Reflecting on Children’s Literature

This is not a book so I won’t add it to the Blogger on Books section of the site, though you’re encouraged to check that out as well. No, this is me reflecting on my recent read of  the Bookbird Journal of international children’s literature which has an international board and operates out of the University of Alberta in Canada. It was my first time reading it, also my first time having an article included in it, and it was quite an interesting read.

Essentially, it’s scholarly articles on children’s literature, research, libraries, and reading programmes around the world: the Caribbean, the US, Canada, Africa, Europe etc. There were articles about engaging adult readers such as the interesting – in a wouldn’t I like to see that attempted here kind of way – ‘The Challenge: a reader-centered programme for young adults in vocational colleges’ by Fieke Van Der Gucht. “The idea behind the Challenge is getting reluctant readers in vocational colleges into reading by making use of positive adult role models and prizes as an extra stimulus.” One of the approaches I found interesting was linking the programme to a data base through which participants could be guided to material consistent with their interests. “Rather than browsing by author or book titles – as in more traditional data bases – this database starts from bwosing by the user’s reading habits, moods and interests.” (P. 71, Bookbird, 51.4, 2013). It also contains a mix of material, popular to classic and all variations in between. I appreciate this because I hate book snobbery, I’ve felt the sting of it as a writer and the judgment of it as  reader, but I maintain that I read what I read not what you think I should read, and before you dismiss what I write how about actually giving it a read – and then dismissing it if it turns out not to be your cup of tea. The other thing I found relatable about this is as a volunteer reader, mentor, and aunt, I’ve found that you’ll be pushing water uphill if you keep trying to get kids into reading outside of their interest; hook them with a subject or genre they’re actually into – be it fashion or sports – and then you can begin to open them up to other types of reading material; and they’ll  be surprised to find that they like it. So, yeah, I found this article quite interesting and relatable; not least of which their point that teachers and librarians play a critical role.

But as the journal’s sub-head emphasizes this one is primarily about the kids and there were articles coming at the subject of children and reading from different perspectives. Crystal Hurdle had me reflecting on my own visit, while in Massachusetts, to Orchard House, home-cum-museum of famed writer, author of perennial favourite Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, and Waldon Pond, while introducing me to Jane Langton, whose characters she ‘sees’ like ghosts as she explores the spaces they would have explored, and who she clearly believes deserves to be better known. “Why are some of Langton’s books out of print while Louisa May Alcott’s and Maud Hart Lovelace’s are not? I despair over what today’s generation is missing – the compassion, wisdom, and magic that is everyday life.” (P. 82, Bookbird, 51.4, 2013)

One of the stand out articles for me was Vivian Howard’s Picturing Difference: Three Recent Picture Books Portray the Black Nova Scotian Community. I had never heard of any of the books reviewed – which would be a theme for me through this – but I enjoyed the exploration of how they tackled issues of racial and cultural diversity. And the books reviewed – Up Home, Viola Desmond won’t be budged, and The City Speaks of Drums – sound quite interesting.

The bigger issue though is that books are so much more than just good fun – as if that wasn’t reason enough to read. “‘Picture books are a particularly rich source for the exploration of national identity formation in which the hegemonic commonplaces and myths about history,  ethnocultural identity, landscape and region, and definitions of community are articulated and contested’ (193) These three picture books offer insights into community, power, prejudice, and identity within the Nova Scotia Black community and depict the complex relationship of this historic community with the Canadian mainstream. While celebrating the internal strength and endurance of the Black Nova Scotian community, they also, either directly or indirectly, reference the historic isolation and discrimination experienced by Black Nova Scotians.” – (P. 20, Bookbird, 51.4,  2013)

Lesley D. Clement’s Death and the Empathic Embrace in Four Contemporary Picture Books explores how children’s literature introduces children to the idea of their own mortality by engaging with it in the fictive world; while Enkelena Shockett Qafleshi’s article dealt with images of Ethnicity, Nationlaity, and Class Struggle in Communist Albanian Children’s Lierature and Media. Those articles made an impression on me as did Exploring the Text/Image Wilderness: Ironic Visual Perspective and Critical Thinking in George O’Connor’s Graphic Novel Journey into Mohawk Country. The latter I found interesting for its exploration of how the images and text work together to tell the story – as I’ve worked to integrate the visual arts into the Wadadli Pen Challenge, it was an eye opener for me in reinforcing that the image doesn’t just reflect points in the story like a mirror but is a part of advancing the story and giving a deeper or more nuanced read (or counter-read) of what is reported in text. In the case of this particular graphic novel,  the article posits that the images give more insight as related to the cultural cues,  misreads of those cues,  the missteps that inevitably follow and the lack of awareness of those missteps than would the text alone. “It is the interplay between images and text, though, more than the characters, which creates opportunities for young readers to think critically about both the text and the images as they work together. Narratives told only through text (and the text-only verson of Van den Bogaert’s journal is a good example of this) are often viewed by tudents as being authoritative and hence true. One of the great possibilities that graphic novels may offer teacher and readers alike is that the cartoonish images and handwritten text boxes are more approachable, assailable, and questionable than their text-only counterparts.” (P. 33, Bookbird, 51.4, 2013).

