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Newbery Honor–winning author Patricia Reilly Giff tells the unforgettable story of 12-year-old Nory Ryan, who finds courage and strength through love, friendship, and song to help her family survive the potato famine in 1845 Ireland.

Nory Ryan’s family has lived on Maidin Bay for generations. But this year a terrible blight attacks the potatoes, and her family is split apart by the great hunger that has overtaken Ireland. Nory’s mother has died years before in childbirth; her older sister Maggie has gone to America. And Da is away on a fishing boat. There are no coins for food, and Lord Cunningham, the landlord, is threatening to take their home.
It is with bold determination that Nory Ryan finds a way to save her family, and to join the thousands of Irish men, women, and children who are making their way to America.


Patricia Reilly Giff is the author of many beloved books for children, including the Kids of the Polk Street School books and the Polka Dot Private Eye books. Her novels for middle-grade readers include The Gift of the Pirate Queen; Lily’s Crossing, a Newbery Honor Book and a Boston Globe—Horn Book Honor Book; Nory Ryan’s Song, an ALA Notable Book and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults; All the Way Home; and Pictures of Hollis Woods. Patricia Reilly Giff lives in Weston, Connecticut.



Have the class research the countries of the world that suffer from poverty and starvation today, for example, Bosnia. What is the primary cause of such hunger? Is it an economic, political, or social issue? Draw some comparisons between what these nations suffer and what the Irish suffered during the potato famine of the 1800s. What organizations provide aid to starving nations today?


Courage–Ask the class to define courage. How does it take courage for Maggie to leave her family and go to America? Have students share what they think Nory’s most courageous moment is. Describe Anna Donnelly’s courage. What does Nory learn from Anna about courage? How is courage related to hope? Maggie says to Nory, “We will be together again. Hold on to that.” (p. 29) Cite evidence that Nory maintains hope that her family will be reunited.

Sacrifice–The Irish made great sacrifices during the potato famine. Engage the class in a discussion about their sacrifices. Why is Anna willing to give her coin to Nory? What does Anna mean when she says to Nory, “I will give you the coin, but you will pay for it another way”? (p. 8) Does Nory ever pay for the coin? Why is Nory willing to sacrifice her future by staying with Anna? What sacrifices does Anna make by insisting that Nory go to America?

Family–Maggie says to Nory, “You are the heart of the family with your songs.” (p. 26) Then she describes Celia as “loyal and true.” (p. 26) Discuss with the class whether Maggie is correct in her assessment of her sisters. How does Nory remain the “heart of the family”? Describe Nory’s relationship with her younger brother, Patch. Why is the picture that Maggie sends home so important?

Intergenerational Relationships–Discuss Nory’s relationship with Granda. How does Granda view his role in the family? At first, Nory is afraid of Anna Donnelly. What changes their relationship? Ask students to discuss whether Nory views Anna as a member of the family. Nory vows never to leave Anna and tells her, “We belong here together.” (p. 145) Why does Anna insist that Nory’s place is in America?


Language Arts–Nory can be considered bold, dauntless, and brave, the three characteristics that best describe some of the female characters in Irish mythology. Send students to the library to locate an Irish myth. Then have them write a short paper that compares Nory to the main character of the myth.

Social Studies–Nory says, “The English had an army and souls of vinegar, and they had killed and killed, and we were still not free.” (p. 28) How did the English make the potato famine more devastating to families like Nory’s? Have students make a time line that traces the relationship between the English and the Irish from 1800 to the present. At what point did the Irish begin to recover from the great famine?

Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated every March 17. Ask students to find out how the potato famine in Ireland changed the way that the Irish in America celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. Have students use reference books or the Internet to find out what cities in the United States have large Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations. What is unique and significant about these celebrations? How do these celebrations compare to those in Ireland?

Science–When the blight destroys the potatoes, Nory is worried that there will be no eyes to plant the next year. Have students find out the planting season for potatoes. What climate do they require? When are they harvested? Ask students to make a chart that details the growth cycle of a potato.

Anna Donnelly teaches Nory about her cures. She uses “ivy for burns, comfrey for fever, foxglove for heart pain, laurel leaves for ringworm, houseleek for the eyes, the web of a spider for bleeding.” (p. 145) Have students find other plants used for medicinal purposes. Then have them create an illustrated booklet that describes the plants and their uses. Include an appropriate title for the booklet and a dedication page to Anna.

Health–Ask students to use books or the Internet to locate pictures of people who suffer from starvation. Describe the physical characteristics of these people. What diseases are associated with hunger? Nory Ryan keeps her family alive by eating kelp, eggs from wild birds, and limpets and mussels from the sea. What nutrients are found in these foods?

Music–Engage the class in a discussion about the importance of music in Nory’s life. She often sings to Patch to give him courage. Have students find examples of Irish folk songs, lullabies, or ballads that could be considered songs of courage. Then ask them to select a song that Nory might sing to Anna on the day that she leaves for America.

Art–Maggie draws a picture that communicates her new life and her hopes and dreams for her family. Nory finds great comfort and joy in the picture. Have students create a picture that Nory might draw for Anna that tells about her new life
in America and at the same time expresses her love for Anna.


Patricia Reilly Giff provides a glossary of Irish words with pronunciations at the beginning of the novel. Ask students to search for other unfamiliar words that specifically refer to the Irish and the historical setting of the book. Such words may include glen (p. 3), currachs (p. 27), and praties (p. 64).


An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
An ALA Notable Children’s Book


"Newbery Honor winner Giff weaves wisps of history into this wrenching tale of an Irish family sundered by the Great Potato Famine. . . . Riveting."–Starred, Kirkus Reviews

*"Giff brings the landscape and the cultural particulars of the era vividly to life and creates in Nory a heroine to cheer for. A beautiful, heart-warming novel that makes a devastating event understandable."–Starred, Booklist

*"Today’s readers will appreciate this compelling story with a wonderful female protagonist who is spirited and resourceful, and has a song in her heart."–Starred, School Library Journal



The Great Irish Famine
This site provides a very thorough curriculum guide for teachers approved by the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education. It is for inclusion in the Holocaust and Genocide Curriculum at the secondary level.

The Boston Irish Famine Memorial
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine, Boston’s Irish community unveiled a memorial park on June 28, 1998.

Potato Blight
This site explains blight and what happened to the Irish potato crop in 1845-1846.


Lily’s Crossing
Patricia Reilly Giff
Historical Fiction • Family
Intergenerational Relationships
Grades 4-7 / 0-440-41453-9

Gib and the Gray Ghost
Zilpha Keatley Snyder
Courage • Historical Fiction
Grades 4-7 / 0-385-32609-2

Belle Prater’s Boy
Ruth White
Abandonment • Friendship
Family Relationships
Grades 5-7 / 0-440-41372-9

The Friends
Kazumi Yumoto
Grades 5-7 / 0-440-41446-6


Prepared by Pat Scales, Director of Library Services, the South Carolina Governor’s School for Arts and Humanities, Greenville, South Carolina.

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