48 – Matilda’s Library

Matilda was Roald Dahl’s last major work, being published just two years before the author’s death. At the end of his life, Dahl left behind a powerful, funny, bonkers story about a little girl who outsmarts not only her useless parents but also the cruel and abusive headmistress at her school. But Matilda is so much more. It’s also a love letter to great works of literature and a powerful statement in favor of the education and employment of women at a time when women and girls had to fight to have their ideas and abilities taken seriously.

Activity: Join Matilda’s Book Club

Roald Dahl had enough life experience and talent as a writer that his book recommendations should carry some weight. The following titles are mentioned in the text of Matilda as being great books appreciated by a very intelligent little girl. Choose one or more of these books and read them with your children. You may wish to do as Matilda did and make yourself a nice cup of hot chocolate, Ovaltine, or Bovril to sip while you read. As Dahl wrote:

It was pleasant to take a hot drink up to her room and have it beside her as she sat in her silent room reading in the empty house in the afternoons. The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives.

Full disclosure: I’d never drink Bovril but if you like it, I am very happy for you.

As you read these books, talk with your kids about why you think Matilda liked them (or didn’t) and why you think Roald Dahl thought they were important enough to put on his reading list.

Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice
Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre
Frances Hodgson Burnett – The Secret Garden
Charles Dickens – Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, and The Pickwick Papers
William Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury
Graham Greene – Brighton Rock
Thomas Hardy – Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and The Sea
Rudyard Kipling – Kim and Just So Stories
C.S. Lewis – The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
J. B. Priestley – The Good Companions
George Orwell – Animal Farm
John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath and The Red Pony
Mary Webb – Gone to Earth
H. G. Wells – The Invisible Man

There are a few other authors who are mentioned in Matilda, but none of their works are mentioned specifically. These include Hans Christian Andersen, Joseph Conrad, The Brothers Grimm, William Shakespeare, and J.R.R. Tolkien. You could also select one or more works by these authors to read.

47 – Crochet in Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan is about a girl who learns to keep her hope after losing her old life in Mexico and starting a new one in the Central Valley of California at the height of the Great Depression. It’s also about crocheting. A lot of crocheting! Esperanza learns a lesson valuable to both crochet and life at the beginning of the story: “Do not be afraid to start over.”

The blanket pattern that Abuelita teaches is a zig-zag, with mountains and valleys that come to represent the highs and lows of Esperanza’s life. It’s a great first project for beginners, and is very forgiving of mistakes, especially if you use a chunkier yarn.

Mamá and Esperanza also make monas – cute little dolls – out of yarn. These dolls are quick and fun to make. They are a good way to use up leftover yarn and make for a fun class project.

Activity: Abuelita’s Zigzag Blanket

Note: this pattern uses American crochet terms. “single crochet” means “double crochet” if you use British crochet terms.

You can use any size yarn, although beginners should use thicker yarn (worsted weight or larger) as it will be easier to work with. Use a crochet hook appropriate to the yarn selected.

Chain a multiple of 20 stitches, stopping when you think you have made the blanket wide enough. Remember that the chain will not be straight, but form zig-zags, so make the foundation chain longer than the desired width of the blanket. Turn.

Row 1: 1 single crochet in each of the the next 10 chains.

Add one extra single crochet in the 10th chain.

1 single crochet in each of the next 9 chains.

Skip the next chain and work up the next mountain. Repeat the pattern to the end of the row. If you find that you have not put in the correct number of chains, remember what Abuelita said: “Do not be afraid to start over.” Chain 1 and turn.

Row 2: 1 single crochet in each of the next 10 stitches.

Add one extra single crochet in the last stitch.

 

1 single crochet in each of the next 9 stitches.

Skip the next stitch and begin repeating the pattern.

Continue to the end of the row. There will be one extra single crochet left at the end of the row after you count the last 9 stitches down the mountain. Leave that stitch. If you do not leave one empty stitch at the end of each row, the blanket will grow wider and wider as you go along. Chain 1 and turn.

Repeat Row 2 until the blanket reaches the desired length. You can make the blanket all of one color, create a pattern of stripes of similar or varying width, or try to recreate the blanket made by Esperanza in the book by using many different colors of yarn. If this blanket is made for a class project, students can each bring in a bit of yarn to contribute, and then try their hand at making the “mountains and valleys” of the blanket.

