Controversial Topics

Getting Started
Pre-Reading Activity
Grades 6–12
Language Arts, History
Small Group, Entire Class, Research, Ongoing, Discussion


  • Before (and during) reading The Red Pony, students will understand some of the controversial issues (death/cruelty of nature, graphic descriptions of animals in distress, a horse breeding scene, major childhood sadness, and the fallibility of adults).
  • Students will work collaboratively in small groups to discuss/understand the documents provided. See “Materials Needed/Preparation.”
  • Students will understand why The Red Pony has occasionally appeared on banned book lists over the years.
  • Students will understand the nature of censorship.


Even though The Red Pony is not nearly as controversial as Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath, students still need to be prepared for what they will encounter in the classroom.

Through class discussions, reading of documents, and some small group work, students should be well equipped to read and understand The Red Pony.

Materials Needed/Preparation

Estimated Time

  • 1 class period for a lecture/interactive class discussion about controversial issues.
  • 1 or 2 class periods for students to break into small groups and discuss the articles above (also assigned as reading homework).


Before showing the PowerPoint presentation, teachers should have an open discussion with the class about some of the controversies surrounding the novel. (NOTE: Teachers may become more specific as reading progresses; however, for teacher reference, some issues below contain specific examples. Going forward, students will provide specific supporting examples.) These include:

The grim reality of death as part of life

  • For a mature class, ask students to volunteer any experiences they have had with death (animals or humans).
  • The death of Jody’s beloved pony Gabilan (“The Gift”) is particularly heartbreaking for Jody.
  • The possible death of Gitano and the horse Old Easter (“The Great Mountains”) leaves Jody (who probably only understands that they have disappeared) “full of a nameless sorrow” (55).
  • The death of the mare Nellie (“The Promise”) is especially somber given that Billy Buck had to kill the mare Nellie to save the colt during its birth (77-78).

Graphic descriptions of animals in distress (some perpetrated by young Jody)

  • Ask students why an author would include graphic descriptions of animals in distress.  
  • Early on (“The Gift,”) a bored Jody throws rocks at innocent birds and rabbits (5).
  • Gabilan is in distress during much of the latter part of “The Gift” (22-36).
  • Frustrated by Gabilan’s illness and the health of his dog, Doubletree Mutt (“The Gift”), Jody throws a hardened clod of dirt at his dog, injuring its paw (30).
  • After Jody finds Gabilan dead (“The Gift”), buzzards are picking at the carcass. In a particularly graphic and violent scene, Jody, out of anger and frustration, kills one of the buzzards (36-37).
  • At the beginning of “The Great Mountains,” a bored Jody throws rocks at swallows’ nests and destroys them. Jody also baits a rat trap with cheese and Doubletree Mutt gets his nose caught in the trap. Further, in a particularly gruesome scene, Jody kills a bird with a slingshot. He brutally dismembers and disembowels the creature (38-40).
  • The death of the mare Nellie (“The Promise”) is especially somber and graphic given that Billy Buck had to kill the mare Nellie to save the colt during its birth (77-78).
  • At the beginning of “The Leader of the People,” Jody throws a stone at a half-grown tortoise-shell cat (80-81).

Horse breeding scene

  • Although this is a fairly subtle scene (“The Promise”), the mare Nellie is bred with Jess Taylor’s stallion. Teachers should use their own discretion about how to discuss this scene or whether or not to discuss it at all.
  • “The high scream came from the oaks again, and Nellie answered it…The stallion came on so fast that he couldn’t stop when he reached the mare. Nellie’s ears went back; she whirled and kicked at him as he went by. The stallion spun around and reared. He struck the mare with his front hoof, and while she staggered under the blow, his teeth raked her neck and drew an ooze of blood” (63).

Overwhelming sorrow/anger/grief

  • For a book with a protagonist who ages from ten to twelve, Jody experiences many episodes where he is left with sorrow, grief, and anger. Ask students for instances when they have felt sorry, anger, or grief.
  • At the end of “The Gift,” Jody experiences frustration, grief, and anger over the death of Gabilan and takes out his emotions on one of the buzzards (36-37).
  • At the end of “The Great Mountains,” Jody is overwhelmingly sad that Gitano (who represented adventure) has disappeared without a word. “A longing caressed him, and it was so sharp that he wanted to cry to get it out of his breast…He covered his eyes with his crossed arms and lay there a long time, and he was full of a nameless sorrow” (55).
  • At the end of “The Promise,” Jody’s sorrow over the death of Nellie (sacrificed for the birth of the colt) is so great that it borders on depression. “He ached from his throat to his stomach. His legs were stiff and heavy. He tried to be glad because of the colt, but the bloody face, and the haunted, tired eyes of Billy Buck hung in the air ahead of him” (79).

The fallibility of adults

  • For a book with a child protagonist, Jody experiences first-hand of the imperfection of adults. Ask students for examples of when they felt adults were fallible.
  • Carl Tiflin is not a perfect father and makes many mistakes throughout the story, including being too stern and distant as a father.
  • Billy Buck makes many mistakes regarding Gabilan during “The Gift” and with his confidence in “The Promise.”
  • Distribute the documents about book censorship in general listed in “Materials Needed/Preparation” and assign as class work and/or reading homework. Have students individually read and mark up the documents with any information they find interesting or new to them. This should be a low-pressure assignment. Then break up students into small groups to discuss and present their findings. Suggested discussion topics could include:
  • Provide some general examples of censorship (big or small, local or global).
  • Why would someone want to ban a book?
  • Should writers avoid reflecting the reality of the word no matter how painful or controversial (for example war, violence, slavery, racism, prejudice, sexism, unfair treatment, and so on)?
  • In preserving the freedom to read and eliminating censorship, what can be done? What is the role and responsibility of teachers? What is the role and responsibility of students? What is the role and responsibility of administrators? What is the role and responsibility of parents? What is the role and responsibility of librarians?
  • Why is the freedom to read important?
  • Are differing opinions important? Why?
  • Has a book ever changed your life? Explain.
  • Individually, for homework, students should write brief summaries/analyses of their findings to share with their small groups.

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

  • Takeaways
  • As students begin to read and discuss the novel, they should be taking notes in their notebooks about controversial issues, citing examples from the novel itself. All of these issues should also be incorporated into class discussions. Teachers should expect 100% participation.
  • Follow-up
  • Students can continue to research controversial issues of the 1920s/1930s and today.


During the course of the novel, students can be tested on their knowledge of “controversial” issues and book censorship, using both the source documents and the novel itself for specific examples. Testing can be achieved through traditional quizzes or short papers.  

Common Core Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 9
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • Text Types and Purposes: 1
  • Production and Distribution of Writing: 4
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7, 8, 9
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 2
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • Conventions of Standard English: 1, 2
  • Knowledge of Language: 3
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 4, 5, 6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 9
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • Text Types and Purposes: 1
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7, 8, 9
  • Range of Writing: 10

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