Monday, March 18, 2013

Keywords for Children's Literature Edited by Philip Nel and Lissa Paul

Probably the best thing I took away from this book was facing my own biases when reading books and thinking about children's literature sociologically as well as historically. This book is a scholarly approach to children's literature in the alphabetized form of 49 essays by different authors that delves into the etymology, history, and meanings of keywords in children's literature, or put another way, it is an exploration of the social and cultural impact of certain words in children's literature studies. It is not intended to be read from A to Z, but to be read like hyperlinks of information found on the Web. Of course, I read it from A to Z because I'm a rebel at heart. Just kidding. Actually I don't know much about children's literature theory so I just plowed through the pages in a sequential way - from A to Z. I would suggest starting a warm-up lap with the essay, "Intention," by author Philip Pullman and jumping around like the authors suggest in the introduction. Pullman is easy-to-read and touches on many controversial issues in the field. I started with the essay, "Aesthetics," which reads more like a one mile run; a very interesting, if complex, take on children's literary scholars struggle to be taken seriously over the years.

The analysis of children's text is to study "the system of ideas that define a culture." All cultures have ideologies and I found the keyword "tomboy" interesting as this essay reflects the etymological change of the word and how the definition as we know it today shifted from boys to girls. The change to girls occurred in the 1800s and developed from the idea that parents didn't want sickly, weak young girls to become sickly, weak mothers. Girls were encouraged to be strong and independent as reflected in the novels of the time: "The Hidden Hand" (1859), by Capitola Black; "Lena Rivers" (1856) by Mary Holmes; and "The Wide, Wide World" (1850) by Susan Warner. Before this change, children's literature was more didactic and followed the romantic era of Wordsworth that stressed childhood innocence in need of protection. In the essays, "Childhood" and "Realism," the growth of the middle class along with an increase of leisure time led to a shift from didactic books to genre books and this development of realistic texts reflects not an innocent child but a "knowing" child, that is, a child in the process of finding out how to become an adult.

I found the history of librarians as moral gatekeepers interesting and disturbing. Am I a moral gatekeeper? I had an "ah-ha" moment somewhere in the midst of reading these essays. When I read Linda Sue Park's book, "Storm Warning" (39 Clues), I thought the drowning of the man in the book was too realistic and the emotion too raw. Yet, when Linda Sue Park was visiting our school she said it is her best-selling book. I read the book as an adult; a person who wanted to protect the innocence of a child. To some degree I am a moral gatekeeper. The parents expect me to protect their child, but I didn't realize that I was protecting their innocence. Is that really necessary? Are they innocent? Or are they knowing? These are some of the divisive issues touched on. Other essays bring up the inherent conflict of adults buying children books for an audience that happens to be powerless children; they cannot choose their own books when they are toddlers, which makes not only me a gatekeeper but parents and publishers as well. In a video where author Lissa Paul promotes her book, she tells the story of a children's book that was wonderfully written about an ogress who eats her children, she goes on to say that parents are not going to buy that book and it will not sell regardless of how well it was written; hence, publishers won't touch it. The essays explore these ideas further and explain how the moral gatekeepers reflect the cultural norms and ideology of the times and this is reflected in children's texts.

The essay on "Liminality," by Michael Joseph, was like being in a 10K race and I'm not sure my brain truly understood it properly. Liminality in folklore represents someone who is in transition, such as Gandalf in Tolkien's novel who is neither dead nor alive or Alice in Wonderland who is in a dream world.  I just read Marissa Meyer's, "Scarlet," book two of the Lunar Chronicles, that follows the folktale of Cinderella, except in Meyer's book, Cinderella is a cyborg. She's a liminal character for she is neither human nor machine but in a state of transition. Michael Joseph would include marginalized people as liminal characters; those who live outside of society or structure as found in novels such as, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie. Joseph applies liminality not only to characters in books, but to the book itself, giving examples such as the marginalization of comics. Comics have historically suffered accusations as being subliterary in the study of literature and Joseph would argue they are "inbetween"; they are neither art nor book, but a deconstruction of the picture book. Even though graphic novels have gained more acceptance he argues they are not conventional but reflect a reading experience that can often be subversive and critical.

I'm not sure about the arrangement of this book. On one hand, I liked the hyperlinked design idea, on the other, I wished the author had hyperlinked the context for me putting them in an order of natural inquiry - except that probably isn't possible because readers will come at it with their own knowledge and interests. I am a newbie to many of the topics versus a children's literature scholar who is going to be familiar with the keywords in a way that I am not because of my lack of knowledge. If scholars are the intended audience, and I'm sure they are, then it makes sense as is. I think both types of readers could be reached by creating hyperlinks to essays within the eBook. I can envision myself reading one essay then bopping over to another essay using a hyperlink (a built-in dictionary would be nice too). I guess I want a liminal book format. Or is that liminal? Like I said, I'm still figuring out what the heck that means.

I stumbled upon a blog that strikes up the conversation of children's literature with insightful comments on the contested issue of "Why is the study of children's literature important?" Low and behold the author of this book commented on the post: "Children’s literature is what we read when we are still in the process of figuring out who we are and what we want to become. Potentially, then, children’s literature may have a greater impact on us than any other books we read. Children’s literature is the most important literature we read. Period." The intention of this book is to strike up conversations about children's novels. It did just that for me.

4 out of 5 Smileys

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