55 – The Italian Cinderella

“Cenerentola” by Giambattista Basile is the first Cinderella story recorded in Europe. It is not as famous as its descendants as written down by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, but it’s worth discovering because this Cinderella has the guts to speak up for herself, and her friendship with the fairies of the island of Sardinia help her to show the king her true worth.

The audio and text of this story is available at childrensliteraturepodcast.com/folk-tales/cenerentola/.

Activity: Where is Sardinia?

Before reading “Cenerentola,” look at a map of the Mediterranean region. Identify the island of Sardinia and its location relative to the Italian peninsula. Find a map that shows the political boundaries of nations in this part of the world during the 1600’s. Students should note that Italy was not a unified nation at this point in history, but rather a complicated patchwork of states divided between many different rulers.

After reading “Cenerentola,” discuss why it would have made sense for Cenerentola’s father to travel to Sardinia. Its position makes it easy to reach from many nations, which would make it easier for leaders of these lands to maintain friendly relations and make agreements about trade and travel. This would make it a good location for trade, which was why the father knew he would be able to find beautiful things for his stepdaughters there.

Depending on the age and interest of the student, further research could be conducted on Sardinia’s geographical traits as well as its importance to politics and trade during the Renaissance.

Activity: Punishment or Forgiveness?

400 years ago in Renaissance Italy, kings and queens would have had a lot of power. It would have been possible for them to give any sort of reward or punishment. In “Cenerentola,” a prince badly mistreats his daughter. Later, the young king marries her. As the new queen, Zezolla would have had the power to do whatever she liked to her father, stepmother, and stepsisters, all of whom mistreated her.

After reading “Cenerentola” with your kids, ask one or more of the following questions. Answers may come through a discussion, as a short written response, or in an essay.

      • If you were Queen Zezolla, would you consider punishing your wicked family members? Would you consider any punishment for them? Anything would be possible; banishment from court, loss of lands or titles, fines, imprisonment, banishment from the land, or even death.
      • Would you consider forgiving your rotten relatives? Would it be foolish to be too forgiving, or would it show nobility?
      • What actions, if any, could Zezolla’s family members take to make up for how they have behaved?
      • Do you think Queen Zezolla’s subjects would approve of her punishing or forgiving her cruel family members?

54 – Matilda: An Adaptation of an Adaptation

This week I am joined by co-host Chloë Townsend. Adaptations of beloved stories don’t always go well, but that’s not the case with Matilda: The Musical or the recent film adaptation! After a chaotic holiday season, my daughter and I finally managed to go to the movies, and here’s our thoughts on this thoroughly delightful film, which is based on Roald Dahl’s final novel.

You can watch Matilda: The Musical with your kids and then talk about how adaptations will always be slightly different from the source material. As long as the original story is treated with respect and changes are made with care, that’s ok! Here are our notes from watching the film. You can make similar notes using the printable form in the activity below.

What things were in the novel but missing from the film?

Matilda’s brother Michael has been written out. There were also many scenes which describe Matilda sitting quietly and reading, but it makes sense to remove them because watching someone sit and read is not very good for a stage show or movie.

What things were missing from the novel but added to the film?

The story about the Escapologists was added, as well as Matilda’s even stronger telepathic abilities. In the book, Miss Trunchbull runs out of the school after Matilda uses her mind to trick her into thinking that the ghost of Magnus is writing with chalk. In the film, Matilda uses her powers to create a physical representation of Magnus using chains, and then braids Miss Trunchbull’s hair before tossing her out of the school. These additions take advantage of the special effects available to filmmakers and make the scene more visually dramatic for viewers. They are big additions, but they are in keeping with the spirit of the original scene.

What things were in the novel but changed a little bit in the film?

Mr. Wormwood’s hair is not bleached but rather turns green. Green would show up better and look more comical onstage, and the bright color also worked well on film. Also, in the book he cuts up his hat after it is glued to his head. In the film, he keeps the hat on until Matilda releases it. This is as slight difference from the book, but it gives Matilda a nice chance to show forgiveness toward her father at the end of the story.

