AN AMERICAN TAIL
SUBJECTS: U.S./1865 – 1913; Diversity & New York; Religions/Judaism;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING: Friendship;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS: Respect; Caring.
AT A GLANCE: Age: 6 – 8; MPAA Rating — G; Animated; 1986; 77 minutes; Color; Available at Amazon.com.
This movie describes the experiences of Fievel Mousekewitz, a mouse who emigrates from Russia to the United States in 1885. The experience of Fievel and his friends and family parallel the experience of millions of Europeans who immigrated to the U.S. between 1880 and 1924.
“An American Tail” introduces the concept of immigration and some of the difficulties that migrants face in a new land. For the millions of children whose families trace their origins to Eastern Europe, the film can serve as an introduction to their own heritage.
BEFORE WATCHING THE MOVIE
Tell your child that a long time ago millions of people came to the United States from all across Europe. They were looking for a new life in which they would have more freedom and could earn a better living for their families. They were told that the streets in the U.S. were “paved with gold.” Show your child Europe, the Atlantic ocean, and the U.S. on a globe or a map. See Map of the North Atlantic. Point out some of the different countries of Europe, including Russia, Germany, England, Ireland, France, and Italy. Then point out the location of Minsk (where the journey in this movie started), Hamburg (the port of embarkation from Europe) and New York (the destination in the U.S.). After your child has seen the movie, you can print some outline maps and draw Fievel’s journey and the journeys of your family’s ancestors.
At one point in the film the mice hear a story about how the streets in the U.S. are “paved with cheese”. If you have talked to your child about how immigrants were told that the streets of America were paved with gold, your child’s face may light up with recognition and delight.
unite, feline, mouse, duo, ancestors, generation, family, immigrant, emigrant, history, old country, new country, vegetarian, generation, Statue of Liberty, island, “the cat’s out of the bag”, “E Pluribus Unum” (it means, “from many, one”), freedom.
TALKING FOR VERBAL, SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT
What part of this movie did you like the best? — Why is that?
Which character, other than Fievel, did you admire the most? — Why is that?
Always encourage your child to form opinions and to share them.
Open-ended questions will help get a discussion going.
Where did the Mousekewitz family live before they came to the United States?
Why did the Mousekewitz family immigrated to the United States?
Just talking with your child fosters verbal, social and emotional learning.
Exercise memory skills by asking about the story, the characters, and the plot. Keep it light and fun.
Fievel makes friends when he comes to the U.S. Who are they?
Young children love Story Time.
DISCUSSIONS BASED ON THEMES IN THE MOVIE
Select questions appropriate for your child.
1. Are Fievel’s friends different from each other? Are they different from him? Talking About It — Yes, Fievel’s friends are all different in the ways that show on the outside, like being a mouse or a cat. However, when people are friends the differences that show on the outside aren’t as important as the things they have in common, such as caring for each other, liking each other, liking the same games, and having interests in common. Tiger and Fievel sing a song about this.
When a parent takes a concept from a movie seriously, a child will start thinking about the lessons of the film. Often, it only takes one comment to start a child’s mind going.
2. Why were the immigrant mice so happy when they thought that there were “no cats in America”? Talking About It — The mice thought they would be free from the terrible cats. It turned out that there were cats in America, too. In real life, many immigrants believed that America was a land of riches and freedom where they would escape from the problems they had experienced in the countries they were coming from. But in reality, people faced similar struggles in America. The Mousekewitz family learned this when they encountered their first cat. But there was a difference. In America, immigrants were able to band together and protect themselves (like the mice did in this story) or use the law to stop people who were going to oppress them. This had been much harder to do in the countries they had left.
You can talk about a movie at any time: right after it is over, in the car on the way to school, during quiet time, or before bed.
3. If your child remembers a family move, ask: “How did it make you feel? Were you lonely? Were you scared of all of the new places and new people?” Talking About It —Talk about what happened to Fievel when he moved. Eventually, he found friends and his family. Talk about some times you have moved yourself, and how different and scary a place can be at first, but after you have explored it you found fun things and good friends.
Don’t feel obligated to cover everything in this Guide. One or two questions are all that some children will tolerate. However, if your child watches the movie more than once, on each occasion start a new conversation or pick a new activity. This will enhance verbal development and increase the number of lessons your child takes from the film.
4. Have you ever been lost? How did that make you feel? Talking About It —Children will probably talk about feeling scared, worried, frightened or nervous. Talk about how even if they are lost, families and friends will always be looking for them, just like Fievel’s mom, dad and sister.
