“Toads and Diamonds” is another story from Charles Perrault. Picture books of the story are hard to find, though DK’s A First Book of Fairy Tales includes it. Read the story aloud and then have students retell the tale.
For the class retelling, we like to divide the story into episodes and the class into groups. Have each group in the class write an outline or a readers’ theater script, and present their section of the story to the rest of the class. Depending on the ages of the students and the goals of the class, this can be acted out, mimed while the outline is read by a narrator, or performed as reader’s theater or as extemporaneous drama.
The basic story is very simple. A widow has two daughters. One is like her, and the widow prefers that girl, and she becomes spoiled and unkind. The other girl, who is like her dead father, is forced to do all the work of the household, yet keeps a sweet and kind disposition. The second girl is sent to the well every day to fetch water. There she is approached by an old woman who asks her for water. She responds kindly. The old woman is in fact a fairy, and she gives the kind girl the gift of having flowers and jewels fall from her mouth whenever she speaks. Her mother sees this, and makes her sister go fetch water in hopes of getting the same result. The unkind sister meets the same old woman, but she is proud and haughty and rude. The fairy causes toads and salamanders to fall from her mouth whenever she speaks. The kind girl marries a prince and lives happily ever after, while the unkind one comes to a bad end.
We usually like to read several different versions of a story, a new one each day that we study the story. Charlotte Huck and Anita Lobel did a nice picture book of Toads and Diamonds for young children. It is out of print, but your library may have it. Since there are not multiple picture book versions of this story, we would drop the repetition for older grades, and stop with the reading and class retelling. For younger grades, read or tell the story several times, but add some new comprehension activities:
- As a class, decide on a sentence to summarize each episode of the story, and write it on a sentence strip. Have students arrange the strips correctly in a pocket chart as they listen to the story.
- This story is also a good one for using a story map. Have children draw a house on one side of a sheet of construction paper and a well on the other. Use counters to serve as the mother, the daughters, the prince, and the fairy. Have the students move the counters from one place to another as they listen to the story.
- Have students use frog counters and craft gemstones to respond to the story, dropping the items on their desks when they hear about them. This makes a little bit of noise, but the amount of noise is controllable by the number of items given to each student. The sounds made by the items will be different, allowing quick assessment of student comprehension if you have a good ear for such things.
- Here you will find a coloring page. Click “print” on the top right to print the picture without the borderings.
The basic story of the kind girl and the unkind girl (occasionally it is a boy, but more commonly a girl) is not unusual. We have found a couple of other examples:
- While Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe is often billed as a Cinderella story, we think it fits better with “Toads and Diamonds.” Steptoe’s book may be more familiar to schoolchildren than “Toads and Diamonds.” Here is a detailed plan for using a story map with Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.
- A Slavic version of the story is “The Twelve Months.” With this story, or with Mufaro’s’ Beautiful Daughters, use a Venn diagram to compare the story with “Toads and Diamonds.”
- Sarah Schechter’s “After the Well” is a poem describing how each girl felt about her “gift.” Here is part of the kind daughter’s response:
“Thanks to some well-witch
[pop pop shimmer] Ouch!
I’m “blessed” with these sharp stones
falling out of my words with every voice-quiver,
while your speech comes alive and dances
[pop pop shimmer] Oow…
away on its own legs.”
Discuss the way Schechter uses punctuation in her poem. This poem also brings up the question of whether having pearls and diamonds fall from your lips whenever you spoke would be an unmixed blessing. Schechter writes from both girls’ viewpoints. Challenge your students to do the same.
- You could see the toads and diamonds as metaphors for unkind and kind words respectively. Bring in a lesson on metaphors! Ask students to think of other items that could have been used instead. Have students draw their metaphoric objects and create a bulletin board display showing how kind and unkind words make people feel.
- Pixie Palace’s “gender-flipped” version is interesting not because the story ends up being very different, but because there is some discussion of how other words besides the obvious ones (such as prepositions) need changing. For example, in Lang’s “Toads and Diamonds,” the unkind girl is described as a “hussy” and a “minx,” both of which are words we only use for females. What is the equivalent for males? Have students add to the discussion at the blog for some technology practice, or brainstorm other adjectives that fit only males or only females. You could also challenge students to come up with their own retellings of the story with kind and unkind boys instead of girls.
- In fact, this is a great story to use for modern retellings. Ask students to imagine what it would be like if this happened to a nice kid and a mean kid at school.
- Assign older students to rewrite the story in simpler, more modern language and to take it to read to a younger class in the school.
- This story is a perfect introduction to a lesson on courtesy. Have students monitor their own speech for “toads” of unkind words and “diamonds” of kindness. Give each student a cutout or index card and have them place a sticker of a frog or a gem on their cards each time they notice themselves using kind or unkind speech. Have them calculate the proportion of toads and diamonds in their speech. Challenge them to increase the proportion of diamonds through the week.
- Have older students read blogger Elizabeth Lan Lawley’s post about her own experience of days when she finds toads falling from her mouth. Use this as a writing prompt, or discuss her solution and brainstorm other solutions.
- Some folklorists have suggested that the prince chooses the kind girl not because she is kind but because she is a steady source of gems. Gail Carson Levine’s The Fairy’s Mistake is a chapter book inspired by “Toads and Diamonds” which takes this position. The traditional story specifies that the prince is drawn to the girl merely for her kindness. What do the students believe? This could make an excellent creative writing prompt, or a starting point for a discussion of altruism and greed.
- It is possible to read this story as one that shows what happens to overindulged kids. The kind daughter has been the one to have household chores and the unkind one has been spoiled. Do students believe that being spoiled leads to bad behavior? Do any of them consider themselves spoiled?
- This story is not really about either toads or diamonds, except as metaphors, but we would go ahead and seize the moment if minerals or amphibians were on our list of science topics. Use our diamonds lesson plans.
- Use the frog and gem counters mentioned above for math practice during the time you spend studying this story. Just for fun.
- Calculate the number of precious stones and amphibians the girls would have had to deal with. We would begin with the number of items given in the story for each utterance, try to determine the number of utterances each girl would be likely to make in the course of a day, and multiply. Then we would find the value of the items in question and figure out the likely income available to each girl as a result of her gift. For example, one sentence from the unkind sister produced two toads and two vipers. We find that toads cost $14.99. We did not find a price for vipers, but snakes generally seem to run $45 to $75 each. Feel free to use these figures as a starting point for your calculations.
- Take the math question above a step further. It is really about determining how much information is needed before calculations can be considered reliable. What questions would you have to ask — and answer — before you could really tell whether the girls would benefit financially from their gifts? For example, is it possible to get a good estimate of the number of sentences the average girl says in a day? Would having things drop out of her mouth when she spoke be likely to affect that number? How could we set up an investigation into the question of the value of the gifts given by the fairy? How strong an estimate could we provide? What questions could we actually answer confidently? Could we say, for example, whether the unkind sister and the kind sister would definitely have had different income levels from their gifts? Pose this question to the class: What can you confidently say about value of the girls’ gifts? What additional information would you need in order to say more? Have students work in pairs to answer these questions.
- Is “Toads and Diamonds” a Cinderella story, or not? Divide the class according to their initial responses to this question, and have each side marshal evidence from the story to support that claim. This exercise will not only give practice in thinking about folklore and about supporting claims, but will also provide practice with that useful skill of finding support for a claim within a text.
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