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Crocodile and Hen

Crocodile and Hen

Retold by Joan M. Lexau

HarperCollins Children's Book Group, 2002

ISBN: 0064442632


Discussion Guidelines and Ten Questions

By Kelly Albrecht


What would you do if you found out that your favorite meal was really your sister? Although this is very unlikely to happen, it does happen in Crocodile and Hen. Crocodile is very hungry and Hen looks very good to eat; but every time he goes to eat her, she tells him that he is her brother. Surely Crocodile cannot eat his very own sister, but he cannot figure out how he can be Hen's brother since they are so different. Lizard explains to Crocodile that crocodiles and hens both lay eggs and that they are brother and sister in this way. Hen does not get eaten and they treat each other accordingly ever after.

Crocodile and Hen raises many philosophical questions concerning biology generally and classification, or taxonomy, specifically. Taxonomy classifies entities, least specifically, as being either in the plant or animal kingdom. The 'kingdom' is at the top of a hierarchical classification system of groups, which are, from least to most specific; kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. Crocodile and Hen are both classified as being in the animal kingdom. But they are not in the same class. Class is where, in this case, animals are classified as being a mammal, bird, fish, reptile, arthropod, or amphibian. Crocodile is a reptile while Hen is a bird. Something is a reptile if and only if it has scaly skin and lays hard-shelled eggs on land. Something is a bird if and only if it has feathers. These are the differences that confuse Crocodile when he wonders about his brotherhood to Hen. Lizard's explanation, that crocodiles and hens both lay eggs, focuses on similarities rather than differences. He classifies Crocodile and Hen under the same group, egg layers.

Lizard's explanation raises some important questions. How do we know where to place importance when making classifications? Why do we bother distinguishing a crocodile from an alligator? Why not just call them both crocodiles? How do we know when to stop making distinctions? There must be some differences between any two crocodiles. In this story, focusing on similarities saves Hen's life. Focusing on similarities can be important, for example, it helps fight racism. But focusing on differences is helpful too. Take two plants, one is edible and the other is poisonous: that is a big difference. Are classifications only made pragmatically? Do classification groups only exist in the mind? Surely scales and feathers exist outside the mind, but is there really a clear-cut kingdom of animals? If classification depends on what we notice, can there be an objective classification method?

One is also led to wonder what, for example, is a bird? Taxonomy says that feathers make something a bird. Is that what really makes something a bird? Or is that just what makes something a bird to us? Is a bird just a reptile with feathers? Taxonomy has it own answers for these questions, but these answers are by no means the final word.


Questions 1-4

Although their classification skills are limited compared to humans, animals do have them. One basic classification is prey or predator. Crocodiles normally would classify a hen as prey and eat it with little pause. Hens would normally classify a crocodile as prey and run away in fear. In Crocodile and Hen, the animals gain a classification ability that is comparable to our own. Hen classifies Crocodile in a new way and consequently loses her fear of him. This surprises Crocodile. Questions 1 through 4 help to explore what fear and surprise are. Question 1 and 2 ask what is it to be afraid? Sometimes people do things to show that they are afraid, but not always. We can't always tell when someone is afraid, but we know when something is scary. Sometimes we know what we are scared of, sometimes we don't, but we do know when we are afraid. Question 3 and 4 ask what is a surprise? Different things are surprising at different times. What does it take for something to be surprising? Is something surprising only when we are not expecting it? We can all recognize fear and surprise, but how do we do it? In this story, we might think that Hen should be afraid because crocodiles are scary. What surprises us may be that we are not expecting a hen to call a crocodile, "brother," and not be afraid of it. Is surprise always linked to expectation in this way?

Questions 5-9

Questions 5 through 9 explore the issue of brotherhood in this story. They ask the student to exercise his or her classification skills, sometimes in creative ways. Question 5 asks, "what makes something a brother of something else?" The answer to 5b is that the doctor is your friend's sister. This is good time to explore the relationship between brotherhood and sisterhood. How are these concepts similar? How are they different? Question 6 looks at how it is easier to see a relationship between two similar things than it is to see them between two that are different. Is this always true? What about the saying, "opposites attract?" Question 7 looks at how brotherhood does not mean that two things must share everything in common. It also points out that there must be at least one thing shared in common. Question 8 gets the students to classify creatively and may also show that the way we understand things is often at our choosing. Question 9 first attempts to disambiguate the term "sharing." Then, it strengthens the lessons of Question 7 by approaching the problem from the other direction. Question 9b is an abstraction exercise and asks the students to reduce a group to its common denominator. Question 9c concerns identity. If two things shared everything, even location in space and time, they would be identical in the strongest sense of the word.

Question 10 explores Crocodile's ethical rule that eating a brother or sister is wrong. Is Crocodile being silly? He does have a good rule, but is he misapplying it? To eat Hen he must either break or change his rule, or adjust his understanding of brotherhood. What might a human do?


1.     Hen "had so little to fear of" Crocodile.

A.   How can you tell when someone is afraid of something?

B.    How can you tell when someone is not afraid of something?

C.    Can someone be afraid and not show it?

2.     Hen shows that she is not afraid by looking right at Crocodile and by ruffling her feathers and also by drinking water.

A.   How does this show that she is not afraid of Crocodile?

B.    What do you think Hen would have done if she were afraid of Crocodile?

C.    If you saw Hen ruffle her feathers or drink water while Crocodile was not around, could you tell whether or not Hen was afraid of him?

3.     Crocodile "was so surprised at Hen."

A.   What did Hen do to surprise Crocodile?

B.    If Hen did this to you, would you be surprised? Why or why not?

C.    Why did this surprise Crocodile?

4.     Crocodile was so surprised that he "could not eat Hen."

A.   Did it surprise you that Crocodile could not eat Hen? Why?

B.    If someone threw a surprise birthday party for you, would you be so surprised that you could not eat your cake?

C.    What is different about Crocodile's surprise? Why couldn't Crocodile eat Hen?

5.     Hen calls Crocodile brother.

A.   Can you think of some things that would let you know if someone was your brother?

B.    A friend tells you that he is the brother of a doctor. He also tells you that he does not have any brothers. Can this be true? How?

6.     Crocodile says, "How can I be her brother? I am called Crocodile and she is called Hen."

A.   Is it easier for a turkey to be Hen's brother than it is for Crocodile to be Hen's brother? Is it easier for Crocodile to be Lizard's brother rather than Hen's brother? Why?

B.    What are some things that make it hard for Crocodile to be Hen's brother? What makes it easier?

7.     Crocodile is confused about what Hen says because he and hen are so different.

A.   Can two things be different and still be brothers? How?

B.    If two things are different in every way possible, can they still be brothers? Why?

8.     Lizard says that crocodiles, hens, ducks, turtles, and lizards all lay eggs. "So," he says, "we are all alike in this. And in this way we are brothers."

A.   Think of something, for example; a tree, a window, or a chair. In what ways could you, and the thing that you are thinking of, be brothers?

B.    In what ways could you and the person next to you be brothers?

9.     Lizard says that Crocodile and Hen are brothers because they share something in common.

A.   If you shared a toy with a friend, could this make you brothers? Why?

B.    If we all shared the same thing in common, would we all be brothers to each other? What are some things that we all share in common?

C.    Is it possible to have two things that share everything in common? Would they still be two things?

10.   Crocodile is "sad about Hen." He is hungry and "she looks so fat and good to eat," but he can't eat her if he is her brother.

A.   Think of something that you eat and think of something that you and what you eat have in common. If you thought like Crocodile, could you still eat what you are thinking of?

B.    Is it possible to find something in common with each thing that you eat? If so, and if you thought like Crocodile, how could you eat? Would you starve?

C.    Do you think that Crocodile should have just eaten Hen? What else could he do?