Guarding the Gleam Jars in Readers’ Hearts

“Nitty…took out her Gleam Jar and held it up to the dim light slanting through the barn’s siding. She did this every day with the jar, taking stock of its contents and comfort in its presence. The light bounced off the objects in the jar, sending flecks of blue, yellow, and red spinning about the room. Blue, yellow, red; ribbon, button, marble. These three objects—so small—to a stranger might’ve seemed unremarkable. To Nitty they were her only link to family, and a world brimming with color that she’d never seen.”—from A Tale Magnolious

Before I began writing A Tale Magnolious, I was feeling glum about the state of our world.  As my main character Nitty Luce would say, I feared that our world had become lovelorn. This may have been why I wrote about the lovelorn town of Fortune’s Bluff, the setting for Nitty’s story. But I could not write about a lovelorn town without also writing about an orphan and elephant who rescue the town from its dire predicament. I could not write about the world without, also, writing about hope.

Hope is what orphan Nitty Luce carries with her in her Gleam Jar—a humble mason jar filled with her most precious (and only) belongings. The jar holds three items: a blue ribbon, a yellow button, and a red marble. To Nitty, these objects embody her wish for a family—her wish to be loved and to find a home. Nitty never gives up on this wish. Her hope keeps the wish alive. The wish, however, changes as Nitty changes. Nitty grows to love Magnolious, the elephant she rescues from death. She grows to trust the curmudgeonly Windle Homes, the farmer who offers her and Magnolious refuge. With time, Nitty discovers that she doesn’t need to cling so tightly to her Gleam Jar anymore. She can entrust her Gleam Jar, her heart, and her wishes to her newfound family and friends in Fortune’s Bluff. More importantly, she can share her hope, which she’s clung so tightly to, with others, spreading it to Magnolious, Windle, and the entire town of Fortune’s Bluff.

In our trying times, hope is important to impart to young readers, and also important to protect and preserve. More than ever, we have a responsibility as educators, writers, and artists, to guard the hopes of children, to protect the “Gleam Jars” in their hearts. How can we do this? We can teach young readers empathy by sharing with them a wide variety of stories with diverse casts of characters. We can encourage them to search for pieces of themselves in each and every story. We can discuss the challenges facing our world, but also strive to instill in them a hope for the future. And we can keep a watchful eye out for the “Gleam Jars” in their hearts. What are the treasures they keep close to their hearts? When they entrust us with their wishes and dreams, let us place a book in their hands that speaks to and nurtures those dreams. Let us assure these children that, though wishes may grow and change as we do, though the oftentimes lovelorn world may not always be gentle with our Gleam Jars, there are safe places, people, and books to turn to for hope and refuge.

“Make Your Own Gleam Jar” activity for classrooms

At the beginning of the school year, ask each student to bring in:

  • A small or medium sized mason or jelly jar.
  • 3 small items or mementos that have deep meaning to them. These can be items that hold fun or special memories, or items that represent three wishes students have for the upcoming year.

Have the students write a short description of each item and why it is important to them. If the items represent wishes, have the students describe each wish. Students might be placed in pairs or small groups to discuss the items and their meanings. Find a cozy spot in the classroom to keep the Gleam Jars for the year. At the end of the school year, ask students to revisit their Gleam Jar wishes or memories. Have them reread what they wrote about their Gleam Jars at the beginning of the year. Consider asking them some of these questions, or using these questions as writing prompts:

  • Are the objects in your Gleam Jar still as meaningful to you now as they were at the beginning of the school year? Why or why not?
  • Did any of your wishes for this year come true?
  • If you had to make a Gleam Jar right now, would you fill it with the same objects you did before, or with different ones? Why?
  • Did any of your wishes change over the course of the year? If your wishes changed, do you think it was because you changed over the course of this year, too? Why or why not?

Suzanne Nelson is the author of numerous young adult and middle grade novels, including A Tale Magnolious, and Serendipity’s Footsteps, a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Teen Readers and a 2016 CCBC Choice for Young Adult Fiction. Her other books include Cake Pop Crush, Macarons at Midnight, Hot Cocoa Hearts, and over a dozen more. You can find her online at, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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