Listening for Lions

Listening for Lions
by Gloria Whelan

Publishing Information: Harper & Collins: New York, 2005
ISBN: 0060581743
Pages: 194 p.
Ages: 11 - 14

Rachel Sheridan, the only daughter of missionary parents who run an area hospital, has lived in East Africa all her life. She harbors no prejudice nor ill will to the African people. In 1919 everything changes when the influenza epidemic hits her village. Her parents are overwhelmed with patients but the flu epidemic soon claims them as well, leaving her an orphan. She has no relatives to care for her and plans to go to the mission headquarters but her plans are thwarted when a wealthy neighboring English family, whose daughter has died of the flu and resembles Rachel, force her to impersonate their daughter and travel to England to win her "Grandfather's" heart and persuade him to leave his money and estate to them.   Rachel hates living this lie, especially when she begins to care for Grandfather, but does not know how to extricate herself from this quandary so that she can return to Africa and reopen her parent's hospital.  

Book Talk:
The setting is British East Africa, 1919. Rachel Sheridan is 13 years old and lives with her parents in a missionary hospital. Her father was the doctor and cared for all the Africans who came for his help. Her mother was the village teacher and would assist in the hospital after school. Rachel herself helped out by taking temperatures and pulses and scrubbing the operating room of all the blood. Rachel's friends were the African children in her village and her father's trusted helper Kanoro. The white English people she knew were the wealthy Pritchards, who looked down with disdain on the Africans and would often beat their servants or work them almost to death. Their daughter Valerie was the same age as Rachel and even had the same ginger-colored hair, but they were hardly friends. Valerie was snobbish, rude, and wouldn't have anything to do with that pauper Rachel. The first World War had just ended and everyone hoped that all those deaths were at an end and then the influenza struck all over the world. In America, half a million people died, in India it was many millions. Africa was not spared. It began in the seaport of Mombasa, traveled 300 hundred miles inland to Nairobi and then crept into all the villages, farms, and plantations. Her father's hospital was soon overcrowded with flu victims. She could no longer go to the hospital to help out, the disease was just too contagious. Soon her mother contracted the flu and died. The next day the Pritchards brought their daughter into their hospital because it was too far to go the white hospital in Nairobi. Valerie, like so many others, did not make it. Shortly after Rachel's father also died. She, like her parents before her, was now an orphan. With no relatives to care for her, her only hope was to contact the mission headquarters and let them know her plight. To do so, she had to telephone from the Pritchard's house. The Pritchard's immediately took her in and agreed to contact the mission house. But that was not to be - they had other plans for Rachel and it included impersonating their dead daughter.

Subject Headings & Major Themes:

Bird Watching
East Africa
Influenza Epidemic, 1918

Awards & Reviews:
Booklist, June 15, 2005, p. 1672 (Starred Review)
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2005,
KLIATT, July 2005
Publishers Weekly, August 22, 2005, p. 65
School Library Journal, August 1, 2005, p. 138
TeenReads - http://

Discussion Questions and Ideas:

  1. What was the impact of influenza on the world in 1918-1919? How did it affect Rachel both as a child and as an adult?
  2. What did Mrs. Pritchard do when Rachel's father was being buried? What does that tell you about her character? Why?
  3. Why couldn't Rachel stay with Kanoro when her parents died? What do you think life was like for the Africans vs. the white people in Africa? What do you think it is like now?
  4. What was the great fear that Rachel had about England? Do you think her fear was justified? Why or why not?
  5. Rachel was torn between living a lie (impersonating Valerie) and telling the truth. Why was this so hard for her? What do you think she should have done?
  6. When did you think Grandfather thought Rachel/Valerie wasn't who she claimed to be? Why? Give examples.
  7. How do you think Rachel's stories helped both herself and Grandfather?
  8. Why did the author choose that title? What is its significance for Rachel? Kanoro told Rachel "Be like the lion, gathering strength, and awaiting your turn to return." Did she follow this advice? Why or why not?

