The Singing Snake, written by Stefan Czernecki and illustrated by Timothy Rhodes, is a delightful book most suitable for children in the lower elementary grades. The Singing Snake is a retelling of the Australian folktale/morality tale describing how the didgeridoo came to be, as well as how the snake got its hiss. The didgeridoo (or “didg” for short) is one of the oldest musical instruments known to humankind and it is created from a tree limb or piece of tree trunk with a center that has gone soft. Part of the process of creating a didg involves throwing the limb or trunk into a termite colony where the termites eat away the center to make it hollow. The crafts person then refines the piece of wood and alters its thickness to determine the instrument’s pitch and tone. Playing the didg requires a breathing technique called “circular breathing” in which air is constantly taken in through the nose while air is continuously blown through the instrument’s mouthpiece.
The story takes place on a great island in the middle of the ocean and begins with the Old Man declaring he would make a musical instrument in honor of the animal best able to develop and produce the most beautiful singing voice. To prevent the animals creating a terrible din from all singing at once in order to win his attention, he devises a contest for the animals in which they will be able to sing for him, one by one.
Snake, with his average singing voice, listens to all of the other animals and decides Lark’s voice is the most beautiful. However, no matter how much he practices, he realizes his voice will never be as beautiful as hers, and becomes extremely jealous. He hatches a plan in which he “borrows” Lark’s voice by swallowing her whole and holds her captive at the back of his throat. On the way to the contest he encounters other animals who are enchanted by “his” lovely singing voice, and he manages to “sing” for the Old Man, who declares him the winner. When the Old Man goes away to create an instrument to mimic the shape of Snake, the other animals gather around and beg Snake to sing an encore. Instead of singing, however, Lark begins to scratch at Snake’s throat until he finally coughs her out and she escapes to a tree branch and begins to sing.
The animals, taken aback, berate Snake for his dishonesty, and he slithers up into a tree. When Old Man returns, he presents his new instrument – a didgeridoo – which produces a low, rich tone meant to complement the sound of Lark’s singing. Instead of gratefully accepting the instrument, Snake slithers away in shame. From that day forward, the only sound he is able to make is a hissing sound, as if something was scratching around in his throat.
The story, written in a straightforward style is reminiscent of a skilled storyteller and emphasizes the consequences of dishonesty without being condescending or preachy. It is complemented by vivid, colorful illustrations heavily influenced by the art of the Australian aborigines.
Application in the Integrated Classroom
The Singing Snake serves as an excellent basis for a unit on Australian culture, folktales, and world music. Following a reading of the book, the students can engage in an activity in which they create their own “didgeridoo” out of recycled cardboard rolls or construction paper, found objects, and paint. The students will also enjoy watching short videos of performers playing the didgeridoo, as it is likely that none of the students have heard its sound.