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?

45 – Androcles

The Aesop Fable “Androcles” is about the value of friendship and kindness. It’s also a critique of the cruel way many people treat one another. It’s less known today, but it’s been a very important story for nearly two thousand years, inspiring many works of art by musicians, sculptors, painters, dancers, and playwrights all over the world. Children can add to this tradition by learning the original tale and the creativity it has inspired.

The audio and text for the story of Androcles can be found on the Folk Tales Page: childrensliteraturepodcast.com/folk-tales/

Activity: Make A Work of Art based on “Androcles”

Ask students to produce a new work of art based on Androcles. This could include:

      • An illustration of a scene from the story
      • A sculpture of one of the characters
      • A script for a skit based on the story
      • A short story inspired by the original fable
      • A dance that interprets all or part of the story

New works of art do not need to exactly reproduce the tale as it was originally written. Young artists can focus tightly on a single characters, theme, or plot point, or use the fable as inspiration for a completely new work of art.

44 – Who was Aesop?

Aesop wrote over 700 fables . . . or did he? This ancient Greek writer’s work is at the foundation of literature, but who was he? Did he even exist? There are many different versions of his biography, because Aesop is one of those figures who comes from the blurry edges of the past where history vanishes into legend. All versions credit him with being an intelligent storyteller who traveled widely, dispensing moral wisdom with his pithy, entertaining stories. Although he met an untimely end, his work has become timeless, influencing global literature for over 2600 years.

Activity: Semihistorical Figures

History is the study of what happened in the past. Historiography is the study of how history is written down. Not all works of history are equally valuable. Some have false or missing information, and some are written by people who are trying to push a certain point of view. And then there are some people who get written into history who probably shouldn’t be in the story at all, because there isn’t any firm evidence about their lives or deeds.

Students can research one of the following semihistorical figures. These people often feature in old histories or in legends and works of fiction, but there is no hard evidence proving that they actually lived:

      • Ragnar Lothbrok
      • Mulan
      • Pythagoras
      • King Arthur
      • The Queen of Sheba
      • Robin Hood
      • Homer
      • John Henry
      • Lycurgus
      • Sun Tzu

This printable worksheet can help students answer questions about a semihistorical figure:

      • When was this person was supposed to have lived?
      • What is the person famous for?
      • What sources mention this person?
      • Does anything about the person’s life story seem unlikely to be true?
      • Do you think this person really existed? Why or why not?

43 – Best Audiobook Performances

Audio versions of children’s books can be a great way to keep up on “reading” when you don’t have time to sit down with a book. I listen to lots of audiobooks and prefer to hear authors reading their own work. However, voice actors can also give amazing performances, bringing characters to life in a way that really does justice to the author’s work.

My favorite performances of books children will enjoy are:

      • Matilda by Roald Dahl, read by Kate Winslet
      • Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White, read by the author
      • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, read by the author (Note: good for teenagers, not younger kids)
      • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, read by Andy Serkis

Activity: Record your own Audiobook

Kids can have a lot of fun recording their own audio versions of their favorite stories. Any kind of story can be recorded, from a family memory to a well-known folktale. Students can adapt a longer tale, or just record part of it. Children can also try their hand at adding sound effects, experimenting with different objects to produce the right sound. Recordings could be done in a very simple way, using a phone or laptop to record audio in a single take, or you could try a more ambitious project involving editing, multiple audio tracks, and sharing the final result with others.