For One Picture (Short Fiction for ELLs)

CC: Jonathan Zander, wikimedia files

CC: Jonathan Zander, wikimedia files

The girl’s mother didn’t say anything when the girl bought a motorcycle.  She didn’t say anything when the girl passed her driving test.  She didn’t even say anything as the girl packed.  She just watched as her daughter put a few shirts into an old cloth bag and set a camera on top.  But the next morning, as the girl was about to drive away, the mother finally said, “You are making a mistake.  You should go to university.”

The girl closed her eyes.  She looked as if she was counting to ten.  Then she opened her eyes and smiled and said, “I’ll be back as soon as I find one perfect picture.”  She was wearing a leather jacket.  She kicked the bike’s engine into life and raced away along Ginko Road.  She raced away under the shade of the trees, getting smaller and smaller.

After few weeks a letter arrived for the girl’s mother.  The ink was blotted where rain drops had fallen on the paper.  The girl wrote, “My bike is in great shape.  It is the fastest thing I have ever known.  The air here is different.  It smells green and fresh, like someone has brushed everything clean.”  There was a picture.  It was of a boy with no front teeth about to bite into an ear of corn.  The girl’s mother pinned it to the wall of her bedroom and looked at it before she went to sleep.  She wondered how the boy could eat the corn with no teeth.

The girl’s mother went to the crowded Thursday market to buy cheap fruits and vegetables.  She listened to her favorite radio program on Sunday afternoons.  She played cards with her friends.  And she waited for another letter.  It came when the leaves were turning from red to brown.  There was no note in the envelope, just a photograph.  It was a picture of a man smoking a cigarette.  He was standing in a shop window and hanging a yellow dress on a manikin.  The picture made the girl’s mother laugh.  But she didn’t know why.  She hung it next to the first picture.

When the snow fell, the girl sent a picture of one of the fishing woman from the north islands.  The fishing woman was holding a heavy net full of shells.  The fishing woman looked strong and young, but she was probably older than the girl’s mother.  More pictures arrived.  A mountain of old bicycles reflecting the afternoon sun.  A little girl with only one leg jumping rope in the street.  The mother pinned each picture to the wall.  She took them down and looked at them every night.  She thought the pictures were beautiful.  She thought that maybe they were perfect.  But she began to hope that maybe they were not.  She began to hope that maybe there were so many more beautiful things in the world.  She began to wonder how her own daughter had become the kind of person who might be able to find them.

Text Information:

First 1000 most frequently used words (GSW): 89.6%

Second 1000 most frequently used words (GSW): 7.9%

Outside lists: 2.5%

Total Word Count: 499

Flesch Reading Ease score: 94.8

Flesch-Kinkaid Grade Leve: 3

Target level: intermediate

I wrote this story for my third year students who are thinking about what to do after they graduate.  I haven’t used it in class, but am planning to use it to discuss narrative tense.  I’m hoping it might be useful in both generating discussion around their immediate future as well as provide some ideas for students who have to write a personal essay as part of their university application.


12 thoughts on “For One Picture (Short Fiction for ELLs)

  1. Mr. Stein, I love this. Such power and and description in (just!)less than 500 words. I think it is amazing that you were able to convey such thoughts (relatable to your target audience as well!) with that 94.8 reading ease. Very nice.


  2. Hello Mr. Unknown,Yep, I had to do a little editing to get it under 500. But I made the rule so I want to stick to it. Glad it left an impression. I find that as much as I try and write for my students, I still end up taking the narrative perspective of the parents. Still, hoping my students will be able to relate to the characters.Kevin


  3. Oh, what a beautiful story. The search for beauty and the discovery that it is everywhere, while perfection is not to be found. Maybe one must be imperfect to be beautiful. Thank you always for your inspiring stories. AH


  4. Hi Anne,Thanks for the comment. It's great to get feedback from someone who is busy traveling on a story about taking a journey. And I have to agree, there's very little that is interesting or truly beautiful about perfection. Especially when it comes to people.Kevin


  5. Kevin,Your images evoke vivid contrasts – between mother and daughter dispositions, between the expected and unexpected in the photos – that makes it gently provocative.One question: Why is there no article before 'university' in the mother's comment. As an English speaker, this construction begs a Japanese stereotype. Please help.Barry


  6. Hi Barry,Thanks for the feedback. I think this is just an instance of me getting a little too used to Japanese English. So in this case, when the mother is talking about going to university in general, there should be an indefinite article? Whoops. If you send me a confirmation on this and when I get in front of a computer I will fix that up. Thanks for the catch. Kevin


  7. No there shouldn't!It is perfectly normally native-speaker English to say "go to university", and "go to school" and "go to work".If you said "go to the university" I would suspect that you were not a native speaker."Go to the university" could be the answer to a question such as "where can I buy some good books?" It does not imply studying.


  8. Hello Ruth,Thank you for your timely comment. I was hoping that my English skills hadn't gotten so rusty as to make a slip like that. And happily, due to this whole exchange of article-before-university dialogue, I ended up finding your blogs. Wonderful stuff and a pleasure to meet you.Kevin


  9. I agree that 'go to university' is an acceptable English construction, though not typical in the U.S. where the indefinite article is more likely. In this case, I like the indefinite article, though I would go a step further and offer 'attend' as a substitute for 'go to' to retain the elegance of the mother's speech, which I think is what you want. "I think you should attend a university." But, your personal preference is key. Thanks for taking the issue to heart!Barry


  10. Kev, you shine, my man! Did she find the perfect photo? ;-)I agree completely with Ruth. We don't use articles when we speak of university generally. I never went to university. They met at university.I'm surprised that US English uses the indefinite article. You should go to a university!Well, but I want to go to two, mum!What did stand out for me, however, was "an ear". I know that technically speaking, it should be "an ear" but "a ear" always sounds better to me. She's got a earache.Does that mean I've been a bad boy?


  11. Hi Chiew,You know, I think the question, "Did she find the perfect photo?" is just the kind of question that short stories generate so easily and make them such a useful tool for conversation generation. My personal opinion, she forgets all about having said she was looking for one perfect photo until the day after her first large photo exhibition. She's drinking a cup of steaming coffee with her mom. It's snowing outside. Her mom reminds her of what she said right before she started her journey and the girl laughs and says something like, "My ambitions were in line with my youth." I'M actually not sure how much US English makes use of the indefinite article when it comes to university. Maybe I've just been surrounded by brits for the past 14 years, but I swear even a red, white and blue USA-er is going to say, "Yeah, he went to university."I was just saying, "I'll have an ear of corn," to myself over and over this morning. Teachers in the staff room were looking at me funny. My conclusion. They both sound good and you might be a bad boy, but a thoughtful and excellent English teacher.Kevin


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