Archives For Children’s Literature

Banned Book Week is held annually during the last week of September in order to bring attention to the controversial practice of banning books, but an exhibit at the New York Public Library is proclaiming the same message through March 24, 2014. The exhibit “The ABCs of It: Why Children’s Books Matter”  celebrates the development of children’s literature in picture books, in chapter books, and in young adult literature.

The exhibit which opened on June 24th, is curated by Leonard S. Marcus who has also curated exhibitions at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts, where he is also a founding trustee. This comprehensive exhibit is a must see and does not shy away from controversies in providing…

an examination of why children’s books are important: what and how they teach children, and what they reveal about the societies that produced them. Through a dynamic array of objects and activities, the exhibition celebrates the extraordinary richness, artistry, and diversity of children’s literature across cultures and time.

The differences in opinion on the role of children’s literature are raised at the exhibit’s entrance. Should children’s literature be foremost a means to deliver lessons of morality? (as Cotton Mather urged the Bible on young Puritans) Should children’s literature “delight and entertain”? (as John Locke believed with Aesop’s fables) Or should children’s literature tell the bare truth, not tales that “cover truth with a veil”? (Jean-Jacques Rousseau). From fairy tales to the Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games Trilogy, the controversy rages on, and the exhibit presents them all.

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A life-size set of “Goodnight, Moon” at the New York Public Library

There are tributes to William Blake’s poetry, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and a original copy of Janette Sebring Lowrey’s The Pokey Little Puppy. One large panel features the rhyming words (Sam I am & green eggs and ham) of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss). Along another long wall are the serial contributions of publisher Edward Stratemeyer: Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew. There is a tribute to comic books complete with silhouettes of Marvel and DC heroes, and tribute to books successfully made into films. A glass case holds the original Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger from A.A Milne’s 100 Acre Woods; Eric Carle’s colorful panels (Brown Bear, Brown Bear and others) glow brightly in the cases. Pictures of the exhibit are on the New York Public Library’s Facebook Page and the NYTimes slide show review.

There is a wall that bears the distinctive outline of one of Maurice Sendak’s “Wild Things” around the corner from a life-size set of Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night, Moon, waiting for the quiet old lady to whisper “hush”. You can listen to E.B. White read the last chapter of Charlotte’s Web, and try not to sob when hearing him say the line, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

The exhibit also points out the role of children’s literature in politics or in nation building.  On one wall of the exhibit, there is a sculpted relief of the world surrounded by three quotes; each quote makes an important point about the significance of children’s literature. The first quote is by Noah Webster from an essay titled “On the Education of Youth in America,” American Magazine, New York, December 1787:

“The Education of youth is, in all governments, an object of the first consequence. The impressions received in early life usually form the character of individuals, a union of which forms the general character of a nation.”

Political writer, author, and developer of the dictionary, Webster was an early advocate for education as key to America’s growth and development.  The next quote, however, gives the viewer pause…and a few chills:

“Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed.”
Interview with H. G. Wells -September 1937- said by Joseph Stalin

Similarly, the last quote does demonstrate how in astute political hands, children’s literature can be a powerful propaganda tool:

“Rise up children and learn to be free independent children of China, learn how to wrest this freedom from the yoke of Japanese imperialism, and transform yourself into masters of a new era.”
Mao Zedong from the Journal Children of the Border Areas- 1938

These voices provide a serious reminder that children’s literature is more than board books, rhymes, and fairy tales. There are powerful messages in these stories; some so powerful that they have banned. For example, there is Munro Leaf’s story of the peace loving Ferdinand, the Bull which “caused an international controversy” when it was first published; banned in Spain the book was burned in Nazi Germany. Exposing those horrors of the Holocaust is a copy of Art Spiegelman’s breakthrough graphic novel Maus.

Marcus’s exhibit presents the questions and controversies about children’s literature, but does not provide answers. The exhibit has examples of how this genre of literature can contain both powerful political tools and playful trivial entertainment. There is no answer to the exhibit’s opening questions as to whether children’s literature is a means to educate, a means to enforce a moral code, or a source of joy. On seeing the stories of childhood so beautifully arranged, I opt for joy.

