illustration of an old cockroach sharing food with a group of young cockroaches
Art by John Herzog

Martina the Little Cockroach

A Cuban folktale about a beautiful bug and a cake with special powers

By Sari Bodi and Karen Trott (adaptation)
From the March/April Issue

Learning Objective: As students read this Cuban folktale, they will identify the character traits of Martina and her suitors.

Think and Read: Character Traits

As you read, think about the character traits Martina is looking for in a husband.

Scene 1

Narrator 1: Beneath a street lamp in Havana, Cuba, lives Martina.

Narrator 2: She’s a beautiful cockroach with pretty green wings.

Narrator 3: Come join Martina’s friends as they prepare for her birthday fiesta.

Friend 1: Martina, today you are 200 days old.

Friend 2: That means it’s time to choose a husband.

Friend 3: Surely many handsome creatures will be interested.

F1: Here’s a new dress for you.

F2: And lovely new party shoes.

N1: But Martina’s abuela guides her to the kitchen.

Abuela: Martina, you must bake a cake.

Martina: But Abuela, everyone will be here soon. I need to get dressed.

Abuela: Do this first. Make the cake just as I tell you, and offer it to your suitors.

Scene 2

N2: That night the fiesta is in full swing.

N3: Everyone admires Martina.

N1: Señor Caracol, a colorfully painted snail, inches up to her.

Caracol (bragging):  Hi there. I hope my dazzling colors don’t blind you.

Martina (laughing): I see you are not modest.

Caracol: Just look at how the crowd admires us. Marry me!

Martina: Before I decide, Señor, please taste the cake I baked.

Caracol (shaking his head): A homemade cake? Never. I only eat from fine bakeries.

N2: Señor Caracol slithers away.

Martina (to her friends): Good riddance!

F3: But Martina, he was so handsome.

F1: How could you let him go?

Martina: He is so in love with himself. He’ll have no love left for me.

Art by John Herzog

Scene 3

N3: Soon another creature appears by Martina’s side.

N1: It is Luis, a crab, snapping his claws together.

Luis: Click, clickety, click. How about a dance, Señorita?

Martina: Sí, Señor. I love to dance the cha-cha-chá.

N2: Martina kicks up all of her heels.

Luis: Be my wife, and we will dance all day long.

Martina: First, try some of my cake.

N3: Luis takes a bite.

Luis (spitting it out): This is not cake. It has no coconut, no mango.

Martina: Señor, you insult my abuela. She taught me how to bake.

Luis: When we are married, you will cook food that I like.

Martina (walking away): I can’t marry him. He is far too crabby.

Scene 4

N1: Martina’s friends gather around her.

F2: Why did you let him go? Are you loca?

F3: He seemed like such a good dancer.

Martina: He would never be pleased with anything I did.

N2: Martina turns and bumps into Raul the bat, who just swooped in.

Raul: Well, hello there. It’s the birthday girl.

Martina (giggling): Hello. Would you like some tasty birthday cake?

Raul: Sí, Señorita. Then let’s marry and fly away.

N3: Martina gives him some cake.

Raul (spitting it out): Blech! This is awful. It belongs in the trash.

Martina (hurt): You are very rude!

Raul: And you are a very bad cook.

Martina: Please go away. I would be batty to marry you.

Art by John Herzog

Scene 5

N1: Just then, a small gray mouse bows to Martina.

Pérez: Señorita, you seem very nice. I hope you find your match.

Martina: Gracias. What’s your name? And would you like some cake?

Pérez: Sí. My name is Pérez. But please, try my cake first.

Martina: Okay.

N2: Martina takes a bite.

N3: Her face changes as she tries not to gag.

Pérez: Do you like it?

Martina (pausing to think of something polite to say): I like that you made it and offered it to me.

N1: Martina holds out her cake.

Martina: Will you try mine?

N2: Pérez nibbles the cake and swallows hard.

Pérez: Thank you. Your cake makes me smile. How did you learn to make it?

Martina: My abuela showed me.

Pérez (laughing): Ah, I see. Have you tasted it?

N3: Martina is confused, but takes a bite.

Martina: Oh my, this is awful, Pérez! Why did it make you smile?

Pérez: Because you are so sweet, even if your cake is not.

N1: Martina laughs as Pérez bows low.

Pérez: Martina, will you marry me?

N2: Martina calls out to her grandmother.

Martina: Abuela, come and meet Pérez!

Scene 6

N3: Abuela joins Martina and Pérez.

Martina: Guess what? Pérez is to be my husband.

Abuela (clapping): Felicidades!

Pérez: Abuela, Martina’s cake was meant to be bad, wasn’t it?

Abuela: Ah, you’re a clever one. It’s true. The cake has no sweetness. I left out the sugar.

Martina: But why?

Abuela: It was a test, to show you how these creatures behave. The cake let you see what they’re really like.

Martina: And it showed me how polite and thoughtful Pérez is.

Abuela: Exactly.

Martina: But Pérez, why did your cake taste so bad? Was that on purpose too?

Pérez (shrugging): I have an abuela as well. One just as wise as yours.

N1: Soon after, Martina the Little Cockroach and Pérez the Mouse marry.

N2: They make their wedding cake together.

N3: And fill it with all that is sweet.  

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We’re not the only ones to tell the story of Martina the cockroach. Find out why author Carmen Agra Deedy ended up writing Martina’s story in a children’s book, and what her advice is for young writers in this wonderful interview.

