NOTE: This novel deals with death and some content may distress some students. Consider the suggested activities carefully before implementing them.
Connecting to prior knowledge
Building the field
Before beginning A Ghost in my Suitcase, students will need some background knowledge about China and Chinese cultural beliefs. Consider the students in your class, their backgrounds and their knowledge and experiences of Chinese culture and Chinese Australian history. If you have students who speak Mandarin or Cantonese, use this as a resource to build on the class’ ‘funds of knowledge’.
Explore Chinese migration to Australia
The author’s maternal great-grandfather came to Australia during the Victorian Gold Rush, so this book could go hand-in-hand with a unit of work in Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS) where ‘students learn about the way of life of people who migrated to Australia since Federation and their contributions to Australia’s economic and social development (significance, empathy)‘.
A Ghost in my Suitcase focuses on the main character, twelve-year-old Celeste, returning her mother’s ashes to ‘the Isle of Clouds’ (the home of her ancestors). With care, students could discuss funerary options available for families in Australia, such as burial or cremation. You would need to be mindful of students’ experiences and understandings of funerals and funerary customs. Make sure that you communicate the content of this text to families so that parents and caregivers can consent to their children undertaking this unit of work.
The Hungry Ghost Festival is one of several traditional festivals in which the Chinese community celebrates its ancestors. Members of the community honour their deceased relatives by burning incense and paper money.
Explore the different customs that your students practise to celebrate ancestors and loved ones who have passed away. Also explore a range of religious beliefs about spirits or ghosts.
NOTE: Be aware of your context and that of individual children, as some may find it distressing to discuss deceased family members. In some cases, such discussions may not be appropriate.
Exploring the text in context of our community, school and ‘me’
Preparation for reading
An initial orientation to the text will prepare students for the story to come. The following is a list of ideas to help students make connections to the text. This may include introducing key concepts, themes or the setting, and may take several weeks depending on the background and needs of your class.
- Provide an orientation to the text by first getting to know the author, Gabrielle Wang. Explore her website with your class. There is a very good synopsis for A Ghost in my Suitcase in the teachers’ notes by Jean Yates; select information from these notes to tell students about the story.
- As part of your orientation, introduce significant places in China and refer back to some of your initial explorations about the Hungry Ghost Festival and Chinese Australian history.
- Look at a map of China and identify Shanghai, where Gabrielle Wang’s father was born. In the first chapter of the text, Celeste describes how her father was studying Chinese painting in Shanghai when he met Celeste’s mother, and says that the population of Shanghai (a city) is about the same as the population of Australia (a country). Have students explore some of the Shanghai highlights mentioned in the text. These could include the following:
- Discuss the name Celeste LaClaire, a name of French origin (Celeste’s father was a French artist).
- Once you have established whether any students in your class have family connections to China, invite their family members to share information about their Chinese ancestry. You could invite them to bring in photographs and share timelines about when their families came to Australia.
Rich assessment task
What we have found out about China and its customs
Small group work
Working in small groups of two or three, ask students to share what they have found out about China and Chinese customs.
Using a 3-2-1 strategy, have students reflect on and record the following:
- What are 3 things I have found out about China and Chinese customs?
- What are 2 things I would like to explore further?
- What is 1 question I have about China and Chinese customs?
This task will provide ideas for further exploration of the text, plus activities of interest to your class.
Responding to the text
Introducing the text
As this text has twenty-seven chapters, it should be read over several weeks.
Having provided a strong orientation to the text, begin to read aloud to the whole class. If students have their own copy of the book they can follow along, with the teacher modelling fluent reading.
In the first chapter (‘The Silver Bird’) we meet the protagonist Celeste, who is on a flight to China. As she is only twelve years old she is accompanied by a flight attendant, who escorts her off the plane and waits with her until her grandmother (Por Por) arrives to collect her from the airport. Shanghai Airport is a busy major international airport and would be quite overwhelming for a young girl arriving in a strange country on her own.
After reading this chapter, ask some questions to help students connect to Celeste’s experience of travelling alone. These might be answered in a pair-share, followed by a few shares with the whole class:
- Have you ever travelled to another country?
- Have you ever had to travel alone?
- What are some of the words in the text that tell you how Celeste is feeling?
