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Exclamation Mark

by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Summary

Exclamation Mark raises the question of whether uniqueness is valuable as well as other questions about conformity, freedom, and identity.

The Exclamation Mark can’t fit into sentences, and he doesn’t sound or look like any of his friends who are all periods. He tries everything he can to make himself change, but nothing works. Just when he suspects he’ll never find his place, he meets a curvy question mark who helps him see the world a little differently and find his own potential.

Read aloud video by AHEV Library

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Uniqueness: Virtue or Vice?

Exclamation Mark is a story about a particular punctuation mark who, as the first page explains, “stood out from the very beginning.” He goes through the whole story trying so hard to make himself just like all his friends. He even tries to squash himself into a ball to make himself more like the others, but this doesn’t help either (and probably hurts). It isn’t until he spends some time with his curvy Question Mark friend, who is just as unique as he is, that Exclamation Mark learns that being an individual could possibly be a virtue. Because Question Mark learns to value his uniqueness, he can be a powerful example for children to identify with. After what feels like an eternity of battling with internal feelings of inadequacy, the book’s protagonist finds his own identity, not in spite of his differences, but because of them.

Just like our exclamatory friend, many – perhaps most – children growing up today in Western culture struggle to appreciate themselves for who they are rather than compare themselves to others. Movies and magazines feature airbrushed, sculpted images of the standards of beauty they push us to emulate. One notable Cheerios tagline quips, “More grains; less you.” The message could not be clearer: It is best to literally take up less space in the world and to match ourselves as closely as possible to someone else’s standard of beauty.

These contradictory messages can be confusing, especially because both perspectives tend to lack sufficient logical reasoning to back up their positions. They just tell us that one perspective or the other is correct. In fact, there are valid arguments for both sides. Proponents of individuality could explain that we need diversity because it is important for a community, and that we need to learn how to do things in different ways in order to be competent in a variety of situations. A skill that works in one situation may be useless in another. Since everyone gravitates towards different skills, some people argue that the best thing to do is cultivate your own strengths, however different they are from conventional norms.

Conversely, others point out that sometimes being like someone else is a good thing. A second-grader in a philosophy discussion actually raised the point that when we are struggling with a particular skill, watching how our role models have mastered that skill and trying to imitate them can be a helpful way to master it ourselves. Others may say simply that if we look up to someone, it is natural for us to want to resemble them as much as possible. In order to engage in intelligent discussions around these issues, children need to be able to ask abstract questions. What does it actually mean to be an individual, and is there anything inherently good or bad about it? These questions will help children develop a better understanding of the reasoning media and society use to convince us that we should change ourselves, and decide whether or not there even is a one-size-fits-all answer.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Conformity

“It seemed like the only time he didn’t stand out… was when he was asleep.”

  1. What does it mean to “stand out?”
  2. Do you remember what the Exclamation Mark did to try and make himself more like the others? Why do you think he wanted to do this?
  3. How are the exclamation mark, question mark, and period different? Are they all important? Why or why not?
  4. What are some things that are the same about you and your friends? What are some things that are different?
  5. Does anything bother you about acting, looking, or feeling different from your friends? Explain. Why do you feel this way?
  6. Do you ever see people in magazines or on television who look very different from you? Discuss. How does that feel? Why do you think it makes you feel that way?
  7. Have you ever tried to change yourself to be more like someone else? Why or why not? If so, would you do it again?
  8. When you see someone that looks different from you, does that ever make you feel ashamed of your body? Why or why not?
  9. The Exclamation Mark tries to hide himself or make himself smaller to be the same shape as his friends. Have you ever wanted to hide or change a part of yourself? What makes you feel this way?

Freedom and Personal Identity

“And as he pushed himself a bit more, he discovered a world of endless possibilities. It was like he broke free from a life sentence.”

  1. When the Exclamation Mark screams at the Question Mark, he is surprised to hear his own voice. Have you ever tried to do something one way, and had it come out differently? How did that feel?
  2. Do you ever feel like you aren’t able to do things the way you wish you could? How does that feel?
  3. Is there always just one best way to do something?
  4. How do you know when you’re getting better at something?
  5. What does it mean to be an individual?
  6. Do you think that everyone has something that is special about them? Why or why not?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Madeleine Lifsey. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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