Yeh Shen: A Cinderella Story from China

Yeh-Shen was the orphan daughter in her stepmother’s home, but the stepmother favoured her own daughter. Yeh-Shen’s friend, the fish, would come out of the water, rest on the shore, and she should feed it from her scarce resources. Her stepmother put on Yeh-Shen’s coat, lured out the fish, and killed it. As Yeh-Shen grieved, an old man appeared and told her to retrieve the bones, for they had power to grant wishes. Yen-Shen then wished on the bones for food. When the spring festival arrived (where young men and women could find partners), Yeh-Shen was not allowed to go. The bones of the fish made her an azure gown, a kingfisher feather cloak, and shoes of solid gold. When it looked like her stepmother would recognize her, she fled, leaving behind one gold slipper. In searching for his “bride”, the king noticed Yeh-Shen’s tiny feet, and when she tried on the slipper, her spring festival clothes reappeared on her. Ta da!

Ai-Ling Louie, illustrated by Ed Young, ©1982, Philomel Books, 978-0-399-21594-0


Using a Venn diagram, students can prepare a chart comparing how this Cinderella story is the same as, and different from, the European version. It is your decision whether to read them a picture book, or count on their knowledge of the Disney version.

A simple method is to ask students to first write a rather pedestrian opening sentence such as: This is a comparison of the classic European Cinderella with the Yeh-Shen version; then they choose and write about at least three ways in which they are similar. Begin with the best idea for a comparison, end with the second best, put others between. Next, they write about at least three ways in which they are different then follow the same process of beginning with their best idea, ending with the second best, and putting the others between. They can conclude by stating whether the two stories are more similar or more different. At this point, the students can re-write the opening sentence to be more dramatic and interesting, and also write a conclusion that has pizzazz. (From analyzing the similarities and differences between the story of Yeh-Shen and Cinderella we may conclude that the tale began in China.) Voila! It may not be amazing, but it is serviceable.

Mutilating the Body

Another mini-research project topic could be customs that involve altering the body to create “beauty”, such as the custom of foot-binding in China. Customs, such as foot binding, actually distort the body to such an extent that it can even be crippling. A discussion with students, about potentially not making any changes to their body that cannot be reversed would be fruitful.

  1. Extending the ears (Inca, Tutankhamen, Africa, etc.)
  2. Tiny feet (China)
  3. Elongated necks (some African tribes where if the rings are removed the person suffocates).
  4. Teeth blackening (in Elizabeth I’s court she had eaten so much sugar that her teeth were black, so some women as a fashion statement blackened their teeth)
  5. Cranial binding (the head to create a shape. Very common in Incas)
  6. Facial Scarring (Sudan, Papua New Guinea, Aboriginal tribes in Australia, Karo people of Ethiopia)
  7. Teeth sharpening (Mayan, Vietnamese, Balinese, Africa)
  8. Lip plates (Ecuador, Sudan, Ethiopia, Central America)

CBS Storybreak: Yeh-Shen

CBC Storybreak has a really quite nice fully animated version of Yeh-Shen based on the book, but with more elaborated characters.

For 8 creative writing ideas, click Yeh Shen: A Cinderella Story from China to download.


The Real Story of Stone Soup

The fisherman in this story is fooled by his three nephews.  They persuade him that they will make stone soup, then distract him at each point, in order to add real ingredients to the soup.  He is

Ying Chang Compestine, ©2007, Dutton Books for Young Readers, 978-0-52547-493-5

The Chopsticks Game

Our fisherman makes bowls and chopsticks from bamboo. It might be fun to gather a class set of chopsticks.  Some students will be accomplished users, and others will never have held them.

Buy about 90 pieces of butterfly pasta.  Make 60 pieces of 4 cm x 4 cm coloured cardstock.  Each student gets one pair of chopsticks, 1 pair of yardstick pieces, and 6 pieces of butterfly pasta. (Put the cardstock and butterfly pieces in individual ziplock bags for ease of distribution.)

