by Linda Booth Sweeney

Book author: Philip Ramsey
Publisher: Pegasus Communications Inc., 1997 
Format: sophisticated picture book; fiction
Age range: 6 and up

Systems Thinking Concepts: 
simple interconnectedness, circular feedback, unintended consequences, delays, understanding how structure influences behavior, archetypal patterns of behavior including “Escalation”

A Quick Look at the Story:
Billibonk is a gullible, sweet-natured elephant living alongside a lively and diverse mix of animals, birds, and vegetation in the jungle of Knith. The animals in the jungle of Knith are well known for particular styles of thinking and behaving. The mice are considered the smartest and most curious of all the jungle inhabitants. The monkeys are clever and incorrigible, and the elephants specialize in “elephant thinking,” that is, their singular focus is placed on how to get the best, biggest, and most delicious bunches of their favorite food: yakka-yakka leaves.

All these different ways of thinking and acting coexist peacefully in Knith, until one morning when Billibonk finds himself painfully stuck in a thorn bush. His first reaction is to get rid of all the thorns from the jungle. His thinking follows this simple path: “The thorn bushes are too prickly for elephants. So let’s get rid of them.” In their urgent effort to clear away the rogue thorn bushes, Billibonk and his elephant friends overlook the tightly interconnected nature of life in the jungle. The thorn bushes may be prickly but they are also home to the jungle’s mice population. A jungle-wide crisis erupts as the mice fight back by perpetrating a nasty trick on the elephants. The elephants retaliate and the monkeys (not wanting to be outdone) jump into the fray with an ingenious scheme designed to benefit those they most care about: themselves. In this lively tale of escalating quick fixes, systems thinking and mutual respect eventually prevail.

Teaching Tips: 
Billibonk & the Thorn Patch is one of the few books that was originally written as a systems thinking teaching fable. Like all good fables, this one has a number of morals, including the importance of understanding and respecting mutual interdependencies. It’s not until the end of the story that Billibonk and his elephant friends realize that their efforts to remove the thorn bushes, and mice habitat, set off an escaAnother moral or teaching point is the premise that an overly narrow focus on little problems can add up to a big-picture mess. For example, almost immediately, the mice and the elephants quickly find themselves stubbornly defending their positions and upping the ante as they devise one nasty trick after the next. In doing so, they become caught up in an archetypal pattern of behavior or structure called “escalation.” When you use this book with students, encourage them to describe the “engine” underlying the growing tension between the animals in the jungle of Knith. This simple feedback loop visually represents this engine underlying the initial phase of the attacks


a reinforcing cycle of escalating attacks between the mice and the elephants:    



You can trace out the dynamics above in a figure-8. The elephants do something (develop a plan to get rid of all thorn patches) that the mice perceive as a threat. The mice respond in a similar manner by tricking the elephants so that they’ll avoid going near the thorn patches. This only increases the threat to the elephants, and they come back with an even more extreme trick against the mice.

One of the premises of systems thinking is that structural analogies (e.g., recognizing the escalation archetype in Billibonk and in an every day scenario, such as what might happen between two bullies on a playground) exist among systems in widely different situations1. For an extreme example, one of the archetypal structures underlying Billibonk could be shown to be similar to the structure driving the escalating global conflict we are now experiencing. Both parties see the others’ actions as a threat and so respond defensively.

As students learn to recognize these similarities, they are better able to transfer problem-solving insights from one context to another. So, go ahead and challenge your students’ analogical reasoning abilities by asking them to consider other such escalating structures, whether they be found in school, home or somewhere else in the world around them. Looking beyond the quick and easy solutions is perhaps one of the most profound insights that children can learn.

Questions to Ask:

  • What happens in this story?

  • How would you describe the way elephants think in this story? What about the mice? And the monkeys? How did these different ways of thinking affect how each acted?

  • What surprises did each of the animals experience? Why were they   surprised?

  • If you had been in Knith, how would you have tried to help the elephants to solve their problem? (You can use the “Helping Elephants to Learn” loop on page 59 of Billibonk & The Thorn Patch to facilitate this conversation.)

For older readers

  • What examples can you give of reinforcing or self-correcting (or balancing) behaviors?

  • Describe some of the short-term and long-term impact of the decisions made by the elephants, mice and monkeys. (For example, the elephants’ plan to get rid of the thorn bushes.)

  • One of the lessons of this story seems to be that the problem Billibonk experienced with the “Thorn Monster” happened because of the “great idea” he had had to solve the problem the day before. (See pages 18 and 19 in the story.) What other examples can you think of where a “good solution” seems to cause a greater problem later on?

  • “Advanced students might also want to explore the monkey scheme as a tragedy of the commons or to think about what would happen to the stock of yakka-yakka with the monkey scheme.” Phil Ramsey

Voices from the Field

Those who have read Billibonk know that it is a wonderful story for teaching kids, young and old, about systems thinking concepts and approaches. Carol Ann Zulauf, Associate Professor, Adult and Organizational Learning, Suffolk University finds that the story of Billibonk is a fun way to introduce adults to systems thinking. Here she describes her experience with a group of mid-level managers:

“I’ve used Billibonk with a group of mid-level managers who seemed to really enjoy the format and the critical key themes which emerged from the story. The themes we’ve discussed include: 

  • Generating insights

  • How conflicts over shared resources are managed

  • Changes in organizations

  • Discussing difficult things

  • Behavior patterns

  • Framing of problems

  • Treating living systems as if they had no opinions. They pull  back, often with–Reacting vs. creating…key theme to personal mastery

Partner Stories
The author of Billibonk, New Zealand university lecturer Phil Ramsey, has also written Billibonk & the Big Itch (Pegasus Communications, Inc., 1998, story book, fiction, age range 6 and up). The Big Itch explores the systems archetype “Shifting the Burden.” Other stories that nicely complement Billibonk include The Giving Treeby Shel Silverstein (which can be read as an example of the “Tragedy of the Commons” archetype) and The Butter Battle Book by Dr. Seuss. (For a systems-based review of The Butter Battle Book see pages 81-84 of When a Butterfly Sneezes(Booth Sweeney, 2001).)

—–1 How can you recognize a potential escalating <structure? These declarations, from p.206 of The Art of Systems Thinking by Joseph O’Connor and Ian McDermott, can help you to see when an escalating structure may be at work:

  1. I’ve got to match them step for step.

  2. If only they would let up, then we could too.

  3. I’m not letting this go without a fight.

  4. I’ll not be the first to back down.

  5. I’m with you every step of the way.


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