Pandemic Perspective: A Pail of Air

About ten days ago, I read my newly six-year-old Lydia a science fiction short story that she’s since asked her father, older brother, and me to read again and again.  It’s available free to read online: “A Pail of Air” by Fritz Leiber.

My father read this story to me many times, beginning one night when I was about Lydia’s age and I couldn’t get to sleep.  It presents a fascinating situation of eking out survival after an incredible catastrophe . . . a build-up of extremely creepy suspense . . . and a very happy ending.  Most children old enough to appreciate a read-aloud story with only two pictures will not find this one too frightening, but if your child is very sensitive you’ll want to read the story yourself first.

“A Pail of Air” is a great starting point for discussion on a lot of different topics to keep your minds sharp through the summer:

  • Comparison and contrast: How is this family’s isolation like ours during the pandemic?  Do we relate to the various family members’ feelings?  But look at how much we have to be grateful for, compared to them!
  • Physics: Could another star yank Earth out of its orbit and take it away from the Sun?  If that happened, would the consequences really be as the author describes, and could anyone survive?
  • Chemistry: Wow, imagine Earth getting so cold that our entire atmosphere snows down in layers, one type of molecule at a time!  Use the periodic table to calculate the molecular weights and see if the author got them in the right order.
  • Engineering: Would their Nest really work to keep them warm enough and hold in their thawed air?  (Lydia didn’t care about the science but was very eager to build her own Nest!)  How the heck do their air helmets work?!  Would even their battery-powered flashlights be able to operate in that extreme cold?
  • Suspense writing: The order in which information is revealed to the reader, and the timing of events relative to the story Pa is telling, skillfully control the mood of the story.  How does it work?  Can you write something like it?
  • History: The “frozen folk” are like the people trapped in Pompeii.  How was their disaster similar and different?
  • Time and its meaning: The family’s home includes “a whole row of clocks. Pa’s very fussy about keeping them wound. He says we must never forget time, and without a sun or moon, that would be easy to do.”  Why must they keep track of time–how is it useful, and what does it mean to them?
  • Old tales of tomorrow: [Don’t mention the copyright date when reading the story aloud.]  When do you think this was written?  How can you tell?
  • Sensory cues: Did reading/hearing this story make you feel cold?  How did the author do that?  Can you write something that subconsciously triggers a sensory response in the reader?
  • Social skills: How do the kids feel about meeting people other than their parents for the first time in their lives?  What are their parents’ concerns about leaving the Nest to join a larger colony?  Will we have the same mixed-up feelings when we start interacting with other people again?

Read “A Pail of Air” today!  Think of it whenever you’re tempted to complain about a cloth face mask slightly restricting your exchange of germs in the breathable, unfrozen air that surrounds us all as we share the sunshine with fellow human beings only six feet away.  Things could be worse, huh?

Today is Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit came among the people and they could all understand what the others were saying.  Today, a lot of American cities are tense not only because of coronavirus but also because of protests about white police officers killing black people; strong feelings about the need for protest are clashing with strong feelings about the methods of protest.  Please, try to let the Holy Spirit flow through us all, and try to understand what others are saying!

After the longest Lent, after the enduring Easter, now Pentecost opens a new season, often called Ordinary Time–but 2020 has been no ordinary year so far.  What surprises will the summer bring?  Let’s try to see them as adventures and imagine the exciting stories we’ll tell in the peaceful future!

Visit Hearth & Soul to see what’s inspiring other writers at this strange time in history!

5 thoughts on “Pandemic Perspective: A Pail of Air

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