Paper Trail

By Robert C. Johnston — November 12, 2004 7 min read
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Ask Allison Ricciotti’s 1st graders how their day went, and their answer will probably come down to whether the mailman showed up at their New Jersey school with a package.

On a good day, a manila envelope arrives at the Ventnor Educational Community Complex returning special cargo: a diminutive paper doll with outspread arms, bulbous cheeks, and exciting stories to share. Often folded or laminated for protection and accompanied by photographs, the cutout boy is part of the international mini-phenomenon known as Flat Stanley. Conceived as a bedtime story and immortalized by the 1964 book of the same name, Stanley has become a cultlike hit with teachers, who use the appealing character as a tool to bring reading, writing, geography, and other subjects to life.

The basic classroom exercise goes something like this: A student creates a Flat Stanley doll, keeps a journal of its experiences, and then mails it on an adventure—often to students in other schools or relatives, but sometimes to celebrities. The recipients then return Flat Stanley with new journal entries and photos from his trip.

Flat Stanley’s journeys range from the mundane to the extraordinary: He has toured Egyptian pyramids, walked along the Great Wall of China, and visited the White House.

Flat Stanley’s journeys range from the mundane to the extraordinary: He has toured Egyptian pyramids, walked along the Great Wall of China, and visited the White House. By one conservative count, nearly 6,000 classrooms in 37 countries exchanged Flat Stanleys this past school year. This popularity comes without any commercial enterprise pushing the project. Instead, word has spread among teachers won over by his mix of utilitarian sensibility and celebrity cachet, thanks in large part to a Web site started by a Canadian special education teacher as a way to spark his students’ interest in technology and reading.

The only real drawback comes when the paper doll doesn’t complete his journey home. “It was a very sad day today because no Flat Stanleys showed up,” Ricciotti said one day this past spring in the middle of a four-week lesson plan she’d built around the character, which included mailing 22 paper dolls. “This is so much more than a pen pal. The children have created something they are sharing with someone else.”

Jeff Brown, who died in December 2003 at age 77, couldn’t have imagined what would become of the character he created. His sons J.C. and Tony, as a bedtime stalling tactic, asked what would happen if their bulletin board fell on J.C. while he slept. From that question was born Stanley, the hero in Brown’s first book, Flat Stanley, published 40 years ago by the firm now known as HarperCollins Publishers.

In the story, Stanley is flattened when a bulletin board falls on him during the night. After fretting over his diminished stature, Stanley and his parents discover that he can visit other parts of the country for the mere cost of postage and an envelope, beginning a series of memorable adventures. The book enjoyed a strong following, and Brown wrote five more based on the Stanley character; all told, nearly 1 million Stanley books have been sold.

‘This is so much more than a pen pal. The children have created something they are sharing with someone else.’

As the book caught on in classrooms, teachers began crafting their own Flat Stanley paper dolls and exchanging them with other classes. But Flat Stanley’s trajectory to stardom took off in 1995, when Dale Hubert, a special ed teacher in London, Ontario, decided to use Flat Stanley as a way to make the school’s new computers more useful to students. “I wanted something to get reluctant writers to take part in and reluctant readers to engage,” he recalls.

With the help of a 6th grader, he set up a Web site ( to find teachers in Canada and the United States willing to exchange Flat Stanley paper dolls and stories with his students. After 13 classes signed up, he called the effort a success and planned to end there.

But the responses kept coming—first by the tens, then by the hundreds, and eventually by the thousands. Before Hubert knew it, the Flat Stanley Project was up and running, with his site connecting nearly 6,000 classrooms during the 2003-04 school year while acting as a collective scrapbook of photos and a repository for curriculum ideas. The teacher likes to note that when Brown called him about the project in 1998, he worried that the author was going to sue. Instead, Brown congratulated Hubert, observing that the site had buoyed interest in the Stanley books, and they became friends.

