112 – Interview with Angela Pham Krans

Angela Pham Krans is the author of Finding Papa, a beautiful and touching tale about Mai, a little girl whose father has to say goodbye for a while when he leaves to find a new and better home for the family. Eventually Mai and her mother make a dangerous and daring journey by boat to rejoin Papa in their new home in America.

This story, which is beautifully illustrated by Thi Bui, is based on Angela’s experience as one of the many Vietnamese people who fled their homeland in the wake of the Vietnam War. In our conversation, we discuss the effect that Finding Papa has on readers of different ages, why Angela chose to focus the plot on one family rather than the larger historical and political context, and where she got the inspiration to give the main character a pet chicken.

Finding Papa has recently been placed on the American Library Association’s 2024 Notable Books list. Angela has also recently published Words Between Us, a charming story about how an English speaking grandson learns to communicate with his Vietnamese speaking Grandmother. You can learn more about Angela and her work at angelakrans.com and follow her on Instagram at angela.pham.krans.

Activity: The Geography of the Boat People

While younger kids will be able to appreciate Finding Papa for its moving story about family reunification, older children can use this book as a starting point for exploring how the Boat People left Vietnam and made new homes all over the world.

Have students locate Vietnam on a map. Ideally, provide an outline map of the world that they can draw on. Have students research the different routes that refugees took out of Vietnam during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Try to discover which countries most of them traveled to and in what numbers, as well as estimates of how many of the Boat People did not survive their journeys. If it’s difficult to know exact numbers, try find out why. Students can label the map with differently colored arrows labeled to show how many people went from Vietnam to each new country.

Activity: The History of the Boat People

There were many reasons that people decided to leave Vietnam during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Students can research the history of this country during this period and present a written report or give a presentation about the reasons people chose to leave, and what drew them to the new countries they arrived in.

Activity: Mai’s Mother Keeps a Journal

Finding Papa focuses on Mai, a very young girl, who is taken on a dangerous but hopeful journey to a new home. But what must her mother have been feeling? Students can write journal entries from the point of view of Mai’s mother. Entries might include describing the decision for Papa to go ahead of the family to prepare the new home, the first night without Papa, a night on the boat after the storm, the first night after being rescued, or any other part of the story. Encourage students to imagine what it would feel like to be a young woman with a toddler on such a journey, and to express these emotions in the journal entries.

106 – The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson is one of the funniest books you’ll ever read. Although it’s in the context of a small Christian church putting on a nativity play with the unwanted participation of the six most badly behaved kids in town, readers of all backgrounds will recognize its portrayal of a tightly knit and sometimes narrow minded community being forced to live up to its principles.

If you’re going on a long car ride this holiday season and need something to entertain the whole family, see if your library has a downloadable audio book. You’ll all have a good laugh and do a surprising amount of thinking about the principles you live by, the stories that matter to you, and whether or not you’ve been taking them for granted.

99 – Where the Wild Things Are Turns 60

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is turning 60 years old this week! Millions of children and their grownups have loved this book over the years, and it’s showing no signs of its age. You can help celebrate by drawing a picture, dressing up as a Wild Thing, or making your wildest face and sharing it online with the tag #HappyBirthdayWildThings.

Activity: Make your own Wild Thing

Draw your own “Wild Thing” by choosing different parts from humans and animals. You can combine any features you like – claws, scales, fur, teeth, tusks, noses – anything at all! Have students share their Wild Things with one another, explaining where each of the creature’s parts came from.

94 – Why I Love Ramona Quimby

Host Chloë Townsend shares what she loves about Beverly Cleary’s most beloved character, Ramona Quimby. In the first episode entirely written and presented by Chloë, hear about why Ramona is so real and relatable, and why she’s a great friend to grow up with.

Activity: Write your own funny childhood story

Stories about Ramona Quimby are so funny and memorable because they are so true to life. Many of Ramona’s mistakes are embarrassing or silly, but they are exactly the kind of mistakes all children make. Write down a story from your own childhood in which you made a mistake. It might have been embarrassing long ago, but retold years later it can be a way for everyone to share a good laugh when they hear about it.

92 – Tom Sawyer and Robin Hood

In chapter 8 of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, Tom and Joe Harper re-enact the fight between Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. They quote directly from a real story which was very popular when Mark Twain was a child: Robin Hood and His Merry Foresters, a book written by Joseph Cundall under the pen name Robert Percy.

In this episode, find out about the scene from Cundall’s book that inspired Twain’s reenactment, and get ideas for how to inspire reluctant readers with books that actually appeal to their tastes.

Activity: Get Inspired Like Tom Sawyer

Before reading chapter 8 of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, read the story of “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne” in Robin Hood and His Merry Foresters by Robert Percy (the pen name of Joseph Cundall). Have students re-enact the scene, preferably outdoors and with some props. Encourage them to quote or elaborate on Cundall’s tale. Then read Mark Twain’s version of the scene as performed by Tom Sawyer and Joe Harper. Discuss the similarities and differences.

86 – The Saga of Pecos Bill

Out of all the larger than life figures in American tall tales, Pecos Bill is the roughest, toughest, meanest, wildest, most untamed, and funniest of them all. Only Pecos Bill has the kind of personality and adventures big enough to have come from Texas.

