Literature Link: Who Really Killed Cock Robin?
An Ecological Mystery for Middle Grades

If a child came to your door with a dying robin and asked what was wrong with it, what would you do? When this happened to Jean Craighead George, the author of many distinguished books for children, she became deeply involved in tracking down the killer. The result was the ecological mystery Who Really Killed Cock Robin?, published in 1971. The book is dedicated to "sunshine, clear water, and sparkling skies and the kids who are cleaning up the Earth."

As he tries to figure out who really killed Cock Robin, eighth-grader Tony Isidoro threads his way through a maze of clues that includes trillions of ants in the town park, the absence of frog songs, and strange fumes from the town dump. So grab your copies of Who Really Killed Cock Robin? and choose some activities from our suggestions below!

Who Really Killed Cock Robin? by Jean Craighead George, © 1971, 1991.


1. Identify and list facts about robins. Review that statements of fact can be proven, but nonfacts and opinions will also be found during reading. Keep a class chart or individual journals of facts collected throughout the book. Students will relate many to prior knowledge based on their experience with the Journey North Robin Updates, but this book was written in 1971 and students should always read with critical minds. Has new information come to light? To guide you in these discussions, see a chapter-by-chapter lists of facts from the book with timely remarks from Journey North's robin expert:

Facts Discussion/Study Guide from
Who Really Killed Cock Robin?

2. Identify and list suspects, clues, and evidence as these are discovered. Encourage students to challenge statements as being true pieces of evidence. Are statements sound or unsound? Trustworthy or not trustworthy? Look for the evidence the author provides and decide whether that evidence can be trusted.

3. Ask students to make predictions about who really killed Cock Robin, and to revise their predictions as they see fit.

4. Make a two-column cause-and-effect chart to fill in as you read. In the Cause column, write "Why did it happen?" In the Effect column, write "What happened?"

5. Make a story map or timeline to keep track of sequence of events as the story unfolds. You may wish to enlarge and display the map of Saddleboro (found at the beginning of the book) to display with your story maps or timelines.

6. Explore characters. Ms. George gives us reliable clues to figure out what kind of characters are in the story. What details in the story clearly point to specific character traits? Create character trait webs. Ask students to compare characters to other characters in the story, to themselves, to characters in other stories, or to someone they know or have heard about to help students flesh out details about characters and look at them in a new light.

7. Diagram various cycles that are described in the book. For example, the new ecosystem created by the ants (page 52-53); lead in the food chain (p. 76); the impact of chemicals on the food chain of the marsh (p.78-81); tracing the path of the Mayor's fertilizer (p. 82).

8. In the book, there are a few examples of food chains. Have the class piece together three food chains, making them as long as they can. One should include both a robin and a marsh hawk, the second should include an ant and a bee, and the third duckweed and a carp.

9. Paraphrase single sentences, paragraphs , or longer passages to demonstrate understanding.

10. Turn the book in to a play or stage a trial to demonstrate who really killed cock robin.

Discussion Questions

  1. Have students previously read other stories by Jean Craighead George? How does this knowledge prepare them for reading this story?
  2. Are the characters in the book realistic? Do the interactions between characters help teach facts about robins?
  3. What do students consider the most important statement in the Mayor's letter to the Friends of Cock Robin (p. 92)? Why?
  4. What is the setting of this story? How many clues can students find that the book was written decades before they were born? (Examples: students today don't use a typewriter, authors virtually never write "man" when they mean "people," most thermometers sold today are not made using mercury, peregrine falcons are back from the brink of extinction.)
  5. Read and discuss the Acknowledgments (1971) and the Forward (1990). What are students' responses? Even though the book was in 1971, how is the message still relevant?

Extension Activities

  1. Get water testing kits and test local water supplies. What do students discover? What citizen actions, if any, can they suggest based on what they learned in the book?
  2. What city ordinances, if any, does your community have to regulate lawn fertilizers? Hard metals? Have students interview civic leaders about environmental laws and create a timeline to show the laws in relation to other events of the times they were enacted.
  3. Have students research various nontoxic alternatives to lawn, garden, and housecleaning chemicals and natural or biological pest controls. They can make posters or instruction leaflets to distribute in the community to inform others.
  4. Read and report on other books by Jean Craighead George. What things do the books have in common? What generalizations can students make about this award-winning author?
  5. See our background on the nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin? Then write and illustrate additional verses to the nursery rhyme. Can you can add verses for loon, swan, dog, cat, jay, crow, or deer? Here's an example we thought of:

Try This! Journal Question
  • What was the most important thing you learned from this book and the activities? How will you use what you learned in your daily life?