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Punchinello and the Most Marvelous Gift

by Max Lucado


What does it mean to give a gift? What makes some gifts better than others?

All of Wemmicksville is decorated and bustling with preparations for the Maker Day festival in honor of Eli, the woodcarver who makes all the wooden toys. Several Wemmicks try to outdo each other to make the best gift for Eli. By the end of the story, Punchinello and the rest of the Wemmicks realize that Maker Day is not about impressing one another or Eli with gifts, but rather about expressing gratitude to Eli. This “most marvelous gift” touches Eli’s heart and is acclaimed as the best part of Maker Day.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The philosophical big ideas in Punchinello and the Most Marvelous Gift center on the exploration of what constitutes a good gift and what makes gift-giving and receiving special. This theme naturally lends itself to a parallel discussion about value and the objective or subjective features to which we attribute various types of value.

Gift giving

People love getting and receiving gifts. But some gifts are better than others. Why? What qualities and circumstances make a gift good or make the gift-giving act good? In the book, several gifts for Eli are compared and contrasted. Are some better than others? Do the objective characteristics of the gift or the subjective intentions of the giver carry more weight of goodness? For example, the sense of competition – particularly between Hans and Violet for recognition as the creator of the “best” part of Maker Day – raises the question of whether gifts from different people should be compared, as well as the degree to which the value of a gift rests on the sincerity of the giver’s motivations or the visibility of the gift. Do Hans’s and Violet’s ardent desires to impress Eli and all of Wemmicksville improve the value of their gifts? Does their immense effort and time, using their expert capabilities, make their gift valuable? Although Eli never saw the gifts from other town residents, does the celebratory applause of the crowd of Wemmicks make their gifts valuable? As he compares the pies he might be able to bake or the little ditty he made up to the creations of the skilled baker, florist, and musicians, Punchinello feels a sense of inadequacy that raises the question of whether the value of a gift depends on the objective extent of one’s abilities and talents. Or is it the subjective thought that counts? And if so, whose thoughts: the giver’s or the recipient’s? Punchinello’s underlying question of how to do something really special for Eli encapsulates the ultimate punchline goal toward which the discussion may be directed: what was the most marvelous gift in the book, and what made it such a marvelous gift?

The nature of value

The story can also help children launch an exploration of the different ways we value things. Some things are intrinsically valuable, meaning that they are valuable simply in virtue of themselves. Other things are extrinsically valuable, meaning that they are valuable because of their relation to other things. A hammer, for example, is extrinsically valuable: it is valuable because it helps us do things like build buildings and put pictures on walls. Children will likely get the idea that some things are valuable only because of what they allow us to do. You might use this idea to try to get them to think about things they think are intrinsically valuable: if we value a hammer because it helps us build buildings, why do we value buildings? If you pursue this line of questioning (that is, why do we value X?), eventually the kids will hit on something that we don’t value for the sake of anything else. We just value it for itself: we think it is intrinsically valuable. Children might hit on answers like happiness, pleasure, people, family, or friends. You can use the example of the ending song from the book to get this line of questioning going: what made the ending song a valuable gift? Perhaps it was valuable because it was aesthetically pleasing. The next inquiry in the line might be: what makes beauty or aesthetically pleasing things valuable? Some believe aesthetically pleasing qualities are intrinsically valuable. However, others believe the song’s beauty was valuable because it gave Eli happiness. Someone who believes this heartfelt enjoyment needs no further justification might also believe that subjective feelings of happiness are intrinsically valuable. However, perhaps Eli’s happiness was good because it indicated that he knew the Wemmicks loved him, just as he loved them. Hence, mutually loving relationships might be the “end of the line,” the ultimate intrinsic value of the “most marvelous gift.”

As you encourage children to consider the ideas of what constitutes a good gift and what motivations or circumstances should surround the giving act, it will be important not to get bogged down in terminology and distinctions between intrinsic, extrinsic, derivative, and non-derivative value. We have attempted to illuminate a few of these nuanced theories and terms to offer some background considerations you might keep in mind while helping children sort out their own manners of determining the goodness of a gift. However, as demonstrated in the questions offered below, it is clearly advisable to avoid these terms and definitions, and rather to help children focus on specific objective or subjective characteristics, using examples from the book and their own experience. As you listen to the ideas the children produce, hopefully this background familiarity with conceptualizations of value will help you recognize when the children are generating these questions and grappling with the importance of the above considerations and will help you guide their inquiry.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Note: This sequence of questions is simply a suggestion to have available in the course of the discussion. Please feel free to select those questions that are best suited to the comments and ideas generated by the children or to come up with your own as the discussion develops.

Initial Considerations of Qualities of Good Gifts

  1. Was Hans the baker’s seven-layer chocolate cherry truffle cake a good gift? Why?
    • Was it a good gift for Eli? Why?
    • Was it a good gift for the townspeople? Why?
  2. Was Violet’s massive flower bouquet a good gift? Why?
    • Was it a good gift for Eli? Why?
    • Was it a good gift for the townspeople? Why?
  3. Was Lucia’s and Dr. Marvel’s vocal performance a good gift? Why?
    • Was it a good gift for Eli? Why?
    • Was it a good gift for the townspeople? Why?
  4. Was Punchinello and the townspeople’s song to Eli a good gift? Why?
    • Was it a good gift for Eli? How do you know?
    • Did the townspeople think it was a good gift for Eli? Did this matter?
  5. Are all gifts good?
  6. What is a good gift?
  7. Have you ever received a really good gift?
    • How did you feel when you received this good gift?
    • How could you tell it was a really good gift?
    • Was it a gift you really liked or was it something you really needed?
  8. Have you ever given a good gift?
    • Why did you choose to give that gift?
    • Would it have been a good gift for a different person?

Comparison of Gifts, Competition, and Motivations for Giving

  1. Was Hans’s gift better than Violet’s or Lucia’s gift? (You can also ask the associated questions interchanging names.)
  2. Why did Hans/Violet/Lucia want their gift to be the best part of Maker Day?
  3. Why was Punchinello worried about how his pie or song compared to Hans’s cake or Lucia’s song? Do you think Punchinello wanted to outshine Hans or Violet or Lucia?
  4. Why did Punchinello want to do something really special for Maker Day?
  5. When giving a gift, is it the thought that counts or is it the actual gift itself?
    • What kinds of thoughts might “count” to make a good gift?

The Value of Gifts

  1. Have you ever gotten a gift that is precious to you? Why do you prize it?
  2. Does time and effort put into making a gift make it more precious? Why?
  3. Should a precious gift make the person who gets it feel happy? Why?
  4. Is a gift more precious if it costs more? Why?

The Most Marvelous Gift

  1. Did the Wemmicks have to give Eli a gift at all? Why or why not?
  2. Who do you think gave Eli the most marvelous gift? What was the gift? Why was it the most marvelous?
  3. What did Eli say was the most marvelous gift?
    • Was Eli thankful for this gift? How did it make him feel?
    • Why did Eli say this was the most marvelous gift?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Molly Steinberg and Ruth Steinke archived here. Edited May 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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Back to All Books Illustrated book for Punchinello and the Most Marvelous Gift cover featuring a wooden puppet-man in a green outfit standing near a tree festooned with wooden toys. Beautifully wrapped boxes of presents are arranged on the ground in front of the tree. Download & Print Email Book Module

About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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