Activity: Esperanza’s Monas

Get some yarn. Any kind will do, although for beginners a worsted weight or chunkier yarn will be best. You will need a partner to hold out his or her hands about nine inches apart. Gently wrap the yarn around your partner’s hands about fifty times.

Tie some yarn tightly around one end of the loops. Be sure to leave the ends of this yarn long enough that they can blend in.

Tie another bit of yarn slightly lower to make a neck for the doll. Once again, leave the ends of this yarn long enough to match the rest of the yarn. Hold the doll by its neck, then cut the loops at the bottom.

Divide the yarn into four equal sections. Bring the two middle sections together to form a body. Loop a length of thread twice around where you want the doll’s waist to be and knot as tightly as you can.

Split the ends of the body section into two equal parts and continue braiding the legs. Tie yarn tightly around the ankles of the dolls, leaving two puffy feet. Do not tie the ankles too low or the knotted yarn will slip off. Braid each arm. Stop when the arms look long enough. There will be extra yarn on the arm portions. Tie off the wrists as for the ankles. Trim the excess yarn to make fluffy hands and feet.

If you like, you can decorate your yarn mona however you like. Add eyes, hair, or clothing with felt, cloth, or other materials.

Music in this Episode

“Naranja Dulce” a Mexican folk song

46 – The Mythology of Watership Down

Watership Down by Richard Adams is great for teenagers, but it’s quite long and has dark and violent themes, making it inappropriate for younger children. However, set within the larger story of rabbits journeying to establish a new home, there are five folktales which can be read separately. Some are funny, and some are sad, but all of them have a lot in common with real folktales from around the world.

Activity: Etiological Tales

Read “The Story of the Blessing of El-ahrairah” from Watership Down by Richard Adams. This is an etiological tale, explaining how rabbits got their fluffy white tails and powerful hind legs. Find other folktales from around the world that give the etiology for other animals. Then research the actual evolutionary origins of the animals. Students might make interesting observations by comparing ancient folklore with modern science.

Activity: Trickster Tales

Read “The King’s Lettuce” or “The Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog” as found in Watership Down by Richard Adams. These are trickster tales, showing how El-ahrairah managed to use his wits to get food for himself and his people. Have students write and perform a skit portraying one or both of these stories. Encourage them to emphasize El-ahrairah’s cunning deceptions.

Activity: Is it Ever Ok to Lie?

Read “The Trial of El-ahrairah” from Watership Down by Richard Adams. In this tale, the prince of rabbits engages in an elaborate deception, getting away with the theft of food by tricking everyone into thinking the only witness to the crime has lost his mind and can’t be trusted. Afterwards, lead a discussion asking students whether they feel it is acceptable to lie, cheat, and steal in order to survive.

Activity: You Can’t Cheat Death

This activity should only be done with older students who can handle a heavy and serious discussion. Read “The Story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé” (Chapter 31 of Watership Down). Then ask students the following questions:

      • Was it foolish for El-ahrairah to even try to convince the Black Rabbit to grant his request?
      • Did El-ahrairah give up at the right time, or should have have stopped his quest sooner?
      • Why didn’t the younger rabbits understand or appreciate what El-ahrairah had done?
      • Should Frith have restored El-ahrairah’s ears, tail, and whiskers?

45 – Androcles

The Aesop Fable “Androcles” is about the value of friendship and kindness. It’s also a critique of the cruel way many people treat one another. It’s less known today, but it’s been a very important story for nearly two thousand years, inspiring many works of art by musicians, sculptors, painters, dancers, and playwrights all over the world. Children can add to this tradition by learning the original tale and the creativity it has inspired.

The audio and text for the story of Androcles can be found on the Folk Tales Page: childrensliteraturepodcast.com/folk-tales/

Activity: Make A Work of Art based on “Androcles”

Ask students to produce a new work of art based on Androcles. This could include:

      • An illustration of a scene from the story
      • A sculpture of one of the characters
      • A script for a skit based on the story
      • A short story inspired by the original fable
      • A dance that interprets all or part of the story

New works of art do not need to exactly reproduce the tale as it was originally written. Young artists can focus tightly on a single characters, theme, or plot point, or use the fable as inspiration for a completely new work of art.

44 – Who was Aesop?