PLAYING FOR GROWTH
1. Learn about Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty — Find pictures online of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Talk about how it symbolizes freedom for many immigrants. Talk about other symbols of freedom (the flag, the Liberty Bell, etc.) and look at pictures together online or in a book. Color them together using blank coloring sheets. See Papajan.com.
2. Learn about your ancestors — Look at pictures of your ancestors, and talk to your child about what countries they were from. Trace the journeys of your own ancestors on a map or a globe. Compare them to each other and to the journey of the Mousekewitz family: ask how they are the same, and how they are different. You can also print out a map of the United States and draw stars or circles where members of your family have lived in America. If you have any family heirlooms in the house (whether they are used every day or brought out for special occasions) point them out to your child and explain how they came into the family. Talk about how important they are to you, just like Fievel’s hat was to him. All parents can talk about the differences in how slaves came to America; the fact that the slaves did not come of their own free will; the terrible conditions in the lower decks of the slave ships; the high death rate during the “middle passage”; and the lack of freedom when the slaves landed in the Americas.
3. Make a family tree — Use one of the templates suggested on Kids Central Family Tree web page or make your own. Or you can draw a simple tree with branches on a piece of paper. Then add your child’s name at the very top. Work down, adding siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles. You can simply write their names or do a stick-figure drawing, or you can use real photographs. Share your family’s history, talking about where they came from, when they came to the U.S., and any name changes, etc. Convey as much history in these descriptions as possible.
Stories are essential tools for verbal development, social-emotional learning, and character education. Intentional parents can use family movies as a basis for storytelling.
Repeat the story of the movie at bedtime, on a rainy day, or at any quiet time. Let your child correct you if you make a mistake and, better yet, encourage your child to tell you the story. Both of you can invent new adventures for Fievel and his friends. Your child’s imaginative and verbal capacities will be enhanced if you invent new characters and create situations that are not in the movie. To learn more about enhancing growth and development through stories told to children, go to How to Tell Bedtime Stories . . . Any Time.
Here is a bedtime story developing a theme in “An American Tail”.
Back when the United States was a young country and was just filling up with people, big sailing ships brought millions of immigrants from Europe. Many of them got off the ships at New York City. Mice were able to stow away on the ships and come to New York as well. Two of these mice were, Billy and Milly. They were young and had actually been born on the ship as it rolled in the waves.
Billy’s fur was so dark, it was almost black. He was a roly poly little mouse who always ate too much. Milly was a brown mouse and very slim. Billy and Milly were best friends. They loved to explore their new home town to find fun things to do and new foods to try.
One day, when they were having lunch from a turned over garbage can near a big open air market, Billy heard a tiny voice crying. It seemed to be coming from an alley to their right. Billy and Milly peeked into the alley and saw a little grey mouse, wiping away tears. Billy asked his name and what was wrong.
The grey little mouse said, “My name is William and my family and I just arrived from England. We were looking for food in the market when I got lost. And now I can’t find them!” William began to cry again.
Billy remembered how scared he had been when he first came to America, and couldn’t imagine how scared he would have been if he had gotten lost! Milly gave William a hug. Then Billy said, “Come with us. We’ll help you find your mom and dad!”
William smiled bravely and made one more effort to stop sobbing. Then the three mice started scurrying through the market, hiding from the people but making little squeaks that only mice could understand. They were calling for William’s parents. After a while, it began to get dark and William became sad again. He started to cry very quietly, saying, “I’m never going to find my mum and dad! I’m never, never, ever going to find my family again!”
Billy gave William a hug and said, “Don’t give up! If we give up, we’ll never find them.” But Milly and Billy were worried, too. They ran about faster and faster, calling out for William’s parents.
(If your child isn’t sleepy, pause here and start a conversation by
asking what he or she thinks is going to happen next.)
All of a sudden, they heard two voices with British accents calling “William! Willy! William . . . where are you?”
Billy, Milly and William ran toward the voices, and sure enough, it was William’s mom and dad. As soon as they saw William, they scooped him up and gave him lots of hugs and kisses. “We were looking all over for you!” they said.
Then they saw Billy and Milly. “And who are these new friends?”
“I’m Billy,” said the plump black mouse.
“I’m Milly,” said the slim brown mouse.
“They’re my new friends,” said the little grey mouse.
William’s dad laughed, “Well, look at that! Billy, Milly and Willy! You’ll be friends forever!” Then they all laughed.
William’s mom gave him a big kiss and said, “Oh, William, I was worried we’d never find you!”
William grinned hugged her tightly and said, “So was I, but we never gave up, did we?”
BRIDGES TO READING
Escaping to America, Rosalyn Schanzer, Harper Collins, 2000 (ages 4-8). This book talks about why one Jewish family fled to America, much like the Mousekewitz family.