At the end, a large screen posts a continuing stream of Jeopardy-styled quiz questions in an interactive, and serious time-killing, activity.
I stood answering questions (“curiouser and curiouser= Cheshire Cat” or “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile= The House on 88th Street“) for some time before a young boy noted, “Hey, you’re pretty good at this..”

“Thanks,” I said, “I really like these books.”

“So do I,” he responded before leaving.

Thanks for making that moment possible, New York Public Library. Continue Reading…

I hold up the book I will be reading aloud, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. The students start commenting:

This is one of my favorite books…
I love Thing #1 and Thing #2!
I (loved) or I (hated) the movie!
Can we read Green Eggs and Ham, too?

Cat in Hat book coverI settle the students down and begin,

“The sun did not shine.
It was too wet to play.
Just sit in the house all that cold, cold wet day.”

32 eyes blink brightly up at the pages as I turn them.
Several mouths move without sound to recite along with me.
The students are mesmerized.

Oh, did I mention that these are seniors in high school?

I am using a picture book to explain Freud’s theory of the Id, Ego and Superego (see post). Thing #1 and Thing #2 represent Id, and that righteous fish? The Superego. Yes, Dr. Seuss is great for psychological literary criticism, but he is not the only picture book in my repertoire of children’s literature used in high school. Here are a few of my favorites to use and why:

Tuesday by David Wiesner_CoverTuesday by David Weisner. We use this text for our 9th grade mythology unit because a myth explains the unexplainable. Our students have to create a myth for why frogs might lift off from a local pond and terrorize some inhabitants of a small town (see post).

The Monsters’ Monster by Patrick McDonnell. This mash-up of the 1931 film Frankenstein and Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel is ideal to stimulate discussion on the relationship between a creator and the created. In McDonnell’s version, however, the Monster is sensitive, compassionate, with more of an interest in warm, powdered jelly doughnuts than in seeking vengeance…a nice break from the rigors of Advanced Placement English Literature.coverbook_monsters-monster

the-arrival-by-shaun-tanThe Arrival by Shaun Tan. Surreal images capture the point of view of an immigrant experience which makes this wordless text ideal for students who are studying Ellis Island or Angel Island. Many of the illustrations are available on the website so students can look at the haunting pictures on their own devices as well.

Harris BurdickThe Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg. A book full of provocative images that has inspired thousands of stories explaining the mysteries in each sepia toned drawing. This book is wonderful for writing classroom, and there have been contests for the best stories written by children. Celebrated children’s authors have also taken an opportunity to try their imaginations using the pictures as story prompts in The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.

The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone; illustrated by Mark Smollin and There’s a Nightmare in My Closet by Mercer Mayer. Both of these books have been incorporated into our Heroes and Monsters English IV (grade 12) elective. I use them as a starting point for an inquiry project about images of monsters given to children contrasted with the images of monsters we know as adults. Most students discuss the “fuzzy factor” with cute, loveable old Grover as something they remember fondly. They also remember very clearly the monster that lived in their closets. The anxiety of Mayer’s “Nightmare”, sobbing at the foot of the bed, usually brings about a discussion of facing fears.

grover

There are YouTube Videos for students to watch in advance of class (flipped classroom):  The Monster at the End of this Book and There’s a Nightmare in My Closet

Nightmare

Fredrick

Fredrick by Leo Lionni. What does the poet do for society? This little fable answers that question and works well in any poetry unit. Frederick’s use of language paints pictures in the minds of the other mice who are struggling through a particularly bleak winter season. There is a delightful video recording of this to share in class or to have students watch on their own (flipped classroom).

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka; illustrated by Lane Smith. Want a lesson on point of view? This retake of the three little pigs is one of the best ways to present the advantages of this literary device to students of all ages. In his explanation of the story, A. Wolf comes across the first little pig after the house of straw caved in. With culinary justification, he says,

True story“It seemed like a shame to leave a perfectly good ham dinner lying there in the straw. So I ate it up. Think of it as a cheeseburger just lying there.”

The story presents opportunities to use other fairy tales for students to practice retelling stories from another point of view once they buy into Scieszka’s formula.