Aesop wrote over 700 fables . . . or did he? This ancient Greek writer’s work is at the foundation of literature, but who was he? Did he even exist? There are many different versions of his biography, because Aesop is one of those figures who comes from the blurry edges of the past where history vanishes into legend. All versions credit him with being an intelligent storyteller who traveled widely, dispensing moral wisdom with his pithy, entertaining stories. Although he met an untimely end, his work has become timeless, influencing global literature for over 2600 years.

Activity: Semihistorical Figures

History is the study of what happened in the past. Historiography is the study of how history is written down. Not all works of history are equally valuable. Some have false or missing information, and some are written by people who are trying to push a certain point of view. And then there are some people who get written into history who probably shouldn’t be in the story at all, because there isn’t any firm evidence about their lives or deeds.

Students can research one of the following semihistorical figures. These people often feature in old histories or in legends and works of fiction, but there is no hard evidence proving that they actually lived:

      • Ragnar Lothbrok
      • Mulan
      • Pythagoras
      • King Arthur
      • The Queen of Sheba
      • Robin Hood
      • Homer
      • John Henry
      • Lycurgus
      • Sun Tzu

This printable worksheet can help students answer questions about a semihistorical figure:

      • When was this person was supposed to have lived?
      • What is the person famous for?
      • What sources mention this person?
      • Does anything about the person’s life story seem unlikely to be true?
      • Do you think this person really existed? Why or why not?

43 – Best Audiobook Performances

Audio versions of children’s books can be a great way to keep up on “reading” when you don’t have time to sit down with a book. I listen to lots of audiobooks and prefer to hear authors reading their own work. However, voice actors can also give amazing performances, bringing characters to life in a way that really does justice to the author’s work.

My favorite performances of books children will enjoy are:

      • Matilda by Roald Dahl, read by Kate Winslet
      • Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, read by the author
      • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, read by the author (Note: good for teenagers, not younger kids)
      • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, read by Andy Serkis

Activity: Record your own Audiobook

Kids can have a lot of fun recording their own audio versions of their favorite stories. Any kind of story can be recorded, from a family memory to a well-known folktale. Students can adapt a longer tale, or just record part of it. Children can also try their hand at adding sound effects, experimenting with different objects to produce the right sound. Recordings could be done in a very simple way, using a phone or laptop to record audio in a single take, or you could try a more ambitious project involving editing, multiple audio tracks, and sharing the final result with others.

42 – Overrated Children’s Books

Some children’s books are overrated. Here are a few titles that I hereby give you permission to remove from their pedestals.

Activity: I Just Didn’t Like It

Have students write a reflection about a book that they tried to read and just didn’t enjoy. Whether the book was chosen by the student, received as a gift, or assigned by a teacher, it just didn’t quite make an impression. Students should try to answer the following questions about the book:

      • Why didn’t you enjoy reading this story? Was it the plot, characters, themes, or something else?
      • Do you think that you were the right or wrong age to read the book?
      • Do you think you might enjoy the book if you tried reading it again some other time?
      • What might help you have a better chance of liking this story?

41 – Charlotte’s Web

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.

Pre-reading Activity: Writing About Friends
For anyone who can write letters

Materials needed:
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 the following:

      • The scientific name of the animal
      • The animal’s diet, habitat, and social habits (does it live in a group or alone?)
      • The animal’s relationship with its predators or prey
      • What would happen if the predators stopped killing the prey animals

Chapter 8 Activity: Imaginary Friends

In Chapter 8, Fern tells her mother all about what the barnyard animals say. Her mother seems very concerned. She seems to think it’s not good for Fern to say animals have names and can talk to one another. In reality, it’s very healthy for children to have imaginary friends, and Mr. Arable seems to think it’s just fine for Fern to believe she can hear the animals talk. Divide students into small groups and have them discuss the following questions:

Did you have an imaginary friend? Describe this friend. How old were you? How much do you remember about what you played? Why do you think you stopped playing with your imaginary friend? What kind of playing took over instead?

Students can build on this discussion by creating a presentation in which they discuss their early childhood experiences, draw pictures of their old imaginary friends, and describe the adventures they had together.

