Top Five Children’s Book Adaptations

Since school is nearly out here in Britain and already out in many other places, I thought I might make some suggestions for a fun movie night with the kids during the summer holidays. I’ve chosen my top five favorite adaptations of a children’s book into a film or TV series to share with you.

What are your favorite adaptations of a book written for children? Let me know by writing to [email protected].

Activity: Movie Night!

Pop some popcorn. Get the comfiest blanket in your house and cuddle on the couch with your kids while you enjoy a film together, preferably one you watched as a child and which your own kids have not yet seen. Don’t engage in any kind of discussion or analysis of the film that your kids don’t initiate. Enjoy every moment.

Island of the Blue Dolphins: Feminism and Environmentalism

Scott O’Dell researched and wrote Island of the Blue Dolphins in the late 1950’s and published the book in 1960. The feminist and environmentalist themes in the book, while quite uncontroversial today, were incredibly groundbreaking for their time, being published a few years before books such as Silent Spring or The Feminine Mystique.

The fact that this book was published at all in 1960 is amazing. At the time, no media featured a female protagonist who never has a romantic partner, whose most significant relationship is a friendship with another woman, and who is capable of providing for herself without needing help. In fact, the first publisher O’Dell approached rejected the book because he thought it should have a male protagonist.

Using Karana’s direct, reasonable observations, O’Dell critiques the idea of banning women from employment or exploiting the natural world to the point of unsustainable degradation. Island of the Blue Dolphins can absolutely be appreciated as a straightforward survival story. But by understanding a little bit more about he context of the environmentalist and feminist movements in California in the 1950’s, readers ready for a deeper understanding of the world can delve into its themes and learn about how we can be better to one another and the world we live in.

Activity: 20th Century Environmental Efforts

Today it is generally accepted that we should use the resources of the earth in a sustainable manner, avoid creating excessive pollution, and treat animals humanely. But in the 1950’s this was a very new idea that was strongly resisted by politicians and leaders of industry. It was more attractive to dismiss concerns about pollution, habitat loss, and animal extinction than to make less profit by doing things sustainably.

Students can research an environmental cause of the 20th century in which scientists and conservationists turned out to be correct, and fixing the problem turned out to be expensive and difficult. Students can present their findings as a written report, a skit, or a multimedia presentation. Some examples of topics include:

Lead Poisoning

The chemical and petroleum industries deliberately misled the public for a long time about the dangers of lead, blaming parents when children became ill or died from exposure to the metal. Clair Cameron Patterson was the most prominent scientist to campaign against the use of lead in consumer products, resulting in improved health and longer lives for countless people.

DDT

DDT was sprayed on plants to kill insects. It is a highly powerful poison that lasts a long time when it gets into water, soil, and the bodies of animals. When mother birds were exposed to DDT, the eggs they laid had shells that were too thin. The eggs would break before the baby birds could be born, leading to a sharp decline in the numbers of birds in North America. The California Condor nearly went extinct because of DDT.

The Sierra Club and Environmental Laws

The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 and has continuously worked for laws that protect public land so that it can remain beautiful, healthy, and enjoyed by all visitors. Students can research one of the Sierra Club’s many successful efforts, such as working to pass the Wilderness Act in the US Congress or establishing Earth Day to raise awareness of environmental concerns.

Island of the Blue Dolphins: Survival and Forgiveness

This episode covers the themes of survival and forgiveness in Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. Although these themes are timeless, it also helps to consider them in the context of the Cold War, which was rising to frightening prominence in the years during which O’Dell researched and wrote this book. As a veteran of both world wars, the author would have understood what was at stake if humanity, like Karana, could not learn to forgive mortal enemies and turn them into friends.

Karana would have been unable to survive physically without healing herself emotionally and letting go of those she had lost and her hatred of those who did her great wrong. Somehow, for reasons even she can’t fully understand at first, she does not take revenge when she has the chance. Her acts of empathy allow her to befriend Rontu, the leader of the dogs who killed her brother, as well as Tutok, a girl who is a member of the tribe that slaughtered most of her people. Karana’s ability to not just forgive her enemies but actually learn to love them provides a hopeful example for young readers, whether considered in the book’s Cold War context or the present day.