Read the second chapter, ‘Crazy Riding’, to the class. In this chapter, Celeste and Por Por travel by taxi to Por Por’s home. Brainstorm and list the words and phrases that tell us the taxi ride is ‘crazy’ (e.g. the way the taxi takes off after Por Por provides the address).
After reading pages 9–11, ask students to identify the words the author uses to create an image of how the driver is driving (e.g. how he uses his horn, how he swerves through traffic, how quickly surroundings seem to pass).
Once the taxi arrives at its destination, Por Por introduces Celeste to Ting Ting for the first time. Ting Ting, a young girl that Por Por has taken in, gives Celeste a less than friendly welcome.
Read to the end of the second chapter and then, as a class, discuss how Celeste might be feeling at this point. Ask some questions to prompt your students:
- Have you ever felt unwelcome or unwanted when you have been introduced to a stranger?
- How do you know when someone doesn’t want you around?
In pairs, have students share whether they have had a similar experience and how it made them feel. Allow time for them to record their thoughts in a response journal. While students will have differing experiences and may not have travelled overseas, they may have met relatives who they had not seen for some time or who were strangers. Have the students report back to the whole class. Their answers will provide you with an understanding of how well they are connecting with the main character in the story.
Exploring plot, character, setting and theme
In the first three chapters of the text, Gabrielle Wang creates an image of the major Chinese city Shanghai and takes the reader on a trip from the airport, through the city centre, all the way to Por Por’s house. We move from the noisy airport, out into the cold, into the taxi, through the packed streets, across a river, off the main road into smaller lanes until we arrive at Por Por’s house, which is fronted by a stone fence.
Exploring the setting
The following framework has been adapted from Lorraine McDonald’s A Literature Companion for Teachers (2017, pp. 68–69). Use it to help students identify the words and phrases from the text that describe the settings encountered so far.
|Physical setting||Description of the setting||Examples from the text to support your description of the setting|
|Where and when does the story take place?||The main part of the story takes place in China.||Page 10 (the different vehicles lining the streets)
Page 23 (the different places Por Por takes Celeste)
|Setting and genre|
|Is the setting realistic or a fantasy set in a past or future timeline?||Initially the setting is realistic, but it moves into fantasy and explores other worlds.||Page 35 (the glowing sword)|
|How do the characters feel? What words tell you this?||Celeste feels sad in the taxi from the airport.||Page 9 (Celeste tearing up in the taxi)|
|Details of the setting|
|How is the life of the characters presented?||Each are complex and interact with each other.|
|Does the setting affect the events of the plot?||The setting changes as the drama increases.|
Display the completed table in the classroom so that students can refer back to the ideas about setting when composing their own texts.
In these first three chapters we are introduced to the main characters:
- Celeste (Little Cloud) – the protagonist
- Por Por (Bao Min) – Celeste’s maternal grandmother
- Ting Ting – the antagonist, a young girl who lives with Celeste’s grandmother
- Celeste’s mother, father, and brother Robbie
- Big Fish – the biggest fish in the pond (introduced in Chapter 3)
Later we also meet Shen Da Pai, a corrupt and evil official (introduced in Chapter 8).
After reading the first three chapters, have students complete the following activity:
- Discuss as a class what we know so far about Celeste, her family and her reason for travelling to China. What sort of character is she? What do we know about her? Is she brave, strong, naive? Record words from the chapters read so far that tell us about Celeste.
- In pairs, have students choose one of the other characters from the first three chapters and find words, phrases or sentences that describe that character.
- Have the students share their findings with the whole class.
Display the main characters’ names on a board and, underneath each, write some of the words from the book that describe them.
There are a number of themes in this text that you could guide students to explore. Some of the more significant ones are: jealousy, the importance of family, and loss and grief.
Exploring the theme of jealousy
When Celeste first arrives at Por Por’s house, she is introduced to Ting Ting, a young girl who was taken in by Por Por after her parents died. It is obvious from Ting Ting’s actions that she is jealous of the newly-arrived granddaughter.
Read the paragraph near the end of Chapter 2 (p. 12) that describes Ting Ting’s reaction to Celeste. Discuss how the author creates an image of the look that Ting Ting gives Celeste.
