Thursday, July 14, 2011

Grand Adventure: Ruining Children's Lit for Adults

Several years ago, when I'd just graduated with my Masters degree in English, my mentor threw me a wonderous bone. It was a recommendation for teaching an online Children's Lit course at a university one state over. I've been teaching the class for almost four years now, and I love every twisty minute of it. It's populated primarly by students who are Education majors, and teaching the future teachers of America to analyze and become more aware of the history and implications in children's and adolescent lit is SO COOL. For me, anyway. :D

As you might imagine, I receive pushback occasionally. For some of my students, seeing mixed messages in literature they always loved is a shocker and a terror and downright treason!!! For me, seeing multiple perspectives and acknowledging my changing attitudes as an adult enriches the reading experience, but for some of my students it feels like I'm trying to tarnish perfection.

Case in point, The Rainbow Fish, by Marcus Pfister is an all-time favorite picture book for many readers. It's a beautifully illustrated story about learning to share and developing a communal attitude. Or is it? Some academics posit that the book is actually forcing a beautiful, well-endowed fish to share his scales unecessarily. At its core, the fish self-mutilates because of peer pressure!!! Sort of reminds me of a "friend" in kindergarten who wouldn't remain my friend unless I gave her my ring I bought at the Dollar Store. Bitch!

But anyway...

Children's literature -- like all literature -- is full of mixed messages, friction, and irony. We look for it. We find it. We understand it. Even if my students don't always like it. They do learn to be more careful readers and to take multiple perspectives into account and make more informed decisions in their own classrooms. Is it really wise to read In Our House -- a picture book about owning things and having a nice (middle-class) place to live -- to inner city children? It's their decision, but they learn to take factors into account that they may not have before.

So what do I teach? Three units:
  • Picture Books (and a Graphic Novel)
    • In Our House
    • Otto's Trunk by Sandy Turner
    • The House That Crack Built by Clark Taylor
    • Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti
    • The Babes in the Wood by Randolph Caldecott
    • I'm Glad I'm a Boy! I'm Glad I'm a Girl! by Whitney Darrow
    • Arlene Sardine by Christopher Raschka
    • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
    • Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
    • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
  • Folk and Fairy Tales (multiple versions of each)
    • Snow White
    • Cinderella
    • Red Riding Hood
    • Hansel and Gretel
    • Bluebeard
    • The Little Mermaid
  • The Novel
    • The Giver by Lois Lowry
    • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
    • The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
    • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodson Burnett
    • Skellig by David Almond
It's a whirlwind semester every semester, as you can see. I do plan to discuss these books more in depth throughout several posts in the near future, but in the meantime, what have you read and loved from this list? Anything you would recommend I add to the course if I change it up? How have mean, nasty professors stretched, hurt, or opened your mind when reading for a class? Or have they just irrevocably turned you off?


  1. That sounds like a really interesting class! I found that reading some of my favorite books to my daughter was an eye opening experience, as I noticed things I wouldn't have noticed when I was a kid.

  2. Interesting class. I'm from Book blogs and a new follower. I'm following on twitter (MyBookofStories) and My Life. One Story at a Time. liked your facebook page. Hope you'll hop over to my blog for a follow. I also a giveaway for Treasure Me this week. Thanks. Donna
    That bookclub looks interesting.

  3. I actually haven't read (maybe even heard of) many of those books, which feels a little crazy since I'm reading to my kiddos all the time (sounds like its time for a library trip). The class sounds fascinating though. There are often so many different perspectives and points that you can pull out of a seemingly simple picture book.

    My favorite teachers were the ones who encouraged different interpretations and thought processes; sounds like you do a good job with that.

  4. I don't know enough about picture books to speak to your reading list, but the novel list is a good one.

    I think all of the novels came out in the last ten years, except for Secret Garden, yes. The picture book list looks more like a survey over time to me.

    That's only a problem if you think it is. This is an introductory course yes? As must as I liked The Forest of Hands and Teeth I might drop it in favor of a second classic like The Outsiders or Harriet the Spy.

    I took a class like this one back when I was working on my teaching credential and loved it. I should really look into teaching one myself someday.

  5. It does sound like an interesting class! Now, I'd like to know Pfister's intent when he wrote Rainbow Fish.

  6. I'm kinda wishing that you taught this class online just so I could attend as well :) I'm going to be substitute teaching this fall and I'm really looking forward to being in the classroom again. I can't wait to hear more about these books and the discussions you have!

  7. I've always wanted to take one of your classes. This one would be at the top of my list. You are just so kick ass Andiroo!

    The Rainbow Fish has always been a favorite of mine. Thanks for ruining it. Hee hee! Just kidding. That actually always bothered me and E even asked me about it once. I think she was about 5 at the time. I'm glad to hear we're not alone with that!

  8. Ah...The Watsons Go to of my ALL TIME FAVORITES. That opening chapter makes me lol still.

    HATE The Rainbow Fish. I just think it's too sappy for words. But you know what i hate worse? Love You Forever. How creepy.

  9. Surprising I've only read a few books from the picture book/graphic novel category. Have you read Cynthia Viogt's version of Hansel and Gretel? It's brutally honest but yet lovely.

    For me mean professors have just turned off my mind when it comes to their class and what they're teaching. I did have a psychology professor who was very blunt about things. I didn't mind it so much from her since she it wasn't to hurt but help.

  10. Not Rapunzel in the fairy tales? No Rapunzel? I like Rapunzel and I think there's a lot there, but it's sort of neglected as a fairy tale (compared to the others you list). I vote adding Rapunzel to your fairy tale list and I am not just saying that because I have very long hair.

  11. Oh, I want to take that class! I've read and enjoyed American Born Chinese - which my graphic-novel gobbling son hated - and The Secret Garden. And, there was one more but I've forgotten it, already. I'd read the "self-mutilating" criticism of The Rainbow Fish before I picked it up and read it in the store. I don't know if I'd have thought of it the same way if I hadn't read the criticism first, but it was definitely not a favorite.

  12. Oh, The Giver. And, the fairy tales, of course. The Giver is one that bothered me in some way, but I can't remember what I disliked about it. In general, I thought it was pretty fascinating but apparently it wasn't all that memorable for me.

  13. Agreed about the Rainbow Fish. He should have changed his attitude to begin with instead of giving his scales away. Sharing scales doesn't make you a good friend. I very much prefer the later books where he is a really nice guy.

  14. That's so great that you teach a children's literature class. Secret Garden is one of my absolute favorites. I think Wizard of Oz would be an interesting one to teach because it was written at a really interesting time, and because of the political/economic theories about the book, which I don't really buy into. I'm sure I could think of a lot of other ideas. I like someone's suggestion of The Outsiders and Harriet the Spy. Any of the classic Judy Blumes would be great too (if kids still read those?).

  15. I had a similar experience in taking a course on Children's Lit in university the year before I entered teacher's college. It was rather eye-opening, especially examining gender in Anne of Green Gables and fairy tales. Comparing the violent Grimm Brothers version to the romanticized Charles Perrault to the Disney movie was fascinating. I love Where the Wild Things Are and I actually read The Rainbow Fish for the first time to a 2nd grade class last year. I didn't think about the idea of self-mutilation but I was a bit miffed about the push for sharing something that inherently belongs to someone else. It's a bit deep for 2nd graders, but the concept of sharing tangible items is probably the main selling point.


Thanks for taking the time to comment! Blogger has been a beast lately, so I hope you do not have any troubles leaving your thoughts.

Images by Freepik