Ask students put their pasta on one of the pieces of cardstock.  They are then to transfer each butterfly pasta to the other piece, using their chopsticks.  When they are accomplished at the transfer, you could allow them to play with them during recess to have chopstick races.

I think that chopsticks may have “created” Chinese cuisine.  That is, Chinese dishes are cooked in sauces with small bites, easy to pick up with chopsticks.  Western cuisine on the other hand is eaten with a knife and fork because it is cooked before cutting it up.  The Chinese tended to think that all the “butchering” (that is cutting it up) should happen before the food is served.

Extreme Writing Topics

Always present three possible topics for extreme writing so that students will have a choice. My book, The Power of Extreme Writing, is available at ASCD for a complete explanation of this unique approach to journaling.

  1. Food I prepare myself
  2. Stories of playing a trick on someone, or having a trick played on me.
  3. Stories of working hard, and stories of being lazy (doing a whole lot of nothing

Stone Soup and Creative Mornings

Creative Mornings meets once a month and is an organization that is free to attend and belong to.  Speakers also speak for free to an audience of  about 200 “creatives”—writers, artists, software developers, advertising pr people, photographers, actors, etc.

Creative Mornings Stone Soup is made to demonstrate the values of community and sharing using the story of Stone Soup.  Each of their speakers over the last year or so, has one line from the story, and the effect is really terrific.  You could think of doing something like that with your students.

For 6 creative writing ideas, click The Real Story of Stone Soup to download.

Cinder Edna

Cinder EdnaCinder Edna is the liberated neighbour of Cinderella. Cinderella needs a fairy godmother to get her to the ball; Cinder Edna earns money mowing lawns and cleaning parrot cages. She earns enough for the dress, wears comfortable loafers to the ball, and takes the bus. She gets the best prince too—the brother of the one Cinderella marries.

Ellen Jackson, Mulberry Books, 1998, ISBN 0688162959

Here It Is, and Again, and Again.

A turning point in the story is going to be that Cinder Edna knows 16 ways to make tuna casserole. The fact is planted in the story when we first meet her and it is listed as one of her skills. It is mentioned again when she meets Rupert and discovers he likes tuna casserole too. Finally, Rupert uses the 16 types of tuna casserole to determine which is the real Cinder Edna.

This is a really great skill to teach students when writing a story. When you have decided on the solution to your problem, you can plant it into the story three times—the first two quite unobtrusively. It makes the whole story seem to come together perfectly.

What Happened Next Stories

In addition to being really entertaining, the “What Happened Next” story is a natural development of the predicting skill of reading. It is also easy to write because students do not have to create a character, a setting, a problem, etc. They can limit themselves to a problem or two for their character.

There are many existing “What Happened Next” stories, but you will not want to have the students read them before they write their own. However, studying them afterward can show students that many adults do what they have just done and make a good living doing it.

First, brainstorm a list of fairy tales where “What Happened Next?” Here are some possibilities: Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs , Three Billy Goats Gruff, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and The Frog Prince.

For 5 creative writing ideas, click Cinder Edna to download.

Lousy Rotten Stinkin’ Grapes

LousyRottenStinkinGrapesIn this twist on Aesop, the fox progressively involves a series of animals in an elaborate plan to help him get the grapes. He refuses to listen to their advice, and when his plan fails, he leaves saying the grapes are probably not ripe. After he leaves, the other animals get the grapes.

Margie Palatini, Simon and Schuster, ©2009, ISBN 978-0-689-80246-1

The Power of Repetition

This book presents an opportunity for students to understand the power of a repeated line; in this case, “After all, I’m the fox. Sly. Clever. Smart.” Also repeated are: “Voila! Grapes!” and “If you say so.”

As a listening skill, ask each 1/3 of the class to listen for their particular phrase and note the total number of times it occurs, as well as when each of them happens.

Ask them to write a story, or re-write an existing one, to add humorous repeated phrases.