Then, for Chapter 3 (‘Big Mouth’), have students identify the actions that indicate how Ting Ting feels towards Celeste (pp. 13–18). Students may come up with similar responses to the examples below (sentences broken into clauses, clauses numbered, conjunctions in brackets, verbs/verb groups underlined, verb processes stated at end of clause).
Example 1: how Ting Ting acts towards Celeste (pp. 13, 16, 17–18)
In the following examples, a number of words help to set the mood and begin to show the relationship between Ting Ting and Celeste. Display these sentences on a whiteboard and invite students to highlight the verb processes in the clauses that portray the two girls’ feelings.
|1||Ting Ting smiles||Action verb|
|2||(and) calls me over.||Saying verb|
|3||(But) it’s not a friendly smile.||Relating verb|
|4||She doesn’t take my coat,||Action verb|
|5||(so) I put it on the arm of the couch||Action verb|
|6||(and) sit down.||Action verb|
|7||Suddenly, Ting Ting swoops on me,||Action verb|
|8||shoving her face in mine||Action verb|
|9||(and) making me jump.||Action verb|
|10||Ting Ting stands over me,||Action verb|
|11||then straightens,||Action verb|
|12||sniffs the air||Sensing verb|
|13||(and) walks out the front door,||Action verb|
|14||slamming it shut behind her.||Action verb|
Point out that in Example 1 the author has used a lot of action verbs to portray Ting Ting’s attitude towards Celeste. Identify the conjunctions (in brackets) and note that they all perform a linking function (also called co-ordinating conjunctions).
Example 2: how Ting Ting makes Celeste feel (pp. 12, 14, 17–18)
|1||All of a sudden I feel so homesick.||Sensing verb|
|2||I’d feel stupid||Sensing verb|
|3||talking to a fish.||Saying verb|
|4||I feel||Sensing verb|
|5||as if she’s playing with me||Action verb|
|6||like a cat plays with a mouse.||Action verb|
|7||I don’t dare look into her flashing eyes,||Sensing verb|
|8||so I stare instead at a silver locket on a black silk cord hanging around her neck.||Sensing verb|
|9||I stare after her in disbelief.||Sensing verb|
In Example 2, the author has used sensing, saying and action verbs to portray how Ting Ting’s reaction affected Celeste. This range of verb processes provides deeper insight into Celeste’s feelings. Identify the conjunctions (in brackets) and note that ‘as if’ and ‘like’ are both subordinating conjunctions that offer a comparison: Celeste is explaining her feelings by making a comparison to something more tangible. This helps the reader to feel with her and to better understand her disbelief at Ting Ting’s behaviour.
Rich assessment task
Journal writing: reading response/personal reflection
With a focus on the theme of jealousy, invite students to write a journal entry describing either Celeste or Ting Ting. Prompt students to consider the character’s emotions at this point in the text. Encourage them to build on the language from the text and the previous activities (where the verb groups moved action verbs mainly external to the characters, to sensing verbs that show thinking and feelings internal to the characters).
Examining text structure and organisation
Identifying figurative language
Gabrielle Wang uses a range of figurative language to enrich her writing. Display the following examples and review the definition of a simile. Similes describe two unlike things by explicitly comparing them to each other using the word ‘like’.
The following passages provide a model for students to identify this type of figurative language:
- How having a special name is like being a piece of a puzzle (p. 2)
- How sad thoughts are like canaries in cages (p. 8)
- How Ting Ting plays with Celeste like a cat with a mouse (p. 14)
- How the tingling sensation feels like an electric shock (p. 72)
- How Celeste’s hand moves like a feather (p. 90)
- How Por Por’s eyes are like a cat (p. 102)
Discuss the passage on pp. 9–10, beginning with Por Por’s enquiry about Celeste’s father and brother, and ending with Celeste saying they wanted to be left alone. Have students identify the simile that likens Celeste’s parents’ friends to witches.
In pairs, have students create their own similes based on the examples above. Each pair should discuss the three main characters’ traits and then come up with three examples for each one: Celeste, Ting Ting and Por Por.
Get students to share their similes in groups of four and explain why they chose certain descriptions for characters, and why they compared these characters to certain unlike things.
Repeat the think-pair-share routine, this time exploring how the author uses metaphors to compare two things that aren’t alike but do have something in common. A metaphor’s comparison is less direct and does not use ‘like’ or ‘as’ (e.g. the last paragraph on p. 2 that runs over onto p. 3).
