123 – Film Predictions for 2024

This year three major films are coming out which are based on books written for children, and one more is coming out that is based on The Lord of the Rings, which many teenagers love. But are these adaptations going to be any good?In this episode, I take a look at the upcoming films Harold and the Purple Crayon, Paddington in Peru, The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Will they be good? Can these stories be adapted well to the screen? What mistakes should the filmmakers avoid?

I offer my best guesses in answer to these questions, and I’ll be curious to see how much I get right.

122 – Winterkill by Marsha Skrypuch

Marsha Skrypuch is the author of Winterkill, a work of children’s historical fiction about a boy who lives through the Holodomor, a genocidal campaign of starvation that the Soviet Union imposed on Ukraine during the 1930’s. In this interview, we talk about the research that went into this book, the difficulty of writing about such a heavy topic, and what Marsha will publish next.

In our interview, we mention several things that listeners will enjoy checking out. First is Marsha’s book Enough, a folktale about the Holodomor with beautiful artwork by Michael Martchenko:

Marsha also recommended Red Famine by Anne Applebaum as the best available non-fiction book on the Holodomor. Listeners can also find excellent historical and statistical information at holodomor.ca, a site managed by the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium.

Marsha is also the creator of gorgeous Pysanky eggs. These are a traditional Ukrainian art form and Marsha has worked hard to master it. You can see examples of her work on her website, where she also has instructions so that you and your kids can give it a try!

Activity: Would I have done what Alice did?

In Winterkill by Marsha Skrypuch, a girl named Alice comes to Ukraine from Canada with her father. She has been told that the Soviet Union is a worker’s paradise, where everyone is equal and government programs will solve all problems within only a few years. She eagerly joins in, idealistically joining a youth group and helping her father with his work. She brings a clipboard to Nyl’s village and begins making an inventory of each family’s possessions. But she never stops to think about why she might be doing such a thing.

After reading this part of the story, have an honest conversation with your kids. Can they understand why Alice thinks what she is doing is good? How much responsibility does she have for what happens to the villagers? Would they be able to forgive and even befriend Alice as Nyl does? Encourage students to think about how much they might act like Alice if they were encouraged to do so by parents and teachers. Without placing excessive guilt or blame on children who could not possibly have escaped their historical circumstances, encourage students to thoughtfully consider the reasons young people get swept up in bad political and social movements.

Activity: Make Pysanky

Pysanky are a beautiful traditional Ukrainian handicraft. You and your kids can try making them! Author Marsha Skrypuch has written instructions at her website. “A Simple Pysanka, Step by Step” offers the following advice:

Step one: lightly sketch outline in pencil, then cover up with hot wax everything you want to remain white.

Step two: soak egg in your next lightest colour of dye (yellow is a classic second colour).

Step three: cover up with hot wax everything you want to remain yellow.

Step four: soak in the next next lightest colour — in this case pink — then cover up with wax everything that you want to remain pink.

Step five: soak in your darkest colour.

Step six isn’t shown, but I use raw eggs with the guts still inside because the egg settles into the dye jar better. I remove the guts once all the dying is complete. I dribble hot wax onto the spot where I make my one hole so that the egg guts doesn’t disturb the dye and then I blow air with a syringe, followed by water with the syringe. I ensure the opening is free of filament (ie, if the hole is plugged, the egg will explode in the next step).

Step seven: put a soft buffing cloth on the tray of your microwave. Set your hollowed egg on top. Zap for 10 seconds. Immediately remove and buff with a clean soft cloth. Done!

121 – The Fox and The Crow

“The Fox and the Crow” has one of Aesop’s most useful lessons: don’t trust a stranger who comes along with flattering words, because there is a good chance you will regret it! This tale is thousands of years old, but it’s been retold over and over, from the medieval legends of Chanticleer the Rooster and his foe Reynard the Fox, to the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, to a well-loved modern tale — “The Gingerbread Man” which was first published in America in 1875.

Check out the video version of this fable, which is accompanied by charming vintage illustrations of the tale.