A Rube Goldberg Plan

gizmodo-the-top-10-rube-goldberg-machines-featured-on-film-rube-goldbergOur fox makes somewhat of a “Rube Goldberg” plan, each part of which is more elaborate than next, and requiring ever more complicated diagrams. The original model of a plan that is too elaborate is named after Rube Goldberg. The illustration is of a machine to brush your teeth. Ask students to create a “Rube Goldberg” plan to do something simple like wash a car, or sharpen a pencil.

Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist who was most famous for creating cartoons to solve simple problems in an elaborate way. The board game, Mouse Trap, is based on a Rube Goldberg machine. Today, there are Rube Goldberg contests for inventors to create overly elaborate solutions to problems. You can view some of these machines on YouTube, my particular favourite is OK Go’s music video for “This Too Shall Pass” because there is music cleverly included.

For 9 creative writing ideas, click Lousy Rotten Stinkin’ Grapes to download.

Cinderella’s Rat

CinderellasRatCinderella’s Rat is captured in a cage, but is “rescued” by the fairy godmother and becomes the coachman for Cinderella’s trip to the ball. During the ball the coachmen wait, eating in the kitchen. Suddenly, his rat sister appears, looking for him, and to prevent the other coachman from killing him, over hero says she has been enchanted. They take her to a wizard to have her changed back to a girl. The wizard makes several errors and finally creates a girl with the voice of a dog. The happy ending is that the rat’s sister is great at scaring cats away. (More complicated to describe than to read.)

Andrea Cheng, Walker and Co., NY, ©2003, ISBN 0-8027-8831-9

The Generalization Ending

Cinderella’s Rat opens with the following lines: “I was born a rat. I expected to be a rat all my days. But life is full of surprises.” The book ends with the lines: “Now I live in a cottage with my family. Food is plentiful and cats are scarce. Life is full of surprises. You might as well get used to it.”

This is a nice of example of a type of ending which you can teach students. The easiest way is to have them write a series of anecdotes and at the end write what they learned from that experience in a short line. During “RE-VISIONING” they can re-write the opening to create a line representing the life lesson, which they repeat at the end of the tale.

The Rant

Rick Mercer used to provide a RANT on CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes. He has continued on The Mercer Report. He selects a topic and “rant on” in a humorous way about that topic for a period of time. Students writing a rant could choose a fairy tale and then write a RANT complaining about something from the point of view of that character. The example that follows is from the fairy tale Cinderella, from the point of view of the fairy godmother.

For 4 creative writing ideas, click Cinderella’s Rat to download.

The Wolf Who Cried Boy

wolf who cried boyLittle Wolf never likes what is made for dinner:  Lamburgers, Sloppy Does, Chocolate Moose—nothing pleases him.  All he can think about is “boy”—boy chops, baked boy-tatoes and boys -n-berry pie. On the way home to three pig salad, Little Wolf has the idea of pretending to see a boy. After this trick results in him getting junk food for several nights, his father overhears him bragging to a friend. They refuse to listen to him…even though he has seen an entire troop of boy scouts in the woods, and one even enters the cave. Lesson learned, and the boys, at least, live happily ever after.

Bob Hartman, GP Putnam, 2002, ISBN 0-399-23578-7.

Wolf Variations

Students should be able to draw the comparisons between this story and the original Boy Who Cried Wolf. If you read them the original story and then this one, they should be able to construct a VENN diagram to compare and contrast the two stories (see the blackline master).

Then you could ask them to brainstorm other stories into which a wolf variation could be included: Chicken Wolf (from Chicken Little), Little Red Wolf (from the Little Red Hen), Wolf and the Beanstalk (from Jack and the Beanstalk – although it will be hard for a wolf to climb), etc. They could then try to write a new a clever version of the story with the wolf as a main character.

Fairy Tales and Fables With Wolves

Many fairy tales, particularly “northern” tales feature wolves…possibly because they were a real danger in the time of the stories. Many of Aesop’s fables also feature wolves, which makes one think that perhaps this is one of the dangers in Greece at the time of Aesop as well.

