Once Upon a Camel
Author: Kathi Appelt
Illustrator: Eric Rohmann
Published September 7th, 2021 by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Summary: An old camel is out to save two baby kestrel chicks during a massive storm in the Texas desert.
Zada is a camel with a treasure trove of stories to tell. She’s won camel races for the royal Pasha of Smyrna, crossed treacherous oceans to new land, led army missions with her best camel friend by her side, and outsmarted a far too pompous mountain lion.
But those stories were from before. Now, Zada wanders the desert as the last camel in Texas. But she’s not alone. Two tiny kestrel chicks are nestled in the fluff of fur between her ears—kee-killy-keeing for their missing parents—and a dust storm the size of a mountain is taking Zada on one more grand adventure. And it could lead to this achy old camel’s most brilliant story yet.
About the Author: Kathi Appelt is the author of the Newbery Honoree, National Book Award Finalist, and bestselling The Underneath as well as the National Book Award Finalist for The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. Some of her award-winning books include Maybe a Fox (with Alison McGhee), Keeper, and Max Attacks to name just a few. She lives in College Station, Texas. To learn more, visit her website at kathiappelt.com.
Richard, the camel, and Kathi Appelt taken at Texas Camel Corps. Photo credit: Doug Baum.
Review: Happy book birthday, Kathi & Once Upon a Camel! So honored to review this special book on your special day!
In all of Kathi Appelt’s books, what I have found that I adore the most is her ability to craft voice. She is brilliant. In this book, Zada the camel’s voice rings throughout with patience and determination. I was calmed by her stories of her upbringing as she works to keep the baby kestrels’ minds off of their parents. I think part of Appelt’s magic to craft voice is through her very specific word choice in all instances. Her descriptive words are so precise, and she is never deterred to use a word that may be challenging if it is the correct word. This leads to such lyrical prose–it is a pleasure to read!
There is also so much to learn throughout this story about stories: weather events (haboobs), animals of West Texas (kesterels, mountain lions, hawks, and more), and the history of camels. I found myself going on research tangents as I was introduced to different animals or different adventures that Zada goes on. It is no wonder that the Reading Group Guide is so extensive–there is so much to delve into!
Teachers’ Tools for Navigation (Excerpt from the publisher provided Reading Group Guide):
- Explain to students that alliteration is a literary device in which initial consonant sounds of successive or closely related words are repeated. This book contains tons of alliteration. Some examples include “arches and arroyos,” “moving mountain,” “posh Pasha palace,” “Pasha’s princess turns a little pale,” and “best beloved babies.” Using game tiles with letters or small pieces of paper with letters written on them, allow each student to draw a letter and write five alliterative sentences using that letter. Each sentence must contain a subject, verb, and describing words. Once everyone has written their sentences, each person should share their best alliterative sentence with the class.
- Zada has had a long life filled with experiences and relationships. Her story in the book moves in time as she shares memories while continuing present experiences. Ask students to create a time line for Zada. There are online resources such as Adobe (https://www.adobe.com/express/create/timeline) and TimeGraphics (https://time.graphics) to help with organization. They may also do this in a slideshow format. Have them include dates, locations, and important experiences.
- Beulah licks Wims, and he is upset. He is described as being “incensed. Put out. Piqued.” Discuss with students how this alliterative and repetitive approach to communicating his feelings is an effective way to convey the strength of those feelings as well as a lyrical way to engage the reader. Ask students to choose one emotion and make a list of synonyms or short expressions that express that emotion. Next, ask them to express the emotion in as many ways as possible in short sentences. Finally, ask them to use their list and sentences to write a paragraph that first explains why their character is feeling that emotion and that then elaborates on how they are feeling in as many ways and with as much creative imagery as possible.
- Like humans and all other members of the animal kingdom, camels and kestrels have been classified based on shared characteristics. Looking at the list below, you can see that camels, kestrels, and humans are classified together in their kingdom and phylum, but begin to diverge at class groups and fully diverge in orders. Ask students to review the table and have a class discussion about classification. Give students the opportunity to consult some sources, if necessary, to answer their questions.
- Camels: Animalia (Kingdom) / Chordata (Phylum) / Mammalia (Class) / Artiodactyla
(Order) / Camelidae (Family) / Camelus (Genus) / Dromedarius or Bactrianus (Species)
- American Kestrels: Animalia (Kingdom) / Chordata (Phylum) / Aves (Class) / Falconiformes
(Order) / Falconidae (Family) / Falco (Genus) / F. tinnunculus (Species)
- Humans: Animalia (Kingdom) / Chordata (Phylum) / Mammalia (Class) / Primates (Order) / Hominidae (Family) / Homo (Genus) / Homo Sapiens (Species)
- After review and discussion, ask students to write short answers to the following questions:
- Why do we classify animals and other living things in this manner?
- What characteristics do all living things have in common?
- Do camels, kestrels, and humans have the same basic needs?
- Do humans understand more about animals than animals know about humans?
- Even though humans and camels are both mammals, do humans or camels have more in common with kestrels than they do with one another?
- Camels: Animalia (Kingdom) / Chordata (Phylum) / Mammalia (Class) / Artiodactyla
Discussion Questions (Excerpt from the publisher provided Reading Group Guide):
- The story’s action begins with Pard and Perlita telling Zada that a mountain is eating everything and is soon going to eat them. Zada cannot comprehend this. Why do you think that is? How do you handle things you don’t understand? In truth, the mountain is a great sand-and-dust storm coming their way. How does knowing this change your perspective of the situation? How does Zada react?
- The author explains how a camel has adapted to the desert, and how American kestrels are built for flight. All animals have adaptations: evolved physical and behavioral traits that help their species survive and thrive. Can you think of any other examples of this? What about cultural adaptations? Are there ways in which groups or individuals adapt for their own safety, comfort, or survival?
- As Zada tries to outrun the storm, she wishes she could fly. This is not the first time in her life she has wished this. Why do you think she has continued to yearn for this ability? Thinking about your life and the environment in which you live, what other animal adaptations would come in handy for you? Explain your answers.
- As Zada worries about Pecos de Leon, she reflects on the fact that she and the mountain lion have “both traveled a lot of miles and traversed a lot of country. That was worth something.” How can having many experiences help you? Do you think it’s important to experience situations similar to and different from your own life? What might you learn from someone who has lived a long time and done many things? Explain your answers.
- As Zada moves through the storm carrying the chicks, an enormous old tree comes down behind them. “The wind had yanked it up by its roots. A hundred years, that old tree had stood there, watching over the creek, keeping generations of bird families safe. Now it lay in a heap on its side.” How does the falling tree make Zada feel? How did it make you feel? Do you think generations of bird families will be able to find a new home?
- As the storm spins Perlita and Pard around, they call out, “‘Keep them safe!’” This is described as the “universal prayer” of parents. What does it mean for something to be universal? Do you have knowledge, ideas, or habits that are universal?
- Zada’s and Asiye’s motto is “En parlak yildiz ol.” This means “Become the brightest star.” What do they mean by this? How do you see them striving to do this throughout the story?
Flagged Passages: “Chapter 1: Foothills, Chisos Mountains West Texas, 1910
Even in her sleep, Zada recognized that voice.
The old camel raised one eyelid. It was still dark. There was at least an hour left before dawn. She did not recall setting an early alarm bird.”
Read This If You Love: Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt & Alison Mcghee, The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, Journey of the Pale Bear by Susan Fletcher, Orphaned by Eliot Schrefer, Good Dog by Dan Gemeinhart, Granted by John David Anderson
**Thank you to Barbara at Blue Slip Media for providing a copy for review and giveaway!**