Punam Dhaliwal
EN 3051
Alyson van Beinum
17 March 2011

Novel Study – The Story of Jumping Mouse

The Jumping Mouse story is a Native American legend that depicts the inspirational quest of a young mouse. The Amerindian tradition includes at least four different versions of the story. John Steptoe’s The Story of Jumping Mouse: A Native American Legend (1984) is a beautifully illustrated black-and-white rendering of this story which received the Caldecott Honour in 1985.

John Steptoe is an award winning author and illustrator, celebrated for his most well-known book, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (1988), based on a nineteenth-century African tale. At the time of his death, Steptoe was one of few African-American artists who was able to make a career in children’s literature.

The Story of Jumping Mouse tells of a young mouse’s perseverance and hope. He dreams of reaching the far-off land, and when he sets off on his journey, he finds that he cannot cross the river because he cannot swim. The Magic Frog renames him Jumping Mouse, and he is able to safely cross the river. The first creature he meets is another mouse, who has lost hope of realizing his dreams and believes his life is over. He responds to Jumping Mouse’s dreams and aspirations with scorn, but Jumping Mouse is not swayed. He stays for a little while, but then realizes he needs to move on when he finds the mouse has been devoured by a snake. As Jumping Mouse continues his quest for the far-off land, he encounters different animals who need his help. Unselfishly, Jumping Mouse gives his sight to the Bison and his sense of smell to the Wolf. Determined not to give up despite the loss of his abilities, Jumping Mouse’s spirit is indomitable in his desire to reach the far-off land. Upon finally reaching the land, Jumping Mouse momentarily loses hope because he realizes he will never be as he was. The Magic Frog appears once again and reminds him of his selfless actions. She tells him to jump high, and renames him Eagle as he experiences the beauty of the world above and below him.

My self-identification as a first generation Sikh-Canadian distances me from the author and illustrator of this text, as well as the source of this tale. Nevertheless, I do not believe this will in any way hinder my ability to use this book in an English classroom. Instead, it places me in a position to better understand the context of this lesson and the implications it holds for Aboriginal peoples of Canada and the U.S. That is to say, because this is not a story I grew up with, I understand my responsibility to fully understand this tale before I use it to teach children. I further understand that I cannot simply present this tale in its published form as the authoritative text; rather, I will this opportunity to introduce the other versions of this story and use this as a teachable moment to explain the oral traditions of Aboriginal peoples.

I believe I am in a unique position to teach this text because although I am not of Aboriginal ancestry, I do have some context to draw upon based on my university education. I believe I can use this to supplement my teaching of this book, but I also realize I need to consult outside sources from the community to assist in my understanding of this tale, as well as the students’ understanding.

In approaching this book, it is important for me to acknowledge that although the story of Jumping Mouse is an Amerindian tale, this version is retold and illustrated by a Black man. Thus, teachers should not limit themselves to only using books written by authors whom they can culturally or otherwise relate to; the Brown man does not have to be the only one to teach Family Matters, just as the Chinese woman does not have to be the only one to teach Dragonwings. The strength of me using this book is that it will help students realize that reading certain books is not restricted to certain people; reading is accessible to all.


A). In what grade level / course would you teach this text? Are there other courses for which it might also be appropriate?

The Story of Jumping Mouse can be used from grades 7-12. It can be used in English and history. The complexity of the tale can be adapted based on the grade level. For example, in middle school, this book can be used to introduce students to Aboriginal beliefs and viewpoints, to combine the English and history curriculum. From grades 9-10, it can be used as a short story to introduce students to fables and legends. Finally, a further exploration of the themes inherent in the text is warranted in grades 11-12. This book can be used as a hook to introduce the concept of multiple narratives and the oral tradition of stories, prevalent not only in the Aboriginal tradition, but in various cultural groups. Steptoe’s version would be one such example of the Jumping Mouse tale, but I would use other versions of the tale alongside it.
Functioning as a quest narrative, this text can be used as a hook to introduce several different novels studied in the senior grades, including Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business and Sinclar Ross’ As For Me and My House. Furthermore, it can also be used to introduce works written by First Nations authors, specifically Tomson Highway’s plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.

B). What are the main ideas/ issues/ teaching points which you would emphasize when teaching the text? (Consider the knowledge possibilities: Social, topic, cultural, textual.)

Jumping Mouse possesses the courage to leave the comforts of his home in pursuit of the far-off land

Jumping Mouse unveils his selfless nature by showing compassion for other creatures in need, and helps them by giving of himself. He is rewarded for his kind nature, although it is not something he expects, by the Magic Frog

Dreams and Determination
Despite the hardships Jumping Mouse encounters, he perseveres and is determined to reach the far-off land. This can be contrasted with the loss of hope experienced by the fat mouse he first encounters, who is eventually eaten by a snake. This highlights the importance of holding on to one’s hopes even in times of distress

Creation Tale
Guiding Questions: What is a creation tale? What lesson or moral values does this tale reflect?

Guiding Questions:
What is a legend? What are characteristics of a legend? What other legends have you read or heard?

Guiding Questions: What is personification? What other stories do you know that give animals or things human thoughts and emotions?

The black-and-white illustrations in this book are particularly striking, providing students with the opportunity to discuss reasons why Steptoe did not include colour.


Aboriginal Traditions/Beliefs
Students will learn how this story fits into Aboriginal beliefs on creation and spirituality. In particular, students will understand how spirituality is connected to the physical environment, which includes plants and animals

Oral Traditions
Aboriginal cultures have traditionally been oral cultures, relying on memory and memory keepers. Students will explore this tradition, drawing comparisons with other Indigenous peoples around the world, including the African oral tradition and the Aborigine oral tradition.

