Nory Ryan's Song

by Patricia Reilly Giff. Novel. 176 pages. Grades 4-8.
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Teacher's Guide

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Patricia Reilly Giff is a versatile and prolific author of children's books. She has given us some wonderful early reader series, some good picture books and several great novels for middle grade readers.

Nory Ryan's Song takes place during the "Great Hunger" in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. The potato blight that struck that crop destroyed much more than potatoes. Scavenging for any source of nourishment the people stripped the shore of seaweed, the oceans of any edible organism and even chewed on the grass. English landlords, wanting the land, used every excuse to throw families out of their homes.

We see it all through the eyes of twelve-year-old Nory Ryan who tries to help her family and her community survive. Her father left the family to find work on a fishing boat, but he's been gone too long and is feared dead. Some of Nory's family has already left for America, where, it is said, no one is hungry and jobs are plentiful.

This short, accessible novel for kids from fourth grade up is a good springboard for many activities.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • In spite of the heartbreak in this story, many have called it a story of hope. Is that what you'd call it? Can you see why others do?

  • Several superstitions are mentioned in the story: the dropping of coins in the well, sunshine on the wedding day, and the fear of the sidhe. Can you understand why these people believe in such things? Do you have any superstitions?


  • Make a list of the goals Nory and her family set for themselves. How do those goals change as the story continues?

  • The story is told in the first person. Select a scene and change it to third or even second person. Read the scene aloud with those changes. Talk about the result. Do you think Patricia Reilly Giff chose the right voice?

  • Many of the people in this story cannot read. How does that restrict their lives? Interview teachers in your school to find out when and if they read anything during an average day. Develop interview questions to determine what effect illiteracy would have on their lives.

  • On a map of Ireland, locate some of the places mentioned in the book.

  • Find out more about the potato famine. What caused it? How widespread was it? Has it happened since?

  • The sequel to Nory Ryan's Song is Maggie's Door (Wendy Lamb Books, 2003 ISBN 0385326580.). Before reading it, make a list of questions you have about what might happen to Nory and her family in the sequel. Combine your list with others in the class and then read Maggie's Door. Did you find answers to any of your questions? Do you think Patricia Reilly Giff made good choices?

  • How does Nory's arrival in America differ from that of immigrants today? What do immigrants have to do to become citizens? What do you think they should have to do?

  • Where do most of the immigrants in your town or city come from? Conduct interviews of some immigrant families and compare their experiences with other interviews and with the experiences of immigrants like Nory from long ago.

  • Read a work of fiction that deals with immigrants to this country since you were born and compare to the time of the potato famine.

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