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Why Taxicabs Are Yellow: Writing “Modern” Pourquoi Tales

By Alycia Zimmerman on November 2, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5

Why is the sky blue? Why do people sleep? Why do trees have leaves? Very young children naturally ask, “Why?” about everything they see and experience. “Why” is also the crux of all scientific exploration. However, as our students get older, I find that the “why-questions” taper off. Perhaps they have too often heard the unacceptable reply, “That’s just the way it is,” or they are avoiding an impromptu “Go look it up” assignment.

Thankfully, there is a genre of literature that celebrates why-questions and answers them in culturally diverse and imaginative ways. Pourquoi tales, from the French word for "why," are a genre of traditional literature. These folktales from around the world explain how natural phenomena came to be. In this post, I’ll share how I structured a pourquoi tale reading and writing unit for my students, from our first read-aloud to our culminating publishing party.


Step 1: Gather Your Stories

Before I began teaching this unit, I compiled a collection of pourquoi tales to fill a basket. I searched through our school library and the public library, and I purchased nearly a dozen gently used books from online book resellers.Visit my class website to see a list of the books that I used for this unit.

I tried to select stories that represented a wide range of cultures and that were well researched, with a list of sources or an explanatory author’s note. I also searched for stories that would pair well together such as the African tale Why the Sun and Moon Live in the Sky by Elphinstone Dayrell and How the Stars Fell Into the Sky: A Navajo Legend by Jerrie Oughton.


Step 2: Read, Read, Read!

Before my students could begin to create their own pourquoi tales, I had to thoroughly immerse them in the genre. We read and compared nearly a dozen pourquoi tales as a whole class, in groups, and individually. We kept a class chart of the tales that we read together, tracking the various explanations in each pourquoi tale. In some cases, we compared thematically related stories with Venn diagrams and literary essays.


While teaching pourquoi tales, be sure to share the history of the stories. Students should understand that these stories come from the oral storytelling traditions of communities around the world. As part of an oral tradition, these stories change and evolve as each storyteller puts his or her mark on them. Point out that most of the stories that you read are retold by the author.

A student shares a pourquoi tale he read independently with the whole class.

You may also want to emphasize the stories' historical context. I explain that people are naturally curious, and therefore have many questions about what they observe. Around the world, people used stories to make sense of the natural world, not because they were ignorant, but rather because these explanations worked within their community. For older students, you may want your students to compare scientific explanations and fictitious explanations for natural phenomena. You can ask your students to write about or debate whether pourquoi tales still havea role concurrent with scientific explanations.



Step 3: Writing Modern Pourquoi Tales

At last, it’s time for the students to write their own pourquoi tales! In my class, after reading and discussing so many pourquoi tales, my students began making up their own tales even before hearing the assignment. It was a totally natural extension to suggest that we all write our own tales. My students were brimming with ideas.

The class brainstormed their ideas on this chart.

I left the assignment quite open-ended; my students could write explanations for natural phenomena, per the traditional pourquoi tales, or they could update the genre with explanations for facets of modern life. Their final stories were wideranging. Some of their ideas included "Why computer 'clickers' are called mice"; "Why wolves howl at the moon"; "Why pencil points break"; and "Why thunder chases lightning."

I provided my students with a graphic organizer to plan their stories.

Download the graphic organizer PDF.

For this genre, I found it helpful when my students planned their stories in reverse. I first asked them to write down what their feature is like now: e.g., “And that is why to this day, light bulbs burn out.” Next, I asked them to think about what their feature was like before it changed to its current state: e.g., “Light bulbs lasted forever and never had to be changed.” Finally, the students brainstormed several possible reasons for the change, shared their ideas with their writing partners, and together chose the most interesting idea. Now they were ready to write.

The introduction to one of my student’s pourquoi tales,"The Story of Water."

Step 4: Publishing and Celebrating

My students wrote their revised and edited stories in 8.5" x 11" blank hardcover books. I prefer the blank books from Bare Books. They sell a kit with a 28-page blank book, a plastic book cover, and a line guide for $2.50. You can buy the blank books alone for $1.75; however, I think the book cover is essential: the white covers pick up dirt and smudges so quickly!

After testing several materials, I found that black felt-tipped pens and colored pencils worked best for writing and illustrating their stories. We pasted in photos for the “About the Author”
page at the end of each book.


A look at one student's "About the Author" page

We invited the students’ families and other classes to attend our publishing party. My students were so excited to share their efforts, and they eagerly read their stories to each guest. We ended the party with a toast to the “published authors.” (Sparkling apple juice, of course.)


More Pourquoi Tale Resources

For additional ideas and resources, check out the Scholastic Instructor article "Teaching With Pourquoi Tales." The authors provide language arts and science connections for four different traditional pourquoi tales.In addition, ReadWriteThink has a collection of six lessons geared for students in grades 3–5 about pourquoi tales. They provide a pourquoi writing rubric as well as handouts to support the writing process.

Let me know if you have any questions or comments about teaching a pourquoi unit with your class!

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