Lunch-Box Dream

Lunch-Box Dream

by Tony Abbott


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Bobby and his family are visiting Civil War battlefields on the eve of the war's centenary, while inside their car, quiet battles rage. When an accident cuts their trip short, they return home on a bus and witness an incident that threatens to deny a black family seats. What they don't know is the reason for the family's desperation to be on that bus: a few towns away, their child is missing.

In Lunch-Box Dream Tony Abbott presents Jim Crow, racism, and segregation from multiple perspectives. In this story of witnessing without understanding, a naïvely prejudiced boy, in brief flashes of insight, starts to identify and question his assumptions about race.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250016683
Publisher: Square Fish
Publication date: 01/08/2013
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 660,193
Product dimensions: 5.34(w) x 7.46(h) x 0.52(d)
Age Range: 10 - 14 Years

About the Author

Tony Abbott is the award-winning author of more than 80 books for young readers, including Firegirl, The Postcard, and the Secrets of Droon series. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and two daughters.

Read an Excerpt

Thursday, June 11, 1959

LUNCH-BOX DREAM (Chapter One)Bobby

They called them chocolate men, Bobby and his brother.

You didn't see them on the East Side, high over Euclid, except once or twice a week and only early in the morning.

Where did they come from? There were no chocolate boys and girls in his school or at church. There were no chocolate ladies living in his neighborhood. There were no chocolate families at the park or the outdoor theater or the ball field. And yet the men came every week to his house.

That morning, as he lay on the grass by the sidewalk, Bobby heard them coming again.

First there was the roar and squeal of the big truck. That was far up the street. It was early, the time when the sun edged over the rooftops, but warm for the middle of June. Bobby was sharpening Popsicle sticks into little knives while his brother watched.

"Hurry up," Ricky said.

Or not, thought Bobby. You have to do this properly. To sharpen a stick correctly you scraped it slantways against the sidewalk seams, and it took a while. With each stroke, you drew the stick toward you or pushed it away from you in a curving motion, like a barber stropping his razor in a Western movie.

Bobby wanted a thin blade, and his cheek was right down there above the sidewalk, with one eye squeezed shut to focus on the motion of his hand. The concrete scratched his knuckles, whited his skin, but you had to do it that way. You needed to scrape the stick nearly flat against the sidewalk to give you the thinnest blade.

Bobby would use the knife for little things. It could be a tool, or a weapon in a soldier game; it might be used to carve modeling clay, or as a casually found stick that on the utterance of a secret phrase became a lost cutlass of legend; or as a makeshift sidearm for defense on the schoolyard; or as nothing much, a thing to stab trees with or to jab into the ground to unearth bugs and roots or to press against your pocketed palm as you walked through stores downtown.

If his mother found one, she tossed it away.

Or he suspected she did. He had seen his sticks snapped in half in the wastebasket and he didn't think his brother threw them there. It was Ricky who had taught him how to shape the knives, though he didn't make them himself anymore. And it wasn't their father, because he was hardly home these days.

"Hurry up," Ricky said.

"This one will be good," said Bobby, taking his time to get the sharpest edge. "Maybe my best."

The truck moved, then stopped, then moved and stopped closer. The boys looked up. They watched the chocolate men jump off the sides of the truck. The ash cans were loud when they scraped them over the sidewalk and into the street, dragging them with leathery hands. Their yelling was not like the sound of the brown men and women who sang and played pianos on television. They approached, crisscrossing the sidewalk.

"That's it," said Ricky. "I don't want to be here when they come. I'm going in."

Bobby scooped up his knives, and the two boys ran inside. Ricky, a year older, was faster. They pulled the living room drapes aside and through the big window saw their cans being scraped and lifted.

"That one guy's huge."

"Did you see that? He took both Downings' cans at the same time."

Thick bare brown arms raised and shook the cans, the truck swallowed the trash, the cans were swung back and set down, and the men were on to the next house and the next. The boys watched from the picture window until the men disappeared down Cliffview to wherever they had come from.

"Let's go out back," said Ricky.

"I want to watch TV," Bobby said.

"No, let's go out back. I have a tennis ball."

"Bring the cans into the carport, please," said their mother. "Then breakfast. I have something to tell you."

"In a minute, Mom," Ricky called. To Bobby he said: "Let's go out back first."

"Yeah, okay."

LUNCH-BOX DREAM Copyright © 2011 by Tony Abbott

Reading Group Guide

Discussions and Activities

Literature/Oral Performance

Tony Abbott begins Lunch-Box Dream with a poem by Langston Hughes:

Lunch in a Jim Crow Car

Get out the lunch-box of your dreams.

Bite into the sandwich of your heart,

And ride the Jim Crow car until it screams

Then—like an atom bomb—it bursts apart.

