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The Kernel of Truth | Ep. 195

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

Think about the last time you made a mistake.

Making mistakes is nothing to be ashamed of; after all, nobody is perfect. And in today’s story, we’ll hear how imperfection can have an unexpected upside!

Our story is called “The Kernel of Truth.” Versions of this tale come from a variety of places, including China, England, India, Japan, and the Middle East.

Voices in this episode include Jonathan Cormur, Hrishikesh Hirway, Nick Sholley, Dawn Ursula, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jen Cohn, and America Young.

Actor and singer-songwriter Trinity Jo-Li Bliss stars in Avatar: The Way of Water, as well as The Garcias on HBO Max. Her upcoming album is called Confessions of a Preteen. 

Jen Cohn appears in Welcome to Chippendales; her voice is in Avatar: The Last Airbender, as well as countless video games including Overwatch, and Star Wars: The Old Republic.

America Young has been the voice of Barbie since 2018, having previously voiced her in the Barbie Vlogger web series. She plays Batgirl in the video game Gotham Knights and is co-founder of the podcast Undiscovered Scripts: produced versions of undiscovered movie scripts, TV pilots and short films.

This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Nora Saks. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.

Coloring Page

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

ADULTS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and tag it with #CircleRound. We'd love to see it! To access all the coloring pages for past episodes, click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.

Things To Think About After Listening

Can you think of a situation where you perhaps weren’t as fair to someone as you could have been? Find a grown-up and describe how the situation felt – and what you can do to keep playing fair in the future.

Musical Spotlight: Clavichord

Courtesy: Shannon Bettridge
Clavichords originally were so small they could be lifted up and put on a table or stacked one on top of another so that an organist could practice music written for a double-keyboard organ. (Courtesy of Shannon Bettridge)

In Latin, clavis means “key,” and chorda means “string.” As it happens, the clavichord uses both keys and strings: every time you press down a key, a thin metal blade (called a “tangent”) on the key pushes up against pairs of brass or iron strings. Vibrations are then transmitted to the soundboard to make sound.

The clavichord was invented in the early fourteenth century and was especially beloved in the late Middle Ages, then through the Renaissance, Baroque and Classical eras. As a relatively quiet instrument, originally it was not thought suitable for playing with other instruments. Instead, it was used as a practice instrument by harpsichord players or organists who wanted to practice at home instead of in an oftentimes very chilly church!

When the piano emerged as a popular instrument in the 1760s and 1770s, people started to forget about harpsichords and clavichords. But clavichords are still made and used. A newer form is the Clavinet, which is basically an electric clavichord that uses a magnetic pickup to produce a signal for amplification. Fun fact: Stevie Wonder uses a Clavinet in many of his songs, including "Superstition" and "Higher Ground."


NARRATOR: There once lived a queen who was a real stickler when it came to laws and rules.

Perhaps you’ve known a grown-up or two who have been rather strict…? Well I’m telling you: this queen took things to a whole new level!

Say you were one of the queen’s subjects… and you were so late for work you happened to drive your horse and cart slightly over the speed limit…?

QUEEN: I hereby sentence you to a lifetime of traveling by foot! As punishment for your dreadful crime, you may never drive a horse and cart, ever again!

NARRATOR: Or, say one month you happened to be short on cash, and you failed to pay your rent on time…?

QUEEN: I hereby sentence you to a lifetime of living on the streets! As punishment for your hideous crime, you may never reside with a roof over your head again!

NARRATOR: But the queen was the biggest stickler… when it came to stealing. And I’m not just talking about big-time stealing, like robbing a bank. Suppose you were simply strolling through town one day, and you happened to get caught harmlessly picking up a penny you found on the street…?

QUEEN: I hereby sentence you to a lifetime in prison! That’ll teach you to take what isn’t yours! The law is the law! And the law must be followed! Period.

NARRATOR: In a far-off corner of the queen’s land, a young girl named Mabel lived with her older sister, Tess.

Mabel and Tess shared a snug little house in the countryside. Next to the house was a small field where they grew corn. And every day, while Mabel was off at school, Tess watered the cornfield, and weeded the cornfield, then she sold the harvest at the market in the nearest town.

