Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Defining Children's literature

What key elements do I consider are essential when attempting to define children's literature? This is a question I have found hard to answer.

There is considerable debate surrounding having a exact definition for 'Children's Literature'. Why is it so difficult to define?

If we were to break it down into two parts and separately define them then we would get 

Written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit for those under the age of 18. 
(as defined by the United Nations http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child)

Surely that should be enough? Unfortunately - no!

Determining what works are superior, or having lasting artistic merit is highly subjective. What I consider to be a good book for children will be different compared to others. People enjoy a diverse range of genres, and what appeals to one does not necessary appeal to all. 'Literature is a deep experience that we respond to in many different ways and at many different levels' (Winch, 2006, pg 401). So, perhaps it would be better to say that the literature aspect for children is better defined as works that creates a connection with the reader, that engages people under the age of 18, eliciting an emotional or intellectual response, positive or negative. 'For most adults and children, a good book is one that at a particular moment caused them to feel and to think' (Barone, 2011, pg. 7). This enables a distinguishing between banal home readers for early literacy development, from picture books, novels, poetry, drama, biographies, autobiographies etc written for the purpose of entertaining or informing children.

If we were to consider the age factor, I think that it is valid to say that if an author has the intention of writing for an audience of children, whether it be to entertain, inform, educate children, then the works produced could be considered literature for children. Yet, just because a book has been determined by someone as belonging to a person between a certain age range, e.g. 0-5, does not preclude them from experiencing literature above their level of reading. 'Continual opportunities must be made for all children to be exposed to a wide range of texts from a continuum that is continuously being supplemented and enriched' (Winch, 2006, Pg. 399). 'Children need to be read to and read with, even when that are competent, independent readers' (Winch, 2006, pg. 400).

However, what is written for children is just as important as the intent for writing for children. The content of the work written has always been contentious, as we adults determine in a top down approach what is appropriate for children to be exposed to. Works written for children have always and will always be subject to the perspective, bias and truth of the author, illustrator, editor, publisher, reader and context of the society within which the work is produced (Winch, 2006, pg. 394). This has always been the case e.g. primers written in the 1600's for the purpose of moral and religious instruction. Chapbooks written in the 1700's, written to entertain instead of teach. The banning and censorship of books available to children has driven the content available to children. Even in today's world, concepts and issues surrounding sexualisation, violence, transgender, homosexuality, war have contentiously moved into the realm of child fiction (eg: 'Forever' Judy Blume; 'The Hunger Games' Suzanne Collins; 'Two Weeks with the Queen' Morris Glietzman; 'The Book Thief' Markus Zusak; 'Tomorrow when the war began' John Marsden). How we limit that, or determine age appropriateness, thereby categorising it as a book for children or adults, is again highly subjective and contentious (but always under the guise of protecting the child). Skilled, avid readers of fiction will always find a way to read above their 'age' level, yet it is important that the works that are available to children to choose from are not limiting, yet somehow content appropriate. A challenge! 

And then, just to put the cat amongst the pigeons, I come across Crouch, who states their conclusion that there are no children's books. That all the qualities of a good adult book, are the same in a children's book. The difference being accessibility. Literate adults can access any book. A child can access a book in so far as their understanding and enjoyment allow. 

So currently,  three key elements that I would add to a definition of children's literature would be:

  •  works that engages people under the age of 18, eliciting an emotional or intellectual response, positive or negative
  • works written for the purpose of entertaining and informing people under the age of 18
  • works that contain content that is considered age appropriate according to the context of the reader
  • works that are accessible to children at different stages of understanding. 

Whilst no closer to a firm definition of Children's literature, exploring the question has given me a lot of food for thought about what I consider to be important elements. I am sure as the unit progresses my thoughts and beliefs will deepen and it will be interesting to revisit this question in weeks to come. 

Barone, D.M. (2011). Children's literature in the classroom: engaging lifelong readers. New York: Guildford Press.

