Title: Carl and the Meaning of Life
Author: Deborah Freedman
Illustrator: Deborah Freedman
Target Ages: 5 and up
Genre: Picture Book
This is Carl.
Carl is an earthworm.
He spends his days happily digging, tunneling, turning dirt into soil, until one day, when a field mouse asks him…Why?
Carl does not know why he does what he does, but now he needs to find out!
Carl was not a bird.
Carl was not a bear, or a beaver.
Carl was…an earthworm.
All of them (the animals) are able to do what they do…
Well, why not ask Carl?
As a child, I often wondered: What is my gift? What makes me special? I did not have any talents or skills that stood out. I was pretty average. However, through hard work and divine direction, I found my—what makes me special. It is likely that many children (and adults) have similar questions about their significance.
Carl and the Meaning of Life is an excellent springboard for that conversation. Though a seemingly insignificant living creature, Carl realizes he has a vital purpose. His story reveals how small actions and roles in life are the foundation of a great organization or society. On a deeper level: If an earthworm has a purpose, how much more does a human being have one? As the image-bearers of God, all people have a purpose and an opportunity to glorify their creator with their actions—no matter how seemingly small the actions.
Freedman’s soft watercolor illustrations are vibrant and warm. They help capture how Carl feels as he is pictured small and insignificant compared to the other animals. However, as he has his epiphany and grows in his understanding, he becomes more prominent. On the last page, he is equal or greater in size to the other creatures.
One of the highlights of the book is Carl’s quest to answer the tough questions. He does not stop until he finds the answer. Multiple questions are presented—How? What? Who? and Why? Teaching children to ask questions and to pursue the answers is the foundation of true education and understanding. Carl symbolizes the internal quest within each person.
Carl and the Meaning of Life is a perfect picture book, ripe for many questioning and thinking opportunities.
Activities and Extension Ideas for Lesson Plans:
- Writing: Answer the question How? through Carl's perspective at the end of the story.
- Science: Read one or more non-fiction picture books about the earthworm.
- Drawing: Create a flow chart to show how the animals in the story are connected. Read and/or brainstorm another flow chart of interconnectedness, such as related to bees or plankton.
- Creative Writing: What is the meaning of life?
- Characterization: What motivates Carl to answer mouse’s initial question: Why? How does Carl change over the course of the story?
- Character: Create a poster with pictures, drawings, and words that show why you are special.
- Community Outreach: Work together as a class or family to do a small action that has big consequences, like recycling, picking up trash outside, or setting up for an event.
- Grammar: Discuss the difference between a question and a statement. Identify examples of both in the story.