Fables by Arnold Lobel. Here are modern little fables that are one page long with morals such as “It is the high and mighty that have the farthest to fall.” One year, I used these fables with my drama class as short sketches. My favorite sketch to watch was the story of the Lobster and the Crab where the insanely spirited Lobster took timid Crab out for a ride in a boat during a tremendous storm. When the boat capsized, the student playing Crab cried out in despair, “Horrors!” while the student playing Lobster jumped and shouted with glee.”Down we go!” she yelled at the top of her lungs.
FablesLobel writes:

The Crab was shaken and upset.
The Lobster took him for a relaxing walk along the ocean floor.
“How brave we are,” said the Lobster. “What a wonderful adventure we have had!”

The moral? “Even the taking of small risks will add to the excitement of life.”

The same can be said for using children’s literature in high school.
The use of a well-chosen picture book will add to the excitement of a lesson! Continue Reading…

Read picture books.

Yes, I am talking to you.

(No, not you kids….)

I am talking to you….you, Advanced Placement English Literature teacher, pretentiously waving me off with your worn cover of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Yes, you too..the one taking notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the book you assigned for summer reading?

Time to do some other kind of reading.

Time to read for pleasure.

It’s time to wallow in Sendack (Maurice), Carle (Eric), and Seuss (Dr.).

Max Horton Ladybug

It’s time to discover Mo Williams’s Pigeon, Jon Scieszka’s Big Bad Wolf, and Jon Klassen’s hatless bear.

BearPigspigon

Why?

Primarily because teachers, all teachers, who are familiar with children’s literature can be positive role models for their students. They can engage students by making references to these books or they can make suggestions to young readers. They may even use them in lessons. But a new compelling reason has come out of a study by Jo Bowers and Dr Susan Davis, senior lecturers in primary education at Cardiff Metropolitan University. A review of responses by teacher trainees for primary grades indicates that reading children’s literature is good for your well-being.

An article in the British paper The Guardian Why Teachers Should Read More Children’s Books explains the study and promotes a paper Reflecting on Teacher Wellbeing that Bowers and Davis will give at Issues and Changing Perceptions conference in December 2013.

They had set up a year-long blog where teacher trainees could post reviews for three books they used with children over the course of the year. They then asked a focus group of these blog contributors a series of questions about their own reading experiences, such as, “What made you become a reader?”

The joys of reading became apparent, namely, how they had enjoyed “getting totally lost in a book” or “absorbed” by the narrative. It also became evident that they had close personal associations with certain texts from their own childhoods, and the fact that they could turn the page of a book and by knowing what was on that page gave them comfort and confidence to share that book with their class.

Trainee teachers reported they were using children’s books of all genres as a form of escapism from the stresses and strains of teaching in the primary classrooms. Researchers concluded that trainee teachers were using the book as a form of bibliotherapy, a therapy “increasingly moving away from its original medical model– whereby practitioners ‘prescribed’ self-help books to patients suffering from depression or eating disorders.” While the teacher trainees had to read the children’s literature selections as part of their professional development, they also found the experience pleasurable:

We have also found that trainee teachers often don’t read purely for pleasure, citing time constraints as the reason. Our blog project forced them to read as part of their professional development, and because they wanted to improve their subject knowledge. Wellbeing was secondary, but nonetheless became part of the project, almost by default. One of our students summed it up nicely: “Books are like best friends during stressful times.”

So, go ahead and pick up that copy of King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub and chant loudy the refrain “…and he won’t get out!”
Listen to the poetic wisdom of a small mouse who notes that everyone has a gift to bring in Leo Lionni’s Fredrick.
Or, share a red, ripe strawberry in The Little Mouse, The Big Hungry Bear and The Red Ripe Stawberry.

king Fredrick mouse

You will be reading for pleasure. You will be reading quickly, and you will probably feel better, things Thomas Hardy and Nathaniel Hawthorne may not do for you.

References according to The Guardian:

Jo Bowers and Dr Susan Davis are senior lecturers in primary education at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Follow them on Twitter: @Jo_Bowersand @drsuzyw. Reflecting on Teacher Wellbeing – Issues and Changing Perceptions conference will be held at Cardiff Metropolitan University on Wednesday 4 December 2013. For further information please contact:cseenterprise@cardiffmet.ac.uk.