Crouch, 1988. CSU modules notes located at http://interact.csu.edu.au/portal/site/ETL402_201390_W_D/page/e92933f3-8ebb-4bb1-00ba-d690bf47ec01

Winch, G. (2006). Literacy: Reading, writing and children's literature (3rd ed.) South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

A vision for the future of children’s literature

My vision for the future of children’s literature is influenced by three experiences:
  • Myself as an avid reader of a variety of fiction and non fiction
  • My experience as a primary school teacher
  • My experience as a parent

For myself as an avid reader, I find it hard to comprehend a world where narrative does not exist in both hard copy and electronic form. There are people who believed that television heralded the end of print, yet that was not the end result. There are people who believe that the Information age heralds an end to print publications of books. While there is evidence of significant growth in the ebook market, most people I speak to of my generation or above, still love the feel of a solid book in their hands. That is not to say we don’t embrace the digital book revolution. I own a kindle, and I love being able to download a book at a moments notice. I still love a real book though and will continue to both buy and read printed materials.
I have not had much to do with digital narratives other than the static ebook versions of printed materials, and after reading Madej’s ‘Towards digital narrative for children: from education to entertainment, a historical perspective.” (2003), I realize that I have more research to do in this area. Noting that this paper was written ten years ago, it will be interesting to explore whether much progress has been made in making digital narrative of a higher quality with more complex narrative, rather than just action and games.
As a primary school teacher since the early 90’s, I have witnessed the impact that digital technologies have had on our children. As Prensky (2001) defines, they are digital natives, who instinctively know how to navigate and interact with 21st century literacies. I know that for most of my students, using a smart device, a tablet, a lap top, a PC is preferable to other forms of communication. And yet! The moment in the classroom that they always clamoured for, demanded on a daily basis and would bemoan the conclusion of, was the reading of the class text, out loud by me to them. We used a variety of digital narrative experiences throughout the curriculum, but this was THE one narrative experience they desired. I believe that today’s children enjoy print media as much as previous generations, despite their relationship with digital technologies. I believe that children today desire good quality narrative experiences as much as previous generations. So I used this opportunity to share good quality children’s books that they were unfamiliar with, to broaden their knowledge and experience of narrative; to build exciting, adventurous, thrilling, emotional narrative experiences based on words and imagination beyond the visual. Based on my experience, it worked and if we can keep it working for our younger students, they will hopefully carry that with them as they grow.
As a parent of two small children, I cringe when they get to choose their own books to buy (as they did at the school book fair on Friday) and we come home with Barbie Mariposa and two Lalaloopsy books. But as I believe in giving them the opportunity to choose, those books are now on the bookshelves and have been read far to many times in the past 48 hours! However, in saying this, a couple of books that I consider non-literature, are well out classed by the volume of better quality books that are read to my children over and over and over again. Reading Barone’s discussion on a brief history of children’s literature, (2011, pg 8-15), I was delighted to realize that we have so many of the narratives she mentioned. 

Narratives that I love to read to my children, that are lovingly located on their bookshelves and made the journey from Australia to Canada with us when we moved. Books my children love and woe betide the tired mother who tries to cut nightly storytime down to just 2 or 3 beloved books! My children demand their storytime, and delight in being read familiar and unfamiliar books. My children, who love TV and smart devices as much as the next kid, also love narrative and the delight and excitement when I announce that I have new books is more than they show for any toy that comes into the house. So, although Barbie and Lalaloopsy came home with is on Friday, I know that the narrative experiences I provide my children on a nightly basis is creating a sound narrative future for them, where they will (eventually) choose narrative texts beyond the scope of TV characters.
And I know I must be doing something right, when faced with no television, I find them tucked away in bed together, reading.

And who doesn’t love a 2 year old who weeps because she didn’t get to go to the library when I took Miss 4?
So, the future of children’s literature? Totally in our hands! As the educators and parents of children today, it is our responsibility to share and promote children’s literature whether it be in print or digital form. We must not sit back and accept the dominance of internet gaming and digital storytelling as the prime literary experience for our children. We need to share with them the depth and variety that can be found in narrative when read and bring to them world’s created with words, not just pictures.

 Barone, D. M. (2011). A brief history of children's literature. Children's literature in the classroom : engaging lifelong readers (pp. 8-19). New York: Guilford Press.

Madej, K. (2003). Towards digital narrative for children: from education to entertainment, a historical perspective. ACM Computers and Entertainment, Vol. 1, No. 1, . doi: 10.1145/950566.950585

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon (MCB University Press) 9 (5) 

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

I confess. I love to read.

