Reminder: Monday 15th is the To Love and to Cherish book discussion (uh . . . guess I know what I’ll be doing this weekend–writing a post and recovering from book club burnout!). I’m about half way through To Have and to Hold.
This week I submitted (very late) my book order and coursepack copyright log for Children’s Literature, so the texts we’ll be discussing are mostly set. I’m planning to do fairly regular posts about teaching in the fall, and some about the planning work I’m doing. Here are the texts and the thinking that went into their selection:
This includes some of the short works we’ll be reading and a small selection of criticism.
- A selection Aesop’s fables from various eras: William Caxton’s and Joseph Jacobs’ versions, and a humorous contemporary picture book version from Tony Ross.
- Selections from some early didactic works for children: including the New England Primer (whose alphabet begins “In Adam’s fall we sinned all”), Newberry’s Little Pretty Pocket Book, poetry by Isaac Watts (and one of Lewis Carroll’s parodies of same from Alice in Wonderland).
Throughout the term, we will talk about the didactic functions of texts for children, balancing the dual purposes “instruction and delight,” and the way understandings of didacticism and the balance between those purposes keep shifting. These works get us off to a good start on that, and help students understand that the definition of “good” works for children changes over time and culture. Most of these texts will not fit their preconceptions about children’s literature, so they’re a good place to start.
We will also read selections from Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer’s textbook The Pleasures of Children’s Literature that discuss the assumptions we have about children, childhood, and children’s literature. I usually spend some time in the first class brainstorming with the students to come up with a list of our assumptions and preconceptions. They can be quite varied, because the cultural background of our students varies a lot. I find many students are surprisingly (to me) moralistic and willing to sign on to didacticism–for children; they find it boring for themselves. So we start with assumptions and subject them to questioning through the term. I often come back to these opening questions in the final exam essay.
- I decided not to include fairy tales in the coursepack or to order a textbook. There’s a lot of good open source material. We’ll probably use the Sur La Lune site as a primary resource. This will allow me to choose tales later and to let students choose their own to write on if they wish.
- We’ll probably read a handful of other traditional tales online too, particularly coyote stories. I did not order Thomas King’s Coyote Columbus Story but plan to read it with the class. (I’ve taught the “grown up” version of this story before, and I’m not sure how the picture book text differs.)
Folk and fairy tales are great for thinking about audience; they are now, but were not always, seen as stories primarily for children, and they have been retold in many different ways for different audiences and purposes. That allows students to develop a repertoire of different versions of a single tale (just as a romance genre reader might build a repertoire of marriage of convenience stories, for instance). In my experience the comparison such a repertoire fosters makes for deeper, more thoughtful analysis. Many of my students are not big readers, so they need literary contexts for our course reading.
- Some parodies in there too, including the Ross and the Carroll mentioned earlier.
Children can be very sophisticated readers who enjoy seeing familiar stories turned on their heads. That’s important to recognize. Parodies often push back against didactic texts and give vent to rebellious impulses or represent alternative values, too–I use them as a way of considering the relationship between socialization and indoctrination, in part.
The Nodelman and Reimer text presents an argument for children’s literature as a genre, and what its generic features might be: primarily a home-away-(new) home plot and a hopeful/happy ending, primarily. We will read a lot of our texts against this definition, asking what it allows us to see and also how the texts might challenge it.
I’ve also included an essay by Nina Mikkelsen on writing for and about African American children, exploring the questions about authenticity and authority in fictional representations that romance genre writers and readers also discuss.
I think of these as a continuum from fantasy to realism, though we’ll also trouble those distinctions.
Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse, which I read (already pretty sure I’d choose it for the course) on the strength of the Book Smugglers’ review. I loved it: it draws on and reworks a wide range of traditional sources (some of which we’ll read), has a strong heroine, includes a dash of romance. I think it will make for great discussion. And I wanted something more firmly middle grade than Howl’s Moving Castle, which was my other option.
Kit Pearson’s Awake and Dreaming. I’ve taught this before with great success. It’s a Canadian book (with a local-to-us setting), an interesting blend of fantasy and realism, and a very literary and meta-fictional book. Lots to think about, including the importance of family and friendship, which are big themes of works for children.
Finally, Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. I read this ages ago and need to reread. But so many people recommended it. What really inspired my choice, though, is that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be hosting events in Vancouver this fall. The University of British Columbia, which is the flagship post-secondary institution of our province, has cancelled classes on September 20th so students can participate, and encouraged other institutions to do the same. My college had a lot of discussion about this–some at the governance council I chaired–and in the end will be encouraging faculty to excuse students and/or to incorporate relevant material into their classes. My class meets on the 20th, and I will excuse students. I wanted to include something less Euro-centric in my syllabus in any case, and Alexie’s seemed like a good choice in these circumstances (though it is not, of course, about the residential schools in Canada or by a Canadian author). I’m thinking about if/how to ensure students don’t just skip and how they might incorporate things they learn at commission events into their work for the class. Or if I should just cancel. It’s hard to lose a whole week of class (Friday classes are once a week).
I am looking forward to this class so much! I haven’t screwed anything up yet! (Or have I? Oh well, too late to change my choices now).