Activity: Why Did Karana Forgive Rontu?

Ask students to respond to the following prompt. This activity could be completed as a discussion in small or large groups, a brief written reflection, or a full essay.

Karana made a logical plan to kill the wild dogs that had killed her brother. Yet, after she had wounded Rontu, she was unable to finish him off. In fact, she took him home, healed him, and he became her beloved pet. Why do you think Karana held back from killing Rontu? Why do you think she forgave him? Do you think she would have done the same thing if she had had the chance to kill the Aleut who killed her father?

Island of the Blue Dolphins: Lost but not Forgotten

This is the first of two episodes about the Newbery Award winning novel Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. This book is a work of speculative historical fiction that imagines what the life of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas might have been like. It is not and never could have been a work that reported history accurately, because the history can never truly be known. But O’Dell did his best to research what he could, and his novel ignited interest in researching the life of the Lone Woman that still burns bright today. Because of Island of the Blue Dolphins, not only is the Lone Woman not forgotten, but she and her lost culture have be the subjects of some of the best historical and archaeological research in the world.

This episode summarizes the most accurate information currently available about the life of the Lone Woman. Whenever Island of the Blue Dolphins is taught, kids want to know how much of the story is real. There are a lot of scraps of information you can find online, and very little of it is accurate. We now know that the stories recorded in the nineteenth century ranged from mostly true to flat out fabrications by people who never even met the Lone Woman of San Nicolas. Parents and teachers can use this episode to help them feel confident about answering kids’ questions about what we do and don’t know about the Lone Woman, or Karana as she’s called in the novel. The next episode will focus on the fictional story in Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Reliable Sources for learning about the true history of the woman that inspired Island of the Blue Dolphins

Channel Islands National Park guide to Island of the Blue Dolphins

Channel Islands National Park YouTube Channel

Islapedia

Articles written by the following people about San Nicolas Island and the Lost Woman of San Nicolas are very reliable:

    • John R. Johnson, an anthropologist with expertise on the languages and cultures of coastal and island tribes of Southern California
    • Susan L. Morris, a researcher who examines original documents such as maps, letters, shipping documents, company records, and newspapers to re-create an accurate timeline for the period of the Lone Woman’s life.
    • Steven J. Schwartz an archaeologist who worked for the US Navy doing excavations on San Nicolas island
    • René L. Vellanoweth, an anthropologist at California State University who has also led expeditions to sites on San Nicolas island
    • Carol Peterson, the education coordinator for Channel Islands National Park

Activity: What is a Reliable Source?

Talk with students about the definition of the word reliable: “consistently good in quality or performance; able to be trusted.” When doing research for school work, students should only use sources that are reliable.

Reliable sources:

    • Are written by someone who is an expert about the topic
    • Have information that is accurate and up to date
    • Do not express opinions without strong evidence behind them
    • Do not try to persuade the reader to agree
    • Are published by well-respected groups or people who have a good record of sharing accurate information

On a piece of paper or whiteboard, make two columns, one titled “reliable” and the other “unreliable.” Ask students to suggest sources of information that are reliable. They should come up with ideas like museums, scientists, researchers, teachers, librarians, experts, academic books, and so on. Ask students to also suggest sources which are unreliable sources of facts. They should list things like articles without an author, gossip, rumors, advertisements, political arguments, old and out of date documents, or sources which promote a belief at the expense of facts. Discuss how students can recognize the difference between reliable and unreliable sources.

Halo: Modern Mythology

School’s out this week, so this episode is more on the fun side. Students twelve and up are often introduced to an ancient legend such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, or Beowulf. But the ancient language style of these stories and the extinct cultures they depict can sometimes seem alien to students. Ironically, a story with actual aliens in it might seem more familiar. Students already know a lot of the patterns of epic literature if they’ve seen the original Star Wars trilogy, read The Lord of the Rings . . . or played the first three Halo video games.

Master Chief fits perfectly in the pattern of a legendary hero. He is physically imposing, although his superpowers come from science rather than the gods. Like most heroes, including the Spartans for which his type of soldier is named, he’s laconic, speaking only to say something short, witty, and to the point. He fights monsters and fights with total loyalty to protect humanity — even if he’ll never have the chance to be part of human society himself.

