“The Monkey’s Heart” tells the story of a monkey and a crocodile. People in many parts of the world tell this folktale. The storyteller used tales from Africa, India, and the Mediterranean to create her retelling. Folktales like this one come also from China, Japan, and the United States. In African-American folklore, the crocodile is replaced by an alligator. The monkey is replaced by a rabbit. Yet, the basic plot stays the same. Here are some questions to think about as you listen:
• Why would people from so many different places tell this story?
• Do the monkey and the crocodile act like people you know?
About Folktales with Talking Animals and the Grades K-12 Recommendation
When animals are the main characters in a folktale, the story is usually saying more about human nature than it is about the lives of the animal characters. For the youngest listeners, these tales tend to be “fun to hear” animal stories. As students grow older, such tales are still fun to hear, but the idea that the talking animals are stand-ins for humans becomes more evident. Discussing the behavior of the animals in the story can also provide more freedom for discussion about human nature. Because folktales like these are interpreted so differently by listeners at different stages of life, a K-12 recommendation for use makes sense.
1. In the beginning of the story, the monkey teases the crocodile. Is teasing OK or not? Is it OK sometimes, but not other times? How do you know the difference?
2. Have you ever used crocodile tears? What happened?
3. In many stories, the events change the lives of the characters. What about this story? Does what happened change the crocodile’s life? If so, how? Does what happened change the monkey’s life? If so, how?
4. Both crocodile and monkey tell a lie in this story. When did each of them lie, and why did they lie? How would the story have changed if both of them told the truth? Is it ever OK to tell a lie? If not, why not? If yes, when? How do you know? Who decides?
5. What’s the difference between telling a lie and playing a trick?
6. Near the end of the story, the storyteller says: “No matter how smart you are, no matter what tricks you use, there’s always going to be someone out there who’s just a little bit smarter.” What does it mean to be smart? How do you know if you are smart? Is smart something you are or something you become? Is anyone smart all the time? Is anyone smart about everything?
2. “Crying crocodile tears” is an example of an idiom. Use this story as part of a lesson on idioms.
3. In this story, a crocodile did indeed cry crocodile tears, so an idiom came to life in the story. Challenge students to create their own tale of an idiom come to life. Here are a few idioms to get them started:
• To feather your nest
• To be loaded for bear
• To do something with flying colors
• To have a bee in your bonnet
• To blow your own horn
• To get your ducks in a row
• A three-dog night
• To get your feet wet
• To find a fly in the ointment
Put students in small groups to research the actual meaning of the idiom, and then have them generate story ideas that could result in the idiom coming to life. For more folktales that illustrate idioms, see “The Boy who Cried Wolf” and “Belling the Cat.”
4. Storyteller Donna Washington uses sound effects in addition to words in telling the story. Have students describe and record their reactions to her sound effects choices. Then, have students share their reactions with each other.
5. Conduct research to learn about real monkeys and real crocodiles and figure out which details from the story match real life. Is there any information in the story that is true of real life monkeys and crocodiles? What does the story explicitly state or imply about the lives of monkeys and crocodiles? Have students listen to the story again, and make a list. Here are examples of what they might notice: Monkeys and crocodiles live near each other; crocodiles eat monkeys; and crocodiles drown their food.
6. Monkey and Crocodile have very different understandings of what is really happening during the events in this story. Engage students in a discussion of who knows what, when they know it, and how that changes for each of them at different points in the story. Also, how does the storyteller, Donna Washington, show you these changes in understanding?
7. Ask students to interview characters. Have a student pretend to be Monkey, Crocodile, or Crocodile’s mother visiting your classroom after the story. Allow other students to ask questions about what happened in the story and how the character felt about it. Model for students by asking a few relevant questions of your own to show how to keep the focus on the story characters, not on the student answering the questions. You can also hear from more than one student answering for the same character — with the result sometimes being different, yet equally believable, interpretations of the reasons behind characters’ actions.
8. Your school library may own “The Monkey and the Crocodile,” written and illustrated by Paul Galdone (New York: Clarion Books, 1969). Compare and contrast storyteller Donna Washington’s retelling with Galdone’s retelling. Students will notice the basic plot is the same, but the Galdone retelling adds another episode. Students may also notice that the reason the crocodile wants to eat the monkey differs. The crocodile receives advice in both versions, but different advice from different sources. Use this comparison to help students grasp the idea that the tools available to writers of picture books (words and visual art) and to tellers of stories (words and how they sound when said, and body language) make a difference in the choices each makes.