The Ugly Duckling or the Strange Grey Duckling

Yesterday at work, some children were unkind to another child with the standard ‘ I  don’t want to be your friend’ line, which is hurtful. A standard adult response is ‘We are all friends here’ but we know this to be untrue. However, ‘We all try to be friendly here’ rings a truer bell and can be followed through with more success. After this conversation, a student and I looked through a great basket of books labelled ‘Friendship and feelings’ which was on the centre shelf. We found a few good ones and I wondered about telling the story of ‘The Ugly Duckling’, and said I would do it as a prop supported story the next day.
When I got home, I  had second thoughts because the original  is hugely long. Then I read a comment about it from wikipedia which made  me wonder if it were an appropriate story after all.


Bruno Bettelheim observes in The Uses of Enchantment that the Ugly Duckling is not confronted with the tasks, tests, or trials of the typical fairy tale hero. “No need to accomplish anything is expressed in “The Ugly Duckling”. Things are simply fated and unfold accordingly, whether or not the hero takes some action.” In conjunction with Bettelheim’s assessment, Maria Tatar notes in ’’The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen’’ that Andersen suggests the Ugly Duckling‘s superiority resides in the fact that he is of a breed different from the barnyard rabble, and that dignity and worth, moral and aesthetic superiority are determined by nature rather than accomplishment.[1]   Not cool.

A third reservation arose when I thought about the word ‘ugly’. This word does not appear to be in the vocabulary of most four and five year olds wherever I have worked, and I certainly don’t  want to be responsible for introducing such an insidious and cruel form of unkindness. So even the title had to be changed to ‘The Grey duckling’..

To overcome these problems and to make it pertinent to the issue, unkindness to fellow children, I decided to make various changes.

I wanted …

1 to make it shorter

2 to make it about a duckling that was different, bigger and ‘grey’, rather than yellow.And certainly not ‘ugly’.

3. i wanted to make it a girl, but there is a bit where a spiteful chicken says the following line : ‘My advice to  you is to  either learn to purr or to lay eggs’. I was reluctant to throw away such  a  line…… so he stayed a boy, but I would  like it to have been a girl, because girls are more prone to the exclusion game in my view. I remember doing it myself, and today at work the student recalled a child at her school who was shunned by all  because he was always dirty. In retrospect she realises why there were always two white lines running down his cheeks from his eyes, that they were made by the tears which had washed away the dirt. she still remembers his name and his sadness.

4. I wanted to ensure that the duckling was portrayed as proactive, kind, helpful and warm hearted.

Then I googled ‘storytelling to encourage kindness between children’ and found an amazing page in a book about Vygotsky…. it won’t let me cut and paste from the sample pages but the page number is 300 and the link is

And then I started to edit the story….  but still need to chop it more. i combined the ideas of the wild ducks and the wild geese and had the ducks get shot and fall into the water beside the duckling.

Today at work we had the storytelling squares but the weather was so glorious that they were mostly outside and creating stories is a great rainy afternoon sort of event. But we were drawing and I drew the key picture for the ‘strange grey duckling who was different’.  Which was wonderful and makes me want to  write another post all about the ethics and dilemmas  about drawing for, or in front of children. But it definitely is another post.

I came  home for lunch and ended up grabbing a few cloths and objects and taking them back to work on the off-chance that I could try telling the story in the last 15 minute mat time slot. Which I ended up doing. To a silent, attentive and very  absorbed audience. It is a complex plot and I used my drawing occasionally to make a point and I used my props and I invented things on the spot that made the ‘duckling’ a kind-hearted animal who never gave up being considerate and kind even when very downtrodden.

I noticed that I felt a catch in my throat when I got to the end and he bows his head and waits for them to attack and instead sees his reflection in the still water.

I forgot to do my musical introduction, so I backtracked and did it after the second picture, and they loved it. So do I!!

The edited story will appear in a later post.





Key characteristics of a successful short story to tell to children.

Firstly there is the structure and content and then there are the crucial characteristics of successful delivery…. This is my summary of those qualities. And here is a link to a winning story based commercial which fills each and every one of the content criteria. It is not a story told orally, but it could be so very easily… with a few props and a few  minutes spent memorising the plot. Interestingly, I once found a folk tale about a dog and an elephant, which basically follows a similar plot line and would be just as easy to act out, and tell.

check out these images of dog and elephant friendships!

Key qualities of a good story to tell with children and ways to tell it.

Content of story



Quality of repetition – phrases, motif, rhymes, patterns of three

Clear beginning and end, with beginning that cuts to the chase

Content somehow relates to our known everyday experiences

Limited number of characters

Some challenge/conflict/ problem to be overcome…moments of tension

S/hero is in some ways transformed through the events of the story… wiser, stronger, richer, humbler, more loving, etc

Definite ending/climax/ safe home again etc

Events and characters introduced early on are woven in again by the end.

Manner of delivery

Introducing it with music, a chant or a verse or a call and respond chant

Setting it out with respect and ceremony

Make eye contact

Vary pace, tone, volume

Be very involved yourself. Believe in it, be the story as you tell it

Feel smell, hear, touch things …use your body language to engage their senses

Opportunities to participate and contribute…sounds , songs, ideas, names

Address children by name

Relate it to the children’s experience

Include new words of a repeated refrain or verse to tune of well known rhyme

Use your voice gently – don’t over emote

Emphasise the verbs…rather than the nouns

Avoid words like beautiful, nice, and yummy. Use specific, precise, interesting words