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Putting Books to Work: Bug Boy

By Justin Stygles
 | Aug 11, 2016

Bug Boy. Eric Luper. 2009. Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Ages 12–18


Bug BoyIn 1934, The Great Depression crippled most of the United States. Except in Saratoga, NY, where fat cats gather together in the summer to celebrate the most famous thoroughbred racing season of the year. At the start we are introduced to Jack, an aspiring jockey who is working Fireside, a fast 3-year-old colt who is on a path to win the summer's biggest stakes race. Working for Pelton Stables under the careful eye of Mr. Hodge, the plot carries us through Jack's ascension from exercise rider to “bug boy,” a rider who has yet to win 40 races.

Immediately, Jack is offered cash for rigging a race. Framed in a rare period where Saratoga permitted bookmaking, corruption runs rampant as bookmakers try to maintain a profitable edge over bettors. Jack, the newest jockey at Saratoga, working the best horse, is a fresh target for race fixing.

Before long, Jack meets a beautiful woman, Elizabeth, who aims to capture Jack's heart. As Jack's fame grows, what is he willing to do to be the best jockey and keep his confident girl by his side?

When the big race comes, Jack is under massive stress. Tweed, his old boss, Dad, looking to make a buck, Elizabeth, hungry for notoriety on the social scene, and Mr. Hodge, the humble trainer looking for the big win, surround Jack as he must decide what to do with Fireside.

Cross-Curricular Connections

Social studies, health, reading, writing

Ideas for Classroom Use

Ethical Decisions

As students are reading or listening, students should focus on the value of “right and wrong” when temptations and aspirations conflict with conscience. Using reading response as well as collaborative discussions, students pinpoint the ethical dilemmas positioned in Luper's narrative.

Once the dilemma is identified, readers can first identify how they might react in a similar situation. After considering background knowledge, readers then revisit the text to consider the context of the circumstance to alter or confirm their thinking. Students locate and organize text evidence to support their rationales. Students can openly debate discussed decisions, building interest to discover what happens next. Explaining and empathizing through writing is a great way for students to process thought and feelings, thereby coming to terms with whatever emotions are evoked by their reading.

Interpersonal Relationships

Jack is an example of a boy who is forced to mature faster than perhaps he should. He faces pressures and decisions that many students face in high school and college. Jack can also be a representation of what rookie football and baseball players face when entering the big leagues. Readers can look at what forces a character to change. What influences exert pressure? How does Jack deal with money, alcohol, and risky behaviors? (Note: mature content included)

When we consider character analysis instruction, we can consider whether Jack changes for better or worse and what it really means to “come of age.” Students can engage in deep reflective writing as they evaluate the many pleasures that entice teenagers.

Life and Times

Saratoga is a magical city. A walk down Broadway will captivate the soul and images of the flat track will entrance visitors forever. Saratoga may not look the same today compared with 1934, but many structures still stand. Instead of packing up students for a field trip, slide shows and Google Earth can transport students to the bucolic upstate New York city laden in history. By using pictures, students can see the various locations Jack and his friend visited bring the story to life. Since horse racing is out of context for many readers, show pictures of Clair Court under the sweeping limps of oak trees, jogging horses emerging from the famous August mist that envelopes the track, or the architecture of the Gideon Putnam hotel, or even the YMCA on Broadway. Using Google Earth, readers can map out (pin) the same sights and imagine the travels Jack and Elizabeth took around the city.

Triple Crown/Sports – Behind the Scenes

Introducing Bug Boy in advance of one of the Triple Crown horse races invites interest in the greatest horse race of the year. Although Saratoga is a summer event, what happens at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, The Kentucky Derby, has an impact on the Saratoga racing season. Even with today's media barrage, only so many things can be seen on television. Luper's narrative takes us to the backstretch, where a vivid imagination parallels the reality of sport in a way that will ignite a love for racing yet reveal the tragedy's that athletes face when aspiring to their dreams.

The Great Depression

Comparing and contrasting text is an important facet of the Common Core. When reading Bug Boy, we discover wealth did not evaporate in the Great Depression, unlike the pictures that portray destitution. Rather, greed and excess created dreams, even for boys who knew extreme poverty.

Using Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse and A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck, readers can compare and contrast, through structured activities, three special cultures that occurred during the Great Depression.

Additional Resources

Sarasota Heritage Visitors Center: Take a step back in time to see pictures and places and to read more about the notoriety that made Saratoga famous.

New York Racing Association, New York: Explore Saratoga horse racing as it is today, still the pinnacle racing meet of the year.

Texts With Similar Themes

A Long Way From Chicago. Richard Peck. 2000. Penguin.

Azad's Camel. Erika Pal. 2010. Frances Lincoln Children's Books.

Black Gold. Marguerite Henry. Ill. Wesley Dennis. 1992. Aladdin.

Migrant Mother: How a Photograph Defined the Great Depression (Captured History Series). Don Nardo, Alexa L Sandmann, Kathleen Baxter. 2011. Compass Point.

Out of the Dust. Karen Hesse. 2009. Great Source. Seabiscuit. Laura Hillenbrand. 2001. Random House.

Ride of Their Lives Ride of Their Lives: The Triumphs and Turmoil of Today's Top Jockeys. Lenny Shulman. 2002. Eclipse Press.

The Last Black King of the Kentucky Derby: The Story of Jimmy Winkfield. Crystal Hubbard. Ill. Robert McGuire. 2008. Lee & Low Books.

Justin StylesJustin Stygles is a sixth-grade teacher and literacy specialist in Western Maine. He has taught at a variety of levels for 12 years and is currently working with Corwin Literacy about effect, emotions, and transactional reading.


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