TESS: Fresh corn! Get your fresh corn here! Plump and ripe and tasty!

NARRATOR: One year, a drought wreaked so much havoc on Tess’s crop that barely any corn sprouted on the stalks. The ears that did manage to grow were small and shriveled, with dried-out husks the color of sand.

Tess knew she couldn’t sell this corn at the market. So she and Mabel tightened their belts and began pinching their pennies, in hopes of making it through the long winter ahead.

But before long, the sisters were penniless and hungry. So one morning, after Mabel went off to school, Tess made a decision.

TESS: My little sister deserves a better life than this! Much better! So today I will go to the market and I will find some work! If that fails, I will beg some coins to buy food. Anything to take care of my beloved Mabel. Anything!

NARRATOR: When Tess got to town, the market was in full swing. Hoping to pick up an odd job or two, she began approaching shoppers as they milled around.

TESS: May I help you carry your groceries, miss? How about if I fix that loose wheel on your wagon, sir?

NARRATOR: But to Tess’s dismay, nobody would hire her.

So she took off her cap and held it upturned in her hand.

TESS: Change? Can anyone spare some change?

NARRATOR: But, alas, nobody offered any charity.

TESS: Ugh! This is the worst! Not only am I unable to earn any money… I can’t even get it by begging! How can I possibly take care of my little sister if I can’t even –mmmmmmm!

NARRATOR: Tess stopped and breathed in through her nose.

TESS: That smell! It’s so scrumptious! So irresistible!

NARRATOR: She spun around, and discovered she was standing right by the bread-baker’s stall. It was piled high with golden, crusty loaves of white, wheat, and cinnamon raisin.

TESS: Oh! What I wouldn’t give to bring some of this glorious bread home to Mabel! Money’s been so scarce, we haven’t had a square meal in months. My stomach feels empty as a cruel man’s heart, and I’m nearly fainting from hunger!

NARRATOR: Tess closed her eyes and pictured her and her sister feasting on loaf after loaf of golden, crusty bread. Her mouth began to water… her stomach began to growl… and all at once, her feet began to move…

Have you ever been so hungry that you were kind of loopy? Out of your head?  You didn’t quite know what you were doing? Well, Tess was so hungry it was like she was in a trance! Without realizing what was happening, she edged her way toward the baker’s stall. Then she stuck out a trembling hand, grabbed a loaf of bread, and was just about to stuff it into her rucksack when suddenly…

BAKER: What do you think you’re doing?!???

NARRATOR: She was jolted back to reality.

BAKER: Were you really trying to take a loaf of my bread?!? Without paying for it?

NARRATOR: Tess snapped her eyes open. Standing before her… with his arms crossed and his face twisted with rage… was the baker.

BAKER: You were stealing! Trying to pilfer a loaf of bread! And that’s against the law! Officer?

NARRATOR: A uniformed police officer came hurrying over.

BAKER: Officer! This good-for-nothing swiped a loaf of bread from my stall! She broke the law! I say you take her straight to the queen. She’ll have this scoundrel imprisoned for life!

NARRATOR: The officer yanked the bread from Tess’s hand, then pushed the poor woman toward the police wagon.

TESS: Wait a minute, Officer! I beg you! Before you take me to the palace, please let me go home and say goodbye to my sister. She’s just a young girl and she’ll be worried sick about me! Please!

NARRATOR: The officer paused, then heaved a sigh and asked Tess where she lived. Next thing she knew, the wagon was rolling down the lane, straight toward her snug little house in the countryside!

When it pulled up in front, Mabel was just getting home from school.

MABEL: Tess! What’s going on? Why are you in the back of a police wagon?

TESS: Don’t be alarmed, little sister, but I’ve been arrested – for stealing a loaf of bread. Ever since our corn harvest failed, times have been hard! And I was so woozy with hunger that I didn’t know what I was doing! So now I must go stand before the queen and await her judgment.

MABEL: The queen?!? But you know what her judgment will be! She’ll sentence you to life in prison!

TESS: I know, I know! But what else can I do? I stole a loaf of bread. Stealing is illegal. And as Her Royal Majesty always says, “The law is the law! And the law must be followed! Period.” 

