I am ready to recount to you our latest foray into the realms of literary analysis. Our attempts are based on the book Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone which I reviewed here. Our previous attempts were on Charlotte’s Web and Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
This time we return to the world of pigs with Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith. King-Smith is one of my favorite authors for kids. Babe, of course, is well-known as there was a movie based on it. So too The Water Horse (for which the movie version is really quite different than the book). But he also has many other good books, most, but not all, about animals. They fill a nice void of easy to read, not too long chapter books.
Having read the book aloud to my kids over the course of a month or so, we turned today to its analysis. Since we had done this now twice before, my youngest was ready with her interpretation of the book. She said it was about not excluding anyone from jobs because of their species. Lest you think she meant “species” euphemistically for gender or religion or nationality, the child seems to really think she is married to a stuffed walrus. She had a wedding. We have pictures. She has a blog about walruses. Check it out here. Seriously, please do; she loves views. So she said species and she meant species.
My oldest said he had some ideas but they were silly. With some pressing he confessed one — that the dogs were politicians and the sheep the people. With more pressing it was decided that if this were the case that the message of the book would be that kindness works a lot better in ruling over people. I doubt this is what King-Smith had in mind, but I think it’s not half bad. One could certainly get something about leadership from this book.
We turned then to the questions I had prepared (se below). We talked about the setting and I explained what a microcosm is. Then I asked who the protagonist is (a concept we had introduced when looking at Charlotte’s Web). Here we began to have some disagreement. Some said Farmer Hoggett and some said Babe. I have to say I had thought Babe would be a clear answer. My kids thought that Babe just followed orders and never really did anything so he couldn’t be the protagonist. They argued that Farmer Hoggett did something — he made Babe into a sheep-pig. As the protagonist they felt that the action he moved forward was to help Babe change. We listed characteristics for Babe and I got the holdouts to admit that Babe does something — though he does follow the Farmer;’ orders, he is polite to the sheep and that is something new.
We then turned to find antagonists and could not find any for Farmer Hoggett but said that if Babe is the protagonist for showing sheep aren’t stupid that Fly is the antagonist. We talked about how she tells her puppies that Babe is stupid at first even though she has never met a pig and my daughter supplied that she was closed-minded and then we decided that that made Babe open-minded. All this is right in line with what Deconstructing Penguins says.
But when we turned to identifying the climax, we have more disputes. Only one child and I thought, as Deconstructing says, that the worrying dogs attacking was the climax. The other three thought that the dog trials were. We spent a long time on this and had to find the passage that defines climax, but even that didn’t help much. In the end, it came down to if the climax is the height of the action, they prefered the dog trials for the climax, but if the climax is when the most is changed, then the worrying incident was. We also said that if Farmer Hoggett is the protagonist, then the trials are the climax ,but if Babe is then, the worrying is because that is when Fly, his antagonist, begins to talk to sheep. We also said that there could be two climaxes and that there could be more than one possible interpretation of a book.
So lastly, we asked for each of these possible interpretations, what is the author trying to say. Here my youngest stuck by her assertion that, if Farmer Hoggett is the protagonist, then the message of the book is that certain species should not be excluded from jobs. We paused and mocked her a little for trying to get her walrus husband a job. The others couldn’t come up with much of a message for this interpretation other than pigs can herd sheep which doesn’t seem particularly profound or applicable to anything else in life. If Babe were the protagonist, they said that the message was “don’t assume people are stupid” or “don’t assume things.”
All in all, it was not a bad discussion. There was not a lot that was hugely profound though our whole second interpretation with the Farmer as the protagonist was not in Deconstructing Penguins so I guess we have that to contribute to the world (though personally I think it is a weak interpretation). I still think there could be more to the leadership idea and what makes a good leader.
Here then are the questions I used to lead the discussion:
- Define setting (when and where). What is the setting of this book? Where is the farm? Is it a big farm? When is it?
- The animals are their own closed society on an isolated farm. Why does the author do this? Introduce the idea of a microcosm. What is a microcosm? (a small society that is an example of a larger world) Discuss the Greek roots of the word. Give examples. Does what happens in Babe‘s microcosm have anything to do with us? How does their world relate to ours?
- Who is the protagonist? List babe’s characteristics. What is the most unique thing about Babe? (he’s a pig)
- Has there ever been a pig on the farm before? How do we know?
- What does Fly tell the puppies about Babe? How does she know? Play hangman to have them guess the word prejudice. Note that Fly never tells the puppies Babe is not stupid.
- List possible antagonists. List Fly’s characteristics. How does she oppose Babe?
- What is the climax of the book?
- What is the author trying to say about prejudice and how it is overcome?
Be sure to let me know if you discuss the book and what conclusions you reach.