March 22, 2018

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Life Lessons from Aesop | Classic Connections

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Attributed to a man who lived in fifth-century-B.C. Greece, these timeless tales abound with simple wisdoms and useful truths, illuminatingly human-like animal characters, and intrinsic child appeal. Aesop’s fables offer a wealth of opportunities for exploration in the classroom and can be used to effectively integrate Common Core State Standards into the curriculum.

Shared with students, the stories not only convey basic life lessons about how to act and behave, but can also be used to introduce literary genres, initiate discussion about human nature, and inspire creative writing and illustrating endeavors.

The books featured here showcase this body of work through a variety of narrative approaches and artistic styles, while remaining true to the tales’ simple charm, witty plotting, and powerful punch. Included are an array of handsomely illustrated anthologies, stunning picture book versions, and collections in which authors add their own imaginative twists to familiar renditions. As entertaining as they are elucidating, all of these titles can be read aloud in the classroom or delved into independently by youngsters.


Two collections serve well as basic classroom resources. From the tale of a tiny mouse who saves a mighty lion with an act of courage and kindness to that of a cunning fox who bamboozles a vain crow out of a chunk of cheese, The McElderry Book of Aesop’s Fables (S&S, 2005; K-Gr 4) recounts 21 favorite tales. Utilizing an amiably informal tone and accessible language, Michael Morpurgo spins the stories with humorous details and nimble dialogue. Emma Chichester Clark’s sunny watercolors and the book’s inviting format make it ideal for reading aloud or alone and a great starting point for introducing these selections.

For those seeking a more comprehensive anthology, Aesop’s Fables (Andersen Pr.; 2011; Gr 1-6) gathers together 60 tales in an eye-catching volume. Striking spreads pair Fiona Waters’s lively retellings and succinct morals with Fulvio Testa’s lush-hued, sparkling-with-wit paintings. Use this lovely compilation for deeper studies, or recommend it to students who would like to read further.

Part of Mary Ann Hoberman’s effective literacy-building series, You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You: Very Short Fables to Read Together (Little, Brown, 2010; Gr 1-4) retells 13 of Aesop’s well-known tales in buoyant rhyming verses arranged for two voices. Each part (e.g., Hare or Tortoise, the golden-egg-laying goose or her greedy Master, the grasshopper or the ant) is delineated by text in either orange or green, with the morals presented in a bright magenta that invites both readers to chime in.

Conveyed in rhythmic easy-reading text, the streamlined fables have a vibrant sense of immediacy that matches Michael Emberley’s comical action-packed artwork. This interactive volume is tailor-made to support reading comprehension and makes a suitable choice for practicing fluency in student pairs, to use as a reading-buddy resource, or as inspiration for readers’ theater.

Expanding upon 12 fables in an elegant oversize volume, Helen Ward regales older students with tidbits of Unwitting Wisdom (Chronicle, 2004; Gr 3-6). Each aptly titled tale is introduced with a stunning two-page painting and a teaser that foreshadows plot and themes (e.g., “Steady and Slow…in which a hare is too confident”). The artwork mingles natural details with whimsy to create a cast of realistic yet packed-with-personality animals. Lyrically written with a more formal cadence, the fables also sparkle with descriptive details, funny moments, and deftly delivered insights.

From “effervescent” to “tantalizing,” the writing offers a trove of challenging vocabulary words to tease out and utilize. Compare these retellings to more straightforward versions and have students identify and discuss each author’s particular interpretation, tone, and narrative voice. Take a closer look at the illustrations and determine how the images enhance the text and augment each tale’s meaning.

In her introduction to her collection of 16 Aesop’s Fables (Frances Lincoln, 2011; Gr 1-5), Beverley Naidoo makes a convincing argument in support of her theory that Aesop’s roots may have been found in Africa. Thus, she sets her tales on the grasslands of that continent, peoples them with indigenous fauna and flora (a jackal rather than a fox, a rinkhals snake, or a tamboti tree), and flavors them with terms from various African languages (defined after each entry).

