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/.

Recipes from Little Women

Little Women is loaded with rich details about food and meals, which helps to build a picture of a real, living world. Recreating recipes from books gives readers the chance to touch, smell, and taste the same things as the characters, making the experience of reading more fun and memorable. In this follow-up episode to my discussion of Amy March getting busted for having pickled limes with her at school, learn how to make your own pickled limes at home as well as find out what went wrong with Meg’s currant jam when she tries and catastrophically fails to make some for the first time.

Activity: Make Pickled Limes at Home

It’s easy and fun to make your own pickled limes! They are a tasty low-calorie, low-sugar treat that can be served to kids when you read Chapter 7 of Little Women. To make a very basic recipe, mix a little less than one teaspoon of salt into each cup of water. Wash some limes and slice them into eight wedges. Thoroughly clean some mason jars or another airtight glass container. Put the limes into the jars and completely cover with salt water, leaving very little space at the top. Close up the jar and put it in the refrigerator for two or three weeks. When you eat the limes, remove them from the salt water.

For more information, check out The Joy of Pickling by Linda Ziedrich. You can also look up many other 19th century recipes for pickled limes, with variations that include vinegar, spices, chiles, or sugar.

Activity: Try Foods from a Story

Make reading with children more memorable by looking for opportunities to prepare and eat foods that are part of the plot. This can bring stories to life in a very memorable way and help children try dishes they may have never heard of. Here are just a few examples of memorable moments involving food that you can try at home or, if possible, in class:

    • Give children a piece of Turkish Delight to eat when the White Witch gives some to Edmund in Chapter Four of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
    • Eat grapes, figs, onions, plums, papayas, guavas, cantaloupes, almonds, potatoes, avocados, asparagus, and peaches to match the title of each chapter of Esperanza Rising
    • Make and eat some tomato sandwiches together after reading about them in Harriet the Spy
    • Use food coloring to make green eggs and ham to eat while reading Green Eggs and Ham
    • Sip raspberry cordial while reading about Anne and Diana’s disastrous tea party in Chapter Sixteen of Anne of Green Gables
    • Eat some marmalade while reading Chapter One of A Bear Called Paddington
    • Prepare a chocolate bar with a Golden Ticket inside and give it to a child to open as Charlie Bucket finds his Golden Ticket in Chapter Eleven of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
    • Make pumpkin pasties, butterbeer, treacle tarts, roast dinners, and any number of other foods to eat while reading the Harry Potter series

Amy March and the Pickled Limes

In film adaptations of Little Women, Amy March is often unfairly depicted as a bratty, selfish, shallow girl who only cares about status and money. The real Amy March — the one on the page — is actually a very impressive girl who displays great thoughtfulness from an early age. During her worst day at school ever, Amy shows courage and dignity in the face of very cruel treatment from her classmates and teacher, and she isn’t too proud to reflect on her own mistakes and learn from them. In this episode, hear about how Amy March’s failed attempt to buy popularity with pickled limes turns into a chance for her to improve her character while readers consider the difficulties faced by children who don’t have the money to keep up with the latest trends at school. This close reading of Chapter 7 of Little Women is inspired by the work of Dr. Octavia Cox.

Here’s a printable coloring page showing Amy March with her parcel of limes that kids can color:

Featured Artist: Sumochi

I stumbled across the music of Sumochi, a composer from Osaka, Japan, and I feel lucky to have discovered her! She has an album out called Home Time. It’s pleasant instrumental music that makes my kids mellow out and play nicely on their own. You can find Home Time on most major streaming services.

Activity: Journal Entries by Characters in Little Women

Have students read Chapter Seven of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The text can be found for free at Project Gutenberg:

Little Women: Chapter Seven

Tell students to imagine that they are one of the following characters: Amy, Meg, Mr. Phillips, Jenny Snow, one of the other girls in the class, or Marmee. The students should imagine that they sit down to write in their journals about what happened during the day described in Chapter Seven. They should consider the following questions:

    • How do you feel about what happened with Amy and the limes?
    • Who is wrong and right in this situation?
    • Does the character regret any of his or her behavior?
    • Is the character angry or worried or ashamed about anything that happened that day?

Remind students that this writing should show bias because it is written from the point of view of the character. The character’s opinions, not their own, should be what is in the journal entry.

After the journal entries are written, have students share them with one another. Lead a discussion about what each character did right or wrong, and encourage speculation about how the incident could have been handled better or even prevented. Students may wish to give examples of trends they have followed and whether or not these trends were used to encourage bad behavior. Conclude with how Amy gained wisdom and maturity by deciding to learn from her mistakes and improve herself.