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

How the Brothers Grimm Saved Folk Culture

Everyone has heard of the Brothers Grimm but usually the only fact people know about these men is that they were the authors of a book of fairy tales. And even this is only partly true. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected folk tales, and then they edited them into Kinder- und Hausmärchen, or Children’s and Household Tales, which became the heart of the fairy tale canon.

The Brothers Grimm were dedicated to preserving folklore at a time when war, economic change, and the loss of large, multigenerational families were destroying folk traditions. It would be nice to say that dictators with imperial ambitions no longer posed a threat to the unique cultures of smaller neighbors, but unfortunately the plight of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is alarmingly relevant given the present-day war in Ukraine.

Activity: Collect and Preserve Folktales

Within your family, school, or community, have children think of sources for local legends and stories. Are there famous local sites? Notable citizens from the past? Family bedtime stories or songs? Have children record these bits of folklore. Then, decide who will edit and arrange the works. Consider which items have most value to preserving the folk memories of your family and community. Once the stories are assembled, share them in a way that gives free access to as many people as possible and encourages others to make new creative works based on this folklore.

I have written down and recorded a folktale from my own family. It’s called “Ricky the Racer” and was made up by my grandfather back in the 1950’s. This story has now been in my family for four generations as I am now telling it to my own children. You can listen to “Ricky the Racer” and learn the folk history of this tale here.