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