I confess.

I have secretly read under my desk in school because I was dying to finish the book I was reading and it was far more interesting that the teacher and the subject.
I have been scolded for reading at the dinner table and for not doing my chores and for not getting out of bed on a Saturday morning instead of getting ready to leave the house with my family.
I have frequently read secretly under the covers after being told to got to bed.

So, according to Esquith, I am an avid and lifelong reader. My mum has commented that I was born with my nose in a book and been that way ever since! I must always have something on the go to read, and it has to be a supremely bad or boring book for me not to persevere through to the end. I read a variety of genres and because I believe in re-reading, the spines are creased and worn on many of my favourites.

Reading through the first chapter of Barone's book "Children's literature in the classroom", I am one of those people she describes who read for pleasure or escape or to find information. I choose books by my favourite authors and read everything that he or she has written. I use the internet and I love my kindle (though not as much as I love the feel of a book in hands). (Barone, pg 4. ) I identified well with her list of reasons for reading. I read for pleasure, and alot of what I have loved reading has been fantasy by authors such as Raymond E. Feist, Robert Jordan, Katharine Kerr,  Guy Gavriel Kay where I am transported to an imaginative world. I love the works of authors such as Barbara Erskine. Colleen McCullough, Bryce Courtney, Jean M, Auel, who write works of historical fiction that transport you to a place in history and enable you to feel like you lived then too. I read for vicarious experiences, especially autobiographies and biographies of people climbing Mt Everest, travelling down the Amazon river, surviving the holocaust. I read to ponder, to understand, to appreciate. I read to solve problems and engage in conversations.

And I have tried very hard to instil this love of reading, especially the love of reading for enjoyment and pleasure with the students that I teach. I have always had a novel on the go, that had no relationship to the curriculum, that we read every day - just. for. enjoyment. Kindergarten and year 1 have loved being transported to Enid Blyton's world of the Magic Faraway Tree and the wonderful and sometimes worrying adventures found at the top of the Faraway Tree ladder. Roald Dahl's works never fail to inspire my students whether it be Twits suffering the consequences of their actions, or discovering the world of Charlie and the Chocolate factory through the words of the text where 'square lollies with eyes look round'. I introduced my year 5's this year to Enid Blyton's Famous Five resulting in every student clamouring for more, resisting going out to recess until we reached the end of the chapter. I have brought alive the world's created by authors such as J. K. Rowling, Emily Rodda, Morris Glietzman, Roald Dahl, E.B. White, C.S. Lewis, Beatrix Potter, Lemony Snicket, Judy Blume, Paul Jennings, Beverly Cleary, Michael Ende,  Ted Hughes, Munro Leaf. When the students come back from the library, having found more works by the same author, or having borrowed what we have just read, I know that I have made an impact and developed an aspect of their love of reading for enjoyment.

There are so many many many novels and picture books that I loved sharing with my students over the years. Sadly though, my library collection of much loved books is back in storage in Australia. Which means I had best be off to join my local library as I can feel the need to borrow some children's literature and start exploring some familiar and undiscovered reading treasures!


Barone, D. M. (2011). A brief history of children's literature. Children's literature in the classroom : engaging lifelong readers (pp. 8-19). New York: Guilford Press.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

What is ‘childhood’?

Reading the first assigned literature “Theories of Childhood” (Burke, 2008), was an interesting and at times challenging read. I have never considered what the term ‘childhood’ means, though it is a concept that I have constructed personally from my time life experience, from being a child, a teacher and a parent. I had never considered the idea that ‘childhood’ as a concept is relatively new. When considering the lives of children in the past, I merely considered that they were different to childhood’s now for a variety of reasons.

Certainly, I have defined childhood according to parameters based on biological facts such as physical and mental development from birth to 18. I have considered it as a time of learning and development in preparation for participating as a functional adult, according to the cultural norms of the society the child belongs. I have considered it is a time of wonder, awe and imagination. Where the belief that anything is possible is greater than the belief that something cannot be achieved. I have considered it as a time when the person is most vulnerable and needs to be and should be protected from trauma, bullying, violence. I have considered it to be the time where a person prepares and develops for participating in society as an adult.