Students can find other examples of metaphors and discuss the intended meaning.
Visual images in the text
Scattered throughout the text are images of traditional Chinese objects. In most cases, the accompanying words provide an accurate description of the object. These images serve as a comprehension strategy to assist the reader to make meaning of the written text.
Firstly, provide the class with some examples of images from the text:
- The camphorwood chest (p. 3)
- The stone fence with the round gate (p. 11)
- The mini kazoo (p. 23)
Then, in pairs, have students work through the text to locate other images (visual) and identify the words (verbal) that describe them. The following template may be useful for this exercise:
|Page||Visual (a drawing or the name of the object)||Verbal (the description from the text)|
Many of the objects depicted relate to magic and are used by ghost hunters. Chapters 6, 10 and 16 contain descriptions of these objects’ power. For example, in Chapter 16 (‘Fat Belly’), Por Por prepares Celeste for her first ghost hunt by giving her a number of powerful magical items. After re-reading this chapter as a class, ask students to identify the words that describe the mingshen mirror. This item is first mentioned in Chapter 10 (pp. 72–73) when Por Por describes its powers.
Use the following table to find words from the text. Model the first few examples with the whole class and then, in pairs or small groups, have students continue to search the text and add their own findings. This close reading exercise reinforces the need for students to use a variety of clues from the written and visual text to make meaning.
|Page||Item||Words that describe its purpose||Words that describe its power|
|pp. 72–73; 77–79; 114; 118; 123||mingshen mirror|
|pp. 112–114||lightning stick|
|pp. 28; 35; 72||coin sword|
Examining grammar and vocabulary
Throughout the text, Celeste often speaks about the food that her mother used to make and that she eats with her grandmother. When she was sick, her mother used to make her rice porridge.
There are many English words that originated from Chinese languages. The official language of China is Mandarin, but many people who have migrated from China come from areas where Cantonese is spoken, such as Hong Kong. Brainstorm with the class words and items that may have originated in China, and write them on a smartboard or chart for display. Many of these words might describe food that is commonly eaten in Australia. You can find examples from the online etymology dictionary, Etymoline.
Chinese words and phrases are used throughout the text. Using an online resource such as a Chinese dictionary, have students search for the English translation of the following Chinese words (they could continue to search the text for other words and phrases). Encourage students to predict the meaning and then use the dictionary to confirm their predictions. Use a pronunciation guide to learn how to say the words. Note that the sound letter relationships differ from standard English.
|Chinese word or phrase||English translation|
|duibuqi||There are many different translations of this word: unworthy; to let down; I’m sorry; excuse me; pardon me|
|nin hao||hello (polite)|
|aiya||an exclamation of exhaustion, surprise or annoyance|
|hao le||okay, it’s finished|
|xie xie||to thank; thank you|
|yuan||Chinese unit of money|
|suan le, suan le||don’t worry about it, forget it|
Remind students that the text is written in first person from the protagonist Celeste’s perspective, so when we read this story we see everything from her point of view.
Then work through the grammar analysis worksheet (PDF, 129KB).
Rich assessment task
Having worked through the above grammar analysis, provide students with a copy of this short passage from page 94 of Chapter 13, ‘The Ghost of Bao Mansion’:
Mrs Tan leads us into a big room with a high ceiling held up by thick, dark red pillars. White sheets are thrown over furniture piled high in one corner and sunlight streams in through the carved windows. The house smells of fresh paint. Mrs Tan lifts the sheet and drags out three stools and a small table.
It’s a good idea to number the sentences. Sentences 2 and 4 have two clauses each. In Sentence 4, the subject (Mrs Tan) is elided (i.e. missing but understood) from the second clause. The author has done this so as not to keep repeating the same sentence/clause starter.
