Where the Steps Were

Class with Miss D. gives the students at Pleasant Hill Elementary the confidence they need to move on to their new school. The third-graders are sad that this will be their last year at Pleasant Hill Elementary before their school is torn down. Poems narrated in the voices of five different students—Dawn, Kayla, Jonathan, Anthony, and Carmen—relate the events of their last year together with their teacher, Miss D. The year is busy as the students, each facing a challenge at home, prepare to put on a play, take field trips to a local farm, and do experiments in the science lab. They also are studying the Civil War and key figures in the civil rights movement. When the students go to a play in a real theater, they are kicked out for no good reason. Miss D. helps the students write letters to the theater manager, demanding to know why they weren’t allowed to see the play. Is it because their skin is black?

Ms. D.
Author perspective

My sister teaches third grade in the inner city in Cincinnati, Ohio. The idea for Where the Steps Were came from watching her in the classroom as well as listening to stories about her students. Verse seemed like a natural way to tell the story since the children read lots of poetry throughout the school year. The story takes place during the last year of their school; it is slated for demolition when school is out.

Publisher's Weekly (starred)

(*Starred Review) "In a spare, eloquent novel in verse illustrated with her own bold block prints, Cheng (Marika) captures the moods of five inner-city third-graders as they prepare themselves for their school's impending demolition. A sense of loss prevails, but other emotions—jealousy, indignation, pride and love—percolate as the five narrators deal with personal issues at school and at home. Using very few words, the author conveys complicated back stories: Jonathan, for example, can't go home with his friend, and his friend “can't come to my house, either./ I used to have a house/ before my little brother Caleb/ set the mattress on fire/.... He wanted to dry out the sheets/ before anyone saw.” She also evokes the children's innocence and shared affection for their teacher, Miss D., who instills in them a strong sense of justice, especially after they are falsely accused of spitting from a theater balcony. Mixing sad and uplifting images occurring between the fall and spring of a school year, these poems pay tribute to hard-working educators and children learning to overcome obstacles and accept unwelcome changes. Ages 6-up."

Kirkus (starred)

(*Starred Review) "A delicate verse cycle gives readers a series of snapshots of the lives of five children in an inner-city school. Dawn is plump, and fearful of her volatile father. Kayla can't read, and her brother is in jail. Carmen's mother smokes like a chimney. Anthony shows up early every morning to help Miss D. Jonathan lives with his mother and little brother in a homeless shelter. They all know that at the end of the year, their school will close, and what little stability they have becomes all the more precious to them. Cheng's free-verse poems give voice to the children, allowing them to speak their hopes, frustrations and fears; her powerful, blocky woodcuts accompany the poems, intensifying their emotional impact. She wisely avoids the temptation to craft the year into an obvious narrative arc: Things happen to the children—a class play, a visit to the farm, a parent's illness—alongside the commonplace squabbles and reconciliations that punctuate any school year. Thus there is no rising or falling action, simply the opportunity to get to know these third graders as complete and distinct individuals. Quietly lovely. (Poetry. 9-12)"

Book type: 
Middle grade novel
Andrea Cheng
Publication date: 
Mar 2008
Interest level: 
International Reading Association “Top Ten 2008", Mar 2008
White Ravens best of 2009 list (international), Dec 2008
“Teaching Tolerance” selection, 2009, Mar 2009
Best Children's Books of the Year Bank Street College of Education, Jun 2009