Pourquoi? Por Qua?

One of the most satisfying, yet challenging, writing lessons I did with my former writer’s circle group was pourquoi tales. These are stories that tell how or why something came to exist. As you might imagine they are difficult to write but fun to read. Even though my students were above benchmark third graders, writing a pourquoi tale was a stretch for most of them. One particular student story stands out in my mind but I cannot find a copy of it, although I searched high and low for it this morning. I believe it was how an elephant got its trunk and involved a bath tub! It was very creative!

Pourquoi means but why? Pourquoi tales are folk tales that explain how something came to exist in nature. Children’s author, Tomie, dePaola, has written several pourqui stories. For years, at holiday time, I shared The Legend of the Poinsettia (1994) with my garden club students. Most recently, I acquired another of his stories, The Legend of the Bluebonnet (1983). This book highlighted the fact that bluebonnets are also known as lupines and it is by the name lupine that I know this particular plant. Like monarch butterflies, Karner Blue butterfly larva only feed on one plant to sustain their life cycle. The plant is the wild blue lupine! I grow these in my yard!

I got off topic – back to pourquoi stories. If you are interested in pursuing this type of creative story writing with your students, there is a lesson plan located on the readwritethink.org website, here. You can let this guide you, or follow it exactly. I only used it as a guide. However, there is a useful worksheet for writers on the link.

The best way, in my opinion, to introduce students to pourquoi tales prior to writing them is to read some. The above website has a list of stories, many based in Native American culture, but I’ll give you some more that I’ve used as mentor texts.

Another Tomie dePaola book is the Legend of the Indian Paintbrush (1988).

My favorite pourquoi is by Michael Rosen, How Giraffe Got Such a Long Neck… (1993) It is a favorite because the story is entertaining and it was one of my boys’ first books that got read over and over and over, again.

Besides reading these out loud to the students, I also invested in some they could “borrow” if needed. After a search online several years ago, I purchased the following:

How the Stars Fell into the Sky: A Navajo Legend by Jerrie Oughton (1992)

Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky by Elphinstone Dayrell (1968 & 1996) is an African folktale.

Why the Sky is Far Away: A Nigerian Folktale by Mary-Joan Gerson (1974 & 1992).

How Tiger Got His Stripes, A Folktale from Vietnam by Rob Cleveland (2006).

How Chipmunk Got His Stripes by Joseph and James Bruchac (2001). According to the authors this tale originated from east coast Native American tribes such as the Seneca, a Mohawk, and Iroquois. But, it is a tale also told by the Cherokee and Abenaki.

Why Koala has a Stumpy Tail by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss (2008). It is an Aboriginal legend.

The above stories are examples of existing cultural legends that the authors have retold. Still, it would be fun to create a pourquoi to explain something in nature that is special to you! Wouldn’t it? I think so!

Pourquoi tales also introduce children to other cultures and the diversity of the world, both close and far. They should be shared, enjoyed, and then the attempt at writing can begin if you and your students are up for a challenge!

What would you choose to write a pourquoi tale about?

8 Thoughts

  1. Carol, what a fun slice, and a great list of books to boot! I have always enjoyed Tomie dePaola’s books, and reading Joseph (and James) Bruchac is a treat as well. I’m looking forward to having students with whom I can write again next year, and this is an activity I’m going to have to explore. Thanks!

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    1. You’re welcome! It is a fun but not easy writing activity. It’ll take some conferencing and lots of edits but over time, the stories come together for the students who are invested in it. I’m glad you liked it!

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  2. Those ARE really hard. I remember I assigned them to a a group of my students and I completely underestimated the work it would take to do them well. I’d love to know more about your process! It would HAVE to be more successful than what I took on!

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    1. Lainie, I am not really sure what I can tell you about the process. I had them come up with something in nature that fascinated them (an elephant’s truck, zebra’s stripes, etc.) and then use their imagination to explain it. The mentor texts in my post helped a lot. I think that overall they were too hard for third grade. Fifth grade might be a better option to yield better results. I think I did this with two different groups and only 1 in each group was really successful with their story – the nice part of not having to grade (it was an enrichment group). It is a very hard project.

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      1. It IS a very hard project. And working with gifted individuals, many of them were just trying to go off of what scientific answer they thought they could. I’ve noticed that more and more of my kiddos seem reluctant to fully give in to their imagination. It takes a LOT for them to trust it. Maybe that’ll be my next step to explore with my kids as writers…?

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      2. I agree. There were at least several gifted students in my group. And, the one most successful with this story was not one of them. I think, however, they had a great imagination and were able to tune into it. I do think it is a project that needs some pre-writing time and thought. Good luck with it! I’d like to know how it goes!

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  3. Oh I really love this! Thank you so much for sharing not only the ideas you’ve used with your students but also all of those titles/book covers! I remember doing something similar when I was in school I think we connected it to the Caldecot winner I’m about mosquitoes buzzing… and I know I really liked it. I’m excited to try this with my students – thank you.

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    1. Janeen, Thanks so much! I think the book you are referring to is Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears! by Verna Aardema (1975). It was a Caldecott medal winner. There is a YouTube recording of the author reading it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SGmGwaYsBiw. It is a hard piece of creative writing for the students (I think the 3rd graders were too young when I look back on it). But, we all need challenges for our students to help them grow, right?! Good luck!

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