To the Discussion Leader
What was it like to be a soldier at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78? What was it like to be an eleven-year-old girl living in Valley Forge at the time and watch the ragtag American soldiers stain the snow red with their shoeless, bloody feet as they marched by your cabin to set up camp in the fields down the road? In The Winter of Red Snow, author Kristiana Gregory takes young readers into the homes of the Valley Forge farmers, into the headquarters of George Washington and his officers, and into the tents of the soldiers. Through the diary entries of Abigail Jane Stewart, that bitter winter comes alive as Gregory lets youngsters see that reading historical fiction can be both enjoyable and educational at the same time.
Kristiana Gregory has said, "All the historical things I write remind me of my childhood and the excitement of exploring something and finding out about it." Upper elementary and middle school readers will share Gregory's excitement as she breathes life into this period of American history. Abigail's diary offers portraits of courage and cowardice, of charity and greed, of life and death. It also highlights the resilience of the human spirit and shows today's readers that even in times of war, love and hope can prevail.
On June 26, 1778, Abigail Jane Stewart writes these words in her diary: "I'm beginning to believe that unpleasant events often work together for good, like a coat of many colors." In many ways, these words epitomize The Winter of the Red Snow. Kristiana Gregory's fictionalized diary of eleven-year-old Abigail Jane Stewart, her family, friends, and neighbors in Valley Forge, renders a vivid portrayal of one of the most memorable winters in American history.
Until the Army arrives, the Stewart family's life seems to be quite comfortable. But life changes quickly when, early on a frigid December morning, Abby and her sisters, Elisabeth and Sally, awaken to the unfamiliar sound of drums. The soldiers are coming. By the time the weary column passes them, the youngsters realize how truly blessed their own lives are. These soldiers, many younger than fifteen-year-old Elisabeth, stumbled forward on frozen, bleeding feet, some with no trousers, others with arms bare in the freezing sleet. The pages of Abby's diary are packed with anecdotes of George Washington's concern for his soldiers and love for his wife. Martha Washington evolves as an effervescent well-spring of encouragement to everyone she touches, especially Abby who accompanies her on trips to visit the ailing soldiers. Never have these two figures seemed more alive than on the General's birthday when we become Abby's co-conspirators, peeking through a window to see "the General with his hands on his hips and his pigtail bouncing-he was doing a jig!" The next morning, when Abby and Elizabeth arrive to fetch the Washington's laundry, Martha greets them with left-over cake from the party. "I saved these for you, girls, some of the Old Man's birthday cake. Here ye go."
Hardship is a constant companion for soldiers and citizens alike during their winter in Valley Forge. Through the pages of her diary, Abby pieces together the beauty, pain, and blessings to create a coat of many colors for her readers to try on.
Thinking About the Book
- Based on Abigail's diary entries about George Washington, what words would you use to describe him?
- Abigail has sympathy for the American soldiers suffering at Valley Forge. She also mentions several times that she dislikes the Army and wants them to leave Valley Forge. What are some of the things the Army did that Abigail disliked?
- Martha Washington is an important character in The Winter of Red Snow. What kind of person was she? Explain.
- Why do you think Lucy sold her hair when she and Abigail visited Philadelphia? Why does Lucy eventually run away from her parents?
- The author of The Winter of Red Snow, Kristiana Gregory, put in lots of details about life in Valley Forge in 1777 and 1778 from powdering wigs to making cakes with forty eggs. What are two or three things you discovered about life in the late 1770s?
- Why was there a celebration at General Washington's headquarters when it was announced that France formed an alliance with the Americans to fight the British?
- In her diary, Abigail often mentions birth and death. Why do you think she focuses on these issues so often?
- In a book discussion group, consider these two questions: Is The Winter of Red Snow a good title for this book? If you had to select another title, what would it be?
- Begin a diary for one of the people in Washington's army starting the day the troops marched in to Valley Forge. What rank did your soldier hold? Is he an adult or a young boy? Does he have a wife or mother with him? Where is he from? Have him tell about the war and the winter from the soldier's viewpoint. Pass the diary on to other members of your class so that they can continue the soldier's entries.
- Write a character poem about one of the people in Abigail's diary. Put the character's first name down the left side of the poem then fill in each line of the poem with a sentence or phrase that describes the person and starts with that letter of the character's name.
- Read "The Rules for Children's Behaviour" taken from a book of manners published in 1701 and found in the back of The Winter of Red Snow. Have a class discussion in which you decide if these rules of "good behaviour" are still true for children today?
- Design a new cover for The Winter of Red Snow. For some ideas, you might find it helpful to examine the pictures and illustrations found in the back of the book.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.