NARRATOR: Tess’s eyes grew misty. But Mabel’s eyes grew bright. She put on a smile, then called out to the police officer.

MABEL: Excuse me, Officer! I’m coming with you! I just need to go get something. Wait here!

NARRATOR: Tess watched as her sister raced into the shed where they stored their corn. Thanks to their last unfortunate harvest, the shed was empty – save for a handful of old kernels scattered about the floor.

Within moments, Mabel came running out and climbed back into the wagon. Tess noticed she was holding a small wooden box… and wearing a curious expression. Mabel had always been a very clever girl; Tess couldn’t help but wonder what her quick-witted little sister was up to now!

TESS: Mabel – what do you have in that box? Is it a gift for the queen? The way her Royal Majesty obsesses over the law, she won’t take very well to bribery!

MABEL: Oh, don’t worry, Tess. I’m not bribing the queen. But I am offering her a gift. And if all goes well, it will be the gift that gives you your freedom!

[theme music in]

NARRATOR: What do you think Mabel has inside the box?

We’ll find out what it is – and whether it helps Tess go free – after a quick break.

[theme music out]


[theme music in]

NARRATOR: I’m Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to Circle Round. Today our story is called “The Kernel of Truth.”

[theme music out]

NARRATOR: Before the break, Tess was in the back of a police wagon, on her way to see the Queen: a notoriously strict sovereign who was bound to sentence the poor farmer to lifetime in prison for trying to steal a loaf of bread.

Tess’s clever sister Mabel insisted on coming along. She carried a small wooden box, and said it contained a gift that would set Tess free.

TESS: I don’t understand, Mabel! What could possibly set me free, other than the Queen’s mercy?

NARRATOR: Mabel snuck a glance at the officer driving the wagon. She could tell he was listening in on their every word.

MABEL: I can’t explain now, big sister. But once we’re standing before the Queen, just follow my lead.

NARRATOR: When Tess and Mabel arrived at the palace, a pair of guards ushered the sisters into a massive room with priceless paintings hanging on the walls and glittering chandeliers suspended from the ceiling.

Seated on a high-backed throne, wearing a twinkling gold crown and surrounded by a staff of servants, was the queen. She looked down at Tess with a disapproving scowl.

QUEEN: So! You must be the dishonest woman who stole a loaf of bread from the baker at the market! But who is this girl you’ve brought with you? Is she your accomplice?

NARRATOR: Tess’s heart hammered inside her chest.

TESS: No, Your Majesty. She’s not “my accomplice”; she’s my little sister, Mabel. Times have been hard for the two of us, so I went to the market to find some work – or beg for money. I was so out of my mind with hunger that I found myself grabbing a loaf of bread! We haven't had more than a scrap of food in the house for months and next thing I knew I was –

QUEEN: Silence!!!

NARRATOR: The Queen held up a bejeweled hand.

QUEEN: I don’t wish to hear any excuses. The fact is, you stole. You are a dishonest thief who broke the law. And you know what I always say: the law is the law, and the law must be followed! Period. (beat) Therefore I hereby sentence you to a lifetime in prison! Guards? Take this woman away!

NARRATOR: Tess gasped as the queen’s guards came barreling her way. But then, all of a sudden…

MABEL: Wait! Stop!

NARRATOR: All eyes swiveled toward Mabel. The Queen fixed the girl with a steely stare.

QUEEN: How dare you interrupt?!? What are you going to do? Beg my mercy? Plead for your lying, cheating older sister to go free?

MABEL: No, Your Majesty! I won’t do anything of the sort! Before you take my older sister away, I would just like to offer you… a gift! As an apology for what happened at the market.

QUEEN: A “gift,” you say?

NARRATOR: The Queen tilted her crowned head.

QUEEN: And what sort of “gift” could the poor little sister of a dishonest thief possibly offer a magnificent monarch like me?

MABEL: Why, only one of the most precious gifts in the whole wide world, Your Excellency! One I know you will especially appreciate! Allow me to present…the kernel of truth!

NARRATOR: Mabel held out the wooden box and lifted the lid. The Queen peered inside.