Talk about the ideas introduced in the four lines:

The system of racism known as 'Jim Crow'

Traveling on trains

Dreams of a better life


All of these ideas are present in the novel. Ask students to keep a list of the events in the novel that explore these ideas.

This is also a great opportunity to introduce the class to the works of Langston Hughes—simple and often profound poems that will help them understand the perspectives of the African American characters in the novel. In many of his poems, Hughes explored the idea of holding on to hope for a better life. Have students find other poems by Langston Hughes, and ask each child to select a favorite to recite to the class. Then have each student talk about what the poem means to him or her and why he or she chose it.

Social Studies/History/Research/Oral History/Speech And


Lunch-Box Dream offers glimpses into some of the small, everyday aspects of life in America in 1959.

[Page 80]

In a restaurant at one of their stops, Bobby 'wasn't at all hungry, but his mother told him to eat, so he ordered the Sputnik Special.'

[Page 123]

Cora has to call her family in Atlanta and goes to the store to use the phone. 'I held the telephone to my ear while he looked at the numbers on the paper and pushed his finger around the dial.'

Sputnik? What's that? A telephone with a dial? Have any of your students ever seen one?

As your students read Lunch-Box Dream, ask them to find other references to outdated cultural or technological realities of the 1950s.

Divide your class into four groups to research aspects of life in the United States in 1959.

One group should focus on fashion and style. What did cars look like that year? What did people wear (from hairdos to shoes)?

A second group should look at current events and government leaders. What were the major news-making stories of that year? Who was president?

The third group should examine movies and television. What were the most popular TV series? Which movies scored highest at the box office? Who were the major celebrities?

The fourth group should examine books and music.

The following Web sites will be useful starting places:

Take the research a step further. People who were about your students' ages in 1959 are in their sixties now. Each group should interview neighbors, family, and community leaders who recall that year and can provide primary source information to them. Many will have photographs and other souvenirs of that time.

Give each group time to put a presentation together, and then hold a 'This is 1959' day in your classroom. Each presentation should include visuals—posters, charts, videos, slide shows. Kids should really get into the spirit and dress in clothes from that time period. You might serve a few foods/snacks that were popular in the 1950s.

Have the class research the cost of living in 1959. What were the average prices of everyday items? Include: gasoline, a candy bar, a loaf of bread, an ice-cream cone, milk, a first-class postage stamp. They should research at least twenty items. Using the Web sites above, students can enter results in the chart below.

Comparing the Cost of Living in 1959 with Today (in dollars and cents) Consumer Item



Gallon of gasoline

Candy bar

Loaf of bread

Ice-cream cone

Gallon of milk

Postage stamp

Social Studies

In many ways, Lunch-Box Dream is about Jim Crow life in the United States. Tony Abbott offers a good explanation of what this means in his author's note (pages175–177). Have your students read those pages carefully, and open a discussion of the Jim Crow practices they saw in the novel. Ask the class to talk about fithe rules,? and how they made people behave.

Jim Crow is a phrase associated with the South, but many northern states kept the races separate in more subtle ways.

The following questions will help you focus this discussion.

[Page 7]

They called them chocolate men.

The neighborhood in Cleveland where Bobby and Ricky live is not integrated. The boys didn't see black people 'except once or twice a week,' when the sanitation men came to pick up the garbage. It is from living in separate—segregated—communities that their ignorance grew. Have your class discuss how prejudice can follow ignorance. If Bobby had known any African Americans, do they think he would call them 'chocolate men?' What other attitudes, perceptions, and fears do your students see in not only Bobby's behavior, but also in that of his brother, mother, and grandmother? Have the class identify specific events in the novel that show these feelings and viewpoints. How do they think living in an integrated community might change this?

[Page 38]

Cora Baker says: Donfit look at a white person the wrong way or any way.

Cora is fifteen and has grown up in Georgia, where segregation was the law in 1959. Black Americans went to separate schools, had to sit in the back of public buses or wait for an all-black bus, and used separate drinking fountains and bathrooms. How did being segregated from whites affect black Americans? Ask your class to talk about events in the novel that show the feelings and viewpoints of the Thomas family, including the Bakers and the Vanns.

[Page 53]

Another time a man stole my jacket in the train station. . . I saw [the] man swipe it off the seat and run off outside. He was a white man. . . When I got home . . . Weeza took my hands into her lap and pulled my head down on her breast and held it there while I cried.

Hershel feels powerless. If he runs after the thief, he'll miss his train, and 'Negroes didn't want to be in that town at nighttime.' In addition, under Jim Crow laws, a black person would be justified in fearing a public confrontation with a white person, even one who had stolen from him. Have your students find other examples of discrimination in Lunch-Box Dream that show the realities of Jim Crow life.