A list of tales you may wish your students to read and discuss includes:

  1. Little Red Riding Hood (Grimm fairy tale)
  2. The Three Little Pigs (Grimm fairy tale)
  3. The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids (Grimm fairy tale)
  4. The Dog and the Wolf (Aesop)
  5. The Wolf and the Lamb (Aesop)
  6. The Wolf and the Crane (Aesop)


For 5 creative writing ideas, click The Wolf Who Cried Boy to download.

An Undone Fairy Tale

An undone fairy taleOur illustrator is racing through the book trying to tell the story of a pie-loving king who has imprisoned his stepdaughter.  He will only release her when a suitor kills the dragon.  We, “the readers”, are  reading too fast for the illustrator to keep up.  This results in emergency art substations that detour our plot.

Ian Lendler, Simon and Schuster, ©2005, 0-689-86677-1

Writing to the Model
Students could imitate the model of this book. In this story, as it proceeds, the reader catches up to the illustrator who has to compromise and thus affects the story. The author increasingly frantically begs the reader to slow down, to no avail. The separation between what the author is writing and what the author is saying is made by a change of font. When the students are writing, it could be accomplished by highlighting what the author says to the reader in yellow – which can easily be read through, but shows that the author is speaking in his/her “real” voice. The student plot cannot depend on illustrations, but rather on interruptions due to “fast reading.”

A good idea is to start by brainstorming the kinds of problems an author/illustrator could have in writing;

  • running out of ink.
  • can’t write as fast as you can read.
  • including conversation really slows down the writing.
  • writer’s block.
  • writer’s cramp, etc.

The next step is for students to outline the real story they want to tell, because they will be interrupting themselves and will want to remember where they are going. The final step is to start to write. The teaching ideas PDF contains a sample for students of the beginnings of a story.

Journal Ideas
It’s always valuable to use a picture book as a prompt to journal writing. Try to have at least three choices so that students can select the one about which they think they can write the most, or if they run out of steam, can write on a second topic as well. Some possibilities are:

  • times you have been interrupted when you are trying to do something.
  • speaking to a group.
  • a time when a project did not go well.

For 4 creative writing ideas, click  An Undone Fairy Tale to download.

The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont

FabulousFlyingMachines_JKTThe author’s child learns in school that the Wright Brothers invented flight.  Her Brazilian husband says, “No they didn’t.  It was Alberto Santos-Dumont”.

Santos-Dumont was a wealthy Brazilian living in Paris who created the first practical dirigible and in the book uses it to go to a store, drop anchor, and go in to shop for a hat.  He then creates the first plane to fly with some controls and under its own power, as opposed to needing assistance to get into the air. Amazingly, he was also the first man to wear a wristwatch.  Clocks wouldn’t work on an airplane, so his friend, Piaget, created a small watch you could wear on your wrist.

Victoria Griffith, Abrams Books for Young Readers, ©2011, 978-1-4197-0011-8

Contrasting Two Things

The story opens with the author recounting how her child had learned in school that the Wright Brothers had invented flight, only to have her Brazilian husband point out that it was a Brazilian who flew first, and in Paris at that.

Students could read about the Wright Brothers and contrast the two.
The Wright Brothers:

  • Flew in 1903 with few witnesses vs. Santos-Dumont flying in 1905 with a thousand witnesses
  • Needed assistance—high winds and a rail system to get up speed—to get into the air vs. Santos-Dumont taking to the air under its own power.
  • Were not wealthy vs. Santos-Dumont who was wealthy
  • Had little control of the flight vs. Santos-Dumont with controls
  • Were up for 12 seconds vs. Santos-Dumont for 20 seconds
  • Had one first in their life vs. Santos-Dumont having the first practical dirigible, first unassisted flight, first mass-produced airplane (the Dragonfly), and the first person to wear a wristwatch (invented just for him).

Then ask students why they think the Wright Brothers are famous and everyone, except Brazil, has forgotten Alberto Santos-Dumont.

Teaching the Word “Irony”

Irony means to use words, and sometimes tone, to convey the opposite of what the words seem to say. For example, it is ironic to survive the San Francisco earthquake only to die in the Jamaica earthquake. It is ironic to put a “do not deface the stop sign” on the actual stop sign. In the case of this book there are two ironic statements:

  • Santos-Dumont says that airplanes will bring about peace because we will see how similar all people really are.
  • Spectators say “nobody will forget this day” when they see Santos fly.

