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By Leo Lionni


Module by Nicole Giambalvo

Winter is near and all the field mice are busy preparing and gathering food for the cold months ahead - all except for Frederick. Always the daydreamer, Frederick is preparing a small surprise that will warm the hearts and feed the spirits of his fellow mice when they need it most.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Frederick raises many philosophical questions. The Nature of Community and the social philosophy that governs community is just one. Frederick's story appears to be sympathetic to Collectivism, a term that describes any moral, political or social outlook that stresses human interdependence and the importance of a collective, rather than the importance of separate individuals. Early socialist and communist philosophers inspired Collectivists, like Hegel and Marx. Collectivists are concerned with community and society and seek to give priority to group goals over individual goals. They believe that a type of “social contract” exists in which the terms of this contract are decided by the “general will” of the people. In the story, Frederick contributed to the mouse community in a different way than the other mice. Yet, did he violate the social contract by not also helping to gather food?

Frederick also poses questions about the Nature of Work. There are many arguments about what actions are considered to be work, and it is not clear-cut in our society what is considered work and what isn't. In the story, Frederick does not physically work, but still makes a contribution to the mouse family. Is Frederick working? Karl Marx's Labor theory of value suggests that the labor one does is only equal to its value in society. Use-value determines the value of goods produced. Marx would view Frederick's contribution as not socially necessary or not valuable or as valuable as the other mice's contribution, since they contributed to the survival of the whole family. If they had not run out of food, Frederick's poetry may not have had any use-value. On the otherhand, one might argue that Frederick's contribution was necessary. Perhaps poetry is unique and only valued for as much as one is willing to pay. If Frederick were a famous poet, would his poetry be more valuable? Again, the focus on community and the roles of people in their community are addressed. Part of Marx's socialist theory stated that everyone would have to do some work in order to reap the benefits. Is it fair that Frederick gets to eat the food?

The social importance of art and the role of the artist in society are other topics addressed in the story. What was Frederick's role? Many poets debate these questions among themselves. Some focus on how much or why a poet is paid to write as essential to knowing the social function of poetry. Others say the content of poetry reflects its specific utility, or that the way a poem makes us feel and connects us to other human beings serves as its social function. Still others argue that poetry's social function is to just be, that one can take what she wants from poetry. Thus, the importance of poetry, or any type of art, in our society is not clear. Frederick's contribution of poetry to the mouse family was useful, but many would argue that food and shelter are more important than art in regards to the family's survival.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Click to show an abridged question set for working with smaller groups or individuals:

  1. What sort of work do you do? Is it hard?
  2. What do you do when you are not working? Is it more fun than working? Does it have to be?
  3. Do you think you would have been grateful to Frederick if you had been one of the other mice?
  4. Does work have to involve physical labor or is there such a thing as mental labor?
  5. What sorts of work are necessary in order for people to live the way we do today?
  6. What’s the opposite of work? Is it play? Is it leisure (time off to do whatever you want)? Are play and leisure the same?
  7. Is work what we do to contribute to society?
  8. Are poets necessary for a society to exist? Teachers? Musicians? Artists? Actors? Athletes? People who write books? Video-game designers?
  9. Can work be fun and still be called work?

The Nature of Community

"I am gathering words. For the winter days are long and many, and we'll run out of things to say."

  1. What makes a community?
  2. Try to think of some communities you are a part of. How do you know they are communities?
  3. Your school is a community and everybody contributes something to it. The mice have a community, too, and everyone is contributing something. What and how do the mice contribute?
  4. Does everybody have to do his or her part in a community?
  5. What does Frederick contribute?
  6. Frederick is a part of the mouse community. Does Frederick deserve to get some of the food even though he didn’t gather any of it?
  7. Do you think it’s fair that he gets some of the food? Why or why not?

The Nature of Work

“I do work,” said Frederick. “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.”

  1. Do you think Frederick is working?
  2. When do you feel like you’re working?
  3. If you like something is it still work?
  4. Do you think going to school is work?
  5. Is your favorite subject work? What about your least favorite subject?
  6. Does work have to be hard? Why or why not?
  7. What is the difference between work and play? Give an example of something you do that you think is work and something you think is play.
  8. Do you have to be paid for working? Why or why not?
  9. Some people play professional sports and they get paid, are they working?
  10. Do only adults work?
  11. Does work have to be physical? Why or why not?
  12. What can or can’t be work?
  13. Is thinking work?

The Value of Work

"What about your supplies, Frederick?"

  1. What makes a type of work important?
  2. Do you think Frederick’s work was worth as much as the other mice’s work? Why or why not?
  3. If something is not important or not as important does that mean it’s not work?
  4. Can they both be equally important, but in different ways? What are the differences?
  5. What would have happened to the mice if Frederick hadn’t written poetry?

The Nature of Poetry

"But Frederick," they said, "you are a poet!"

  1. Do you like poetry? How about Frederick’s poem? Why or why not?
  2. Why do people write poetry?
  3. Is being a poet a job? Why or why not?
  4. Is poetry work or play? Why?
  5. Do people need poetry? Is it important? Why or why not?
  6. Was having poetry as important as having food for the mice? What about for people? Why or why not?
  7. Why is it important for people to have art such as paintings, poetry, and music?


Reader Anne Macvean from Melbourne, Australia, submitted this follow-up activity for Frederick based on her work at the Deutsche Schulz Melbourne:

After the 5 to 7 year olds to whom Frederick was read discussed the questions about community, they were asked to think about and give a few examples of what people in their school community contribute. The children were then asked to complete a table with the names of each person in the community and their contributions. Children who could not yet write drew pictures, for which the teacher added descriptions (as dictated by them). This concrete representation of our discussion could from a basis for future sessions in which the children might further consider ideas about the contributions that different people make to their community, about the value of different contributions, about sharing resources within their community and what it means to them to be a part of their school community.

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