[Pages 11 and 13]

Bobby and Ricky's mother tells them: "Wefire going to drive Grandma home to Florida. . . And on the way, wefire going to stop at battlefields. The Civil War battlefields in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia."

Marion prepared for the drive with a TripTik from AAA—the Automobile Association of America. Today, most families would rely on a GPS to create their route. Provide each student with a map of the United States and ask them to plot out a trip so the family could visit Civil War landmarks and other interesting historical sites along the way. Then ask them to create a route for a trip they'd like their own family to take—a trip that begins in their hometown and takes them to a destination of their choosing, with stops at national parks, historic monuments, and cultural centers.

You can print out a map of the U.S. with interstate highways included from:


[Pages 40–41]

"„Gilead,?" he said, reading the sign. "Mount Gilead."

"So?" said Bobby.

"Mount Gilead. . . And Cardington and Ashley. Wefire passing through them all. . .The Lincoln train passed through every one of these towns."

Bobby had heard of the Lincoln train.

Like Bobby, many of your students have heard of the Lincoln funeral train, but take this opportunity to study this event and its impact on our nation.

Web sites offer photographs, maps, schedules, and even daily accounts of the journey Lincoln's funeral train took from Washington to Illinois. Begin with the Web sites noted here, check for others, and look at some of the books available for children on the subject.

After the class has studied the journey, have each student pick a stop on the route or a town the train passed through. Each student should write an article for that town's newspaper about the event. Encourage creativity: your students should name their newspaper and create its identifying masthead. Some might write editorials; others can create political cartoons; and some can write news reports.

[Page 59]

Perryville [KY] was twenty-five miles off the TripTik route. . . Ricky . . . perched forward in his seat, casting looks out every window until he spied the sign—PERRYVILLE BATTLEFIELD.

Your students can take virtual tours of many Civil War battlefields on the Internet. A great site that offers photographs, information, and maps and makes the various battlefield sites accessible by name, year, and state is:

Send your students armchair traveling, and ask them to imagine themselves as soldiers, like Bobby does when the family visits Lookout Mountain (page 96). Each student can pick a battlefield mentioned in the book or one listed on the site. Have them write a diary entry describing where they are and what the landscape is like. They should also note how they imagine the soldier feels. Students can create backstories for their soldiers: Where did he come from? Why did he enlist? How old is he? You might mention to the girls that a few women dressed as men in order to join the Army.


Tony Abbott explores several universal themes in Lunch-Box Dream—ideas that go beyond time, situation, and place.


The cast of characters listed at the start of the novel is divided into three locations, but lists two family groups. Bobby and Ricky's father is not included. Neither is Jacob's birth father, but his brother-in-law Hershel, whom he calls Poppa, is. Have the class talk about the family relationships in the book. How are the two families the same and how are they different? Both families are facing very difficult moments: the marital problems between Marion and her husband, and the crisis when Jacob is missing. How do the two families cope with these issues?

Bobby and Ricky behave the way most brothers do. They get along generally, and they care about each other. Ask the class to list instances when the brothers work together and show kindness to each other. Still, being the younger sibling, Bobby is jealous of Ricky. When Bobby makes a fuss to prove that Ricky's battlefield treasure is not authentic, who is more hurt and embarrassed? Have your students discuss their own relationships with their siblings.

Death and Loss

[Page 14]

Bobby's grandfather died four months before Lunch-Box Dream begins. It was Bobby's first death. That was something.

Bobby thinks about the deaths of his grandfather, President Lincoln, and the soldiers who fell on the Civil War battlefields he visits. Why has he become obsessed with death?

He also thinks about the black family on the bus who may have lost a child. What has he learned about loss that helps him understand how they are feeling?


Making decisions, choosing between right and wrong, being responsible, and looking after others when they need help are all parts of becoming an adult. Children and teens reach these stages in small steps. Ask each student to pick one of the young people in Lunch-Box Dream—Bobby, Ricky, Cora, or Jacob—and describe the small (and large) steps they take toward maturity in the course of the novel.

This guide was created by Clifford Wohl, Educational Consultant

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Lunch-box Dream 2.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
pbadeer on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am too kind to write what I really thought about this book. But whoever wrote the jacket copy should have written the book - it was far more interesting. While this book appears to be about what happens when a "white" family interact with an African American family in the 1950's segregated south, the actual event is almost tossed away, and the rest of the book contains so much filler that by the time it's finished, you're left sifting through the pieces trying to find what happened to the actual narrative. A poorly written attempt at covering an important subject in America's history
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thought this was a good book but I felt it was a little disorganized and I thought it was hard to keep track of who each character was.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I this agood book?