Interdisciplinary Teaching Ideas

The Intervention of Wings

Brief description: The novel, set mainly in nineteenth-century South Carolina, centers around the relationship between Sarah Grimké and the slave, Hetty (Handful), who is given to her as an eleventh birthday present. (Sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké were historical figures who grew up to become abolitionists and supporters of the women’s rights movement. This is a fictionalized account of their early lives together and includes references to other figures such as Denmark Vesey).

The novel is narrated from the dual points of view of Sarah and Hetty and covers the span of decades.  It is obviously ripe for analysis is a variety of disciplines, and teaching suggestions are included below.




  • In what ways did advances in technology (such as the invention of the cotton gin) contribute to slavery in the United States?
  • Handful researches the cost of freeing a slave. What does she learn about the economics of slavery as a result?
  • Research the role of slavery in the development of the American economy.


  • As a child, Sarah writes a declaration of manumission. Research what this is and how it was used in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
  • Why does Charlotte feel the need to steal? In what ways might this be similar to/ different from the drive of kleptomaniacs?
  • Research punishments that slave owners could legally inflict on those who were considered their property at the time the novel took place.
  • What is the moral dilemma faced by Handful when Denmark asks her to steal the bullet molds? In what circumstances might breaking the law be considered morally right, if ever?
  • Sarah’s dream to become a lawyer is never fulfilled. Research the first women to graduate from law school and practice law in the United States.


  • Read, view, or perform selections from any plays dealing with slavery and race relations in the United States.
  • Research the suffrage plays or suffrage theatre that emerged during the women’s suffrage period in Britain.


  • When Sarah begins to teach the slaves to read, she is soundly reprimanded. Why is education considered so dangerous for slaves?  In what ways were restrictions on education enforced regarding people of color in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation?
  • At age 11, Sarah is deprived of access to her father’s library because she taught Handful to read. Discuss the effect this had on her both intellectually and psychologically.
  • Sarah Grimké aspires to become a lawyer, but is not permitted to do so. Research the history of women’s education in the United States.
  • Examine the founding of colored schools and colleges, and research their role in American education.
  • Research what the Freedman’s Bureau and the role it played in education at the end of the Civil War.


  • Examine any of the symbolic elements of the novel (some examples would be the spirit tree, the quilt, or Sarah’s button).
  • For Children’s Literature, encourage students to choose a work of juvenile or teen fiction dealing with the theme of slavery or racial inequality. (Some suggestions might be Octavian Nothing, Letters from a Slave Girl, True North, The Slave Dancer, )
  • Examine the use of changes in narrative perspective and diction in The Invention of Wings.
  • Discuss the role of literacy and the power of writing in the novel.
  • Examine the origin and significance of stories of people who have wings as told by Charlotte.
  • Research and discuss stories initially communicated in the oral tradition and later adapted to print.
  • Discuss the ending of the novel and if it may be considered an acceptable resolution to the work.


  • Select at least two films dealing with American slavery for comparison to the novel.
  • Compare the depictions of the growing women’s suffrage movement in the novel to films such as Gavron’s Suffragette.
  • View and critique films based on previous Kidd novels (The Mermaid Chair and The Secret Life of Bees)


  • After reading, classes may discuss why shared reading (such as our college novel) is required on many college and university campuses nationwide.  See the description of our college novel initiative on the college website.  What is the purpose of the novel and how does that relate to a liberal arts education? How might that be tied into the idea presented in The Invention of Wings that education is a fundamental right that should not be denied to anyone?
  • The Invention of Wings covers topics often considered painful portions of American history. What, if any, is the value for contemporary college students of studying fictional portrayals of issues such as racial and gender inequality?


  • Compose a movie poster or book jacket forThe Invention of Wings.
  • Illustrate any scene or theme from the novel.
  • After reading any of the Grimké sisters’ speeches, research the design of political pamphlets during the Abolition era and design one to incorporate the main points covered in the speech.
  • Create a handbill or poster announcing the speeches of the Grimké


  • The novel deals with slavery and the abolitionist movement as well as the women’s rights movement in the United States and as such is ripe for examination on these topics.
  • Research ways in which slaves such as Handful and Charlotte escaped captivity.
  • Discuss the impact of slavery on the economy of the American South.
  • As some characters mention in the novel, proposals to return slaves and their descendants to Africa were discussed as a possible resolution to slavery. Research some such proposals and their impact on the political movements of the day.
  • Discuss ways in which the Emancipation Proclamation influenced the direction of the Civil War.
  • Examine the role the compromise of 1850 played in influencing the momentum of the abolitionist movement.
  • Incorporate scholarly materials such as “Webs of Power and Influence: Political Theory and the Origins of American Feminism” by Lucretia Mott into class reading (American Political Science Association Conference paper, available through EBSCOhost)
  • View the CrashCourse on Women’s Suffrage and discuss how it evolved in the years after the timespan of the novel.


  • Many of the speeches and letters of the Grimké sisters were published. Research the role played by the press (in both the North and the South) in the abolition of slavery and the establishment of rights for woman.
  • Using library databases such as the historical New York Times or Washington Post, locate news articles dealing with runaway slaves. Discuss the ways in which these escapes were covered by news outlets of the day.


Coming soon!


  • Examine the uneasy relationship between Sarah and Handful.
  • Research the effects traumatic childhood events may have on those who experience them, such as the whipping witnessed by Sarah that caused her stutter.
  • Discuss the parent/child relationships in the novel, especially Sarah and her father and Handful and her mother. How do these relationships affect the development of the children?


  • Sarah questions her religious beliefs during the course of the novel, eventually converting to Quakerism. Examine the roles various religious groups played in the abolitionist and the women’s right movements.
  • Grimké reads to her slaves from the Bible daily, reminding them to be obedient to their masters. Research what world scriptures have to say on the subjects of slavery and gender equality.
  • What role does the African Methodist Episcopal Church play in the novel? Why are slave owners so wary about allowing their slaves to attend?
  • Discuss whether religion helps Sarah and Handful, hurts them, or both.


  • Research the role childhood trauma plays in the development of the novel’s characters, especially Sarah and Handful.
  • Sarah is frequently told that her primary focus in life is to find a husband and that her position in society will be greatly lessened if she does not do so. Examine property laws affecting females in the United States from the 1800s to the present.
  • As both Sarah and Handful mature, what do they learn about the ways society hinders their personal growth? Are any such restrictions still in effect today?


  • The abolition of slavery and the start of the women’s suffrage movement are major plot points of the novel – class discussion on these topics which reference the novel may be useful.
  • Examine the class structures that exist in both the white world and the world of the enslaved people as depicted in The Invention of Wings.
  • Discuss the role of religion in the various societies of the novel.
  • The Grimké sisters are historical figures – research their speeches and writings on the topics of emancipation and women’s suffrage. (The “links” page of the college novel site will take you to both primary and secondary sources on this topic).