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Sam and the Firefly

by P.D. Eastman


Sam and the Firefly provides an introduction to questions about free speech and the idea of free speech having limits.

One night, an owl named Sam meets a firefly named Gus. Together they discover that Gus can write words in the sky with his light. Gus quickly finds out that people will listen to what he writes, so he begins to trick people for his own amusement. After being a victim of one of Gus’s tricks, the hotdog man traps Gus in a jar and begins driving away, only to have the car break down on the train tracks with a train quickly approaching. Gus writes “STOP” in the sky, and the train stops just in time.

Read aloud video by Reading Rhino

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Many people around the world believe freedom of speech is one of the most important freedoms. But what happens when your speech impacts others in a negative way? How “free” should free speech be? Sam and the Firefly raises several questions about the nature of free speech. Gus uses his power to write words that cause several bad events to occur, and he enjoys the power his words have. For example, he gives contradictory directions to cars at an intersection, causing them to crash, and he writes “FREE SHOW” above the movie theater, causing people to stampede into the theater without paying. Although Gus can write these words, should he write them? Should there be any limits to what we can and cannot say? Moreover, the book illustrates the notion of being punished for speech when Gus is caught by the hotdog man. Are there any kinds of speech so unacceptable that the person engaged in them should be punished? These questions about whether Gus’s speech is acceptable or punishable should inspire children to try to grapple with what free speech really means, and it will help them go beyond the common gut-reaction that free speech simply means being able to say whatever you want.

The issue of what kinds of speech are unacceptable to engage in has a long history with many different approaches. John Stuart Mill argued that no kind of speech should be completely forbidden, and society may only impose restrictions on someone’s speech if that speech harms others in a particular instance. A more modern approach that does not automatically privilege free speech would be the approach we see in most democracies. Today, most democracies place restrictions on certain categories of speech, such as hate speech and advertisements. In fact, it is against the law in many places to use hate speech, and advertisements must conform to many different rules and regulations. Placing restrictions on and punishing certain kinds of speech might deter people from engaging in those kinds of speech, but we have to give up at least some freedom in this system. Prior to stopping the train, the speech Gus engages in has a negative effect on society, but is that a good reason to forbid it?

The flip side of the theme of freedom of speech is the theme of listening to others, and this is a topic that Sam and the Firefly addresses in a more indirect way. In the story, the people in the town seem to blindly follow whatever Gus writes in the sky. It certainly seems like there are times when listening to Gus is a bad idea, but listening to Gus can also be a good idea, like when he tells the train conductors to stop the train. Should the people have listened to Gus’s words? When should you listen to what others say? Questions like these should prompt the children to think about whether the people in the story were right or wrong to listen to Gus and when it is appropriate to do what other people tell you to do.

The story also raises the question of why people should be moral. Gus does several bad tricks, and he seems to really enjoy himself as he does these bad tricks, but his fun comes to an end when the hotdog man catches him. After being caught, Gus is sad, but it is not clear why Gus is sad. Is he sad because he realizes what he did was wrong, or is he sad because he got caught? To get a better grasp of the issue here, let’s look at why Gus might value being moral. It seems there are two main reasons to value being moral. First, morality can be seen as having intrinsic value, meaning being good is good for the sake of being good, and that is sufficient reason to be moral. Morality can also have instrumental value, meaning being good is good because it allows you to reach other ends you desire, such as preserving your good reputation. But if morality only has instrumental value, then there may be cases where you do not have reason to be moral – that is, when there are no ends that being moral would satisfy. In this case, it could be rational to act immorally. For example, if Gus can get away with his bad tricks without anyone noticing and without being punished, Gus might not have a reason to act morally if he only values morality instrumentally. This may be a tough issue to grapple with, especially for children, but it should encourage them to think about why people do good things and why people do bad things.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Limits of Free Speech

  1. Should Gus have done all of those tricks with his words?
  2. What made his words “bad”?
  3. Do you say whatever you want?
  4. Is it okay to say whatever you want?
  5. Are there some things you shouldn’t be allowed to say?

Punishable Speech

  1. Should Gus go to jail for the bad tricks he did?
  2. Should Sam go to jail for not stopping Gus?
  3. Are there some things people should go to jail for saying?
  4. How do you think Gus felt after getting caught by the hotdog man?
  5. Have you ever gotten in trouble for saying something bad?
  6. How did you feel after getting in trouble? Why?

Listening to Others

  1. Should everyone have listened to Gus’s words?
  2. Should you always do what people tell you?
  3. Have you ever listened to someone you should not have listened to?
  4. When shouldn’t you do what people tell you?
  5. When should you do what people tell you?

Rationality of Morality

  1. When Gus was caught by the hotdog man, how did he feel?
  2. Did he feel bad because he got caught, or because he did some bad tricks?
  3. When you get in trouble, how do you feel?
  4. Do you feel bad about getting caught, or do you feel bad about being naughty?
  5. If you could get away with doing bad things, would you do bad things?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion archived here. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

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

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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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