82 – Lily Alone

Lily Alone by Jacqueline Wilson is about a girl whose irresponsible mother makes her take on very adult responsibilities . . . despite the fact that she is only 11 years old. This is a book with very heavy themes, but I was glad co-host Chloë brought it to my attention. Wilson explores the problems associated with parental neglect and the point at which social services get involved with sensitivity and empathy — something children in such a situation deserve. The story made a real impression on Chloë after she read this book at school, and I wanted to understand why, so we sat down to chat.

Activity: Should Kate Get Her Kids Back?

At the end of Lily Alone, Lily has been placed in a group home and her younger siblings are in foster care. Her mother, Kate, seems likely to be arrested and charged with credit card fraud and child endangerment. Despite all of this, Lily loves her mother and just wants to be back home with her family all together again.

Have students write a reflection about what Kate should have to do to prove that she can be trusted to take care of her children again one day. They should identify specific behaviors and time frames, along with a way to measure improvements to her behavior. As students to consider what sort of people should be involved in this process. Students should not be expected to understand the intricacies of the foster care system or the way criminal courts function. This exercise should be more about helping students begin to think about the philosophy of social services, child protection, and the points at which society finds it necessary to intervene in family relationships.

81 – Paul Bunyan

Stories about Paul Bunyan don’t need to be true. In fact, they should be a load of nonsense. The only thing they need to be is entertaining. Learn a bit about the life of North America’s mythical lumberjack, his best pal Babe the Blue Ox, and the rest of his crew, and perhaps consider adding to the long tradition of American tall tales by spinning your own yarn about Paul.

I’ve made a video version of my biography of Paul Bunyan, which can be used to give kids a short introduction to the most famous character from American tall tales:

Activity: A Geography Lesson with Paul Bunyan

Give students a blank outline of North America. Have them draw the geological features you wish them to become familiar with, telling tall tales about how Paul Bunyan created those features. Ask students to help embellish the stories, making them as memorable as possible.

Activity: Tell a Tall Tale

Have students retell a Paul Bunyan story in their own way, or come up with a brand new story. The emphasis should not be on originality, but rather a creative and entertaining story. If possible, give students time between a first and second telling to allow time for the story to be developed.

Sources for this Episode

  • Campfire stories told to me at Girl Scout Troop 602 events and at Camp Singing Pines
  • Mr. Lamont, my fifth grade teacher
  • Stewart, K. B.; Watt, Homer A. (1916), Legends of Paul Bunyan, Lumberjack, Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, vol. 18/II, Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, pp. 639–651.
  • Twain, M. (1897), How to Tell a Story and Other Essays. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Music in This Episode
“Once More A-Lumbering Go”, “Leather Britches,” and “Lumberjack’s Alphabet.” All are traditional North American lumberjack songs.

80 – Interview with Bali Rai

This month’s Leicestershire Children’s Writer is Bali Rai. Born and raised in Leicester City, he still lives in Leicestershire with his two daughters and is an active part of the local, national, and international literary scene, making frequent visits to schools and publishing new works for children at a steady rate. In our interview, Bali talks about how Sue Townsend influenced and encouraged him as a writer, why he is unafraid to tackle difficult topics in his books, and why he loves reggae music.

Bali is the author of dozens of books, many of which explore overlooked areas of history and struggle with complex social problems. He’s also able to tell sweet, believable tales about ordinary school kids finding their way through childhood. But whether his writing is about folkore from India, an RAF pilot evading the Nazis in occupied France, a teenager struggling to escape an arranged marriage, or boys and girls playing soccer together, Bali Rai’s work honors his Leicestershire roots.

You can follow Bali online:


A note for those listening who may not be a Chissit (someone from Leicester):

Twice in the interview Bali says “mardy,” which is a very useful bit of Leicestershire slang that generally means being grumpy or unpleasant. Back in Southern California as an equivalent we would say “in a funk” or “being a downer.” The term “mardy bum” means someone who is moping or complaining a lot and could be translated as “sourpuss” or “sad sack.”

79 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Kids

Shakespeare isn’t really for kids. But some of the comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, offer the perfect first introduction to the world’s greatest playwright. The play within a play about Pyramus and Thisbe in Act V can be lifted out and performed on its own as a fun, easy to understand first experience with Shakespeare. Here’s an abridged script for Act V that can be used to create a show for children, or even better — one put on by children!

Download the script here:

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5 (Abridged)

Also on this show, I mentioned some upcoming events for Tom the Tale Teller, who was last week’s guest along with his daughter Emmy. He will be performing at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in October, and on Sunday, July 2 he will be telling stories in the town of Leek at their annual festival celebrating the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Activity: The Play’s the Thing!