Discuss with students the irony of these statements.

For 7 creative writing ideas, click The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont to download.

Chloe and the Lion

ChloeandtheLionThe author begins by presenting us with his character, Chloe, and asks the illustrator to menace her with a lion. The illustrator thinks it should be a dragon, which starts the quarrel. The illustrator torments the author sufficiently that the author fires him, and, in fact the lion the second illustrator creates eats him. Unfortunately, the second illustrator is really bad and finally Chloe and the author agree that they need to apologize to our first illustrator. They phone him, inside the lion’s stomach, and eventually he, the author, and Chloe become reunited.

Mac Barnett, Disney Hyperion Press, ©2012, 978-14231-1334-8

The Trailer

There is a great trailer that goes with the book, consisting of the further argument of the author and illustrator. I can’t decide which to do first with the students—they’re both so great. I particularly love the part where the illustrator is saying, “What is a book without the illustrator—a haiku. I’ve seen more writing on a t-shirt. That’s why they call it a ‘picture book’.”

Duck Amuck

This may not be the most academic activity but there is also a YouTube of the Looney Toons cartoon, Duck Amuck in which the character Daffy Duck attempts to play a part in the cartoon only to be erased, put in the wrong scene, coloured, blown up, etc. by the artist—who turns out to be Donald Duck. Discuss similarities and differences with the students.

For 11 creative writing ideas, click Chloe and the Lion to download.

Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter

rumpelstiltskinThis fractured fairy tale begins after “Meredith” marries Rumpelstiltskin instead of the king and they have a daughter, Hope. Occasionally Rumpelstiltskin spins some gold and Hope takes it to the village. On hearing of it, the king captures her and demands she spin gold. She says she is not sure, but believes her grandfather did it with wheat. So it is planted across the kingdom. The peasants are happy, but the king still wants gold. Next, they try gold wool—again, the peasants are happy, but the king wants gold. Eventually, Hope becomes Prime Minister and, whenever the king becomes anxious, she takes him on a goodwill tour of his now happy kingdom.

Diane Stanley, ©1997, Harper Collins, ISBN 0-688-14327 – X

Parodies of Art

On the wall in the king’s castle are several clever parodies of some famous paintings. Since awareness of famous art and artists is part of the art curriculum, a study of the 8 pictures that are easily identified could be fun. Give each group of students a photocopy of one of the parodies from the book. Then give them a photocopy of the original piece of art, its name, and artist.

Ask students to prepare a one page “poster” on their picture. The poster would include both illustrations along with several paragraphs on the artist’s life, and a paragraph on the piece of art. Why was it created, when, for whom, where it is now, what is it a picture of, etc.?

Explain that an art reference “joke” like this is a literary reference—it is hard to get the joke without background knowledge. You can even talk about how there are a lot of “in jokes” that young people would not get in a movie like Shrek, but that adolescents and adults have background knowledge to catch the reference.

The pictures in the book are:

  • Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci
  • Birth if Venus, Botticelli
  • Laughing Cavalier, Frans Hals
  • Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh
  • Seated Woman with a Wrist Watch, Pablo Picasso
  • George Washington, John Trumbell
  • Whistler’s Mother, James McNeil Whistler
  • Frederico de Montefeltro, Piero della Francesca

Compare the Tales

Working in pairs, ask students to generate the longest possible list of the characteristics the three stories they have in common—the original Rumpelstiltskin’s fairy tale, the version where Meredith marries Rumpelstiltskin instead of the ing, and the story of her daughter Hope. They should find at least the following qualities:

  • Rumpelstiltskin
  • Meredith
  • The King
  • The request to spin gold
  • The threat of death
  • The promise of marriage
  • Three tries
  • The palace

Students can also be asked to write their comparison when they have completed their list.

For 6 creative writing ideas, click Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter to download.