Chapter 9 Activity: Spider Engineering

In Chapter 9, Charlotte mentions the Queensboro Bridge, which is a famous bridge in New York City. E.B. White was from New York and would have used this bride a lot. Its lattice pattern bears a resemblance to a spider’s web. Engineers have often used nature for inspiration to solve engineering problems, such as when they used spider web patterns to create glass that birds could see better, reducing the number of bird strikes on skyscrapers. Scientists are currently studying spider silk to try to come up with a way to make synthetic silk. Give the following prompt to students, then have them do research and write an essay:

Imagine that you are a scientist in the research division of Spider Silk, Incorporated. You have figured out how to make artificial spider silk. What are three applications of this new technology? Brainstorm and research some ideas, then write an essay describing three possible inventions. Describe what each invention is, who would be likely to buy it, and how it would be used.

Chapter 17 Activity: Quarters, nickels, and dimes
For First or Second graders

Materials needed: several quarters, nickels, and dimes for each student
pencils
paper

Give each student some coins. Encourage students to use the coins to help them with calculations. Equations can be visualized by arranging coins on a table and then moving them around. Then present the following problems:

1. Mr. Arable gave Fern two quarters and two dimes. He gave Avery five dimes and four nickels. How much did each child get? Was it the same amount? Answer: Yes. They received 70 cents each.

2. Ferris wheel rides cost 10 cents each. Fern’s mother gave her 40 cents. How many times can Fern and Henry Fussy ride on the Ferris Wheel together? Answer: Twice.

3. Fern and Avery each had 70 cents to spend at the fair. If you had 70 cents, what would you spend it on? This is how much each thing costs. Would you spend all of your money or save some of it?

Spin the Wheel game – 5 cents
Jet Plane Bumper Cars – 20 cents
Balloon – 10 cents
Frozen Custard – 5 cents
Cheeseburger – 10 cents
Raspberry soda pop – 5 cents

Children could also make a sign advertising various foods, games, and rides that might have been at the county fair. “Booths” and “rides” could be created from cardboard boxes, bits of furniture, blankets and pillows, or outdoor play equipment. Children can use pretend or real money to “go to the fair,” figuring out what they can afford to do with a given budget.

End of Reading Activity: Charlotte’s Crossword Puzzle
For Third grade and up

Materials needed: One crossword printout per student and a pencil

Print out the following crossword puzzle and have students complete it on their own or with help. There are two versions — one with American spelling and the other with British/International spelling. This crossword should be given after reading the book and can work as a vocabulary and spelling quiz. Younger students may need to see the list of words when completing the puzzle. More advanced students should be able to recall the words from memory.

Charlotte’s Web Crossword – American English

Charlotte’s Web Crossword – British English

Vocabulary terms used:

Aeronaut
Anesthetic (American) / Anaesthetic (British/International)
Glutton
Gullible
Humble
Injustice
Languishing
Magnum Opus
Radiant
Salutations
Sedentary
Some Pig
Spinnerets
Terrific
Versatile

40 – Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a story about a heroic single mom who will risk everything to keep her kids safe . . . and a bunch of supergenius lab rats.

Activity – Imagining an Animal Civilization

In this activity, students may work alone or in small groups. Give students 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.

39 – The Sneetches

In 1953, it was not popular to speak out against segregation, racism, and treating others badly because they are part of an out-of-favor group. But Dr. Seuss did just that in The Sneetches. In this year, Senator Joseph McCarthy was at the height of his powers and Arthur Miller was attempting to speak against him with is play The Crucible. Segregated schools wouldn’t be struck down by the supreme court for another year, and Rosa Parks wouldn’t refuse to go to the back of the bus until 1955.

It can be easy to brush off children’s stories as unimportant bits of fun, but it actually took a lot of courage to publish a book that spoke out against the mistreatment of entire groups of people back in 1953. But the story is so simple that it holds up very nicely today as a tale about treating one another with civility.

Activity: How Does it Feel?

This activity is best suited for elementary age students. Have students recreate scenes from pages 4, 5, 6, or 7 from The Sneetches. This could be done through acting, drawing, or posing toys to recreate the images. On page 4, a star-belly parent and child walk with their noses in the air past a plain-belly parent and child. On page 5, star-belly children enjoy playing ball together while excluding plain-belly children. On pages 6 and 7, a group of star-bellies enjoy a beach barbecue while plain-bellies are shut out from the warm fire, tasty food, and lively conversation.

