Wild Orchid - Teachers’ Guide

Wild Orchid

A Discussion Guide prepared by the author:
Saskatoon-based educator Beverley A. Brenna


This discussion guide is geared for grades nine and up.

Wild Orchid is a first-person coming-of-age story about an eighteen-year-old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome whose summer quest is to find a boyfriend. Set in Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert National Park, the story follows eighteen-year-old Taylor Jane Simon as she determinedly reaches for independence in a life which is often scarily unpredictable. Taylor Jane has an overprotective mother whose live-in partner Taylor can’t stand, a clock whose fascination is in its utter correctness, and memories of a beloved pet which carry her through many trials. With a cameo on the existentialist plays of Harold Pinter, Wild Orchid attempts to demonstrate the commonalities teens share while spotlighting issues unique to Taylor’s disability, celebrating the many and varied steps which can be taken towards adulthood.


Much of the study is designed as class discussion, either in partners, small groups, or as a larger group. Students should also complete the following for their portfolios:

  1. A character web of Taylor Jane; following each reading, students will add or elaborate on information about Taylor’s character.
  2. A webbing of minor characters in the novel (Taylor, Penny Simon, Paul, Kody, Danny). This could be designed as a circular web, with Taylor’s name in the middle, and the characters and their connections to her illustrated on concentric circles.
  3. A reader response journal, with entries following each reading, or a collection of sticky notes added to the students’ copies of the text creating “commonplace” books (Sumara, 1995).* The journal or sticky notes should contain the students’ thoughts, feelings, connections, and questions as they read.
  4. Bring something to class that symbolizes Taylor Jane, and add it to the class bulletin board. Be able to identify your addition, and its purpose, and add this to the key at the side of the board, along with your name.
  5. Examine the novel for stereotypes. Consider whether societal stereotypes about people with special needs appear in the book. Discuss with a small group.
  6. Choices from the following menu:
    • Compile images related to the story into visual art which depicts the character of Taylor Jane; be prepared to share and discuss in class.
    • Is Taylor’s character consistent with research on autism? Develop a formal essay to examine this question.
    • How does the author use humor to move the story along? Develop a formal essay to explore this question.
    • Taylor has a number of strategies she uses consciously or unconsciously when she is angry or upset. List these, and compare to your own habits, in a chart of your own devising. Alternatively, develop Incredible 5-Point Scale charts (Karen Dunn & Mitzi Curtis, 2003) to display your own, and Taylor’s, habits.
    • Explore your personal connections to this story through a series of poems.
    • Create the resume Taylor might develop for her next job application.
    • Taylor strongly connects to literature, comparing herself with characters from The Catcher in the Rye and The Birthday Party.
      Describe in a reflective essay your own connections to something you have read.
    • Write the conversation Paul and June have on Monday, July 29, at dinner. Dramatize this with a partner as a dialogue for the class.
    • Compare this book to others you have read on thematically similar subjects. You may use either chart or essay format.
    • Develop a series of improvisations around details or situations from the novel. Work with a partner or a small group, and be prepared to share these on video tape or in person for the class. Length: 10 – 15 minutes.
    • Write a song from any of the perspectives of characters from the novel. Be prepared to share with the class.
    • Make a map of the Waskesiu area according to the information in the book. Compare with a real map of the area. How accurate has the author been? What do you think her rationale for this might be?

Pre-post-reading Small-Group Discussion or Writing Topics

  1. What kinds of conflicts might parents and teens have regarding summer holidays?
  2. Wild Orchid begins with a conflict between a parent and an eighteen-year-old about summer plans. Read pages 7 – 18 to explore this conflict and then discuss the following questions with a partner:
    1. What is the root of the conflict?
    2. What do you know about Taylor Jane?
    3. What personal connections can you make to anything in this section?

Read pages 18 – 32

  1. Discuss your thoughts about Taylor’s character.
  2. What has importance in her life?
  3. Share any personal connections, and continue this sharing following each section of reading.