Combined with Piet Grobler’s earth-toned paintings presenting a menagerie of comically expressive animals, the folksy retellings create a strong sense of place, while also conveying each fable’s universal themes and gentle humor. Have students compare these renditions to traditional versions, identifying similarities and differences. Investigate the environment and particular species featured in the stories. Invite youngsters to choose a favorite fable and re-write it with details that reflect their own neck of the woods.

Picture Book Retellings

These dazzlingly illustrated offerings expand upon particular fables, providing impetus for students to make comparisons to versions found in anthologies. Helen Ward’s retelling of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (Candlewick, 2012; K-Gr 4) describes how a rural rodent, accustomed to a quiet existence lived close to nature, journeys to visit his city-dwelling cousin where he encounters both wonders and dangers and learns to appreciate the simple pleasures of home.

Color-drenched paintings depict the beauties of the countryside throughout the changing seasons as well as the luxuriant trappings of 1930s New York City at Christmastime. Ward leaves off the traditional moral, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

In Fox Tails (Holiday, 2012; K-Gr 4), Amy Lowry weaves together four fables featuring this crafty though often over-confident character, creating a cumulative tale that stands solidly as a cohesive whole and remains true to the source material. Lively language and modern-day touches in the lighthearted artwork give the presentation an appealingly contemporary feel.

Read standard versions of the fables aloud and have students sort out the various plotlines and determine how they have been integrated together. Trace the archetypal characteristics of the fox or other animals that appear frequently in Aesop’s oeuvre. Choose two or more fables and have youngsters come up with plot scenarios to connect them together.

Wordless except for a few well-timed animal sound effects, Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion & the Mouse (Little, Brown, 2009; PreS-Gr 4) eloquently relates the story through a series of magnificent paintings that depict an African savannah setting with sinuous textures and shimmering hues. Riveting visual perspectives and realistic details convey the courage and compassion of both animals and inspire youngsters to voice their own narration of events.

Mouse & Lion (Scholastic, 2011) pairs Rand Burkert’s expansive and dialogue-rich narrative with Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s exquisitely rendered animals to emphasize the personalities of a skitter-scampering can-do rodent hero and a majestic leonine king. Have children compare the two versions, identify similarities and differences, and discuss how each rendition interprets the characters as well as the tale’s traditional moral.

Take-offs and Twists

Cleverly and often comically reinterpreted, these engaging offerings will have kids consulting and comparing to the originals, and dreaming up their own fractured versions. Margie Palatini and Barry Moser’s Lousy Rotten Stinkin’ Grapes (S&S; 2009; K-Gr 4) introduces a know-it-all fox who enlists the help of various animal friends to concoct a preposterously elaborate plan to put his paws on some succulent but out-of-reach treats, resulting in pratfalls galore and an uproarious comeuppance.

In The Great Race (Walker, 2011; K-Gr 4), Kevin O’Malley’s pun-filled text and droll artwork pit the fleet-footed and annoyingly arrogant rabbit runner, Lever Lapin, against slow but steady everyman, Nate Tortoise, a contest that results in an upset and a groaner of a newspaper headline (and amusingly reinterpreted moral): “Better Nate than Lever.”

Luli Gray’s Ant and Grasshopper (S&S, 2011; K-Gr 4), illustrated in hearth-warmed hues by Giuliano Ferri, expands upon the traditional lesson about the virtues of hard work and value of planning ahead to create an uplifting tale that emphasizes the importance of individuality and empathy. Industrious Ant spends much of his time counting the food items that he has stored away and has no patience for music-loving Grasshopper who would rather play his fiddle than worry about the future. However, when winter falls and Ant opts to share his bounty and his sympathies with the freezing Grasshopper, he realizes that friendship is the greater gift. Both discover that whether one’s talents lie in tallying up beans or singing a tune, “Everybody counts.”

Susan Stevens Crummel and Dorothy Donohue replace the traditional mouse cousins with City Dog, Country Dog (Marshall Cavendish, 2004; K-Gr 4), two pups with very different personalities who share a passion for painting. After meeting at art school, Henri T. Lapooch and Vincent van Dog attempt to maintain their friendship by visiting one another’s homes, but Henri just can’t abide roughing it in the countryside and Vincent has no patience for the fast city life. The two decide to meet at the beach, where they celebrate their camaraderie and revel in the moral, “Vive la différence!”

