“The Exquisite Corpse”
by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

This story starts with a train rushing through the night.

The full moon lights the silver rails winding around dark mountains, through deep woods, and over steep gorges of jagged rock and one freezing cold rushing black mountain river…

Cliffhangers! Annotated List of Suggested Read Alouds and Independent Reads
Activities for the Classroom
For Parents, Teachers, Librarians — Talk Art!
Discussion Questions

Cliffhangers! Annotated List of Suggested Read Alouds and Independent Reads

by Thom Barthelmess; Butler Children’s Literature Center at Dominican University

Read Alouds

Charlip, Remy. Fortunately. 32p. Gr. K-3.
As Ned makes his way from New York to Florida for a surprise party, he is befallen by alternating episodes of disaster and salvation. “Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane. Unfortunately, the motor exploded. Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane. Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute. ” Will Ned arrive on time, in one piece, and live to adventure again?

Feiffer, Jules. Meanwhile. 32p. Gr. K-4.
Raymond’s mother is calling, but he is engrossed in his comic book. Seeking to lose himself further, he employs a comic book trope, and scrawls “meanwhile” across his bedroom wall, for a change of scene. Immediately he is transported to a pirate’s galleon. Another scrawl takes him to the Wild West, and then into outer space. The dangers increase apace until he happens upon another familiar turn of phrase that saves his day.

Noble, Trinka Hakes, illustrated by Tony Ross. Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch. 32p. Gr. PreK-3.
Rancher Hicks is bored. He takes a trip into town in search of a little excitement, but all he finds is sleepy Sleepy Gulch. As he gets about his humdrum day, his adventureless activities alternate with his wife Edna’s exciting escapades “back at the ranch.” He watches a turtle cross the road; she stars in a Hollywood movie. He gets a whisker trim; she meets the President. Tony Ross’s ebullient illustrations maximize the comedic fun.

Independent Reads

Armstrong, Jennifer. The Kindling. 224p. Gr. 6-10.
In 2002 the earth’s adult population was eradicated by a virus. Five years later, seven children have cobbled together the means of survival, but only just. As supplies dwindle, they set off for Washington DC, in search of someone called President, who may be able to help. The world they inhabit, at once incomprehensible and chillingly familiar, makes a gruesome backdrop for a gripping story with an irresistible cliffhanger ending.

Montgomery, R.A. The Abominable Snowman. 144p. Gr. 4-7.
You are traveling to Nepal with your best friend, Carlos, in search of the Yeti. Carlos gets lost in the mountains. A Yeti has been sighted. A storm approaches. What will happen? In this Choose Your Own Adventure Series title, you choose the pages the story follows, and your choices determine the outcome. Will Carlos survive? His fate is in your hands.

Snicket, Lemony. The Bad Beginning. 162p. Gr. 2-5.
Violet, Klaus and Sunny Beaudelaire are in trouble. They are newly orphaned, their parents having been lost in a fire, and Count Olaf, their miserly uncle, and newly appointed guardian, has designs on their family fortune. Things go from bad to worse at every turn, with peril fairly dripping from the page. Snicket’s broad, wry, comic telling mitigates the macabre, offering a sweet-and-sour, delightful beginning to a delectable Series of Unfortunate Events.

© 2009 Thom Barthelmess

Activities for the Classroom

by Melanie Walski

Synonyms and Antonyms

Students learn unknown words more easily when they can relate those unknown words to already known words. Choose words from Episode 1 of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure that the students may have some sense of, but do not know well. This activity is best done with students ages 8 and up, with students organized into teams (2-4 students on each team). After dividing students into teams, give each team a large sheet of paper and one red, one blue, and one black marker. In the center of the sheet of paper have each team write the word EXQUISITE in black marker and circle it. Define the word if necessary. Set a timer for one minute and have each team write as many synonyms as they can for the word in blue marker on their sheet of paper. When time is up reset the timer for one minute and have the teams write as many antonyms as they can in red marker. When time is up, display the papers and discuss the words emphasizing how the words relate to the target word EXQUISITE. Repeat the activity with other words from Episode 1.

Examples: unusual, jagged, treacherous, villain

Four Square Vocabulary

A “four square” activity (Stahl & Nagy, 2006) aims to help students broaden their understanding of a word by identifying what it is, what it is not, and then using the word in a directive context sentence. This activity can be done with students of any age, and students can work individually or in pairs. To begin, fold a piece of paper vertically and horizontally so it has four quadrants, and write the target word in the upper left section. The students should be told the meaning of the word, but it should not be written down, as it is only to begin a discussion of the word. For example, the word jagged from Episode 1 of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure would be written in the first box, the word defined orally, and the sentence in which it is found could be read aloud (“The full moon lights the silver rails winding around dark mountains, through deep woods, and over steep gorges of jagged rock and one freezing cold rushing black mountain river.”). Next, ask the students for examples of things that are jagged. Write these examples in the upper-right section. Examples for jagged could be rocks, teeth, and broken glass. Next, ask the students for some things that are NOT jagged, and write these examples in the lower-right section of the paper. Non-examples for jagged could include pillows, socks, and marshmallows. Finally, the students should compose a sentence using the word in a way that defines the word. A sentence using directive context for the word jagged is “The jagged rocks the mountain goat climbed over were rough and sharp.” Continue this activity with other words from Episode 1.