QUEEN: “The kernel of truth”?!? All I see in that box is an ordinary kernel of corn!

MABEL: On the contrary, Your Majesty! This kernel of corn may look ordinary. Yet according to legend, this corn kernel is anything but ordinary!

QUEEN: “Anything but ordinary”? What do you mean?

NARRATOR: Tess was wondering the same thing. What was her clever little sister cooking up?

MABEL: Well, Your Highness… The legend goes that if you plant the kernel of truth in fertile ground, a tall stalk of corn… with ears made of pure gold… will sprout – overnight! Plant the kernel at sundown, and by sunrise you’ll have a glorious stalk of shimmering, glimmering, golden corn! There’s just one… catch.

NARRATOR: The Queen arched an eyebrow.

QUEEN: And what would that “one catch” be?

MABEL: Well… it’s called “the kernel of truth” because it only works its magic for someone who has never done anything untruthful, or dishonest. If you have done something dishonest, and you try planting the kernel, you won’t grow a stalk of golden corn. You’ll grow a stalk of poisonous snakes! Isn’t that right, Sister

NARRATOR: Tess was caught off-guard, but she knew it was her job to play along.

TESS: Uh, yes, Mabel! That’s right! Only a person who is one-hundred-percent truthful and honest will have success planting and harvesting golden corn from the kernel of truth!

NARRATOR: The Queen looked long and hard at the kernel. Then she looked long and hard at Tess.

QUEEN: But tell me… If this kernel truly grows golden ears of corn, how come you were stealing bread from the market? You could have just planted this magical kernel in your backyard and become rich!

NARRATOR: Tess shot her sister a quizzical look. Mabel immediately jumped in.

MABEL: Well, Your Majesty! It’s like you said before! My older sister is – how did you put it? – “a dishonest thief”! Aren’t you, sis?

TESS: Uhhh… Yes! “A dishonest thief”! Absolutely! I’m nothing but a no-good swindler! A shyster! A hustler! A –

QUEEN: Enough! You’ve made your point. But what about your younger sister, then?

NARRATOR: The Queen pointed a finger at Mabel.

QUEEN: Why didn’t you plant the kernel, young lady?

MABEL: Me? Well, I’ve never confessed it before, but there may have been a few times when I told my big sister a lie, and insisted that I did all my chores when really… I didn’t. I’m sorry, Tess.

TESS: Apology accepted, Mabel.

MABEL: So you see, Your Highness? Neither I nor my older sister can put the kernel of truth to good use; all we’ll grow is a stalk of snakes! You need the kernel to be planted by someone who is completely and utterly virtuous. Someone who has never lied or cheated or stolen in their entire life!

NARRATOR: The queen paused and let Mabel’s words sink in. Then she glanced amongst her staff of royal servants, before calling out… to the treasurer.

QUEEN: Treasurer! I’ve trusted you with managing the royal treasury for years. All of the money, all of the jewels. You’re an honest sort. I want you to take the kernel of truth from Mabel here, and plant it outside in the royal garden.

NARRATOR: Mabel walked to the treasurer and held out the kernel. But the treasurer wouldn’t take it.

QUEEN: What is it, treasurer? Why don’t you plant the kernel?

TREASURER: Well, Your Majesty… I have managed the royal treasury for years. But during the course of those years, there may have been a handful of times when a gold coin rolled off the table and somehow made its way into my pocket…? Or my purse…? And I somehow forgot to give it back…?

NARRATOR: The treasurer hung her head. The Queen furrowed her brow.

QUEEN: So. You are dishonest as well! How disappointing. Consider yourself fired! Let’s try someone else.

NARRATOR: The queen’s eyes scanned the room… and landed on the chief minister.

QUEEN: Chief Minister! You’ve guided me ever since my first day on the throne. You’ve always given me such wise advice. Surely you are honest enough to plant the kernel of truth!

NARRATOR: Mabel walked to the chief minister and held out the kernel. But, just like the treasurer before him, the minister wouldn’t take it!

QUEEN: What is it, Chief Minister? Why don’t you plant the kernel?