Activity: Identifying Danger

Children need to learn how to be safe in public and online, but it’s best to teach this in a way that doesn’t frighten them or make them needlessly wary of others. By telling the story of “The Fox and The Crow” children can see an example of how someone who was untrustworthy got the better of another person who was too eager to be flattered. By using this animal tale, discussions about safety can seem less personal and less intimidating.

After reading “The Fox and The Crow” together, you can have a discussion on a relevant topic of safety. For example, children should be wary of giving away information about themselves online. Websites may look like just a bit of fun, offering silly quizzes or games for free, but these are in fact ways to gather personal data such as names, birthdates, addresses, and other information that could be used for identity theft or credit fraud. In these cases, the websites are the Fox, and the children need to be wiser than the Crow, recognizing that they should not give away important information just because the website asking for it looks like a bit of fun.

This fable can also be used to talk about why children should avoid adults who seem overly friendly, especially if they are strangers. Adults who are not safe to be around will sometimes pretend to need help from children, or offer kind and friendly words. Unless a child knows that grownup, and has been told by a parent that it’s ok to listen to them, the stranger should be thought of as a Fox and avoided.

120 – Percy Jackson and the Olympians Episode Eight

How well did this episode wrap up the onscreen adaptation of The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan? How many Snapes did the episode earn for its faithfulness to the source material? Did Percy’s big moment with his dad hit the same way it did in the book? Find out!

Activity: The Nature of the Greek Gods

Students can research the more practical side of Greek Mythology. The gods of Olympus were believed to have real physical bodies, which flowed with ichor rather than blood. The gods ate and drank ambrosia and nectar, which were forbidden to mortals with very few exceptions. Research what happened when gods were wounded and how they felt about the sight of seeing these wounds. Find out how ambrosia and nectar were served to the gods and which deities served it. Learn which mortals were given the privilege of the sight or smell of divine food, and what happened to naughty mortals who tried to steal it!

119 – The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe as Historical Fiction

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is not about World War II, except . . .  it kind of is. This novel was published in 1950, but it is set in 1940. Many of the events and themes in the book would have been instantly recognizable to those who first read it, and it’s useful to point that out to children today, who will not have the same emotions and experiences as children from 1950.

The most obvious connection to the war is that the four main characters are children sent away from London to get them away from The Blitz. But there are a surprising number of other things in this story that reflect wartime experiences, from the food to being part of an underground resistance movement!

118 – Number the Stars

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry is a book that often gets pride of place in school libraries. It’s a thrilling adventure tale in its own right, but it also has much to teach children about the preciousness of human lives, and how the most important kind of courage is the quiet, ordinary kind. This novel tells the story of how the people of Denmark worked to save the lives of over 99% of its Jewish population during World War II. By telling the story from the perspective of a young Christian Danish girl, young readers are able to experience the same emotions that she does as she learns about the horrors that her Jewish neighbors must flee from.

Activity: Replacement Goods During World War II

Number the Stars is a very effective work of historical fiction for its accurate depiction of how ordinary life was impacted by shortages of all kinds of goods during World War II. The book describes how items like sugar, cheese, and butter were in short supply, and even describes shoes made of “sea leather.” With real leather unavailable, Scandinavians came up with a way to use fish skins to make shoes.

Have students research what kinds of consumer goods were unavailable, rationed, or only available on the black market during World War II. After compiling a list of common items in short supply, ask students to consider what it would be like to live without these things, and how they might compensate. As a follow-up activity, have students consider the creative ways that people learned to be more economical and less wasteful during World War II, and encourage them to think of how some of these techniques could help reduce waste, pollution, and excessive spending even in times of peace and prosperity.

Activity: Analyzing the Text of Psalm 147

The title of Number the Stars is a reference to Psalm 147, in which people are compared to the stars, each one precious and known and with its own name. This is not a casual reference; in the story, the Psalm is read out by a Danish resistance fighter who is not Jewish, and it is heard by both Jews and Christians who are together under one roof as they wait for the right time to sneak to the boats that will carry the Jews to safety in Sweden.

