Five new classics to explore 3: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

When we open a classical novel, we open the door to multiple worlds (historical, geographical, literary, psychological and philosophical) to explore. It is exciting to see what each title means to us, who the author is, how the books were created and how they can be used to develop our students’ knowledge of language and culture.

Let’s take a look at our five new classic reader adaptations. Then tune in later in the year for a lesson based on each book. The titles are:

  • Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit. Level 1 reader, adapted by Jennifer Gascoigne, illustrated by Viola Niccolai.
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Stolen Jewels by Arthur Conan Doyle. Level 2 reader, adapted by Geraldine Sweeney, illustrated by Agilulfo Russo.
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Level 3 reader, adapted by Donatella Velluti, illustrated by Michele Rocchetti.
  • The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. Level 4 reader, adapted by Donatella Velluti, illustrated by Claudia Palmarucci.
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Level 5 reader, adapted by Elspeth Rawstron, illustrated by Sara Menetti.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

1 Who is the author?

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in 1811 in Connecticut, United States. Her parents were very religious. When Harriet was five years old, her mother died. Harriet’s family had liberal views and was abolitionist. Harriet studied the classics, languages and mathematics in her sister’s school. In 1832 the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Harriet joined a literary group for intellectuals. One of them was Calvin Ellis Stowe, a college professor. She married him in 1836 and they had seven children. Unfortunately, one of them died when he was 18 months old. After her child died, she said she understood what slave mothers felt when slave owners sold their children. She died in 1896.

2 What do we need to know about the novel?

The theme

When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the novel, slavery was very common in the southern American states. Slaves could find freedom if they ran away from southern states and went north or to Canada. The Stowes often allowed slaves who were running away to rest in their home. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the story of a black slave, Tom, and the people he meets after his master sells him. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote it because she wanted to tell people about the problem of slavery. In the first year of publication it sold more than 300,000 copies – making it the most successful book of that time. It was very influential in the northern states and very unpopular in the South. The book was so successful that President Lincoln invited Stowe to the White House.

The plot

At the beginning of the book Tom’s master, Mr Shelby, is in debt. He must sell his farm or Tom to pay his debts. He sells
Tom to a slave trader. So Tom has to leave his wife and children and the community of slaves on the farm. We follow Tom on an emotional journey through the terrible reality of slavery and racial prejudice.

3 Why did we choose this title for adaptation?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a must-read. Its anti-slavery message is as strong today as it was when it was first written. Uncle Tom is an inspirational character whose strength and hope even in the most difficult situations is a lesson to all of us. Of course the novel is long and some parts are very gruelling and when adapting we had to choose to cut minor plot strands and concentrate on Uncle Tom’s story.

4 How can you use this reader for language learning?

The characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Illustration by Michele Rocchetti. ©Helbling 2017

CLIL and discussion topics

  • History: Slavery in America
  • History: The Abolitionist Movement in the North
  • Freedom
  • Racism

Language stuctures

  • Talking about slavery and trade: vocabulary development
  • Using ‘must’ and ‘have to’ to talk about necessities and obligations
  • Using the narrative tenses to describe the story
  • Describing characters’ personalities and their physical appearance

Learn more about slavery and abolitionism from another famous novel, Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup:

5 How did we create the reader?

The original text of the novel was simplified for elementary level learners, avoiding complex grammar and sentence structures and minor plot strands that may lead to confusion. The vocabulary is only simplified as much as it is necessary to make it comprehensible for language learners at this stage.

The story was adapted by Donatella Velluti and illustrated by Michele Rocchetti.

The illustrations were created using a fascinating technique, a type of digital silkscreen. Every image is composed of three layers (one red, one yellow and one light blue) and then they are overlaid. Each layer was originally painted by the illustrator and then digitalized. If you would like to learn more about Michele Rocchetti’s visual world, visit his website and read our interview with him.

Here is a simple chart about our reading levels.

Helbling Reader levels

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