By beginning with a hero students are already familiar with, it’s quite a lot easier to then recognize the characteristics of heroes from unfamiliar legends. Whether ancient or modern, we all need heroes to look up to and bring out the best in us. That means that as parents and teachers we should recognize that the methods of storytelling may have changed over time, but great legends are still told and should be recognized as such.

Activity: Traits of a Legendary Hero

Before this activity, students should be familiar with the basic story of the first three Halo video games. Assign each student or group of students a different hero from a great work of epic literature. Examples include Gilgamesh, King Arthur, Sigurd, Beowulf, Odysseus, Achilles, and Hercules. Provide each student with the worksheet below. Students can research their ancient hero and compare him to Master Chief. After filling out the sheets, students can report back to one another and assemble a list of traits common to heroic characters in epic literature.

Worksheet: Traits of a Heroic Character

Music in this Episode

“Shenandoah.” American Folk Song.

Tricky Topics in Children’s Literature: Death

Death in children’s literature is a heavy topic, and it’s one that teachers understandably often steer clear of. But don’t give up on the subject entirely. If your students are up for it, deaths in literature can be a chance for really good discussion if you handle the subject with pragmatism and sensitivity. In this episode, we take a look at how scenes of death are presented in children’s novels written before and after modern medicine, as well as the differences in how the death of a parent versus the death of a child affect the plot of a story.

Activity: How Do Characters Deal with Death?

This worksheet can be used after reading any story in which a character dies. Students can complete it alone, with a partner, or in small groups. Afterwards the questions could be developed into an essay or used in a group discussion. Questions include:

1. Which character dies in the story you are reading and what is the cause of death?
2. Did the character say anything about how they felt about dying? If not, how do you think the character would feel about their death? Would there be feelings of anger or acceptance? Would the character wish things had gone differently at all?
3. How did the character’s friends, family, or allies feel about the death? What did they do afterwards? Did the death of their loved one cause any of them to change?
4. Were any characters happy about the character who died? What did these characters say or do afterward?
5. If you were the character who died, how would you have felt about your fate? Would you have done things differently or tried to change what happened?

Download the worksheet “How Do Characters Deal with Death?”

Music

“He That is Down Needs Fear No Fall” by John Bunyan. Referenced in Little Women.

Sources

Roser, M. (2019, June 11). Mortality in the past – around half died as children. Our World in Data. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality-in-the-past

Tricky Topics in Children’s Literature: Disease

This is the second in a three part series on tricky topics in children’s literature. Before people knew what germs were and developed sanitation to control them and medicine to fight them, disease was a constant concern. Today people hardly know about diseases like scarlet fever or cholera but they used to be alarmingly common, and this is reflected in the books written more than about one hundred years ago as well as in the attitudes of fictional characters.

Older tales are much more blunt about disease, its effects on those who are ill as well as those around them, and its impact on children. But parents and teachers shouldn’t shy away from the topic, as considering the effects of illness can help students develop empathy and more deeply appreciated the contributions of modern medicine to the well-being of children.

Activity: Diseases in the Past

Provide students with the following worksheet, to be filled out after reading a work of children’s fiction in which a main character becomes ill. The goal of the exercise is to help students understand the nature of a disease which was common or dangerous in the past but might be rare or less threatening today due to advances in civil engineering, personal hygiene, and medical treatment.

Worksheet: Diseases from the Past in Fiction

This worksheet can be used on its own or to begin research for an essay, report, or project.

Some suggested stories with depictions of serious illness:

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Sources

Dycus, Kathryne. “ Children Treating Children: Anne Shirley as Clinician.” Hektoen International Journal, https://hekint.org/2020/07/17/children-treating-children-anne-shirley-as-clinician/.