Working individually, have students highlight the action and sensing verbs. They should discuss why this passage has so many action verbs, as well as the effect of introducing a sensing verb into the text. This is a useful exercise for inferential comprehension.
|1||Mrs Tan leads us into a big room with a high ceiling held up by thick, dark red pillars.||Action verb|
|2||White sheets are thrown over furniture piled high in one corner and sunlight streams in through the carved windows.||Action verb
|3||The house smells of fresh paint.||Sensing verb|
|4||Mrs Tan lifts the sheet and drags out three stools and a small table.||Action verb
Next have students underline the nouns/noun groups.
|1||Mrs Tan leads us into a big room with a high ceiling held up by thick, dark red pillars.|
|2||White sheets are thrown over furniture piled high in one corner and sunlight streams in through the carved windows.|
|3||The house smells of fresh paint.|
|4||Mrs Tan lifts the sheet and drags out three stools and a small table.|
Discuss the structure of the big noun group. Use the table from the worksheet to identify its elements and their function (e.g. pointer, describer, classifier, head noun or qualifier). This is a useful exercise for literal comprehension.
A Ghost in my Suitcase presents opportunities to use Readers’ Theatre in class, which will enhance students’ comprehension of the text and increase their fluency, phrasing, intonation and voice production. Chapter 17 (‘Celeste, the Ghost-Hunter’, pp. 118–126) has been selected as an example, but any chapter would be appropriate given the amount of direct speech throughout this text.
Before beginning, read the chapter aloud to the class to model fluency, phrasing, intonation and voice production.
Students will need:
- Their own copies of the text
- Highlighters to help identify dialogue for particular characters
Organise the class into groups of 4 or 5. Each group should have enough students to cover the characters from Chapter 17 (Celeste, Por Por and Fat Belly), plus one or two narrators. Display the following directions:
- Read through the chapter as a group
- Decide on the roles and highlight your part
- Practise reading your script together
As a class, brainstorm a checklist of presentation skills for both individuals and groups to consider. This might include:
- verbal expression: pace, volume, tone
- body language and facial expressions
- will you stand still or move?
Allow groups at least 30 minutes to practise their performances. Depending on the size of your class, you may stagger presentations over several days.
An alternative approach would be to select five or six different chapters and allocate one to each group. This would avoid students becoming disinterested in seeing the same chapter presented repeatedly.
Reconvene after the performances and prompt students to comment on aspects of the text that made this task easy or challenging. These may include the author’s craft, vocabulary choices, how well the character’s feelings were developed, etc.
Read the blurb on the back of the book. In small groups, invite students to discuss the blurb. Prompt them by asking:
- Did the blurb make you want to read the book?
- If so, what aspect caught your attention?
- If not, what might have got you attention?
- Were there any particular words or phrases that you noticed?
- Was there anything else you would have liked to know before reading?
Based on their discussion, ask each group to construct an alternative blurb. The audience should be students of a similar age to them. If you have a class blog, the new blurbs can be posted there.
Return to the text and explore the contents page, reminding students of the names given to the chapters. Draw their attention to the first chapter entitled ‘The Silver Bird’. This chapter begins on page 1 with some lines in different font.
Now that the class has read the whole text, ask students to reflect on these lines. They can think-pair-share to articulate their initial ideas before independently writing a response. Prompts might include:
- Do you interpret these lines differently now compared to when you first read/heard them?
- What might the author’s intention be?
- Who or what is the silver bird?
- What is this passage about?
- Who might ‘you and me’ be?
- Does this text set up the reader for what is to come? How? If not, why not?
Finally, ask students to comment on this technique. Did it immediately engage them?
Allow some time for any keen students to share their written responses.
Rich assessment task
The author Gabrielle Wang says on her website:
There are three things I know for certain when I begin a novel.
- My audience
- The setting
- That it will end happily
Everything else is left up to choice. I make hundreds of small decisions everyday to do with plot, voice, characters, sentence structure, words, and punctuation.
That’s why, even if it is a rather lonely existence, I will never tire of writing stories. Of course, I always have my characters to keep me company.
Provide time for students to pair up and discuss this quote. Then join two pairs to make a group of four. This will give all students the opportunity to voice their opinion about what the author is saying.
Then, drawing on discussions throughout the unit and their own reading, ask students to write independently about each of the three points as a reader.
- Who is the audience for A Ghost in my Suitcase?
- Describe the setting.
- Describe the ending. Was it satisfying? Do you agree that all books should have happy endings?
Complete the task by asking each student to comment on the author’s style, including her use of voice, characters, sentence structure, word choice and punctuation. They should reflect on whether there are elements of this style that they feel they could incorporate into their own writing.