Unlike most tall tales, which arose slowly and were authored by many people, Pecos Bill was probably the creation of one man, Edward “Tex” O’Reilly, whose own life can seem like a tall tale. Born in the last days of the Wild West, Tex traveled the world as a soldier, mercenary, adventurer, and at last, a writer and Hollywood star of the silent film era. His story “The Saga of Pecos Bill” likely did draw on tall tales told in his childhood days in Texas, but it also satirized popular adventure stories of the day such as the books in the Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Parents and teachers should note that Pecos Bill is by no means a role model. He fights, kills, swindles, robs, drinks, and cheats. However, it’s also fairly obvious from the tone of the story that none of this is meant to be taken seriously. These are silly stories about a bad man, so the worse he behaves, the better the story is. However, some tales about Pecos Bill may need to be modified or skipped entirely for younger children as they may take the tales more literatlly.

Activity: Draw one of Pecos Bill’s Adventures

After telling a few stories about Pecos Bill, ask students to create a work of art showing one of his adventures. Students may refer to the original drawings by Elmer Hader in The Century Magazine or other works of art for inspiration.

Activity: Peform a Pecos Bill Story

Have students write a script and put on a comedic skit or play showing one or more of Pecos Bill’s adventures. The performance should be as silly and funny as possible.


“The Saga of Pecos Bill” as originally published by Edward O’Reilly in The Century Magazine issue 106

Stories of Pecos Bill told by Robin Williams

Depictions of Pecos Bill

Boatright, Mody. Tall Tales from Texas Cow Camps. Dallas: Southwest Press, 1934.

Botkin, B. A. “The Saga of Pecos Bill.” In A Treasury of American Folklore. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1944: 180–85.

Chechik, Jeremiah (Director). (1995). Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill. Walt Disney Pictures and Caravan Pictures.

Geronimi, Clyde (Director). (1948). Pecos Bill. Walt Disney Pictures.

O’Reilly, Edward. “The Saga of Pecos Bill.” The Century Magazine 106 (1923): 827–33.

84 – Casey at the Bat

“Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Thayer is the most beloved poem in American Literature. It’s mock-heroic epic about . . . a baseball game. It’s very funny and makes a great selection for children to recite. It’s also a great way to introduce students to common poetic devices as well as themes from classic literature that are often referenced by modern writers.

Activity: Poetic Device Hunt

Give students a printed copy of “Casey at the Bat.” Have students circle and label examples of the following poetic devices in the poem:

  • Hyperbole
  • Alliteration
  • Enjambment
  • Personification
  • Metaphor
  • Simile
  • Caesura

Additionally, students can research the references in this poem to great works of myth and literature, such as the source of the phrase “hope springs eternal” and the story of Echo from Greek mythology. Students can also research the poetic meter used in this poem (iambic heptameter, also called a “fourteener”), which was commonly used in Renaissance-era poetry.

Activity: Write Your Own Epic Sports Poem

Ask students to write a poem in the style of “Casey at the Bat” based on their own favorite sports moments. Poems should describe a heartbreaking moment in sports and make use of language that is pretentious, florid, and overly grandiose. Students can then contrast this language with fairly common everyday language. If possible, poems should reference people or events from mythology or come from famous poems or stories about gods, royalty, and legendary people.

Activity: The Rules of Baseball

In a PE or baseball team setting, ask students to explain the scenario described in “Casey at the Bat” using the rules of baseball. Students should explain why Casey is in a critical position, as it is the ninth inning, the team is behind by two points, and two players are on base with two outs already on the board. Students should be able to explain that there are four possible outcomes:

  1. Casey is able to hit a single and get on base, sending Flynn home for a run and leaving Blake on base. The score would then be Mudville 3, Visitors 4. The Mudville Nine would then send its next batter up, and the game would depend on him.
  2. Casey is able to hit a double or triple and get on base, sending Flynn and Blake home. This would leave the score tied 4-4, sending the game into extra innings even if the next player gets out.
  3. Casey hits a home run, batting in Flynn and Blake ahead of him. Mudville wins the game 5-4.
  4. Casey strikes out, and Mudville loses 4-2.

Ask students how they would have batted if they found themselves in Casey’s position. With players on second and third, what kind of hit would they attempt? Not getting out is the highest priority, so how would they have tried to manage the situation?

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.

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.

72 – A Biology Lesson With The Trumpet of the Swan

Two swans are nesting in the pond behind my house, and it’s created a wonderful chance for myself and co-host Chloë to see that E.B. White was very accurate in his description of swan behavior in The Trumpet of the Swan. As we are in England they are Mute Swans, not Trumpeters, but their behavior is very similar. Chloë has learned some lessons from the character of Sam Beaver about how to respectfully observe wildlife, and today she shares her findings.

Our swans have behaved in a remarkably similar way to the fictional ones in The Trumpet of the Swan. They return to the same spot each year. They make their nest on a little peninsula that juts out from the side of the pond where the shore is quite steep. It would be hard for anything to approach them from the land, and their position on the shore gives them a full view of anything in the water. The cob is amazingly protective, even suspicious, when it comes to his wife and her nest. And yet, they seem to trust quiet, respectful observers who keep a safe distance and don’t do anything to upset them.

Activity: Observe a Nest

What birds nest in your area during the spring? Do some research about one or more species so that you can find a nest. Where are the nests usually found? What do the nests look like? What materials are they made of? What color are the eggs and how many are there usually? How long does it take for the eggs to hatch?

Before you go out on your nest hunt, read the first three chapters of The Trumpet of the Swan. Write down or discuss how Sam Beaver behaves around wildlife. How is he a good example of someone who enjoys observing wild animals in a way that is responsible? What are some adjectives that describe his behavior? What rewards does he get because he chooses to behave in this way?

Go out and search for a birds’ nest. Keep a safe distance so that you do not disturb the animals, using binoculars if necessary. If possible, go back to check on the nest regularly until the baby birds hatch. Record your observations and questions in a journal as Sam Beaver did.