Tricky Topics in Children’s Literature: Alcohol

This is the first of three episodes about three tricky topics in Children’s Literature – alcohol, disease, and death. I’m not doing this to be edgy – I feel that these are important subjects and parents and teachers need a plan for when they come up. And they do, especially in books from more than fifty years ago. Alcohol in particular comes up in books written before laws establishing a minimum age for drinking were set about a hundred years ago. But although the use of alcohol in children’s fiction may seem jarring to our modern-day understanding of science and health medicine, the issue of teenagers using poor judgment when it comes to powerful substances is timeless.

This episode takes a close look at incidents from Little Women and Anne of Green Gables involving children drinking alcohol. Some understanding of the historical use of alcohol as medicine, the temperance movement, and the establishment of minimum drinking age laws about 100 years ago is needed to properly frame the context of these scenes. But the issues around underage drinking that parents and children must discuss haven’t actually changed that much. These scenes would not likely be published in a new book today, but they shouldn’t be censored or glossed over. In fact, they provide a good opportunity for a conversation about the tricky topic of alcohol.

Activity: Discussion Questions for Chapter 26 of Anne of Green Gables – “Diana is Invited to Tea with Tragic Results”

Chapter 26 of Anne of Green Gables can be read and understood on its own if you don’t have time to read the entire novel. After reading the chapter, ask students to consider the following questions. They can be answered in a one-on-one conversation, in a small group, or with the entire class. They could also be answered in writing. If it would be productive and not contentious, students with differing opinions could respectfully debate their answers.

Download a worksheet of these questions to use in class here

1. Is there anything Marilla could have done to prevent Anne from finding and mistakenly serving the wine instead of the non-alcoholic raspberry cordial?

2. What did Anne do correctly after Diana said she didn’t feel well?

3. Was Marilla too critical of Diana for drinking three glasses so quickly? Why or why not?

4. What do you think about Marilla’s reaction to the incident?

5. What do you think about Mrs. Barry’s reaction to the incident?

6. What would you do if one of your friends became intoxicated from alcohol, began to feel unwell, and no adults were around? Would you worry about how your parents or your friend’s parents would react?

Music in this episode

“Rare old Mountain Dew” by Edward Harrigan and David Braham

Speaking Yorkshire in the Secret Garden

This is the last of five episodes taking a look at the use of dialect in the children’s novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett. In The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett wanted to create a world where the characters return to their roots, literally and metaphorically, so the best way to express that was to find words that are closer to their roots. In this novel, the Yorkshire dialect is used to represent moments of emotional vulnerability or closeness to nature because it is a branch of the English language that is much closer to its ancient roots than more widely spoken dialects.

Activity: Dialect Interviews

Students can learn more about authentic use of dialect in writing by interviewing someone who speaks a dialect different from their own. This could be an immigrant from another country, or someone who is just from a different area of your own nation. Dialects also change over time, so a child could interview a grandparent and learn a bit about slang terms that aren’t used anymore.

Ask the interview subject about vocabulary words and phrases unique to their hometown. After collecting a list of terms, the student can try writing a fictional passage in dialect. Ideally the person who was interviewed could be on hand to help with polishing to make sure the words are used correctly. There are so many fascinating words that come from other languages, other times, and other regions, and your kids will find it both fun and enlightening to learn a bit more about how people different from them express themselves.

Music used in this episode

Doxology (“Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow”)
music by Louis Bourgeois (1551)
lyrics by Thomas Ken (1674)

This song is referenced in Chapter 26 of The Secret Garden

Rocky: A Cinderella Story

This is a bonus episode of the Children’s Literature Podcast, inspired by a challenge from listener Pedro, who wrote in to say “In the Cinderella show you said Rocky is a Cinderella story. I don’t buy it. Change my mind.” A few months ago in my episode called “What is a Cinderella Story” I gave examples of tales that fit the basic pattern of a Cinderella tale. Sometimes you find them in unexpected places, such as the 1976 film Rocky. That’s not a book for children, but I love Rocky films so much that I will take any excuse I can to talk about them. So congratulations, Pedro. You baited me.

Fairy tales aren’t just for kids — we grownups need them too. So let’s revisit the characteristics of a Cinderella story as found in the tale of a drudge from the streets of Philly who gets one chance to dance with a handsome prince and seizes his destiny.

Let me know if I’ve changed your mind, Pedro!