More About the Article

Content-Area Connections

ELA: Folktales

Social studies: World cultures

Social-emotional learning: Self-awareness (identifying emotions); responsible decision-making (analyzing situations, reflecting); self-management (goal setting); relationship skills (communication, relationship building)

Key Skills

Character traits, plot, compare and contrast, key details, figurative language, drawing conclusions

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan


Set a Purpose for Reading/Explore Text Features (10 minutes)

  • Look at pages 20 and 21. Explain that a folktale is a story that’s been told for many generations. In some folktales, the characters are animals who talk and act the way people do. Folktales often teach listeners and readers an important lesson about life. Invite students to name any folktales with animal characters they have read.
  • Point to Cuba on a classroom map. Explain that the events in this play take place in Havana, Cuba. Help students identify Havana, the capital of Cuba.
  • Direct students to the illustrations on pages 23-25. Ask them to identify the animal characters in the play.   
  • Call on volunteers to read aloud the Think and Read box on page 20 and the Think and Write box on page 25. As they read, students should look for details that describe the character traits of each creature.

Introduce Vocabulary (15 minutes)

  • While the play does not include definitions of vocabulary words in the text itself, a Vocabulary Skill Builder online previews challenging terms. You may also play our Vocabulary Slideshow.
  • Highlighted terms: suitors, admires, dazzling, modest, slithers, good riddance, insult, swooped


Bridging Decoding and Comprehension

  • Storyworks Jr. plays provide a perfect opportunity for students to build fluency.
  • Remind students that the stage directions in parentheses tell a reader or actor how to say a line or perform an action in the play. Direct students to page 22. Point to the words laughing and shaking his head  in column 3. Read aloud the accompanying dialogue with appropriate expression and action. Ask students to repeat after you.


Reading and Unpacking the Text

  • Before reading: Point out the Characters box on page 20. Remind students that this is a list of all the characters in the play. How many Narrators are there? How many animals? How many Friends? Direct students to the phonetic spelling of Caracol, Luis, and Raul. Read the names aloud and have students repeat after you.
  • Next, point to the list of Spanish words on page 22. Read the words aloud and ask students to repeat them. Explain that students will read these words in the play.
  • First read: Continue reading the play as a class.
  • Second read: Project or distribute the Close-Reading Questions. Discuss them as a class, rereading lines or scenes as necessary.
  • Separate students into groups to discuss the Critical-Thinking Question. Then have groups share their answers with the class. 

Close-Reading Questions (30 minutes)

  • Read Scene 1. Why is Martina’s birthday special? (plot) Because she’s 200 days old, it’s time for her to choose a husband.
  • Compare how Martina’s friends want her to get ready for her birthday party with how Abuela wants her to prepare. (compare and contrast) Her friends want her to wear a new dress and lovely party shoes; however, Abuela wants her to follow her directions for making a cake to offer to the suitors.
  • Read Scene 2. Why does Señor Caracol refuse to eat Martina’s cake? (key details) He never eats homemade cake, only cakes from fine bakeries.
  • Why doesn’t Martina like Señor Caracol? (character traits) He’s so self-centered and concerned with his appearance that he will never be able to love anyone but himself.
  • Read Scene 3. What is funny about Martina saying that she can’t marry Luis because “He is far too crabby”? (figurative language) Crabby means bad-tempered. Also, Luis is a crab.
  • Read Scene 4. Why does Martina say to Raul, “I would be batty to marry you”? (figurative language/drawing conclusions) She thinks she would be batty, or crazy, to marry him because he’s so rude and hurtful. (Also, Raul is a bat.) He spits out her cake and says it belongs in the trash. Then he calls her a bad cook.
  • Read Scene 5. What do you learn about Pérez from the way he treats Martina in this scene? (character traits) He is very polite and kind. He always bows and says “please.” He eats Martina’s cake even though it tastes horrible because he is nice—and he likes her.
  • Read Scene 6. Why does Abuela purposely leave out the sugar in the cake that Martina bakes for her suitors? (plot) It is a test so Martina will find out what her suitors are really like.
  • What do Abuela’s actions show about her character? (character traits) Her actions show that she is very wise and understands that people aren’t always as they first appear to be.

Critical-Thinking Question (10 minutes)

  • Think about how Martina and Pérez act when they meet each other. What do their actions show you about their characters? (character traits) When Martina tastes Pérez’s cake, she says something nice even though it tastes horrible. Similarly, Pérez thanks Martina for her cake. He tells her it makes him smile because she’s sweet even if her cake is not. They behave this way because they are kind and don’t want to hurt each other’s feelings. Their actions show how considerate they both are.


Character Traits

  • Have students complete the Character Traits Skill Builder.
  • They should also write a paragraph to answer the question in the Think and Write box. Students can read aloud their paragraphs in small groups.

Differentiate and Customize
For Small Groups

Divide your class into groups and assign each one a scene to perform in class. As students rehearse their scenes, remind them to pay attention to stage directions and punctuation marks in the dialogue. Groups can make masks or other simple props for different animal characters. Record or tape each group’s performance and replay it for the group.

For Struggling Readers

Read the play aloud and ask students to underline details in each scene that show what each of Martina’s suitors is like. Have students share their details.

For Advanced Readers

Ask students to write a letter from Martina, Pérez, or Abuela inviting a friend to the upcoming wedding. In the letter, the character should express his or her feelings about the events leading up to the wedding. Students can read aloud their letters.