The upbeat text is seasoned with French terms (presented along with pronunciations and definitions) and the cut-paper collage illustrations incorporate painted references to the work of the real artists upon whom the characters are based, Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. An author’s note about the painters that includes reproductions of their works makes it easy to stretch this tale into a study of art as well as fables.

Up-to-date and Laugh-out-loud Funny

Two books treat these traditional tales with tongue-in-cheek humor and contemporary flair. Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s Squids Will Be Squids (Puffin, 1998; Gr 3-6) presents a collection of 18 fables “…that Aesop might have told if here were alive today and sitting in the back of class daydreaming instead of paying attention….” Silly dialogue, familiar school-day details, oddball wisdoms, and off-the-wall artwork abound as beastly characters interact to illustrate such tried-and-true maxims as “He who smelt it, dealt it;” “It takes one to know one;” and “Don’t ever listen to a talking bug.” Irreverent, imaginative, and perfectly tuned to kids’ sensibilities, this zany book will provide an interesting viewpoint along with barrels of laughs.

Classroom extensions abound with fables. Share these tales with your students, and have them draw inferences about morals, using evidence from the stories to demonstrate their mastery of the text. Discuss the animal characters and their behaviors and make comparisons to human characteristics. How does each book’s artwork add to the text and enhance the storytelling tone?

Or, choose two anthologies that retell the same fable and make comparisons between the two versions. How do each author’s narrative voice and each illustrator’s artistic style differ? Have children select a fable to illustrate, act out, or prepare as a presentation on Power Point or another program. Challenge youngsters to try their hand at writing their own selections.

Make the experience multimedia by having students search out additional retellings on online sites such as “Aesop’s Fables,” which presents more than 655 tales (some with audio recording and/or images) or the Library of Congress’s wonderful “Aesop’s Fables Interactive Book” containing more than 140 tales with Milo Winter’s enchanting early 20th-century illustrations and interactive animations, also available as an iOS and Android app.

A fabulous classroom chapter read-aloud, Candace Fleming’s The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School (Random, 2007; Gr 3-5) pairs a bunch of infamously difficult students with the equally quirky and free-thinking Mr. Jupiter (the only teacher willing to take them on). From “The Boy Who Cried Lunch Monitor” to a hare-versus-tortoise-style poetry-memorizing competition, the chapters present updated, cleverly re-imagined fables (complete with morals), all tailored to the classroom setting and adorned with entertainingly exaggerated humor, chuckle-inducing wordplay, and a plethora of puns.

Read aloud the fable that corresponds to each chapter and make comparisons, or challenge older students to identify the Aesop’s tidbit that inspired each scenario. Have youngsters brainstorm adages appropriate to classroom behavior and expectations and then write a fable with a school setting. Check out the author’s website to download an educator’s guide to the book that includes ideas for general explorations of Aesop’s fables. The high jinks—and literary references—continue in The Fabled Fifth Graders of Aesop Elementary School (Random House, 2010.)

Moral: Studying Aesop’s fables today will lead to more-accomplished students tomorrow.

The Common Core State Standards below are a sampling of those references in the above books and classroom activities:

RL. K.1. With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text.
W. K.7. Participate in shared research and writing projects.
RL. 1.9. Compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories.
RL. 2.9. Compare and contrast two or more versions of the same story…by different authors or from different cultures.
RL. 3.2. Recount stories, including fables and folktale from diverse cultures; determine the central message, lesson or moral and explain how it is conveyed through key details in the text.
RL. 3.7. Explain how specific aspects of a text’s illustrations contribute to what is conveyed by the words in a story.
W. 3.3. Write a narrative to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.
RL. 4.1. Refer to details and example in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
SL. 4.1. Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions.
RL. 5.7. Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text.
RL. 5.9. Compare and contrast stories in the same genre on their approaches to similar themes and topics.
W. 5.9. Draw evidence from literary of informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
RL. 6.1. Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

For other classic connections, see Joy Fleishhacker’s “Severed Limbs, Devil’s Hairs, and Boys Turned into Beasts.”

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.