Friday, April 3, 2020

Carl and the Meaning of Life (Deborah Freedman)

Author:  Deborah Freedman  

Illustrator: Deborah Freedman

Target Ages:  5 and up

Genre:  Picture Book

Publisher Summary: 
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!

First Lines:
Carl was not a bird.
Carl was not a bear, or a beaver.
Carl was…an earthworm.

Memorable Moment:
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.


  1. What a fantastic concept for a picture book to get kids brains gears turning! Why do we do the things we do--especially the things that comes most naturally to us like Carl who digs into the earth. I can see how this book could lead to a long and interesting classroom discussion with remarkable answers. I also love the learning extention ideas you included at the end of this post. It's filled with more ways to jump start great conversations and learning opportunities. Bravo!

  2. Such a fun concept and interesting questions posed by it. Glad you featured it.

  3. You're right. This does launch a wonderful discussion about our purpose in life. I was not a fan of earthworms as a child. Maybe this book would have helped. I remember watering the grass at night, so that the earthworms would come out, and then snatch them and put them in a can filled with dirt for fishing.

  4. Wow! The illustrations are gorgeous! It's inspired to use an earthworm as the model for asking these kinds of questions.

  5. A book about a worm and our why? Talk about perfection; thanks for scouting this one out! Totally adding it to my collection.

  6. This book sounds delightful. I have read and enjoyed other books by this author. I also got to meet her at a library author event. She is kind and gentle. So sweet. Thanks for sharing. :)

  7. Hi,
    Thanks for sharing such a great article.Book for love is another level of hobby. I got Book Subscription UK and get amazing books monthly.

  8. Carl and the Meaning of Life is a touching narrative that explores profound themes with simplicity. The story resonates with its emotional depth and philosophical undertones. A beautifully crafted journey that reminds us to find purpose in the seemingly ordinary moments. Kudos to the creators for this heartfelt and insightful work.


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