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!

Code Switching in the Secret Garden

This is the fourth in a five-part series about the use of dialect in the children’s novels written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I was lucky to get some great comments from listener Kate Duncan for this episode. You can follow her on Instagram at nurseryrhymeville.

The Secret Garden contrasts two families – the upper class, damaged, and unhealthy members of the Craven-Lennox clan with their posh upper class accents rooted to no place at all, and the happy, well-adjusted, healthy members of the Sowerby family, whose deep connections to family and community are reflected in their thick Yorkshire accents.

As Mary Lennox and her cousin Colin Craven are drawn deeper into the landscape around them, they begin to code switch, shifting into Yorkshire speech when they need to make a more personal connection with those around them. Conversely, the working-class, native Yorkshire speakers must code switch into standard English speech in order to do their jobs.

This episode explores the idea of code switching and the way that a person’s dialect is tied to their social class as seen in the speech of characters in The Secret Garden.

Activity: Self-Reflection on Speech and Code Switching

Ask your students to write out answers to the following questions:

  1. Describe the way your speech changes depending on where you are. Examples of locations might include schools, libraries, shops, places of worship, outdoor places, or places of business.
  2. Describe the way your speech changes depending on with whom you are speaking. Examples of people might include friends, family members, teachers, strangers, community leaders, or someone who is a different age from you.
  3. Do you feel that the way you speak makes it difficult or easy for you to fit in in some situations? Why?

These questions may be very straightforward for many students, but for others this may be a sensitive area. You know your kids best. If one of your students has a speech impediment or comes from an immigrant or minority background, be sure that you handle any discussion with that child sensitively. It may be a really neat opportunity for certain children to share their experiences, but others may wish to keep their stories private. That’s why I recommend that this activity begin as a personal writing exercise, with sharing done on a voluntary basis.

Music in this Episode

“An Acre of Land” – Traditional (Roud 21093)
“Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” – Traditional

Audiobook: Tiger Gives the Babies a Bath

I’m very much enjoying my vacation back home in Southern California. Next week I’ll be back with my conclusion to the four part series on the children’s novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett. For now, please enjoy this sneak peek from my upcoming collection, Stories About Tiger, the Best Dog in the World. This story is called “Tiger Gives the Babies a Bath” and is about a time when some little cousins got covered in sweet potato. Tiger was happy to help them get cleaned up.

Check out the podcast’s Instagram page at @childrensliteraturepodcast for more fun!

Audiobook: Tiger Takes Me for a Walk

I’m on vacation with my family in Los Angeles over the school holidays for Easter, so you’ll have to wait for the dramatic conclusion to my series on Frances Hodgson Burnett. I wanted to have something to share with you during the break, though, so here is a sneak preview of one of the original stories I’ve been working on. There will be another story next week, and after that I’ll be back to my regular schedule. Please forgive the slightly lower audio quality as I’m away from my usual recording setup.

When I was a kid, my grandma had an awesome dog named Tiger. A while ago I started telling my own children stories about him. But as with all childhood memories, some details are muddled, and some parts of the story get condensed or embellished. But the events in this story pretty much happened the way I tell it, in which I was so silly as to think it was a good idea to wear roller skates while taking a very energetic boxer for a walk.

The image for this episode was taken by Vicki Mitchell from Austin, US and is displayed by Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Speaking Like A Little Princess

This is the third of a five part series looking at the use of dialect in the three children’s novels written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A Little Princess tells the story of Sara Crewe, who begins as a wealthy child at a fancy London boarding school. She loses her fortune and spends two years as a drudge before having her position restored. During her time as essentially a slave, Sara comes into contact with every level of society, from her wealthy former classmates to a starving homeless girl huddled in the frozen city streets.

Burnett makes deft use of dialect in the book, leaving subtle clues to show when a character is a fluent but non-native speaker of English and writing the distinctive characteristics of the Cockney accent. But as always, she never mocks an accent or does anything to imply that the way someone speaks is automatically tied to their intelligence or virtue. The speech of Burnett’s characters isn’t itself a personality trait, but rather something that helps readers understand more about the background and experiences of the characters using that speech.

Activity: A Discussion about Speech Bias

This activity is appropriate for students old enough to understand the complicated nature of bias against certain kinds of speech. It is not recommended that teachers use this activity for an assignment which will be graded, as that can discourage openness of discussion and the ability to have a nuanced discussion with room for change of opinion.

Lead a discussion in which the children explore how people judge one another based on how they speak. Some judgment is justified, as when a person makes threats or uses language inappropriate to a certain setting. Explore some of the following issues that affect how speech is perceived for better and for worse:

    • regional and foreign accents
    • clean versus vulgar language
    • using technical jargon
    • speech affected by a disability
    • slang distinctive to certain groups which outsiders may not understand
    • affectations such as vocal fry or upspeak
    • use of words that may draw attention to the speaker’s race
    • speech used by those in authority

Try to encourage students to be honest and empathetic. This is not a “right or wrong” discussion but rather an opportunity for everyone to consider the sort of judgments made every day about the speech of others and whether or not these judgments are justified.