When Work Is Play

June 13-16, my college is hosting a comics conference organized by my husband and a couple of colleagues. The event will include a gallery show, “Sequential Investigations: The New Comics.” As part of the work he submitted for the show, artist Warren Craghead sent drawings on post-it notes, which people can take and put up around the campus (or wherever). Today I got to do a “teaser” and wander the building sticking up art and taking photos of it. Some samples:

jazzThis drawing made me think of a sun salutation, and also of Matisse’s Jazz cutouts. So I stuck it in a glass room in our atrium, outside which a jazz trio was playing for graduation. I love how the wall disappears in the photo.

And this one echoed the shape of a dinosaur model in a display in the science hallway. They can keep each otherdinosaur company!

I told people what I was up to and got some of them to choose a picture for their office doors. Making a guerilla art installation was the most fun I’ve had at work in ages. My mother-in-law and her friends have done some yarn bombing, and I can really see the appeal.

For the last four years, I’ve been chairing the academic governance council at my college, and doing much less teaching than normal (none at all this academic year). Making educational policy and approving curriculum is important, and I’ve found it interesting, but it is not much fun. I do a lot of my work alone in a windowless office. Teaching can be fun; interacting with students can be fun. Next year, I’ll be continuing on with some policy revisions, but I’ll be done with my governance role, and I will be teaching a section of Children’s Literature. I feel especially lucky because the following year we’re moving this class to second year, where it’s a more logical fit and transfers better, but which means it will be offered much less frequently (I teach at a community college, and most of our course offerings are first year).

Now I’m frantically deciding what books to order and how to structure the class, which I have not taught for five years. This section is three hours once a week, which means I have to adjust the two hours twice a week structure I used before and think about what is going to drop out. I try to choose a representative range of texts: we sample the origins of children’s lit (folk and fairy tales, fables, early didactic literature) and then do some novels. I’ve taught as many as five novels, but I’m increasingly a believer in “uncoverage” and I’m wary of assigning too much reading.

I like to choose novels that range from the realistic to the fantastic, include both “girl books” and “boy books” (though we question those designations), and have at least one Canadian author and one 19th/early 20th century “classic” on the list. But I’m thinking of doing only three novels for fall. There’s no way I can get all of that with three books–at least, not easily. Creating a reading list is kind of like one of those slider puzzles, or sudoku (if I pick this one, then I’ll have to do that instead of that other one). It’s frustrating and it feels like it will never work out–and of course it won’t be perfect, there’s no such thing–but it’s also fun. Lots of fun: “Oooh, this shiny book! That one! This would be so great to talk about!” Nothing has gone wrong yet, the semester remains an open field of delicious possibility, brilliance from me and the imagined students, wonderful deep learning, etc.

Here’s what I’m thinking (at this moment; ask me again in five minutes):

  • Coursepack with some short critical/theoretical readings, fables, early lit; I might put fairytales in here or I might order an anthology. I’m still figuring out the contents. [In case you’re wondering, we have copyright licensing. This will be legal.]
  • Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. Technically young adult and outside the scope of the course, but we’re flexible (someone else has been teaching it, I noticed). And it seems especially timely because the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is holding events in Vancouver in September.
  • Kit Pearson, Awake and Dreaming. I love this book, it combines fantasy and reality in interesting ways, it reflects on the power of reading. Students love it. It’s very effective to teach, with lots to discuss. And I’ve got to choose at least some texts I’ve taught before to control my workload.
  • Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle. I’ve done one of the Chrestomanci books before, but I think this will work better because it uses so many fairytale tropes. And it’s one of my favorites.
  • I’m still thinking of maybe Adam Rex’s True Meaning of Smekday, which was a hit with my whole family. It’s a hilarious tale of alien invasion. I’ve found funny books hard to teach, though. People are afraid of popping the balloon and don’t want to analyze. And I can’t decide if I’d swap it out for the Wynne Jones or the Pearson. *slides puzzle pieces around, sees what picture looks like this way*

I just finished reading Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower, which made me look forward to teaching children’s lit even more. Aimless 20-something children’s librarian Lucy Hull and her ten-year-old patron Ian run off together, in a funny and heart-breaking roadtrip. Or is it a classic literary journey? The novel is full of references to children’s books, right from the title: my own ten-year-old asked me if it was a book about “those little people who steal stuff.” And indeed, Lucy asks herself if she has stolen Ian or is saving him. It’s a book about how stories save us, and also deceive us. It’s about growing up, its pains and pleasures. And it ends, like many great children’s novels, with both disenchantment and hope. I thank Willaful for the recommendation, and Makkai for the reminder of all the big questions children’s literature helps us to talk about.

Bring on September. But not yet! Maybe that book instead. . . .


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6 Responses to When Work Is Play

  1. Miss Bates says:

    I love teaching TRUE DIARY too. What a great choice, hope it doesn’t get ousted. My colleagues and I like to combine DIARY with PERSEPOLIS for boy/girl combo. It’d be fun to take your course!

  2. rmaitzen says:

    Oh, I know what you mean about that expansive “nothing has gone wrong yet” feeling from planning a new syllabus. One reason I hate that our course descriptions and book orders for the fall now have to be submitted so early (March/April) is that it’s hard to enjoy that kind of creative planning in the midst of the current batch of courses. My winter term courses remain undefined, so later this summer you’ll probably see a post like this from me about ‘Women & Detective Fiction’ (again!). I might try to read the books on your final list! YA is a ‘genre’ I don’t have much experience with — at least, not with more recent stuff. I’ve been wanting to read Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy for a long time.

  3. willaful says:

    Okay, my mom and I will be moving to Canada and auditing your class. 🙂

  4. Ros says:

    Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

    Sorry, I know you’re not actually in need of more recommendations, but I do love that one. In this spirit of “uncoverage”, could you assign a reading journal? That is, the students have to read and record a certain number of books, but have their own choices as to what they pick. You could offer some suggestions but let them choose the things which spark their own interest.

  5. Similar to Ros, I realise you don’t really need more recommendations. However, I can’t help myself 🙂 My only suggestion would be to include a series. Perhaps the students could choose their own. Series reading is core to children’s reading. Series with overwhelming numbers such as Zac Power, Goosebumps, Rainbow Fairies, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Babysitters Club. Even some with a smaller number of titles such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Judy Moody (and her brother Stink’s books) and the ever fabulous Fancy Nancy series (which are picture books and elementary readers). I realise that the Diana Wynne Jones book is part of a series so maybe that covers it 🙂

    I hope you will post more about your choices and how your classes go.

  6. I really need to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian which is in my paper TBR. I’m not recommending it as a substitute, since it’s a fantasy and is not about Native Americans, but Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue also deals with truth and reconciliation.

    I have Howl’s Moving Castle in the TBR too. So many books, so little time…

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