The Children’s Literature Podcast is a grown-up discussion of children’s books, aimed not at kids but at grown-up book lovers, teachers, parents, and maybe even a few savvy teenagers. This podcast looks into the background and cultural context of a story, helping educators and parents to deliver deeper understanding to the kids they teach. With each episode you’ll find lessons, activities, and fun that can bring a story to life whether it’s being read at home or taught in the classroom.
Dr. Seuss is the master of the modern parable, making us all enjoy ourselves so much that we don't realize how much we really learn from reading his books. Well before the Civil Rights Movement began in earnest, this author was doing his best to teach children about the dangers of segregation, racial bigotry, and treating others unkindly because they are different.
The Tale of Despereaux
Kate Di Camillo writes stories that are half poetry and half bananas. All of her books are so much fun, but The Tale of Despereaux is also bittersweet, gruesome, enchanting, and thought-provoking. This book won the Newberry Medal in 2004 and draws heavily on ancient and medieval sources, but has a modern emphasis on forgiveness and second chances.
Activity: Miggery’s alternate life
At age six, Miggery lost her mother and her father sold her to a man who abused her and held her in slavery until she was twelve. She was rescued and brought to the castle, where she was treated better, although sometimes she was still beaten. She ends up nearly deaf, accustomed to being beaten, and having no empathy for other people. What could her life have been like if she had been loved instead of abused? Ask students to write the story of Miggery’s life had she been raised by loving parents who treated her well and helped her develop properly.
Activity: Who is to blame?
Divide students into pairs or groups or groups so they can debate the issue of how much blame should be assigned to Miggery Sow and Roscuro when it comes to the crimes they have committed. How much blame should be given to Miggery, and how much to Roscuro? Did either of them get what they deserve? What punishment best suits the nature of the crimes they committed?
Activity: Sensible Laws
In The Tale of Despereaux, the King outlaws rats, soup, spoons, and bowls because these things were present when his beloved wife died. Ask students to think of examples of objects which should and should not be banned in order to promote the greatest public safety. After brainstorming with peers, students can then write a persuasive essay focusing on why they think something should or should not be banned from society.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH proves that a story about a single mom trying to give her kids a safe home can be an absolutely gripping page-turner. As Mrs. Frisby descends deeper into the rats’ lair, she also goes deeper into the mystery of their origins.
Activity – Imagining an Animal Civilization
In this activity, students may work alone or in small groups. Present the following prompt:
In Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, rats and mice are genetically altered and given medicines that make them as intelligent and long-lived as humans. In the end, they decide to try making their own civilization. If you were a scientists who could do this to any type of animal, which animal would you choose? How do you think these newly intelligent animals would behave? How would they communicate? If they started a civilization, what would their towns look like and what sort of activities would they focus on? Describe this animal civilization’s economy, government, education system, food production, recreational activities, and relationship to human society.
Students could do this activity as a discussion, a short essay, a larger written report, a class presentation, or a large project that include all of those things.
Let’s discuss a terrific, radiant, humble book. Some book, really. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. This book was first published in 1952, and tells the improbable yet heartwarming tale of a friendship between a pig and a spider. It’s also how most school kids learn about death, unless they see The Lion King first.
Pre-reading Activity: Writing About Friends
For anyone who can write letters
Construction paper or cardstock
pencils, pens, or markers
white glue and glitter
This activity is meant to help students think about the nature of friendship and consider the words we use to describe a true friend. Give the following instructions to each student:
E.B. White was a famous writer who chose his words carefully so that he could express exactly what he needed to. His character Charlotte the spider was no different. Her words were carefully chosen to describe her friend Wilbur and to persuade the humans who met him to value him as much as she did.
Choose a friend or someone that you admire to think about. In the same way that Charlotte chose words to describe Wilbur, select a word that describes that person’s best characteristics. On one side of a piece of thick paper or cardstock, write the name of the person, the descriptive word and its definition. More advanced students should also look up and write down the word’s etymology.
Turn the paper over. Draw a spider’s web using a pencil, pen, or marker. Using glue, write the word they have chosen on top of the web. Sprinkle glitter on the glue and allow to dry, then shake off the excess glitter into a trash can. A squeezable tube of glitter glue is a less messy alternative.
Pictures can be hung up in the classroom windows for the duration of the Charlotte’s Web unit.
Chapter 1 Activity: Injustice
Give students this writing prompt after reading Chapter 1 of Charlotte’s Web.
Fern Arable stops her father from killing a newborn pig because she sees it as an injustice. Injustice is a Latin word that means “wrongfully and unreasonably oppressive.” Research a current or historic example of injustice, then write an essay in which you describe the injustice. Explain how you would correct that injustice if it were within your power to do so.
Chapter 3 Activity: Peer Pressure
In Chapter 3, entitled “Escape,” Wilbur is encouraged by the other barnyard animals to escape from his pen. After he gets out, the Goose asks him “how do you like it?” and Wilbur replies. “I like it. That is, I guess I like it.” Peer pressure led Wilbur to do something that he wasn’t exactly sure about. Like the way Farmer Zuckerman put a fence around the pigpen, parents make rules for their children. Those children (sometimes with the encouragement of their friends) will want to wander outside those boundaries. Give the following writing prompt to your students:
Write an essay explaining when adults should place limits on what children can do, and when they should allow children to do something independently, even if it means things might not go well. Give examples of times when children should rely on adults’ experience and times when adults should not help children so that they can learn on their own and learn to be confident and resilient. Give examples of times when peer pressure can be good or bad, and explain some ways to deal with a situation where your friends are encouraging you to go outside the boundaries your parents have set.
Chapter 5 Activity: Predators and Prey
Put students into pairs. Have each group choose an example of a predator and its prey. They might choose something like spiders and flies, lions and gazelles, cats and rats, or humans and deer. One student will choose to study the predator and the other will study the prey. Each student will produce a report that includes t...
George Orwell's "Animal Farm" is a delightful little fairy tale about the failures of Stalinism and the best possible introduction to twentieth century politics for high schoolers. After reading this book with your students, try an activity in which students discuss or write about the balance of power between citizens and leaders. Who should vote? What should be required of someone before they have a voice in government? How do we find a balance between mob rule and giving away too much power to a few leaders?
Tchaikovsky’s music is defined by soaring but bittersweet melodies, a reflection of his own personal struggles and victories as a closeted gay man. His ballets focus on hidden identities and quests for freedom and true love, things that would elude him until his untimely death from cholera. The Nutcracker was the last of his three ballets, first performed only a year before his death. It was a commercial failure, although the big hits of act two were well received. But some thirty years after the composer’s death the ballet was revisited and became a smash hit globally. It’s now a permanent part of the western holiday tradition and a magical story for generations of children.
Activity: Watch the show!
There are many, many recordings of The Nutcracker. My two favorites are a stage performance by San Francisco Ballet and a cinematic version directed by Carrol Ballard with sets and costumes designed by Maurice Sendak. Dress up as if you were going to the theater, get some special treats, and enjoy the show from home!
Music in this Episode:
Royal Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of London. (1955). The Nutcracker [Vinyl recording]. London: Artur Rodzinski, Conductor. (1955)