Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree

By William Miller
Illustrations by Cornelius Van Wright, Ying-Hwa Hu

View the Teacher's Guide

The true story of the famous African American writer, who as a young girl learned about hope and strength from her mother.

Zora Neale Hurston is considered one of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. This era is said to have begun with the migration of southern blacks to the north. The resulting increase in African American population also created new opportunities for artists–writers, musicians, painters–who were drawn to the support offered by wealthy white patrons. Among Hurston's literary contemporaries from the Harlem Renaissance were Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Countee Cullen, and Jean Toomer.

Hurston was born in 1891. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black, incorporated town in America. At an early age, she was exposed to the rich oral tradition of her community: stories, songs, and folklore that celebrated African American life.

Hurston attended Howard University and Barnard College, where she studied anthropology. She traveled throughout the South recording the folktales of her people. She published these stories in a collection called Mules and Men. Hurston was also the author of many works of fiction. Her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a classic of African American literature.

Before Reading
Prereading Focus Questions
Before introducing the book, share the background information with students. Then you may wish to set the stage for reading with questions such as the following.

  1. Do you ever think about the future? Why? What dreams do you have about your own future? What is the difference between a dream you have in your sleep and a dream you have for your future?
  2. Do you have a special relative who encourages you to think about what you will do when you are an adult?
  3. Zora, the main character of the story, is African American. What is your cultural heritage? Do you know special stories, songs, or poems from the country from which your ancestors came? How did you learn these stories?
  4. Have you ever lost something that was very special to you?

Setting a Purpose for Reading
Have students look at the cover of the book. Ask them what the girl is doing. Have students consider what they would like to know about the girl and what might happen to her. Tell students to think about their questions as they read the story.

Have students write down any interesting words they find as they are reading. After reading the story, students can write their words on a wall chart. Other students who know the meaning of the words can share their definitions. Set time aside on a regular basis to discuss the meanings of the words.

After Reading
Discussion Questions
After students have read the book, use these or similar questions to generate discussion, review comprehension, and deepen students’ understanding. Encourage students to refer back to the text and illustrations to support their responses.

  1. What are the best things about being a girl? What are the best things about being a boy?
  2. What things did Zora want to do that she was told only boys could do? Are these things still done only by boys today?
  3. Name some things that girls and women can do today that they could not do back in Zora's time (e.g., voting, participating in the military).

Reader's Response
Use the following questions or similar ones to help students practice active reading and personalize what they have read. Suggest that students respond in reader’s journals, oral discussion, or drawings.

  1. Why do you think Zora's mother encouraged her to climb the tree?
  2. Would you like to know someone like Zora? Why or why not?
  3. Would you like to be more like Zora? Why or why not?

Other Writing Activities You may wish to have students participate in one or more of the following writing activities. Set aside time for students to share and discuss their work.

  1. Pretend you are Zora. Write in your diary about your feelings when your mother died. Tell why you will remember what you promised her.
  2. Write a poem about the chinaberry tree.
  3. Write a story that an older member of your family has told you about something that happened in the past.
  4. Pretend you are Zora's friend. Write her a letter encouraging her to remember her dreams and to find a way to keep her promise to her mother.
  5. Suppose that you were a parent. What would you tell your child to do in order to prepare for his or her future? Would you want your child to be independent like Zora? Write the advice you would give your child.
  6. After students have read the story, arrange them into groups of four. Explain to them that the members of each group will take turns adding leaves to a "Tree of Dreams."
    Provide each group with a large sheet of butcher paper on which you have drawn the outline of a tree. Tell students that they will take turns drawing leaves on the branches of the tree. Inside each leaf, they will write a dream. The dream may be personal, such as "Becoming a doctor," or universal, such as "Stopping famine in Africa." The students may take turns until they have run out of ideas or class time.
    Use the trees as a "Forest of Dreams" to facilitate a discussion of dreams and aspirations. Be sure to display the "Forest of Dreams" in the classroom.

ELL/ESL Teaching Strategies
These strategies might be helpful to use with students who are English language learners or who are learning to speak English as a second language.

  1. You might want to preview the main ides and concepts in the story with your ESL students. Discuss with students the idea of remembering one's cultural heritage. Have students consider the idea that parents sometimes have different ideas about how their children should act.
  2. After ESL students have read the story–or had it read to them–have them retell the story in their own words. You might wish them to retell the story to a partner who can then ask them to clarify points that he or she did not understand.

Interdisciplinary Activities
To help students integrate their reading experiences with other curriculum areas, you might try some of the following activities.

Social Studies

  1. Ask students to volunteer what they consider "boys' activities" and "girls' activities." After listing their ideas on the chalkboard under the appropriate headings, ask students why they classified the activities as they did. Elicit the fact that these are artificial designations. Encourage students to recognize that gender should not determine one's interests or activities.
  2. In the story, the older people stop the clock at the moment of the mother's death and cover the mirrors with sheets. Ask students to find out about practices of other cultures when someone dies. Have students report their findings orally to the class.
  3. Have students research some of the great African cultures, such as the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai; the forest kingdom of Benin; and the city states of East Africa. You might want to have some students to report their findings to the class orally. Other students might prepare maps to aid in the oral presentations.


  1. Tell students to research African masks or other artifacts. Then have students make a model of the cultural symbol they have researched. Tell students they may use clay, tissue paper, papier mache, or any other appropriate medium to recreate the artifact. Display the finished models in the classroom.
  2. In the story, Zora lives in a small town in a rural community, but she dreams of going to distant cities. Have students use old magazines and newspapers to make two collages. The first collage will show life in a small town; the second will show life in a big city. Use the collages as the basis of a discussion of the two ways of life.




About This Title

Guided Reading:




Interest Level:

Grades 1 - 4

Reading Level:

Grades 3 - 4


Nonfiction, Dreams & Aspirations, Coping with Death, Breaking Gender Barriers, African/African American Interest, Biography/Memoir, Childhood Experiences and Memories, Courage, Education, Identity/Self Esteem/Confidence, Mothers, Optimism/Enthusiasm, Overcoming Obstacles, Persistence/Grit, Pride, Women's History


Biography and Memoir Grades PreK-2, Historical Fiction Grades PreK-2, Early Fluent Dual Language, Appendix B Diverse Collection Grades 3-6, Mother's Day Collection, Bilingual English/Spanish and Dual Language Books , High-Low Books for Preteens (Grades 4-6), Women's History Collection, Death & Grief, Appendix B Diverse Collection Grades K-2, Social and Emotional Learning Collection, African American English Collection Grades 3-6, Back to School Collection Grades PreK-2, African American English Collection Grades PreK-2, Dual Language Collection English and Spanish, Dual Language Levels J-M Collection, Persistence and Determination Collection, Respect and Self-Respect Collection, Women's Text Set Collection Grades PreK-8, Women's Text Set Collection PreK-2, African American Collection English 6PK, English Guided Reading Level R, Fluent English, Black History Collection Grades K-2

Want to know more about us or have specific questions regarding our Teacher's Guides?

Please write us!


Terms of Use