While there is no set curriculum for running a Flat Stanley project, Ricciotti’s approach at her New Jersey school is about as close to a textbook example as it gets. After hearing about the idea from another teacher, she logged on to Hubert’s Web site and recruited 22 classrooms to collaborate on a language arts project about cultures and geography. Even though only 13 of the 22 dolls sent by her pupils had been returned by the end of this past school year, Ricciotti says the children learned from their travels— especially those of Flat Brittany, who went to Los Angeles and returned decorated with sunglasses and Mickey Mouse ears from a trip to Disneyland.

Other Flat Stanley experiences have been more dramatic. Pat Radtke was homeschooling her 6th grade son, Michael, who has dyslexia, when she learned about Flat Stanley on a Web site for teachers. “[Michael] bit right away,” the Green Bay, Wisconsin, mother says. “He wanted [Flat Stanley] to make it to all 50 states.”

‘You do this project that illuminates your school, and it validates your students. And that’s what you want—for their work to be recognized.’

One of the first dolls Michael sent was in France on September 11, 2001, the day terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The paper doll’s French host, upon returning Flat Stanley, wrote: “It’s hard to believe that just over one week ago, [Flat Stanley and I] were visiting Paris together. So much has changed. ... This weekend, I had coffee with four Muslim Arab women in our neighborhood. They have never been pro-American, but when it comes to terrorism, they are just as angry and hurt as we are.”

And then there was Flat Stanley’s brush with politics. In an effort to expose her Chicago 2nd graders to the outside world, teacher Marcy Ring asked friends and family to help with a Flat Stanley project. One who agreed was Susan Ralston, a deputy assistant to President Bush’s senior political adviser, Karl Rove. A little more than a month after sending Flat Stanley to Washington, D.C., Ring’s class at Henry Suder School received a surprise: a 12-page scrapbook documenting the cutout boy’s day at the White House. The photos show Flat Stanley with a grinning President Bush, at the lectern during a press briefing, and being lectured by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on the importance of listening to parents and trying hard in school.

“I teach in the inner city. We are often forgotten,” Ring says of her school, which closed this past summer. “But you do this project that illuminates your school, and it validates your students. And that’s what you want—for their work to be recognized.”

For all his apparent talents, Flat Stanley can’t see the future. But his prospects are looking good, starting with the possibility of more books. Jeff Brown was working on another Stanley story before he died, according to Susan Rich, an executive editor with HarperCollins. More definite plans are under way to issue a picture-book version of Flat Stanley in England in fall 2005, adds Phyllis Westberg, who was Brown’s agent.

Despite Flat Stanley’s popularity, no major commercial venture is pushing an official curriculum, beyond a HarperCollins guide for teachers who use the book in class. Allison Hoewisch, an associate professor of reading and language arts at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, uses the project to show teachers how to integrate different subjects and argues that the lack of structure and definition is exactly why Flat Stanley works for so many teachers in so many ways. While some “principals might like it better and would shell out a lot of cash” for a prescribed curriculum, Hoewisch says, “what’s nice about this is that it’s inexpensive and uncomplicated.”

Meanwhile, Dale Hubert sees no end to the possibilities for his Flat Stanley Project—at least as long as his wife, Linda, tolerates the time he gives to the volunteer endeavor. He’d like, for instance, to see Flat Stanleys shared by seriously ill children, “getting images back from places [they] could never go.” Or the dolls could explore various careers. Hubert already has an animal clinic that returns Flat Stanleys with stories about the life of a veterinarian, an idea that could be expanded. They could even, he says, serve as goodwill ambassadors.

“‘Flat Stanley for world peace’ sounds pompous, but imagine if the first contact a student in China had with the West was with Flat Stanley,” Hubert suggests, “and years later, as a leader, he remembers the first impressions of this friendly character. ... It might make a difference.”

To teachers like Cynthia Arcato, what the future holds for Flat Stanley isn’t as important as how he has already changed their teaching. Her room at William Tredway Junior Public School in Toronto has been dubbed the Flat Class as a nod to her enthusiasm for the character. Her 2nd grade students have read all the Stanley books, written the song “My Stanley” to the tune of “My Girl,” used him as a unit of measurement, and tracked his travels on a bulletin board.

“When they get Stanleys from around the world ... it’s like they are in another world,” Arcato says. “They really believe this paper boy is significant to them. That’s what really amazes me.”


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