Examples: exquisite, corpse, gorge, winding, sleeping berth, orphan, spy, code, assembled, treacherous, dimension, riddle, disguise, villain, swindler

Episode 1 Table 1Figurative Language

Learning individual words to expand one’s vocabulary is important for students of all ages, but often, common words used figuratively can cause the most confusion for children, especially those whose first language is not English. Throughout the episodes of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure many idiomatic expressions will appear and your students may need to examine these words and phrases to better understand the story.

To help students better understand idiomatic expressions, one activity is to create a chart in which to organize phrases and meanings. This activity can be done with students ages 8 and up. Have students create the chart with the headings shown below. In Episode 1 the narrator describes some of the bad guys Nancy and Joe will meet including “…several desperados, a gang of evildoers, and just one plain bad egg.” Here, bad egg refers to someone who turns out to be trouble. Have students enter the idiomatic expression in the appropriate box on their charts. Next, discuss what the expression means in the context of the story, and have the students enter the meaning of bad egg under “figurative meaning” and draw a picture to illustrate this meaning in the next box. Then, under “literal meaning” discuss and have the students record the literal meaning of bad egg: an egg that is spoiled or rotten. Finally, have the students draw a picture to illustrate the literal meaning of bad egg. As The Exquisite Corpse Adventure progresses look for idiomatic expressions that may need some explanation and add these to the chart.

Episode 1 Table 2Characters

Episode 1 of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure introduces the reader to our two heroes, Nancy and Joe, but there are many, many more characters to come as the story unfolds. In order to keep straight whom everyone is (if they are good or bad, provide a clue or a distraction, are a friend or foe) it is helpful to use a chart such as the one below to organize the characters. As the episodes unfold, have the students continue adding characters as they are introduced. Since an exquisite corpse is unpredictable, it may also be good to leave space for additional columns as other information may need to be added later.

Episode 1 Table 3


Stahl, S. & Nagy, W. (2006). Teaching Word Meanings. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

© 2009 Melanie Walski

For Parents, Teachers, Librarians—Talk Art!

“The Exquisite Corpse” © 2009 Chris Van Dusen
“The Exquisite Corpse” © 2009 Chris Van Dusen

Understanding Emotional Responses to Art

by Mary Brigid Barrett, NCBLA

All of my illustrations are painted in gouache (rhymes with “squash”) which is kind of like an opaque watercolor. I paint on illustration board and I usually start with the background and work my way to the foreground.

Since the writing is so wonderfully wacky in The Exquisite Corpse Adventure there are several images which would make great illustrations. Still, I choose my subjects carefully. I want to intrigue the reader with the illustration as I hopefully did in Episode 1. For this piece, I decided to lead off with a real (literally!) cliff-hanger.
— Chris Van Dusen, writing about his illustration for The Exquisite Corpse Adventure

A great place to begin a conversation about art and illustration with kids is to ask them about how they feel and what they feel when they look at a picture. And I know you won’t make the same mistake I did in my first experience teaching high school art in Ohio, telling the kids at length what I thought and felt about a painting, then looking to them for a response after I had sucked all the air out of the room predisposing their reactions!

Ask the kids you work for and live with what emotions rise to the surface looking at Chris Van Dusen’s illustration, and get them to be as specific as possible. For example: if a young person says it makes him or her feel scared – how scared? What kind of scared? Scared of what has happened? Scared of what might happen? Ask your kids to imagine themselves in the illustration. Where would they actually be standing in the illustration to be able to see this particular viewpoint? If the scene depicted in the illustration was really happening, how would they react? Would they be shocked? Would they gasp? Bite their fingernails? Run? Faint? Dial 911? Would they take any action at all?

Then ask them, what is it about the illustration that triggers their emotional response? Some of the kids and teens may have insights, but others may have no idea that visual artists make specific choices based on knowledge and experience, using elements of design, color, composition, characterization, viewpoint, and perspective to control what they want to convey to the viewer.

Here’s a little exercise to get kids of any age to start thinking in that direction.

Draw four horizontal rectangles on the board or on a large sheet of paper. In the first rectangle, draw a long somewhat straight horizontal line that contacts the left and right side of the rectangle. In the second rectangle draw a horizontal softly wavy line that contacts the left and right side of the rectangle. In that third rectangle draw a straight diagonal line from a bit above the bottom left corner to a bit below the top right corner. In the last rectangle draw a jagged diagonal line—like a lightning bolt— from a bit above the bottom left corner to a bit below the top right corner.