CHIEF MINISTER: Well, Your Excellency… it’s always been my pleasure to give you guidance and advice! But there may have been a few times when I went against my better judgment and told you not what I believed, but what I thought you wanted to hear! Especially when I knew it would win me favor!

NARRATOR: The chief minister turned away with embarrassment. The Queen turned scarlet with rage.

QUEEN: Lies!?! You’ve told me lies!?! Then you are fired, too! Let’s try someone else!

NARRATOR: Once more, the Queen looked around the room. Her pointed glance fell on the royal secretary.

QUEEN: Secretary! You’ve been arranging my schedule for years: every meeting, every conference, every banquet. Surely you are honest enough to plant the kernel of truth! Take the kernel from Mabel here, and plant it in the garden.

NARRATOR: Mabel walked to the secretary and held out the kernel. But, just like the treasurer, and the chief minister, the secretary wouldn’t take it either!

QUEEN: What is it, Secretary? Why don’t you plant the kernel?

SECRETARY: Well, Your Highness… it’s always been my pleasure to manage your very busy schedule! But there may have been a few times when someone wished to see you right away… and though your calendar was full, I was able to work them in – after they gave me a gift of money… or jewelry… or, say, a bottle of wine and a fancy steak dinner…? 

NARRATOR: The secretary looked like he might faint. The Queen looked like she might explode! 

QUEEN: Bribes!?! You’ve accepted bribes!?! Now you are out of a job, too! Ugh! There has to be someone on my staff who is virtuous enough to plant the kernel of truth!!!! Someone!!! Anyone…????

NARRATOR: An uncomfortable silence filled the room. Then at last, Mabel spoke up.

MABEL: With all due respect, Your Majesty... Perhaps the one person who is honest and truthful enough to plant the kernel of truth… is you!


MABEL: Well, yes! You are the queen, after all! And as the queen, you make all of these many many laws, punishing every single person for every little thing. So surely, Your Majesty… surely your virtue lies above all others…?

NARRATOR: The Queen blinked her eyes.

QUEEN: Well…

NARRATOR: She shifted in her seat.


NARRATOR: She coughed.

QUEEN: (Cough.)

NARRATOR: She cleared her throat.

QUEEN: (Clears throat.)

NARRATOR: And then… at last… she slumped her royal shoulders and heaved a great sigh.

QUEEN: The fact of the matter is… my virtue does not lie above all others! I, too, have told some untruths. (beat) Like last month, when I told my treasurer here that I couldn’t give the staff a raise, because there wasn’t enough money in the royal coffers. The truth is, there was plenty of money! I was just being stingy! 

TREASURER: Hmmm… I thought that sounded fishy!

QUEEN: Then there was that time last year when my chief minister suggested I was making too many laws. So I told him to ask the people what they thought. (beat) But when he came back with a comprehensive, detailed survey of the public’s views, I didn’t even bother to read it! I tore it right up.

CHIEF MINISTER: So that’s what happened…!

QUEEN: And then how can I forget the time last week when I told my secretary that I was “too busy” to attend a meeting he’d arranged with the king of a neighboring country!? The truth is, I find meetings like that insufferably boring! I just wanted to spend the week lounging around!

SECRETARY: I was kind of suspicious about that….

NARRATOR: The Queen hung her head. When at last she looked up again, she turned her eyes toward Mabel.

QUEEN: Young lady… I want to thank you. You have helped me see that no one is perfect. I realize now that if my laws were as strictly enforced as I wished them to be, not one of us would be standing here today. Not even me. (beat) And so… your sister is free to go – and my treasurer, chief minister, and secretary may have their jobs back.

TREASURER: And… a raise, Your Majesty?

NARRATOR: The Queen smiled.

QUEEN: Yes. And a raise.

NARRATOR: Well, after that, the Queen reconsidered all of her laws – after sending Tess and Mabel home to their snug little house in the countryside. But she didn’t send the sisters home empty-handed. She gave them both a big bag of food, and an even bigger bag of gold coins, so they would never go hungry again.

But the Queen held on to the kernel of truth – to serve as a reminder that even if none of us can successfully plant it in the ground, we can all plant a kernel of mercy, justice, and fairness inside our heart.

Rebecca Sheir Twitter Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.



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