Questions and activities for more rigorous discussion


  1. Why was it so difficult for Rachel to go to medical school? What do you think about that? Give some examples of how she was discriminated against during medical school. Do you think that was fair? How were the Africans treated by the white people who lived in Africa? Do you think that was fair?
  2. Is there discrimination today? Who is being affected? Why are they discriminated against?
  3. Brave classroom teachers may want to do a role-playing lesson on discrimination. There is a great one with students being discriminated against because of eye color. It can have repercussions if not handled properly.  
  4. Students can do a research project on discrimination faced by different groups - Jewish people; Blacks; Hispanics; Early Christians; Muslims and the Crusades; Witches (Puritans); Native Americans; Homosexuals; AIDS victims in Africa today

Discussion of the maxim:   The end justifies the means.

  1. Discuss first the "means to an end" - doing things to receive a specific end
  2. What does "the end justifies the means" mean?   Debate the pros and cons of this concept.
  3. How does this relate to Rachel's dilemma? She didn't want to tell Grandfather the truth for fear that she may hasten his death but she had to forgo all her own values and morals by living a lie. What would you do faced with this situation?  

Interdisciplinary Unit:   Influenza epidemic

  • Social Studies/Current Events: Research historical epidemics (Plague; Polio; Smallpox; Influenza; AIDS; and the current Asian Bird Flu)
  • Science: Discussion of microbes; viruses; and bacteria.
  • Literature: Whole class reading of Listening for Lions or small literature circles with books about other epidemics
  • Math: Graphs, charts, and statistics on epidemic occurrences and fatalities
  • Health: Diseases (Contagion and prevention)

Related Websites:
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention -

Influenza 1918 -
This site compliments the American Experience film documentary produced by PBS.

The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic and the Emerging Bird Flu Pandemic: Mankind's Most Devastating Recorded Global Epidemic, and Its Latest Close Call -
Visitors can learn about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and the emerging bird flu pandemic

News organizations like CNN or MSN that has up-to-the-minute information on the bird flu

The Big Empty series by J.B. Stephens
  The Big Empty, 2004 
  Paradise City, 2004
  Desolation Angels, 2004
  No Exit, 2005
Empty Mirror by James Collier,  2004
The Fire-Us Trilogy by Jennifer Armstron & Nancy Butcher
  The Kindling, 2002  
  Keepers of the Flame, 2002
  The Kiln, 2003
Hole in the Sky, Pete Hautman, 2001
A Time of Angels by Karen Hesse, 1995.

Invisible enemies: Stories of Infectious Diseases, Jeanette Farrell, 2005 
Purple death: The Mysterious Flu of 1918 by David Getz, 2000
1918 Influenza Pandemic by Stephanie Peters, 2005

Other Books by the Author:
Next Spring and Oriole, 1987
Silver, 1988
A Week of Raccoons, 1988
The Secret Keeper, 1990
Hannah, 1991
Bringing the Farmhouse Home, 1992
Goodbye, Vietnam, 1992
The Night of the Full Moon, 1993

A Time to Keep Silent, 1993
That Wilde Berries Should Grow: The Story of Summer, 1994
Once on This Island, 1995
The Indian School, 1996
The President's Mother, 1996

The Ambassador's Wife, 1997
Shadow of the Wolf, 1997
Farewell to the Island, 1998
The Pathless Woods: Earnest Hemingway's Sixteenth Summer in Northern Michigan , 1999
Homeless Bird, 2000
Return to the Island, 2000
Welcome to Starvation Lake, 2000
Angel on the Square, 2001
Are Thre Bears in Starvation Lake?, 2002
Fruitlands, 2002
Jam & Jelly by Holly & Nellie, 2002
The Wanigan: A Life on the River, 2002
The Impossible Journey, 2005
Burying the Sun, 2004
Chu Ju's House, 2004
Friend on Freedom RIver, 2005
The Turning, 2006

About the Author:
Gloria Whelan is the best selling author of many novels for young readers, including Homeless Bird, winner of the National Book Award; Fruitlands: Louisa May Alcott Journey; Burying the Sun; and The Turning; Once on This Island, winner of the Great lakes Book Award; Farewell to the Island; and Return to the Island.  She lives in the woods of northern Michigan.

You can learn more about Gloria by visiting her website at