What actor most closely matched the character from the book?

Emma Thompson as Miss Trunchbull. The makeup team deserves a lot of praise as they were able to give her false teeth and many face prosthetics, but they looked completely natural and didn’t create a rubbery appearance. Despite not being a broadway singer, Thompson gave an excellent vocal performance, which was helped along by the fact that the role is well suited to speaking and shouting many lines from songs. It was also interesting to see this actor in a role as a large, loud, ugly buly, as she often plays characters that are good, quiet, and even timid.

Andrea Riseborough should also be mentioned in her role as Mrs. Wormwood. It would be very easy for this character to be uninteresting or even unlikeable, but she played the part for laughs very well.

Which actor least matched the character from the book?

Lashana Lynch, but only physically. The actor was able to portray Miss Honey’s emotions and personality quite well, but she was less of a physical match for the character as described in the book. Lynch is quite tall and is extremely athletic. She is very physically strong and usually plays characters like super heroes, soldiers, and spies. An important contrast in the book is between Miss Trunchbull’s large and strong body and Miss Honey’s thin, frail one. For many years, Miss Trunchbull made sure that Miss Honey stayed weak, even to the point of making sure Miss Honey never had enough to eat. A very important moment for Matilda in the book is when she realizes that Miss Honey only eats one meal a day as a result of her aunt’s cruelty and controlling behavior. It would not be possible for Miss Honey to look so healthy or strong, as this would require plenty of nutritious food to eat and a regular exercise routine. However, this difference isn’t a fatal flaw to the musical, just a noticeable difference.

What moment from the book was best interpreted in the film version?

The song “Naughty” really portrays Matilda’s spirit. She refuses to allow the adults in her life to mistreat her, and so she decides to “change her story” by using the tools she has to get away from their control. Roald Dahl would likely have approved of this song, as a major theme of Matilda is the idea that bullies should not be obeyed simply because they happen to be in charge.

Activity: Examine an Adaptation

After reading Matilda by Roald Dahl, watch the film version of Matilda: The Musical. Use this worksheet to note changes to the story as well as choices made by the film’s production team. Use the worksheet to start a discussion or prompt an essay about how effectively the novel was adapted into a musical and then into a film, and what decisions helped or hindered the artistic efforts of the filmmakers.

53 – The Midnight Panther

The Midnight Panther is a lovely book by Poonam Mistry, an author local to where I live in Leicestershire in England. Her images are inspired by her Indian roots, drawing on Hinduism and Indian textiles and interpreting them with a modern abstract sensibility. Many people assume that illustrated books are just for little ones, but this is one story that has quite a lot to offer to older children.

Like so many pre-teens and teenagers, the Panther in this tale feels badly about himself because he doesn’t look like the Tiger, Lion, or Leopard, who seem more glamorous. Panther tries to superficially imitate the other cats in the rainforest, but Nature itself tells him three times that he doesn’t need to pretend to be someone he isn’t. At last, Panther realizes that he is lovely in his natural form, and that it’s best to embrace himself for who he is rather than to hate himself for who he isn’t.

This story has a lot to offer pre-teens and teenagers who are bombarded by superficial and unsatisfying images they find online, showing airbrushed people living airbrushed lives. Attempts to disguise the true self or to imitate someone else will never  provide long term happiness. True satisfaction comes from accepting your natural self, and then making the most of who you are.

Learn more about Poonam Mistry and her beautiful artwork at poonam-mistry.com.

I have not been paid to endorse this book; I chose it for the podcast because I really think it’s something special and would like to support a new author who lives in my area. You can purchase a copy of The Midnight Panther at one of these links:




W.H. Smith


Activity: Accepting Yourself for Who You Are

After reading The Midnight Panther, encourage students to have a conversation about how each of us needs to accept and even love ourselves for who we are rather than trying to superficially modify our appearances to imitate someone we could never be. Where appropriate, discuss the ways that social media and online communities attempt to convince children that their natural selves are not good enough and need to be altered. Be sure to discuss the fact that it’s normal to experiment with fashion and fads, as this is part of finding a personal sense of style. But it’s very important that these choices are used to express one’s true self, not disguise it.

