This post includes language arts and interdisciplinary activities for The Tell-Tale Start, by Gordon McAlpine. It’s part of a series that shares language arts and interdisciplinary activities for selections from Duke TIP’s 4th-6th Grade Online Book Club, which you can re-purpose for your classroom.
Why The Tell-Tale Start?
- Gifted, middle-school twin protagonists
- Fast-paced, plot-driven mystery with doses of humor
- Engaging, challenging interdisciplinary connections
About the Book
Identical twins Edgar and Allan Poe are far from ordinary middle schoolers. Not only are they certifiably brilliant, but they are also proud to be the great-great-great-great grandnephews of famous 19th century author Edgar Allan Poe. They look a lot like him, they live in Baltimore as he did, and they share his love for “the thrilling and unexpected” (2). What’s more, Edgar and Allan are so in sync with one another that they can read each other’s thoughts! Naturally, they don’t find regular schoolwork very challenging, so they spend all of their free time conducting intricate science experiments, reprogramming computers, reading True Tales of Horror, decoding fortune cookies, and teaching their beloved cat, Roderick Usher, to do unusual tricks. To the delight of their school friends, the twins are also masterful pranksters who make classes exciting and keep would-be bullies in check.
Overall, things are going pretty well for Edgar and Allan—other than being temporarily expelled from school—until their cat goes missing. They cannot bear to lose this last connection to their parents, who gave them Roderick Usher as a kitten shortly before they died in a botched satellite launch seven years ago. When they receive a mysterious phone call saying their cat has ended up at a Wizard of Oz theme park in Kansas, Edgar and Allan will do anything to convince Uncle Jack and Aunt Judith to drive them there. What the Poe twins don’t know, though, is that their parents’ disappearance wasn’t an accident, and neither is their cat’s! Someone creepy is after Edgar and Allan, but why? Will the boys decode the clues, survive their cross-country road trip, and escape with Roderick Usher in time?
About the Author
Although he was a capable reader from an early age, author Gordon McAlpine didn’t really get into books until he discovered a series of mysteries for children called Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Three Investigators around age nine. These books were the first to spark his imagination, and his interest in creative writing as a career grew from there. McAlpine went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of California, Irvine. He has taught fiction-writing courses at several colleges and universities in California and written several television scripts, short stories, novels, and nonfiction books for adults. The Tell-Tale Start, which grew into a three-book series called The Misadventures of Edgar & Allan Poe, was his first book for middle-grade readers. In his spare time, McAlpine enjoys reading, playing basketball, and exploring new places. He lives with his wife and three dogs in Southern California. To learn more about McAlpine—and see some of Edgar, Allan, and Roderick Usher’s favorite roadside attractions—visit the author’s personal Web site.
Have you taught The Tell-Tale Start?
Sample Discussion Questions
- The Poe twins “[believe] that oddities and seeming coincidences [are] actually the world’s way of communicating secret messages” (41). Even though “[a]dults usually [categorize] such thinking as ‘overactive imagination’. . . . the boys [know] that if you consider everything with an open and inquisitive eye, then at the very least you ensure that the world is never boring” (42). Do you agree with Edgar and Allan? How do you think being curious and open-minded changes the way people understand and interact with the world around them?
- Near the end of the book, Edgar and Allan “calculate” the precise time at their “longitude and latitude the satellite launched years before with their unfortunate mother and father accidentally aboard would be visible as a glimmering, orbiting star in the northeast skies” (168). They go outside in the middle of the night to look up at the sky and tell their parents about everything that has just happened to them. How have Edgar and Allan changed and grown as a result of their unexpected cross-country adventure and confrontation with Professor Perry? Look back over the notes you’ve made on your Character Grid for ideas.
- Now that you’ve finished the book, look back at the epigraph (or quotation) just before the Contents: “A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.” — Groucho MarxIn literature an epigraph often offers a hint about a work’s theme, or overall message from author to readers. In the case of The Tale-Tell Start, this epigraph could simply hint that something is going to happen to Edgar and Allan’s beloved cat Roderick Usher. Can you think of another possibility, perhaps something to do with the interplay between superstition and scientific observation? Why do you think McAlpine chose this Groucho Marx quotation for this particular book?
Interdisciplinary Topics to Explore
- Edgar Allan Poe, Thrill Master Extraordinaire – with activities on Poe’s life and work.
- Untangling Quantum Entanglement – with activities in physics and quantum mechanics.
- Highways, Motels, and the Birth of the American Road Trip – with activities on the history of the US Interstate Highway System and the things that have sprung up along the sides of our roads.
- The World’s First Handheld Device? – with activities that explore the astrolabe.
- The Science of Writing and Breaking Codes – with activities on cryptology