Using the script for Shakespeare’s comic interpretation of Pyramus and Thisbe, have students put on a show! It is not necessary to memorize lines or have elaborate props, sets, or costumes. If it is appropriate to the age level, before rehearsals begin, provide background on the story of Pyramus and Thisbe as an ancient legend which would have been understood as a serious, somber tragic tale in Shakespeare’s day.

Activity: Comedic and Tragic Interpretations

Shakespeare probably wrote Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1595, and both plays were produced and published very close together. Both plays draw on the story of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” an ancient tale which was first published in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Both plays feature the story of a boy and a girl who fall in love despite the fact that their families are enemies. But one is treated with complete seriousness, and the other is meant to be a comic disaster.

Have students read the original story of “Pyramus and Thisbe” as well as a summary of Romeo and Juliet and the rustics’ performance in Act V of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In a class discussion or as a written essay, have students reflect on how the same story can be interpreted so differently.

78 – Spring Writing Challenge Party

Special guests Tom the Tale Teller Phillips and his daughter Emmy join in to read the funniest reader submissions sent in to the Spring Writing Challenge. Tom was featured as the show’s Leicestershire Children’s Writer for the month of March.

During my interview with Tom the Tale Teller over Zoom, I couldn’t help but admire the excellent painting of a cow hanging on the wall behind him. I asked what the cow’s story was, and it didn’t have one, so Tom and I decided that needed to change. I asked for silly stories, and boy did you listeners deliver! In this episode you will hear a lullaby, a haiku, the best poem ever written about cow flatulence, a short story, and a surprisingly touching story about a cow who finds out she is wonderful just as she is.

Featured in this episode are the following delightful works:

“Lydia the Dancing Cow” by Tillie, read by Emmy Phillips
“Moo Haiku” by Edie, read by Chloë Townsend
“Bovine Lullaby” by Chris, sung by T.Q. Townsend
“Cow Power” by B.C. Byron, read by T.Q. Townsend
“Lisa the Cow and Her Missing Spots” by Olivia Lee, read by Tom the Tale Teller Phillips

Many thanks to all of you who contributed. Children’s literature is not just something that belongs to the past, and it would seem that the current generation of writers is a healthy one!

77 – Pippi Longstocking

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren has been translated into over 100 languages. It appeals to children from all over the world because it’s a story that taps directly into the chaotic, playful world of  imagination. In this episode co-host Chloë helps to bring a child’s perspective to a delightful story which will never go out of style.

Activity: Write an Adventure for Your Imaginary Friend

If you, your children, or classmates had an imaginary friend, write out a description of that character, including appearance, personality traits, home life, and powers. Then imagine what would happen if that imaginary friend accompanied you on an ordinary day of your life. How would things be changed? Would anything wild or unexpected happen? How disruptive would the imaginary friend be, and what kind of trouble would that create?

Have students write their own story in the style of a chapter from Pippi Longstocking, then share the stories together.

76 – Animal Farm

Animal Farm by George Orwell offers something to virtually every academic discipline. Teenagers will be delighted to engage with it so long as it’s presented in an interesting and appealing way. In this episode, I give some ideas for how this book can be taught in different kinds of academic classes.

Also in this episode, I mentioned this heartwarming story I found about a town in Wałbrzych, Poland that is using handmade dolls representing Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables in order to raise awareness about the need for more foster families. I’d love to find more information about this story, but I don’t speak Polish, so if any listeners can help me understand some of the Polish-language reporting on this sweet story, I sure would be grateful!

Activity: Passive Voice

Teachers usually tell students never to use passive voice, and as a general rule this is good advice. Passive voice is when a sentence puts more focus on the person or object experiencing an action, rather than the person or object doing the action. A sentence written with active voice would be “The animals sang a revolutionary song called Beasts of England.” That same sentence in passive voice was “A revolutionary song called Beasts of England was sung by the animals.” Active voice tends to result in clearer, shorter, more easily understood sentences. Passive voice can sometimes make it unclear who performed an action.

But sometimes, passive voice can be used creatively for the sake of humor or to encourage the reader to figure out certain things independently. George Orwell uses passive voice in Animal Farm to draw attention to times when the pigs behave in a selfish or corrupt manner. These sentences often begin with “it was noticed” or “it was felt.”

Have students track times when passive voice is used in Animal Farm. Ask them to rewrite these sentences in direct voice, so that the styles can be compared. Then discuss how the passively construction sentences are more funny and thought-provoking, which shows that passive voice can sometimes be used, but only for a good reason.

Activity: Who Should Be Allowed to Vote?

In Animal Farm, the pigs steadily convince the other animals to stop making any decisions for themselves because they might sometimes choose poorly. The pigs take all leadership power for themselves, shutting out any non-pigs from the government of Animal Farm.