Looking at my children and their development over the past 4 and 2 years respectively, it has been a time of physical, emotional and social development. It has been a time for developing security, love and a strong emotional connection, where my children feel safe and secure to be the personalities that they are.

It has been a time for developing an understanding of our cultural moral norms. For my 2 year old, recently it has been a time of discussion about the morals of not hitting, biting, pulling of hair. We have discussions that physical violence is not acceptable. For my 4 year old it has been a time for discussion of many abstract moral concepts: lying, stealing, bullying, exclusion: that emotional and intellectual violence is not right. A time for the development of life skills in my four year old. From setting the table, putting away her clothes and toys, preparing a meal, dressing oneself, organization of personal and family belongings. A time for the development of literacy and numeracy skills.

Reading this article, as well as Guldberg’s chapter on Childhood in historical perspective (2009), brought me to the following understandings. 

*Phillipe Aries in his book ‘Centuries of Childhood’ put forward the theory that in Medieval society there was no concept of childhood, that children were treated as miniature adults. Lloyd DeMause and his associates controversially theorise that over time parental response to children has gradually moved from abusive and cruel to nurturing and affectionate. Whilst I do agree and understand that society has changed significantly over the past two thousand years, as a mother I find it difficult to accept that parents, regardless of the time period they lived in, did not love and nurture their infants. Of all mammals, our children are born the most defenseless with the longest period of growth needed before separation from adult assistance is possible. We are born vulnerable and I believe a parents instinct is generally to protect and provide for our children from birth as they grow. Children are the future of every culture and where higher infant mortality rates exist, surely that must mean that surviving children are even more valued?  So I don’t believe that the concept or theory of ‘childhood’ and what a child experiences as ‘childhood’ is only tied to the value a parent attaches to their child. Rather, the value and status that the parent’s community attaches to the child as a member of that community, defines what childhood is for that community. Which helps explain why the childhood of a ten year old in Australia or Canada, is very different to the childhood experienced by a ten year old living in the slums in Calcutta or a refugee camp in the Sudan; why children now do not go off to work in appalling labour conditions at the age of 7, but are in school instead. Our community has attached a different value and status to children different to other communities. Does this mean we value our child more than them? I would be hesitant to say so.
“childhood itself, the social and cultural expectations of the child, and its roles and responsibilities or stages of legitimacy can be understood very differently according to any contextual worldview.” (Burke 2008)

*I found the concept that childhood could be defined as a state of being less literate than the adult population an interesting one, that does not cater for low levels of literacy in socio-economically depressed communities, indigenous communities and migrant communities. This would mean certain pockets and members of our society could be judged as ‘child-like’ in their ability to operate within a literate society. Following on from that could be the supposition that children who are more information literate than their adult counterparts have ‘surpassed’ aspects of childhood and are therefore operating as adults.

*Which leads to an interesting line of thought. What exactly is childhood in a 21st century literate society? What implication does that have for us as educational professionals and the skills and content we are developing and delivering within our schools? What does it mean to be literate in today’s adult world, and how do we go about developing that within our students? What literature is vital and important for children as they move through childhood? Do we still share nursery rhymes, fairy tales, folktales, fables, proverbs for the development of the understanding of imagination as well as traditionally understood concepts of morality? Do we read for the purpose of teaching morals, rules, behavior and curriculum or do we read to fire the imagination, for enjoyment, for the love of reading? How intrinsically should literature be entwined with childhood?

In an increasingly global world, is it possible to have ‘one common childhood’ definition based on a global perspective of childhood, or is it still more a culturally subjective term based on culture, ethnography, anthropology, gender, accessibility, class and geographical location(Burke, 2008)? Is it as Postman suggests that the information and communications revolution at the turn of the twenty-first century has delivered the end of childhood, since the relational distance between the adult and the child has been terminally altered by the spread and crucial adoption by children of information and communications technologies.”?
What are the literature implications for this?
Lots to think about! What a thought provoking way to start the next unit of study.

Burke, C. (2008). Theories of Childhood in Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society retrieved http://www.faqs.org/childhood/So-Th/Theories-of-Childhood.html.
Guldberg, H. (2009). Reclaiming childhood: freedom and play in an age of fear: Taylor & Francis.pp 46-56 Chapter 3 , Childhood in historical perspective