Medicine Wheel
The Aboriginal medicine wheel teachings should be discussed alongside this tale, by making connections to the continuous cycle of life and the connection amongst all species. As the medicine wheel is used as tool by elders to teach younger generations about who they are, where they come from, their place in the world, and how they are related to each other and to everything else, it can be used to incorporate the story of Jumping Mouse

Historical Figures
Students will analyze Jumping Mouse’s characteristics to make comparisons with historical figures. Alternatively, students can also use “everyday heroes.”

This story is told from a third person omniscient point of view. This provides students with the opportunity to examine how the story would differ if told from Jumping Mouse’s perspective. Furthermore, there is also the opportunity to incorporate literary theory, as readers do not learn much about the Magic Frog, fat mouse, Bison or Fox. Thus, students can consider how these animals came to be the way they are, and how Jumping Mouse’s selfless deeds impact their lives. The text also functions as a quest narrative, and students can explore the role each of the animals play in Jumping Mouse’s journey. This tale creatively lends itself to a great deal of interpretation and synthesis, making it an ideal text to study in various grade levels.

C). What are the issues/challenges you might encounter in teaching the text?

Students will undoubtedly be unnerved with the introduction of a picture book in a high school setting, and be reluctant to discuss a narrative form they believe is intended for younger children. However, it is important to underscore the multiple layers of meaning inherent in this text. There are different ways to approach this text, and it is important for the teacher to be aware of the make-up of her class and use the approach best suited to the learning of students. Before even introducing this book, I would begin with a debriefing of the importance of picture books and what children learn from the values imparted by authors. Rather than telling them why picture books are important, I would have them explain to me what they have learned from picture books in their younger years. This will establish a framework from which to proceed so that students understand why they are studying this particular picture book and appreciate the knowledge they will gain from such an undertaking.
Students may also cling to ideas of what is real and what is possible, and may not accept the fact that Jumping Mouse transforms into an eagle. In order to be prepared for this possibility, my duty as the teacher is to explain the meaning of creation stories. It makes no difference whether they agree or disagree that Jumping Mouse can be transformed into an eagle, but that they recognize the hardships Jumping Mouse endures in his journey to reach the far-off land.

Furthermore, students will almost certainly bring in their biases of Aboriginal traditions, beliefs, and practices and it is important that I initiate a forum in which to “unpack” these prejudices. I believe students should have a safe space in which to discuss their opinions, but they should not hold on to racists views that would prevent them from appreciating the world they live in.

The actual reading of the book poses potential challenges, because the illustrations of this book are just as integral as the words. Accordingly, students must be able to see the illustrations, and this can be difficult to accomplish considering the set-up of most high school classrooms. To overcome this, a document camera is necessary so that students can follow along with the book. Although students may balk at the suggestion, a story time circle would be most ideal to establish a communal feeling.

D). Describe one possible assignment / activity which you could use when teaching the text. How does it connect to the curriculum expectations of the course you are teaching?

Although I would use this text primarily as a hook to introduce other texts, there are several possible assignments that can be undertaken if a teacher wishes to base a unit of study exclusively on this book. The following assignments can be presented on a choice board to allow for differentiated instruction.

In teaching this text, I would make use of the animatic version of Jumping Mouse, available on YouTube. This short clip features a less than two minute long rendering of the tale, which uses storyboards to produce a short and rough version of a movie currently in development. The simple drawings move in rapid succession on the screen, and so multiple viewings are necessary. As a possible assignment, students can be asked to create their own short visual rendering of the tale, either through film techniques or a comic strip. This assignment would address the Media Studies strand of the English curriculum (1.1-4.2)

Another important resource is Carole Foreman’s oral telling of the story, which is also available on YouTube. As Foreman’s version differs from Steptoe’s retelling, students would be asked to pay close attention to these variations, as well as the intricacies of Foreman’s oral delivery of the tale. A possible assignment would ask students to reflect on these differences in a short paper, which addresses Reflecting on Skills and Strategies (4.1-4.2) of Reading and Literature Studies, as well as Writing (1.1-3.7).

The Story of Jumping Mouse has been adapted into a script by John Benford and Greg Ward. After reading this script using techniques such as reader’s theatre, students can be asked to produce their own script of the tale, which they will be asked to perform for the class. Students can choose to perform their play live or record it. If pressed for time, the teacher can assign different sections of the story to teach group. This assignment aligns with the Writing steam (1.1-3.7) as well as Media Studies (1.1-4.2).

Students can be asked to write their own creation story, which should be addressed to a specific audience. For example, students may choose to write a children’s picture book which includes illustrations, or they may choose to write a more structured short story. Upon completion, they can be asked to reflect on the skills and strategies they used in the completion of this assignment, which addresses expectations in the Writing stream (1.1-4.3).

For the more academically inclined, a research paper that asks students to draw comparisons between this tale and philosophical treaties (specifically Plato’s The Cave) would allow for analytical inquiry and investigation. Students can also be asked to explore children’s books in the folktale genre, such as Steptoe’s other books including Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters and the works of Chris van Allsburg, and highlight common themes and ideas. This assignment aligns with Reading and Literature Studies (1.1-3.3) and Writing (1.1-3.7).

The Story of Jumping Mouse is an inspirational tale that deserves to be examined in the high school classroom. The rewards of using this book are surprising and endless. Children of all ethno-cultural roots are able to relate to this story and it serves as a great motivation to the benefits of working together, both in terms of its textual content as well as its meta-textual attributes.