Literary Guide for Mem Fox and Kathryn Brown’s Tough Boris
Our next installation of the Summer Reading Resource literary guide series is Tough Boris, written by Mem Fox and illustrated by local illustrator Kathryn Brown. Much more than just a run-of-the-mill pirate book, Tough Boris is a beautiful and succinct tale that teaches an important lesson about human emotions. Centered around Boris, the story’s namesake, the story begins with a wordless page filled with an ocean where upon the horizon sits a ship and upon a sand dune sits a young boy. This scene sets the stage for the tale that’s about to begin – told with few words set amongst images that speak volumes.
A good portion of the story is spent getting to know Boris and his many pirate-like qualities. He’s large, he’s mean, he’s selfish, he’s dirty, he’s brave, and he’s incredibly intimidating, yet clues are given throughout his description that begin to reveal Boris’ softer side. The illustrations accompanying Boris’ description not only echo the qualities described, but allow readers to gather other information about Boris, such as his affinity for music and his love for a green parrot who appears to be his companion.
The story ends dramatically with the death of Boris’ beloved parrot. Despite Boris’ tough and mean pirating ways, he still has a heart and is crushed when he learns of the loss of his beloved companion. When a funeral is held for the bird, Boris cries, as do many of the other men on board the ship. Readers learn that despite being a pirate, Boris still is capable of feeling sadness and pain, and that it is completely acceptable for him to show these feelings to his crew. Rather than feel vulnerable and hide his sadness, Boris is able to share his feelings – and does so powerfully.
Alongside the story of Boris is a secondary tale, told almost exclusively through the book’s illustrations. Through close examination of each image, readers discover that the boy from the sand dune at the beginning of the book has become a stowaway on the ship. Though the boy is nameless and goes unmentioned throughout the entire story, it is his watchful eye that makes the observations that contribute to Boris’ description, and it is clear by the end of the book that the nameless boy has been narrating the story all along.
While a reading (or two or three) of Tough Boris is dense enough that lessons can be carried away from it, young readers can use the book as a catalyst for practicing important literacy skills, exercising their creativity, and reflecting on how they determine right from wrong. Included in the accompanying literary guide are suggestions for critical thinking questions to help support comprehension and encourage critical thought, instructions for a mini-lesson centered around using context and visual clues to determine the meaning of new vocabulary words, and a collection of suggestions for further study inspired by the story – including a discussion of the ethics of pirating, using visual clues to identify the book’s sub-story, writing similar stories to teach powerful lessons, using graphic organizers to compare and contrast, and exploring the history of pirates around the world.
- Download Literary Guide for Mem Fox and Kathryn Brown’s Tough Boris