Reading & Literacy

Around the World— In No Time Flat

By Robert C. Johnston — June 23, 2004 9 min read
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Teachers welcome a small paper doll into their fold to help impart lessons both local and global.

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 Ventnor, N.J., school with a package for them.

On a good day, a manila envelope arrives 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 paper doll 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, the cutout boy has become a cult-like hit with teachers. They 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 the doll’s first experiences, and then mails it on an adventure—often to 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 spent a day at 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 Flat Stanley. Instead, word has spread with the efficacy of an e-mail chain letter between teachers won over by his mix of utilitarian sensibility and celebrity cachet. To students, he offers an exciting connection to the world outside the schoolhouse walls.

The only real drawback comes when Flat Stanley doesn’t complete his journey home.

Flat Stanley creations.
Students in nearly 6,000 classrooms in at least 37 countries exchanged the paper cutouts this past school year. The children’s creations were adapted from the Flat Stanley books by the late Jeff Brown.
—Paper dolls from Valley View Elementary School, Pleasanton, Calif.

“It was a very sad day today, because no Flat Stanleys showed up,” says Ricciotti, who built a four-week lesson plan around the character at Ventnor Educational Community Complex. “This is so much more than a pen pal. The children have created something they are sharing with someone else.”

Jeff Brown, who died last December at the age of 77, couldn’t have imagined what would become of the character he created. His son, as a bedtime stall tactic, asked what would happen if his bulletin board fell on him 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, a boy named Stanley is flattened when a bulletin board falls on him in 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. Thus begins a series of memorable adventures.

The book enjoyed a strong following, and Brown wrote five more based on the Stanley character.

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 classroom stardom took off in 1995, when a special education teacher in Canada found that he could 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,” Dale Hubert, of London, Ontario, recalls.

With the help of a 6th grader, he set up a Web site on which he posted notices seeking classrooms 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 the hundreds, and eventually by the thousands. Before Hubert knew it, the Flat Stanley Project was up and running. The teacher likes to note that when Brown called him about the project in 1998, he worried the author was going to sue him. To the contrary, Brown congratulated the teacher for his good work, noting that it had buoyed interest in Stanley books, and they became friends.

Over the 2003-04 school year, the site connected nearly 6,000 classrooms with Flat Stanley projects, while acting as a collective scrapbook of photos and a repository for curriculum ideas.

“It has become a success because of the creative and innovative people who take part,” Hubert says. “It’s been a success because people have chosen to take part collaboratively.”

While there is no one way to run 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 Flat Stanley from another teacher, she logged on to Hubert’s Web site and recruited 22 classrooms to collaborate on a language arts project involving cultures and geography.

Unfortunately, only 13 of the 22 dolls sent by her pupils had been returned by the end of school this month. Still, Ricciotti says, children learned from the dolls’ 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 home schooling 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, Wis., mother says. “It was the novelty of it. He said that he wanted [Flat Stanley] to make it to all 50 states.”

One of the first dolls he sent out was in France on Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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

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 in the last few days. … 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.”

Radtke says the letter sparked a lot of discussion: “Anyone who has read it is very touched.”

And then there is the Flat Stanley story to top all Flat Stanley stories.

In an effort to expose her Chicago 2nd graders to the outside world, teacher Marcy Ring asked friends and family members to help with her Flat Stanley project. One friend who agreed to help was Susan Ralston, a deputy assistant to President Bush’s senior political adviser, Karl Rove.

Just over a month after sending a Flat Stanley doll to the White House, Ring’s class at Henry Suder Elementary 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 imperatives of listening to parents and trying hard in school.

“I teach in the inner city. We are often forgotten,” Ring reflects. “I’ve been here nine years, and we just found out the school is closing. But, you know, 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.”

Still, people either know and love Flat Stanley—or they’ve never heard of him.That was Allison Hoewisch’s experience three years ago, when she proposed an article for The Reading Teacher, the International Reading Association’s magazine, about her Flat Stanley research project.

An associate professor of reading and language arts at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Hoewisch had enlisted dozens of education students to each be responsible for a Flat Stanley that belonged to a student from a local school. Her findings were published in the magazine’s October 2001 edition.

She recalls that one reviewer for the magazine, upon reading her proposal, responded: “I’ve never heard of this. Need to give more background information.”

That is not surprising. In spite of his popularity, no major commercial venture is pushing an official Flat Stanley curriculum. HarperCollins has printed a guide for teachers who use the book in their classes. And Hubert offers a variety of ideas for using Flat Stanley. Ultimately, though, teachers adapt the character to their own needs.

Hoewisch, who uses Flat Stanley as a way to teach current and future teachers how to integrate subjects, argues that the lack of structure and definition is exactly why Flat Stanley works for so many teachers in so many ways.

She agrees a Flat Stanley project would sell if packaged as a commercial product, though she argues that such an approach would diminish its appeal. “Principals might like it better and would shell out a lot of cash, but what’s nice about this is that it’s inexpensive and uncomplicated.”

For all his apparent talents, Flat Stanley can’t see the future. That, it seems, lies in the same hands that have made him so beloved. Overall, though, 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 who worked with Brown. She was unable, however, to say whether a new book would result from his work.

Nearly one million Stanley books have been sold.

More definite plans are under way by the Denmark-based Egmont publishing company to issue a picture-book version of Flat Stanley in England in fall 2005, says Phyllis Westberg, who was Brown’s agent.

The only real drawback comes when Flat Stanley doesn’t complete his journey home, teachers say.

Even more ambitious, perhaps, are the ideas swirling in the fertile mind of Dale Hubert, who 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 would like, for instance, to see Flat Stanleys shared by seriously ill children. “Imagine a child in a hospital, who is not mobile, sending Flat Stanley off with his or her picture,” he says, “and getting images back from places he or she could never go.”

Or Stanleys might explore various careers. Hubert already has a veterinary clinic that returns Flat Stanleys with stories about the life of a veterinarian. That idea could be expanded, he says.

Or 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.”

What the future holds for Flat Stanley isn’t as important to teachers like Cynthia Arcato 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 Flat Stanley. 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, they play with them. They play on the playground with them. 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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