After reading this portion of the story, encourage students to consider the following questions. Answers may be given as written responses, discussed in small groups, or talked about as a class.

  • Who should be allowed to vote?
  • Should someone be allowed to vote if they can’t understand what the consequences will be?
  • Should children be allowed to vote?
  • What about those with mental disabilities?
  • Should there be things people have to do to gain voting rights, such as passing a civics test or performing some service to the community or nation?
  • Under what circumstances should someone have their voting rights taken away?

Activity: Political Slogans

In Animal Farm, the animals come up with a list of principles for their philosophy of Animalism, using the slogan “four legs good, two legs bad.” The pigs gradually begin breaking the principles until they change this slogan to “four legs good, two legs better.” The sheep are easily persuaded to bleat these slogans in a very pointed metaphor.

Have students research political slogans. Some are fairly honest and straightforward, like “I Like Ike.” Some summarize a political position such as “No Taxation Without Representation” or “No Nukes.” Others are more threatening, such as “Eat the Rich” or those which claim a country should belong only to a certain ethnic group. Each student in a class can research a different political slogan, focusing on the historical setting of the slogan’s creation and the message that it was meant to send. Students could also share their feelings about the slogan’s effectiveness and the implications of the policies the slogan advocates for.

75 – Go, Dog, Go!

Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman is a lot of fun for two groups of kids – very little children who haven’t begun to read, and slightly older children who are just beginning to unlock the secrets of words. This book uses ingenious illustrations to support young children as they begin to connect confusing little squiggles with the meanings of words.


Activity: Sight Words

Learning a few sight words can really help new readers build some confidence and get going with reading, which will make it less intimidating to begin proper work with phonics. Sight words are words that are short and common enough for children to memorize, allowing them to be recognized at sight without having to be sounded out. While of course this method isn’t practical for learning an entire language, it is very helpful to get children excited about reading. It also helps kids feel very positive about their first efforts, and kids who feel happy about reading will put in lots of effort to do more reading and unlock stronger skills.

Keep an eye out for the following sight words as you read Go, Dog, Go! with your kids. Memorizing these common, short words will help children recognize words they are already comfortable with as they begin to sound out newer and more complicated words.


74 – The Jewish Roots of Holes

Holes by Louis Sachar has remained a favorite book of mine for years. Its author drew heavily on Ashkenazi Jewish folklore when writing this story, reinterpreting Eastern European storytelling traditions to help them fit in a new American home. The ending of Holes has just a touch of Texas justice to it, showing how this style of storytelling changed when it came to a new country.

Activity: The Folklore of Ashkenaz

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has an excellent online course about Ashkenazi Jewish folklore that I found very helpful when preparing for this episode. In learning more details about the songs, stories, and even superstitions of Yiddish folk culture, I was able to recognize how these traditions had influenced Louis Sachar when he was writing Holes. Some portions may work for younger children, but most of the course is at an academic level better suited for teens and adults.

You can find this free online course at yivo.org/Folklore-of-Ashkenaz.

If you haven’t got time for the entire course, a selection of short videos featured during the classes can be found in this playlist. The videos entitled “What is Jewish about Jewish folklore?” are most relevant to the storytelling style in Holes and can be useful to parents and teachers presenting this book to children.

Activity: Dig a Hole

The title of Holes could be interpreted as symbolic, but mostly it is not. This is literally a book about digging holes in the ground. So why not take your students out and dig one? Kids can learn a lot about themselves and what they can accomplish by doing something physically challenging with hand tools. Find somewhere appropriate to dig a hole and dig one! Compare students’ experiences with those of Stanley Yelnats as he improves in strength and technique over the course of the novel.

73 – Interview with Rachel Greaves

Rachel Greaves is my Leicestershire Children’s Writer for the month of May. She was kind enough to come to my home for a chat about her books, her creative designs for puppets, and future plans for Ruffle the Rail Dog, the lovable, adventurous pup who stars in her books. You can find Rachel’s books at ruffletheraildog.co.uk.

Rachel made Eric, the puppet on the right, entirely out of recycled or repurposed materials, resulting in a cute, lightweight, but sturdy character to feature in live performances of her stories.

Eric’s body is made from an empty four pint milk jug and his hands are carved wooden spoons. The hands are especially clever as the long handles allow the puppet’s arms to be easily manipulated without children seeing how during shows. This makes the puppet more believable and draws in the audience. Rachel also makes excellent use of Ruffle when she performs with him, making sure that he’s always moving around in a natural way.

Please do check out the adventures of Ruffle the Rail Dog! He’s a charming little guy with a lot of adventures that your kids can join in.