense novels, keep them reading!

And this middle grades novel has both good themes and a suspenseful plot – perfect for middle graders.

However there is one difficulty (which can be overcome!).  Wringer has been the subject of some controversy and has been challenged in some places because of its depiction of animal cruelty in the pigeon shoot and bullying in the interaction between the young characters.

Here’s what happens in the story.  Palmer, the main character, is 10, and in his home town a much-anticipated yearly event is the pigeon shoot.  Boys there look forward to turning 10 because that’s the year they get to participate by being wringers – running out to retrieve the pigeons that have been shot and wringing the necks of the ones not yet dead.  Unlike other boys in the town, Palmer is dreading the day and in fact “adopts” a pigeon that appears at his window.  With friends who are bullies and a dad who thinks that being a wringer is a great rite of passage for boys, Palmer is in a tough spot.

Like other Spinelli books, this one is a modern, realistic novel with enough improbable events mixed in to keep it firmly in the realm of “story” for young readers.

But why choose a controversial book for your class?  Well, for one thing – controversial issues are one part of the world that kids are exposed to from an early age.  By addressing these issues we let kids see that there are adults and other kids on their side, on both sides in fact.  In addition, reading a book with a controversial theme is a perfect way to lead in naturally to a discussion of the topic.  And one more reason – from an English teacher’s perspective – is that good books are good books, and Wringer is a Newberry Award winner.

Discussion, I think, is essential with this kind of story.  Discussion with a little advance planning that is!  For example, be ready to hear a variety of points of view from the kids, not just the point that you might be hoping to make.  To make the discussion easier for the kids, begin with the novel, talking about the characters there, not about actual people.  And if the discussion moves into opinions of real life events, be ready to monitor and redirect as needed to be sensitive to kids’ different backgrounds and family beliefs.

Here are some discussion questions that might be interesting to talk about (and maybe have kids write about too!).


  • The pigeon shoot in Wringer was held as a fundraiser to get money for the town. Do you think this was a good reason for having a pigeon shoot?
  • What about shooting animals for other reasons, such as for food or for recreational hunting?


  • Palmer had a hard time dealing with peer pressure to participate in the shoot because his parents expected boys to be tough. Why was this especially difficult?  What else could Palmer have done?
  • What are some ways to say “no” to peers and still remain friends?


  • What did you think of the “treatment” administered by Farquar? Why are initiation rituals like this one important in some groups?  What problems can they cause?
  • Why do you think kids bully?
  • Why do you think Palmer bullied his neighbor for a time?


  • Why are some kids more sensitive and others more aggressive?
  • What did you think of Palmer’s parents at beginning of story? After they changed their approach?
  • How would you describe Palmer? Dorothy?  Beans?

For more  teaching ideas  for this novel, see this previous post – Wringer Related Readings and Activities.


Related Resources

Wringer Novel Study

Schooled Novel Study

Bud, Not Buddy novel study

Wringer - Why Teach pin

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