Talk about the line drawing in each rectangle—does the simple drawn line evoke any emotional response? Ask them which drawn line in that rectangular space makes them feel safe? Do any of the lines make them feel calm or even at peace? Which two lines are restful? Which two lines are more exciting? Is there a line that looks almost dangerous? WHY? Then ask them if these were realistic drawings, simple landscape panoramas they might encounter in real life, what landscapes come to mind? Why do certain landscapes like a pasture and big sky, or a view looking out over the soft rolling waves of a lake or ocean make us feel calm, relaxed, even safe and secure? Ask them what real landscapes come to mind looking at the two diagonal lines. Why do diagonals of any kind bring out a more energized emotion—especially jagged diagonals?

Discussion Questions

Now have the students read the first Exquisite Corpse episode written by Jon Scieszka and take a good look at Chris Van Dusen’s illustration for the first episode. Here are a number of questions to ask your students, and remind them that there are no right or wrong answers in this conversation!

  • Why do you think Mr. Van Dusen chose a strong vertical rectangle instead of a horizontal rectangle for his picture plane?
  • What kind of lines does Mr. Van Dusen use to make the predominant shapes that appear in his illustration—straight horizontal lines? Vertical lines? Diagonal lines? Jagged diagonal lines? Why do you think he chose to use those kinds of lines? Reference the drawing exercise above allowing kids to make connections and come to their own conclusions.
  • The illustration shows a dramatic perspective. Would the scene depicted in the illustration be more or less dramatic viewed from a different perspective? Why or why not?
  • Color and shapes: How has Mr. Van Dusen used color to enhance the emotional impact of the episode? Why do you think Mr. Van Dusen chose to stylize the cloud and mountain shapes instead of depicting them in a super realistic manner?
  • Subject matter: Mr. Van Dusen, in this first illustration for The Exquisite Corpse Adventure chose not to draw any of the episode’s characters. Why might he have made that choice?

Drawing Exercise for Kids and Teens

“I choose my subjects carefully.” – Chris Van Dusen

Have your kids and teens experiment with drawing! Have them read Episode 1 of the The Exquisite Corpse Adventure with an eye and ear for details. Suggest that they create their own illustration making different choices from the design, color, viewpoint, and content choices that Chris Van Dusen made. They should choose a different viewpoint, color scheme, even a different moment in time for their illustrations. They should even choose a different picture plane—which means the space framing their drawings cannot be an upright or vertical rectangle. When all the drawings are completed, hang them up throughout your house, library, or classroom and discuss the emotional impact of everyone’s choices, comparing and contrasting that impact to Mr. Van Dusen’s illustrations and the other illustrations in the room. Remind the kids that there is no “correct” answer to this illustration challenge! Everyone has the right to make any choices they like!

You might also like to extend this discussion out into the wider world of visual images, especially those images used to manipulate and entertain young people—in the media, the Internet, television, advertising, etc . Help raise their awareness that commercial visual images are not “accidents.” It is to their benefit that they know how visual artists, especially in the media, consumer product, and advertising fields use design, illustration, and color to manipulate emotional reactions. You may also want to have your kids and teens find an example of commercial visual manipulation that they can share and discuss with others.

© 2009 Mary Brigid Barrett; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance

Discussion Questions

by Geri Zabela Eddins, NCBLA

The Exquisite Corpse Adventure starts on a train and Nancy and Joe escape to a mountainous and forested landscape….somewhere. Talk about setting—the time and place of the story. What does the story tell us about where Nancy and Joe are? Where do you imagine that they are? Do you think they are fulfilling their quest in modern times? What makes you think so?

In Episode 1 we learn that Joe and Nancy have left the circus to find their parents. Imagine they each took a small item they could hide in a pocket before they left. What did they take? Why? Imagine you had to leave your home unexpectedly and could only take one small thing. What would you take and why? Can you think of times in history when people were forced to leave quickly without most of their possessions?

We learn in Episode 1 that Nancy and Joe have been perfectly trained for their quest because they were raised in a circus and are skilled at everything from fire juggling to sword swallowing! Have you ever been to a circus or seen one on TV? Which acts do you enjoy most? Which circus skills do you think Nancy and Joe might need? If you could take class to learn a circus skill, what would you choose? Why?

The Exquisite Corpse Adventure is a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger is “a work issued in installments that end at a point of great suspense.” Episode 1 ends with Nancy and Joe not knowing that they are approaching serious danger. Instead, they are wondering what they should do about the message on the birthday card. How did the ending make you feel? Are you anxious to find out what happens in Episode 2? What do you think will happen? Do you know of any other stories, books, cartoons, or movies that are cliffhangers? Do you enjoy cliffhangers? Why?

The Exquisite Corpse Adventure is told using an omniscient narrator. An omniscient narrator is one that is capable of “knowing, seeing, and telling all.” An omniscient narrator knows everything about what is happening in the story, including what the characters are thinking and feeling. Talk about narrators in fiction and points of view. How do we know this story is being told with an omniscient point of view? Name some examples. How would the story be different if Nancy or Joe or their parents told it? What would they be able to tell us? What would they not be able to tell us? Consider retelling Episode 1 in first person using a character of your choice. You can tell it out loud or write it down.


Harmon, William and Hugh Holman. (2006). A Handbook to Literature. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

© 2009 Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance