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Are You suprised ?


By Leo Lionni

Dragonfly Books, Alfred Knopf, Inc. New York 1967

ISBN: 0394826140


Discussion Guidelines & Ten Questions:

by Kelly Albrecht


Frederick is a story of the people that we look to for understanding, hope, and entertainment. While all of the other mice are working to build up supplies for the coming winter, Frederick sits still. The other mice gather food but they never see Frederick gather anything. Winter comes and eventually the food runs out. The mice turn to Frederick. He tells them about the world as he sees and feels it. They forget that they are cold and hungry. With a poem, Frederick helps the mice appreciate and understand winter. His supplies are not food but they turn out to be valuable just the same.


The story of Frederick raises many philosophical issues about the artist and the artist's role in society.

There are many different kinds of artist. A poet is one. Musicians, painters, sculptors, and actors are some more examples. Artists intensify our experiences and show the world to us in new ways. The artist draws from unique and perplexing resources and her work connects with a different part of us than, say, that of a farmer. Yet both roles are necessary. The artist, and the benefit that the artist offers society, is very valuable and merits deep consideration and celebration.


From where and how do artist select their resources?(questions 1 and 2)


Artists look to their experiences of the world, of course, but they also reflect on their own interpretations and create ways to communicate their feelings effectively. This is a mental activity and it differs in very interesting ways from physical activities such as milking a cow to drink its milk. Art begins in the mind. The subject matter can be selected and considered with very little physical activity. Milking a cow requires a lot of, believe it or not, skilled squeezing, but it can be done with very little contemplation. Questions one and two try to draw out, for consideration, this difference between mental and physical activity.


How does art communicate? How do we relate to it? How can it affect us?

(questions 3, 4, 5, and 6)


We must look at art in the same way that the artist examines the world. We must sense it, then interpret what it means to us and how it makes us feel. Deep consideration should make it possible for the artist's message to be conveyed. How is this possible? Question three considers the effect that art can have on us physically. Music can produce chills in a listener. Movies can produce tears in a viewer. Many, however, react differently to the same piece of artistic expression (question 6). Questions four and five explore colors. Does color exist independently of that which is colored? Is there any object that is pure color? To the physicist, color has something to do with wavelengths of light. Wavelengths are sensed with the eye and this information is sent to the brain. The brain, or mind, interprets the data as color. Does this mean that color, as we are most familiar with it, exists only in the mind? Art often encourages us to focus, although abstractly, on pure color (whether the color is paint, chalk, colorful words, etc.).


What does a work of art do for us? How is it different from what the product of physical labor can do for us? (question 7)


Is art a form of nourishment for the mind? Do our minds, in a way, get thirsty for a sip of music? Can a mind be famished, starved of mental nutrients, and survive? Or, in another direction, is art something, bubbling up inside of us like lava in a volcano that needs to erupt from time to time? Could we live without arts or entertainment? If we could survive without artistic expression, then how has it survived on its own? Our need to create and mentally digest artistic expression seems to extend from the core of our humanity. I suppose that some of us would go on breathing without poetry or painting, but I doubt that we would still be human.


How does the artist fit into society? (questions 8 and 9)


What is work? Why do we have to work? Can work be fun? Does it have to be difficult? What does one have to do to be a worker? How can an artist be considered a worker? What are his goods and services for society? How does he make a living? Is one type of work more valuable than another? Or is each job just an equal part of what needs to be done for humanity? Doctors may save lives, but how would things be without janitors?


What is an artist? (question 10)


Question ten attempts at a general consensus of what an artist is or does. The consensus may never be reached, but exploratory discussion may be all that is necessary.Error! Bookmark not defined.








1.     As winter approaches, the other mice "gather corn and nuts and wheat and straw" but Frederick gathers sunrays and colors and words.

A.   Some people get a tan in the summer; is this one way to gather sun rays?

B.    How do you suppose that Frederick gathers the sunrays? Is it like getting a tan? What about the colors?

C.    Frederick can see the sun and feel its warmth, he can also see colors, but from where is he gathering the words?

2.     The other mice gather their supplies by carrying them to a safe place.

A.   Can you hold a sunray in your hand? How about a color? A word?

B.    How does Frederick hold onto all of the sunrays, colors, and words that he has gathered? Where does he keep them? Could he carry them in a basket?

3.     Frederick tells the other mice about the sunrays and then they feel warmer.

A.   How does listening to your favorite song make you feel?

B.    If you tried hard enough, could you make yourself feel warmer just by thinking? When you think about getting a shot at the doctors and you shiver or get "the chills," did you make yourself feel colder just by thinking?

C.    If thinking about sunrays made the mice less cold, would thinking about food make them less hungry? Why?

4.     Frederick tells the other mice "of the blue periwinkles, the red poppies in the yellow wheat, and the green leaves of the berry bush." The other mice then see the colors.

A.   You probably have a box of crayons somewhere at your home. Are those all the colors in the universe? Are there more? Could you count all the colors? How many might there be?

B.    What about different shades of a color, for example light blue and dark blue? Is each shade a new color?

C.    Frederick mentions "the green leaves." Is green a single color, one thing by itself? You can mix blue and yellow paint to get green paint. Is green just blue and yellow mixed together? Can something be one thing and two things at the same time?

5.     Is there anything that you can see that has no color whatsoever?

A clean window is clear. How do you see a window?

Is clear a color? Could you add it to your crayon box?

6.     The mice think about Frederick's words.

A.   When Frederick speaks, do you suppose that all the mice think the exact same things? Could two mice hear the same word but think different things?

B.    If all of you were told to think about, say, a car, might each of you think about the same car? Could it be the same with thinking about feelings or colors? Why? Does everybody think the same way about being happy? What about the color blue?

C.    What are some ways to communicate without words?

7.     When the supplies of the other mice run out, Frederick shares his own supplies.

A.   What is different about Frederick's supplies?

B.    How are the other mice's supplies used? How are Frederick's used? Can Frederick's supplies run out?

C.    Does your brain need to eat?

8.     Frederick didn't gather any food, but he ate some.

A.   Did Frederick earn his food by sharing his thoughts and his poetry? Was it a trade? Was it fair? Why?

B.    What are some things people do that they get money for doing? What is work? Is what Frederick does "work"? Can work be easy? Can work be fun?

C.    What if the mice didn't like Frederick's supplies? If they didn't like his poetry, would they have been happy to have him eat the food they saved?

9.     Have you ever written a poem? Have you ever done chores for your parents?

A.   Is it easy to do the work that Frederick does? What if the only work people did was to write poetry the way Frederick did? How could we eat?

B.    Is it easy to do what the other mice do? What if nobody wrote poetry the way Frederick did? Do we need things like poetry?

C.    Could Frederick have done a little food gathering while the other mice did a little poetry?

10.   What is an artist? Is Frederick an artist?

Can you think of some other kinds of artists who work the way Frederick did?

Field Report


Just a few days ago, I went into the Lunenburg Elementary School and

read Frederick to 30 fourth grade students. I did not even need the

questions sheet. After the story, I asked them what parts they liked

best. About 25 hands went up. Whatever nervousness I had at that point

evaporated. They liked, for example, how Frederick made the mice warmer

and how he just sat there not doing anything at first. "But he was doing

something," Dave said, "its just different." How is the gathering

different? "One is carrying, one is thinking," Kevin said. At first,

Frederick's gathering was like getting a tan, but then Stacy suggested

that he carried his supplies in his mind. Where do the words come from?

Dave: "when he thinks, the words are just there." Andy: "The words come

from his heart."


About Frederick making the other mice warmer-

At first, they all agreed that thinking about the sun makes you warmer.

When Angela does the dishes and the water is too hot, she thinks of ice

and it works: her hands feel cooler. What about thinking of food when

you are hungry? "NO!!!" One boy said, "When I have to go to the

bathroom, I think of something else, so maybe its like that."


About the colors-

We talked about crayons, mixing paint, color blindness (in humans and

animals), and an interesting problem that Dave raised. Some thought that

there were only three colors: the primary ones. Others thought of

infinity: one girl said, "Infinity plus two." From this we worked on

being consistent when we say whether or not green is its own color. But

what Dave wanted to know was, "How can we know if someone else sees the

same color?" He meant that, "if you traded eye balls with someone" and

they really were seeing different colors than you. The problem was that

even though they were really 'seeing' as green an object that was

'really' red, they were consistently calling it red "because they had

learned to." We all decided that we didn't know how to find out what

other people were "seeing," and that it didn't matter much as long as

the person had learned to consistently call the colors by their correct



About Frederick not doing anything-

They all quickly concluded that what Frederick did was work, he made a

fair trade for the food and if the mice did not like the poetry, they

should "kick him out of the cave." This explains the "starving artist."


But they really got stuck on the colors. We would talk and talk and some

kids would get bored and start fooling around. I would change the

subject, the fooling around would stop and everyone would become

interested again. But, next thing I knew, we were back on the colors.

"If the colors are 'in the mind' and not 'out there,' then how do we see

anything? Wouldn't everything be the same color, I mean no color?" We

talked about the clean window and needing color to see. "But if the

colors are out there then why can't I hold one?" One girl tried to

explain what her dad told her (think physics) but this was not

satisfactory. The whole thing was really wild.


Fourth graders are ready for more advanced stuff but this was a blast

all the same. What was amazing was the display of natural reasoning

skills. There were "if-thens" all over the place. There was a concern

for the "truth" and for consistency, and there was remarkable curiousity

combined with a fearless sharing of thoughts, concerns and ideas. Most

of them had something to say about everything. Eager hands were always

in the air. I couldn't help but to notice the difference between this

and a typical college philosophy class, where most are afraid to say

something "wrong." There is something that happens between fourth grade

and college that may need to be remedied.


We all talked for almost two hours.