After the children re-create one or more of these scenes in their own way, facilitate a discussion about how the plain-belly sneetches feel. Ask the children how they would feel if they were excluded  in these ways. Encourage them to come up with ideas for how they can avoid mistreating others and encourage their peers to do the same.

Activity: Passing

This activity is best suited for high school students. In The Sneetches, the plain-bellies have stars applied to their bellies so that they can pass as star-bellied sneetches, who have a higher social status and are allowed full participation in society. This is a reference to the phenomenon of passing, in which a person who belongs to an oppressed group is able to look and behave as if they were a member of a privileged group. Passing can be done to save lives; during the Holocaust, some Jews were able to escape being sent to death camps by passing as non-Jews. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, mixed-race African-Americans whose features were European enough, passing could be used to escape slavery or gain access to education, jobs, housing, and societal connections that would not be open to them if their ancestry were known.

Instruct students to select an example of someone from US history who was mixed race and was able to pass as white. Students can give a written or oral report giving a biographical overview of their chosen subject’s life, with the main focus being how and why the person passed for white. There are many examples to choose from, such as Eston Hemings, Jane Morrison, Walter Francis White, James Weldon Johnson, or George Herriman.

The point of this assignment is for students to understand the reasons someone chose to pass, not to judge the individual’s choices or to project themselves into their subject’s situation. Students should specifically avoid judging whether or not a person from history should have attempted to pass, because their frame of reference and personal options are quite different from that of the people studied. A good report will note the advantages and disadvantages afforded by the choice to pass, as well as the ways in which the person was successful at passing.

Activity: Star On, Star Off

Materials needed:
Paper
Scissors
Duct Tape
Four chairs
Soft balls for bouncing or catching

Cut up slightly more star shapes than there are students in the class. Put a rolled up bit of duct tape on the back of each star so that it can be applied and removed to clothing repeatedly.

Go somewhere where children have enough space to run around safely. In the middle of the room set up two chairs side by side with about three feet of space between them. This is the “Star On” door. In line with these chairs, set up two more in the same manner for the “Star Off” door. Leave enough space between the “doors” for two children to stand. Assign one child to be “Star On” another to be “Star Off”. Star On and Star Off should stand in the space between the doorways.

Divide the rest of the class into two groups of equal size. Do this in an arbitrary way so that the students will not be able to infer the members of each group later. Do not tell the students that they should remember who is in each group.

Stick stars to the sleeves of the children in one group. On your cue, allow the children to run around the room, but tell them they should go through the Star On and Star Off doors several times each. Students with a star may bounce a ball or play catch with a classmate who currently has a star, but if they are tagged by a student without a star they must go through the Star-Off door. Students may not collect more than one star at a time – they must go through the Star Off door after getting a star. As they go through each doorway, Star On and Star Off will apply or remove the stars. The teacher can help with transferring stars from Star Off to Star On if needed.

Allow the children to play for several minutes. Then cue the children to freeze. Have everyone sit down in a group. Ask if any of the children can remember the members of the original group. Unless one student has a particularly good memory, most should not be able to recall how the group was divided. Discuss how this relates to the plot of The Sneetches, and how there really isn’t any important difference between the children that would prevent them all playing together.

Activity: Stars of David

It can be daunting to begin teaching younger children about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. But children of all ages can be introduced to this dark part of history with a very simple lesson about how Jews were marked out as different in Nazi Germany.

After reading The Sneetches, explain that unfortunately it’s not just a funny story about some creatures that learn a lesson about being kind to one another. Explain that there have been times in history when people have been marked out as different so that they could be mistreated.

Research images of badges that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi-controlled areas during the 1930’s, such as this one:

Here are some questions you might ask to help introduce the idea of segregation to children. Modify them as appropriate and allow children to take whatever time they need to explore them:

      • How would you feel if you had to wear a badge on your clothing that made it ok for everyone else to be unkind to you?
      • If one of your friends had to wear a badge like that and the other kids were unkind to him or her, what would you do?
      • Would you help people who had to wear badges if it meant that you or your family could also be treated badly?

Do not go into more detail than is appropriate for the children’s understanding, and pay attention to their emotional state. This part of history can be painful and difficult to begin learning about, and it’s important not to give children more than they can handle in one lesson.