Have your students read the text of Psalm 147 before reading Number the Stars. Ask them to identify the basic meaning of the Psalm and note any interesting bits of symbolism. Revisit the same text after reading Number the Stars, looking for any textual or thematic parts that are referenced by Lois Lowry in her novel. Have the children explain how this Psalm is particularly fitting to reference in a story about Jews and Christians working together to protect human lives from destruction.

117 – Percy Jackson and the Olympians Episode Seven

Percy and his friends take a tour of the Underworld, meeting Uncle Hades and getting set up for the big final conflict in the series finale. But how faithfully does “We Find Out the Truth, Sort Of” interpret chapters 17 through 20 of The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan?

Activity: Make a Map of the Underworld

After watching episode 7 of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, have your kids research the Ancient Greek view of the Underworld. Draw a map with important figures and locations such as the River Styx, Persephone’s Garden, Charon’s boat ferry, and of course, Cerberus. (You can draw him cute or scary.)

116 – Percy Jackson and the Olympians Episode Six

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is starting to drift farther away from its source material in The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. The show is still good, and most of the changes are good for abridging the story. But not all of the changes are working.

When grown-up filmmakers take control of a story written for kids, unfortunately they can forget that the story was written for kids. The filmmakers of Percy Jackson and the Olympians keep adding more grown-up characters to the story and, worse, removing children.

Find out how many Snapes I awarded this episode based on how faithful it was to the source material. And if you’ve seen it, let me know what you thought!

115 – Robert Burns

This week Robert Burns turns 265! Each year on January 25, Scotland’s beloved national poet is celebrated in style with song, recitation, and of course, a haggis. It’s all a lot of good fun, but it’s also an important celebration of Scotland’s ability to maintain its own distinct cultural and linguistic traditions in the face of quite a lot of pressure from the more politically dominant forces coming from England.

Helping me this week with delightful poetry readings are Kate, who is a native of Angus on the east coast, and Eileen MacLean, who comes from the western highlands. It’s pleasant and interesting to hear the differences in their dialects, and they give wonderful readings of “Address to a Haggis,” “Afton Water,” and “To a Mouse.”

Robert Burns defied tradition. He came from a humble background, without the advantages of high education or a family name that signaled power. But by fully embracing his culture, and the minority dialect he spoke, he created a body of work that is more loved with every passing year.

If you celebrate Robert Burns this week, let me know! I’d love to see how you honor his life and work.

Activity: Have a Burns Supper!

You and your kids can replicate part or all of a Burns Supper, a traditional Scottish party that celebrates the life of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. Usual events of a Burns Supper include:

  • Playing traditional Scottish tunes on the bagpipes or with a fiddle
  • Beginning the meal by reciting the “Selkirk Grace,” a funny short poem of gratitude for the food
  • Soup
  • Standing as the haggis is brought in, followed by a reading of “Address to a Haggis.”
  • Main course, followed by dessert.
  • Guests may toast one another during or after the meal.

Teachers can use recorded music and recorded recitations of the poems if needed, as it is difficult for those unfamiliar with Scottish dialects to perform them.

When listening to the poem “Address to a Haggis,” provide a printed copy and a pencil to the children so they can circle unfamiliar words. After listening to the poem, identify and discuss these words.  Then listen to the poem again. As students to describe what it was like to hear the poem again after getting a little more familiar with the Scots dialect.

114 – Percy Jackson and the Olympians Episode Five

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is beginning to diverge from its literary source, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. Many of the changes are good examples of abridgment, and this episode’s depiction of Ares is wickedly fun and very faithful to the attitude of the original character on the page. But huge portions of the story are being rewritten, and extra adult characters are being shoved unnecessarily into a story that is supposed to be for and about kids.

Find out how many Snapes I gave this episode, based not on how much I enjoyed the episode, but how faithful it was to the literary source. I’ve chosen Snapes as my rating system in honor of Alan Rickman’s superb translation of the character of Severus Snape from the page to the screen.

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