Oh, this is giving me so many ideas for the 2015 Wadadli Pen.

In fact, reading this journal fired me up to want to do more in this genre of children’s literature; there was, for instance, one idea I’ve been sitting on for lack of funding for which I finally put out a feeler. There’s been no response or even acknowledgment of receipt – unfortunately not all that unusual in this freelancing life – but it’s a first step that I may yet pursue.

The article by Misty Sailors, Miriam Martinez, and Lorena Villareal on Teacher Authored Supplementary Reading Materials in South Africa was a motivator in this regard, reinforcing the importance of finding ways to create material from within, material that speaks to and reflects the culture and experiences of the reader. We read so much from without, the US and British mainstream culture in the case of us here in the Caribbean; if the books are as important in shaping perspective and identity as Bookbird suggests, can we continue to accept that reality or do we need to do more to stimulate material from within for our youngest readers?

So, somehow I am in this issue of Bookbird, as I said earlier; an anomaly among all of these lettered scholars. It tickles me to see Antigua and Barbuda there. And Wadadli Pen was never far from my mind as I read the other articles – for instance Rachel Johnson’s Setting up a Research Collection (With No Budget) had me applying her checklist to Wadadli Pen…

Purpose and Statement: Why are We Here? – To nurture and showcase the literary arts in (and of) Antigua and Barbuda – and increasingly where it intersects with other arts; by so doing providing encouragement to young people and especially young Creatives and a platform to help grow the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda, and appreciation of same, in Antigua and Beyond.

Location – physically, wherever the work is being done; virtually, https://wadadlipen.wordpress.com

Focus – the literary arts remains our primary focus; and within that literature that springs from the Caribbean imagination, with a Caribbean aesthetic, whatever the genre.

Documentation – yep, I keep a digital record of everything we’ve done. But we have no physical space so apart from the newspaper clippings, no physical record. Plus there’s what’s archived online.

Staff – we have none; this is all voluntary. But, as I’ve been saying, I’d like to access funding to balance this out a bit – this is a time consuming and, as a result of that, costly endeavour.

Volunteers – volunteerism is what drives this; me and every one of my partners and associates do this because we believe in it. Period.

My article is frankly less scholarly – duh – and more personal testimony. I am in this journal specifically because of Wadadli Pen and the article is about the experience of doing this programme, the why of it, the hoped for impact; and so in that regard, though writing of a writing programme, it fits the overarching theme of the journal, in terms of its emphasis on engagement of children through literature, an engagement that helps to shape not only their life, personally, but, because no wo/man is an island, the destinies of their communities. Who knew children’s literature did all that, right?

You may or may not know that I wrote and had published by Pearson my first children’s picture book, Fish Outta Water in 2013. Before that, I had no insight to the genre really though I was still pretty engaged with picture books thanks to the whole aunt and volunteer reading thing – I’ve done more character voices than I can count as I try to bring the books alive for kids. Working on Fish Outta Water, I’ve blogged about this before, was a revelation. CoverA lot of thought goes into it beyond the writing of the story. I’d written the story and submitted it, it had been selected for publication, but then there were editor notes (which is normal) and notes from the reading or education specialist (who is thinking of not just whether or not it’s a good story but on what level and in what ways children will engage with it). The latter’s notes were sometimes frustrating because it’s not a consideration I have writing adult fiction; sure these are considerations at the marketing end, but in the actual writing, for me anyway, it’s all about the story. But with the picture book the psychology, culture, and developmental level of the audience (the intended reader) become critical as relates to everything from word choice to concepts or the articulation of those concepts, and, there is less room for ambiguity – being clear and precise can sometimes tug of war with the writers desire to be …poetic). Bottom line, you’re not just telling the story. Maybe it’s different for other picture books but this was part of a series of readers – earmarked specifically as supplementary school readers, a fact I’m learning which also impacts how they’re perceived (or categorized) in the marketplace….sidebar: sometimes I get tired of these hierarchies in the publishing world, maybe, because I’m always on the bottom rung trying to climb my way up and being told, effectively, you don’t belong here  – but that’s a blog for another day. Anyway, I’ve learned how involved the world of picture book writing and publishing and reading and criticism can be. One of the journal writers writes at one point, “There is, however, an attitude, even among some who are closely involved with children’s literature that picturebooks are for pre-readers (of verbal text). Any of us who work with picturebooks will have been on the receiving end of ‘picture books are so sweet’ remarks. As, however, Cherie Allan demonstrates in her study of postmodern influences on visual texts for younger readers, many picturebooks are anything but ‘sweet’. They can be complex, daring, and sophisticated…” (P. 97, Bookbird, 51.4, 2013)

I agree.

Read my full Bookbird article here: JCH Bookbird article

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Filed under A & B Lit News Plus, A & B WRITINGS, Caribbean Plus Lit News, Links We Love

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