52 – How to Tell a Bedtime Story

Bedtime stories aren’t strictly considered literature, but they are a very important part of childhood and unfortunately are one of the least documented types of stories for children.

But what are the traits of an effective bedtime story? I can only rely on personal experience here, but to me, bedtime stories should have the following traits:

      • The story must make enough of an impression for the child to want to hear it over and over again
      • The story should usually feature the child who is listening to the story as the protagonist
      • The plot should feature a repetitive pattern
      • The story should be calming and predictable
      • The resolution of the story should be familiar and comforting

As an example of an effective bedtime story, I have written down “The Butterfly Story,” which I made up over time to tell to one of my children. You can try telling this story to your kids, but be sure to change the name of the protagonist as well as the person who receives the flowers to whatever suits your audience best.

Activity: Record a Family Bedtime Story

Bedtime stories are a very important part of early childhood, yet the stories parents make up for children are rarely recorded or shared. Think about your childhood or do some research with older family members to learn more about the history of stories told within your family, then record the story. Consider questions such as:

      • When was the story made up?
      • Who made it up?
      • How did the story change over time?
      • Which children heard the story and how old were they when they liked to hear it?
      • Has the story been shared with more than one generation?

Family stories, once preserved, can then be shared.

51 – How the Grinch Stole Christmas

This year, the Grinch stealing my Christmas is a horrible flu virus that has made my entire family horribly ill and taken away a lot of the food, fun, and even some of the presents we had planned for ourselves. This episode had to come out late because I wasn’t well enough to record and edit, but this strangely gave me the time for some new reflections on what this story means to me.

Dr. Seuss was worried about the commercialization of Christmas way back in 1957. Unfortunately, things may actually be worse now, with our culture encouraging people to eat, drink, and spend far past the point of satisfaction. Opening the pages of this Christmas classic can help remind us that material goods should be used to express our joy and not be the source of it.

I hope that for those of you who feel worn out and bewildered by the hustle and bustle of excess holiday spending, eating, and drinking, this episode helps you find a moment of calm where you can remember what really matters.

Activity: Would You Feel Like Singing?

After reading How the Grinch Stole Christmas, ask your kids the following questions. Encourage them to be honest, and not to just say what they think you want to hear.

      • How would you feel if you woke up on Christmas morning and there were no presents at all in the house?
      • Do you think you could ever feel like singing at such a time?
      • If you had all the toys and food you could ever want, but no friends or family to enjoy them with, do you think you could be happy?

50 – Fiftieth Episode Mailbag

The show has reached fifty episodes! To celebrate, I am joined by my daughter and artistic collaborator Chloë Townsend to answer readers’ questions.

I’d like to thank all of you listeners for supporting the show. I really appreciate hearing from you and hope you’ll stay in touch!

49 – The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet is the most famous and long-running holiday tradition worldwide, but when it first came out it was a flop! The story the ballet is based on has had the opposite fate. When it was first published in 1816, Nussknacker und Mauseköning — The Nutcracker and the Mouse King — by E.T.A. Hoffman was wildly popular, but today it is little known outside the German-speaking world.

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King has inspired an uncountable number of adaptations. Tchaikovsky’s is the most famous, but there are many story books, films, stage plays, and works of art based on this story. This year, give yourself the gift of rediscovering this Christmas classic.

Activity: Create your own adaptation

Musicians, artists, storytellers, dancers, and crafters from around the world have all drawn inspiration from The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. You and your students can draw inspiration from this story too! Try one of the following:

      • Create dolls made of paper, felt, fabric, or anything you like to represent the characters in the story. You could even turn them into decorations for a Christmas tree.
      • Act out your favorite scene from The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.
      • Draw or paint an illustration for one or more of the pages of the story.
      • Create a dance based on a scene from the story.

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?