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Reading Group Guide

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    Breakout

    By Paul Fleischman
    About the Book
    After a childhood spent in foster homes, seventeen-year-old Audelia "Del" Thigpen has finally done it -- she's broken free, leaving Los Angeles behind and heading toward a new life in a place far, far away. But Del's plan hits a snag when she gets stuck in a traffic jam on her way out of town. In Breakout, Paul Fleischman introduces us to a young woman determined to make it on her own terms, and as the story alternates between the scene unfolding on the freeway and the staging of Del's one-woman play eight years later, we witness her inspiring transformation.
    Discussion Topics
    1. Del describes herself as an outsider. Often, she says she feels uncomfortable in her own skin. Why? What specific events or circumstances have caused Del to feel this way? What does she do to make herself feel, and appear, less like an outsider -- to fit in? Can you identify a time in your life when you felt like Del? What, if anything, did you do to fit in? How would you respond if a friend or family member told you he or she felt like an outsider and was trying to fit in?
    2. Growing up in Los Angeles, in a series of foster homes, Del finds different ways of coping with difficult circumstances. Give examples. Are her coping mechanisms positive or negative, constructive or self-destructive? In what ways? If you were friends with Del, or an adult counseling Del, how might you help her deal with her feelings in a positive way? What suggestions, if any, would you offer? How do you cope with difficult circumstances? Identify positive and negative ways of dealing with difficult circumstances.
    3. Leaving Los Angeles, Del changes her name. Why? What is the significance of her new name, Elena Franco? How does the name help her to create a new life outside of Los Angeles? What impact do names -- of people, places, products, and businesses -- have on public perception? How do our names affect our perception of ourselves?
    4. How do the drivers, Del included, respond to being stuck in the traffic jam? How does this change as the day progresses? How does the traffic jam, and the way Del deals with it, serve as a metaphor for her life? What does Del learn from the experience? Describe a situation that you first perceived as negative but which ended up having a positive and profound influence on your life.
    5. How would Del's life have been different had she remained in Los Angeles? If she never made the attempt to break free, would she have developed in the same way? Would she have become a playwright? Why or why not? What conditions led to, and affected, her transformation? Do you think Del will ever return to Los Angeles? Why or why not? Is it true, as the author Thomas Wolfe wrote in the book, Look Homeward, Angel, "You can never go home again?" How would Del respond to Wolfe's statement?
    6. How does Del's life change as a result of having a child? What was her own childhood like? In what ways do you think Del's daughter's life will be different? What effect, if any, will Del's childhood experience have on the way she raises her daughter? Should you choose to become a parent, how do you think your childhood experience will affect the way you raise your child?
    7. Speaking to a reporter, Elena explains that while all of the characters in her play, Breakout, are fictional, they are, to a certain extent, autobiographical, too. Who are the characters in Elena's play? Describe them. What's their story? How do the characters in Breakout mirror Elena's experience? In what ways are they autobiographical? How do the characters help deepen Elena's understanding of herself?
    Activities & Research
    1. In her play, Breakout, Elena presents searing character sketches based on keen observation, conjecture, and personal experience. She invents for each person an elaborate "back story," a set of circumstances that informs who that person is today. Create your own character sketches by discreetly observing strangers in a crowded public place such as a shopping mall, your local park, or school cafeteria.
    2. Create a scrapbook of Elena's life, documenting the eight years that have passed between the time she left Los Angeles and the staging of her play in Boulder. Include souvenirs, snapshots, sketches, stories scribbled on napkins -- anything Elena might have saved as a way of rendering her new life real.
    3. Write diary entries from the perspective of Elena during her first few weeks outside of California. What happens when she finally gets off the freeway? Where does she end up? How does she adjust to life outside California and away from her beloved Pacific Ocean? Does she have any fears or second thoughts about her move?
    4. In the opening scenes of Breakout, a reporter interviews Elena for a local arts and entertainment newspaper. Based on this interview, and your close reading of the book, write a profile of up-and-coming playwright Elena Franco. Remember, the reporter is also there to review the play, so be sure to include a critique in your article. Create a banner, or title page, for your newspaper and include with the article an image of the playwright, based on Elena's description of herself.
    5. After hours spent in the traffic jam, motorists eventually get out of their cars and begin to interact. In Breakout, Elena imagines entire conversations and scenes starring strangers stuck on the freeway. Imagine your own scene where strangers from very different backgrounds are stuck -- on an elevator, the subway, even a long line -- and are forced to interact. What do they learn about one another? What impact does the interaction have on their lives and their understanding of themselves?
    6. Stage your own performance of Breakout. Though Elena performs a one-woman show, you could adapt the play to include several actors. Nonactors can contribute as stage managers, costume and set designers, and more. Others can design a program and posters. Visit Paul Fleischman's official Web site at www.paulfleischman.net for more information.
    This reading group guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.

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