Why in the World

Social Studies

Students will learn the characteristics of pourquoi, or why, tales, a type of folktale that usually explains something in nature and is found in most world cultures. To demonstrate their understanding, students will create their own pourquoi tales.


Long before there were scientific explanations of natural phenomena, people relied on stories to help them understand the world around them. Stories that offer such explanations are called pourquoi tales. “Pourquoi” is the French word for “why.” Most cultures in the world have their own heritage of pourquoi tales.

African pourquoi tales, for instance, might explain why zebras have stripes or why flamingos stand on one leg. From Native American folklore come many why stories about animals found in North America or about weather phenomena, such as thunder and lightning or rainbows.

Some of today’s leading children’s writers have created their own pourquoi tales or have adapted their stories from traditional sources. Verna Aardema’s Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears is based on a West African story.

What You Need

Help with Opening PDFs

What to Do

  1. Introduce students to pourquoi tales by first asking them to explain something in nature they are likely to have the answer for. For instance, ask them to explain how rainbows are formed. (Answer: Light passing through water droplets or mist is broken up into its various colors.)
  2. Tell them that long ago people all over the world used stories to answer their questions about the world around them, and that these stories are known today as pourquoi tales. Add that the word “pourquoi” is a French word that means “why.”
  3. Read aloud one or two examples of pourquoi tales. Recommended sources are Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema, Rainbow Crow by Nancy Van Laan, or Arrow to the Sun by Gerald McDermott. If these are not available, you can review the scientific explanation for how rainbows are formed and then present the following made-up story as an example of a pourquoi tale:

    Long ago, there lived a cloud that was different from all the other clouds. This cloud was made of many colors. One day, during a storm, the cloud passed over a pond and saw a family of ducks paddling to safety. One of the ducklings stayed behind. The cloud could tell that the duckling was afraid of the water. Very gently, it stretched itself out and made an arch from one side of the pond to the other. The duckling waddled onto the arch and soon rejoined its family on the far side of the pond. The cloud remained where it was and became the world’s first rainbow.

  4. Brainstorm a list of questions students might have about things in nature. Write these questions on the board. Select one and invite students to improvise a story that answers this question in a playful, imaginative way. Remind them to use the rainbow story as a model for the improvised story.
  5. Inform students that they will now write their own pourquoi tales. Emphasize that their stories are to have all the elements found in any good story, such as plot, characters, and setting, and that their stories will answer a question of their own choosing from the list on the board.
  6. Pass out copies of the Tell Me Why worksheet. Tell students they are to work on their own and that their task is to create an original pourquoi tale that gives an imaginative, or fictional, explanation for something found in nature.