Read pages 32 – 45

  1. How does Taylor conceptualize new people in her life
  2. How is the information about orchids significant in the novel?
  3. How does Taylor see the world?
  4. How do others see Taylor?
  5. Why is she upset at the end of this section?

Read pages 46 – 51

  1. How does the author use humor in this section?
  2. Taylor exhibits some confused thinking here. What parts of this might be related to her autism? What might be common to other teens? To you?

Read pages 52 – 65

  1. Discuss the concept of something “being easy.” Identify Taylor and her mother’s differing perspectives. Think of some examples from real life where people differ on their judgments of something.
  2. Earlier in the novel, Taylor expressed dislike for her grandmother. What clues in this chapter might allude to her reason?
  3. Describe how Taylor’s relationship is developing with Paul.
  4. Does the setting of the book sound familiar? Have you ever been toWaskesiu? In what ways does it sound similar/different to your location? Is this a place you would like to visit? Why/not?

Read pages 66 – 81

  1. Is this the kind of boyfriend Taylor had in mind? What was her reason for acquiring a boyfriend?
  2. Why do you think Taylor connected so strongly to the play?

Read pages 82 – 92

  1. Consider the concepts possible and necessary. How are these terms different?
  2. What does June think of Taylor? How does June see Taylor differently than Paul?

Read pages 93 – 97

  1. What do birthday parties mean to you, now? What did they mean to you as a child? What memories/meaning do they have for Taylor?
  2. Explore a personal memory about a birthday in writing.

Read pages 97 – 104

  1. What does Paul admire about Taylor? How are they similar? Different?
  2. What does Taylor like about Paul?

Read pages 105 – 115

  1. List an example of how Taylor connects literature to her own life.
  2. Has anything you’re read ever influenced you? Discuss.

Read pages 116 – 126

  1. Why is Taylor so devastated about moving back to Saskatoon?
  2. Think of a time when you felt strongly about something and then changed your mind.

Read pages 127 – 156

  1. What would you identify as the climax of this book?
  2. Have Paul’s actions changed him in your eyes? Discuss.
  3. Is this ending satisfying to you? What would you suggest as an alternative?
  4. Share any questions you have on this book, as well as personal connections.
Appendix I. Related Literature

The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter

the existentialist play referred to by Taylor in Wild Orchid; for mature readers, often performed at the university level

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

a coming-of-age novel often studied by senior students using first-person narrative to relate the story of Houlden Caulfield

The Crazy Man by Pamela Porter

how a young girl’s views on mental illness are challenged and changed by a local farm hand from the nearby institution; the writing is distinctively free-verse and the storyline very accessible

the curious incident of the dog in the night time by Mark Haddon

a novel for teens and adults about a high school kid with autism who deals with family problems; the first person narrative is written in the unique style of a detective-story mystery

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos

a junior novel about a boy who has ADHD issues along with other challenges; Joey is not diagnosed as having FASD but the issue of his mother’s current drinking, and possibly during pregnancy, is addressed (see www.jackgantos.com for further information on this and other related Gantos’ titles)

The Joys of Love by Madeleine L’Engle

a high-school novel about an idealistic girl’s apprenticeship in summer theatre; stylistically dated, but emotionally appealing

My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, &Fenway Park by Steve Kluger

a mature and humorous story mixing diary entries, e-mails and text messages following the hearts and hormones of three high-school students. Contains inclusion of exceptionality (a sub-plot involves a deaf child’s obsession with Mary Poppins) and non-traditional gender roles (one of the three protagonists develops a same-sex crush)

The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd

an intermediate novel about a twelve-year-old boy who is an exceptionally good detective, in addition to having Asperger’s Syndrome

Rules by Cynthia Lord

this novel deals with respect for people with special needs through the growth and development of a sensitive protagonist whose younger brother has autism; for more information about this Newbery honor book, see the author’s website at: www.cynthialord.com

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*Sumara, Dennis J. “Response to Reading as a Focal Practice.” English Quarterly, vol.28, no.1, Fall 1995.