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.

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. 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

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 6 Activity: How should we treat 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

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

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:

Anesthetic (American) / Anaesthetic (British/International)
Magnum Opus
Some Pig

Animal Farm

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. The story itself is quite enjoyable, but it’s only properly understood as a symbol for everything that went wrong in the Soviet Union. Rather than becoming a worker’s paradise, daily life there for the common person just went from drudging away for one-all powerful boss to drudging away for another one. Orwell’s perfect prose and sharp with served as a prophetic warning during the last days of World War II to anyone who realized that, while the Nazis absolutely had to be vanquished in the short term, it would be the Soviet Union that posed the more long-term threat to the people of Europe.

Activity: Balancing Power

Arrange students in discussion groups. Have students consider the following prompt, then discuss the ideas they have. Then have each student write a position paper explaining how they feel how power should be split between citizens and leaders, and which people should be allowed to have a say in government. Discourage students from critiquing the exact sort of government they currently live under, rather encouraging them to be more theoretical, as if they were designing an entirely new nation themselves.

Prompt: “How much power should be in the hands of ordinary citizens, and how much should be given to leaders? Who should be allowed to vote? Should factors such as age, sex, ethnic background, citizenship status, mental abilities, military or other national service, ability to pass a civics test, or service to the community be factors? Are there any sorts of people who should be excluded from voting, or who should have their voting rights taken away? Consider the greatest good for a nation when forming your philosophy and explain your reasoning.”

Activity: Political Slogans

All good political slogans are catchy. The best ones look great on a bumper sticker. Some are very straightforward, such as “I Like Ike,” which was used to help elect General Dwight D. Eisenhower as president in 1952. Others are more of an ideological statement, such as “Better dead than Red,” another slogan from the 50’s that expressed the idea that death was preferable to living under communism. In Animal Farm, “four legs good, two legs bad” is the slogan that’s meant to encompass the basic principles of Animalism, but it quickly becomes a mindless chant that is used to keep the animals from discussing complex ideas.

Have your students choose a political slogan from some point in history. Then have them analyze whether this slogan is a straightforward statement such as “I like Ike,” or if it’s meant to push a dark agenda, such as “blood and soil,” an expression used by Nazis and neo-Nazis. Some slogans express an political position, such as “no taxation without representation,” and others send a mixed message, such as “Make America Great Again,” implying that America isn’t so great compared to what it was in the past. The student’s essay should explain the historical and political context around the slogan, and then take a position as to the effectiveness of the slogan in the way it expresses the explicit and implicit meanings of the words. If a student wanted to stay close to the text of Animal Farm, he or she could compare the difference between “four legs good, two legs bad” and “four legs good, two legs better.”

The Nutcracker

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)

Peter Pan

Peter Pan started out as a side character in a 1902 novel called The Little White Bird. He became the protagonist of a 1904 play entitled Peter Pan: Or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. He had his story told in novel form with 1911’s Peter and Wendy, which is most commonly published today under the title Peter Pan. This brash, brave, good-looking, and hopelessly conceited character was the creation of Sir James Barrie, a Scottish playwright, novelist, and theater producer whose own life held no shortage of drama.

The Rainbow Fish

Is Marcus Pfister’s The Rainbow Fish a nice little story about sharing, or is it the disturbing tale of an aquatic dystopia in which bullying is the preferred tactic to enforce absolute conformity? Join us for an episode that will make you realize for the first time that you’ve been reading a book about the worst possible form of communism.

Activity: Should Government Be Involved?

Have students fold a piece of paper into thirds to create three columns. At the top of the columns write “always,” “sometimes,” and “never.” List various aspects of public and private life, such as education, marriage, parenting, transportation, health care, banking, dietary choices, product safety, imports and exports, the environment, careers, public safety, and so on. Have students write which things should always, sometimes, or never be regulated by the government they live under. Do not influence the students by telling them where you would place a certain item, but do ask questions that encourage them to think thoroughly about where they would place a certain topic and why. Encourage students to think about how not all societies are the same, and how something that works in one political setting may not work in another due to factors like demographics, population size, the level of economic development, and available financial and material resources. Remind students that their views may change over time, and it’s good to think about these issues from time to time.

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible works to modern readers, and its themes will be very familiar to young people today, since they still have to deal with the issues of gossip, relationship drama, and toxic people who just want to tear others down. Teenagers will enjoy this play not only for its fantastic wordplay and raucous plot, but also they way it addresses problems that affect trust, friendship, and forgiveness that will be very familiar to them.

Activity: Essay Prompts

Use one of the following prompts for a discussion or written essay about Much Ado About Nothing:

    • If you were Hero, would you have taken back Claudio at the end after he had caused you so much harm? Why or why not?
    • When Claudio accuses Hero, at first her father believes him and not his own daughter. What does Leonato’s angry outbust say about him? Was this just a moment of high emotions or does it show that he isn’t as good of a father as he seemed?
    • Is it ethical for friends to scheme to get couples together, even if the intentions and outcome are good? Where is the line between encouragement of and meddling in others’ relationships?
    • Don Pedro gave his toxic brother Don John a second chance, and sadly Don John used this as a chance to hurt others. How can you tell the difference between someone who deserves a second chance at friendship and someone who will just continue to be hurtful if you stay close to them? What should you do if it seems impossible to know for sure?
    • If you have had a big fight with a close friend but you want to make amends, what is the best way to get started?

Activity: Modern-day Beatrice and Benedick

Choose a scene from Much Ado About Nothing in which Beatrice and Benedick have a “merry war” of words between one another. Rewrite the scene, using the same style of insults and teasing but with modern-day English. The scene could be written as a play script or in prose as if it were in a novel.

Little Red Riding Hood

Cautionary tales about the dangers of encountering a predator — especially ones targeted at girls and women — have been around for centuries. In this episode we take a look at various versions of Little Red Riding Hood from the middle ages to the present day to see what these stories have to say about  how to protect vulnerable young people from the predators out there in the world.

Warning: while this episode contains no explicit language, it does discuss sexual predators and retells a medieval story with some gruesome parts. Parents may wish to review it before sharing with teenagers or listen to it when little ones are not nearby.

The Sneetches

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.

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 middle school or 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:
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.

Music in this episode

“Round and Round the World is Turning” – traditional English folk song