The Elephant’s Child, Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful just-so story is a staple of children’s literature. Children never fail to be amused by this zany explanation for why the elephant has such a long trunk. They also love retellings of why the chipmunk has stripes or why the zebra has stripes.
Personally, as an avid bird lover, I have always been fascinated by traditional tales about why each bird species has such distinctive feathers. There are tales from around the world depicting a time when birds were naked and not at all happy about it. “How Buzzard Got His Feathers” from the Iroquois is a famous one. There are also stories of birds who borrowed or stole feathers from other birds. Authors often take a pinch from one story and a pinch from another to create something entirely new. And that’s what I did when I decided to write an explanation for why the peacock has such amazing plumage.
In Feathers for Peacock, I dispute the old saying, “Proud as a peacock.” Is the peacock really boastful or vain? Peahens, the female of the peafowl species, like males with flashy colors. When the peacock displays his feathers in a giant fan, he is trying to catch a wife so he can become a daddy. Is that so wrong? In my mind, the peacock got a bad rap. He is no more boastful than a bat is blind. Besides, how could I write a just-so story saying that the peacock was awarded a gorgeous appearance as some kind of punishment? Wouldn’t that be counter to all sense of fairness?
In Feathers for Peacock, the poor peacock arrives late on the day all the other birds receive their warm colorful feathers. No one had remembered to invite him to the party. Peacock is left shivering and crying. When his friends see the mistake, the community responds humanely, and Peacock, rather than being an example of vanity, becomes an example of generosity and kindness.
Ask your students to brainstorm sayings about animals such as “slow as a snail,” “fast as a cheetah,” “lazy as a sloth.” Afterward, challenge them to write a story about how that animal behavior came to be. Encourage your students to be critical thinkers and research if the adage is actually true. For example, “Blind as a bat.”
Choosing a distinctive trait of an animal and explaining why it came to be in a story is a fun exercise for writers of any age. Go one step further the way I did in Feathers for Peacock and ask your students to add a nonfiction addendum called Fun Facts About (whatever animal the story is about).
Animal stories provide a perfect opportunity for creative thinking and research.