Considering the Classics

Long, long ago I wrote a professional book for Scholastic called Fantasy Literature in the Classroom. After Harry Potter, they had me update it and then retitled it Using Beloved Classics to Teach Reading Comprehension.  Both books feature my E. B. White author study, my teaching of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and other works of classical fantasy literature for children. Since writing the book I’ve been attentive to others who write of the problematic nature of many beloved classics, especially in terms of diversity. Most recently I appreciated Padma Venkatraman‘s Nerdy Book Club post, “Classics, Colonization and a Call for Change” in which she relates her own experiences with certain classics and urges us to carefully consider if and how we share them today with children.

While I’m clearly still a fan of teaching certain classics, I also think we need to vigilant at examining the ones we share with children to be certain that they aren’t problematic. Repeatedly. Just this weekend I visited a dear former colleague to whom I had at one point suggested do something with Kipling’s Just So Stories. (I illustrated “The Elephant’s Child” when I lived in Sierra Leone and remembered the stories fondly, thus my recommendation.) She was game until she read them and encountered some seriously racist language I’d completely forgotten and there was no question that it wasn’t suitable. (For those interested it is “How the Rhinoceros Got Its Skin.” Often editions edit out the n-word so you may be unaware of it. I just came across this thoughtful post by a parent on reading the stories to his child.)

Padma reports:

Despite all the amazing recent work that the organization We Need Diverse Books is doing, despite the many dedicated individuals who have been working for decades to raise awareness about the need for diversity and multiculturalism in children’s books, I’m sorry to report that my daughter has been given The Secret Garden and A Little Princess as gifts; not once, not twice, but an astounding seven times all in all. This gift has always come from thoughtful individuals who remembered that the stories had something to do with India; I am sure, however, that they didn’t quite realize how Indians (and other people of color) are portrayed in these (and so many other) classics. After all, I’ve even heard some librarians and authors of Indian origin say they’ve never come across a poor portrayal of an Indian person in a book.

I am so glad Padma wrote this post for the Nerdy Book Club audience. It is a large one and I suspect some in it are as unaware as those who kindly gifted those seven copies of Burnett’s book to Padma’s child. I just hope it is widely read. My audience here is far smaller, but I’m pointing it out hoping others will pass it on as well.

I still love many classics and will continue to teach favorites in my classroom. However, I will also point out issues such as those Padma highlights when necessary. For more on my thoughts around classics here are a couple of posts:

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In the Classroom: Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write

Some may have read or heard this story before, but for those who haven’t here it is again. It is what made me passionate that no young writer I taught ever had the same experience.

So my story. I loved writing as a child — until something happened. This was my high school A.P. English teacher telling my parents I shouldn’t take a role in the school play (my passion at the time) so I could “work on my writing.” He never told me what was the matter, never met with me to show me what I needed to do, and I never asked (as I was shy and he was a strong personality we admired very much). So I messed around and messed around with my school essays, clueless as to what was wrong. My mother remembered me up late at night and feeling so sorry she couldn’t help. I went to college worried and this impact my writing to the point where I was sent to a tutorial for help. I figured out that my problem lay in revision so handed in first drafts full of typos (this was the day of the typewriter) as they were still better than if I tried to revise them. The professor overseeing the tutorial told me it was all in my head and there was nothing she could do. So what I did was avoid all English classes for my undergraduate and graduate studies. (And, boy, did I yearn to attend them. Some sounded right up my alley, but I wasn’t going to risk it. Instead I read voraciously on my own — classics, everything.)

In the early 1980s I became deeply involved with the burgeoning personal computer movement in schools, finally matriculating as one of the first classes for a program in computers and education at Teachers College Columbia University. I was surprised to find out that I was good at programming — doing it and teaching it (having been a miserable math student). And then, as one of my final courses, I took Lucy Calkins’ summer institute in writing. It was the second one and it was a revelation for me in many ways. The idea of the workshop — of a process — has informed my work as a teacher ever since.

A few years later I broke through my own writing phobia by writing an essay that got me a competitive fellowship to study children’s literature at Princeton. At the same time I was becoming more and more active online in children’s literature and educational communities. All of this made me finally believe I could write. And I did — books for teachers, articles, blog posts, etc. And a book for children that was lauded for its writing. I’m currently working on a new project and was elated when recently the editor I’m working with celebrated my ability to write fiction.

All of this informs my beliefs when it comes to teaching writing to 4th graders. These include:

  • Creating situations where students feel invested in their writing
  • That they have audiences
  • That they find joy in the work
  • That they understand that there are many different ways and reasons to write — some being completely private, some to figure out a problem, and more.

Of late my impression is that writing instruction in schools is highly driven by testing, common core curriculum, packaged programs, and consultants. Often these are highly scripted and allow little opportunity for children to write for themselves. As I work in a private school, I have far more freedom than many of my public school colleagues, but this overall approach affects us too as it is now presented in language arts communities and organizations as best practices.

What has struck me is that the focus in now on kids learning structures, on expository writing above all, and no consideration of audience or, worse, joy. And so I was eager to read Ralph Fletcher’s Writing Joy: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing. It happens Ralph was my writing instructor when I took the TC institute those many years ago and we have run into each other over the years. (His wife, it happens, was my instructor then too.)

Ralph is blunt about the reduction of joy in today’s writing programs. In the book he does a clear presentation of the history, of the current situation, and then makes some very smart suggestions. That is, find places for kids to write for fun, in ways that they truly care about, that aren’t graded, that can be full of spelling errors, etc He suggests “Greenbelt Writing” a sliver of a place in children’s daily school lives where they can play textually, away from the regular writing curriculum. This would be on the side, a sort of recess time (as I understand it), an enjoyable and relaxing place with the goal of kids having fun writing, of finding joy in it.

Last year I started a weekly BoB session to replace reading logs (see this post for details). The kids love, love, love this. They read, they update their BoBs (Book of Books), and chat with me. Sometimes we talk as a group about what we are reading. Mostly it is a quiet and serene time. (I bought a bunch of soft lights that we put on their desks so we can avoid the bright overhead.)

Reading Ralph’s book made me decide I want to do something similar with writing. It will be tricky taking over another period for it, but I’m determined to do so. I’d love a cool acronym for it that goes well with BoB. Any thoughts? I see it as a greenbelt time where kids will write whatever they want, to share or not.

This isn’t a regular review, but a personal response to Ralph’s book. It is a short book, to the point, clear, and may be uncomfortable for some, but also it is kind and offers some fabulous suggestions I hope others consider. As I already wrote, I sure am.

Thanks, Ralph, for writing what really really needs to be said today.

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Shannon Hale’s Real Friends

Shannon Hale’s Real Friends was a Reading Without Walls challenge for me. That is, as a child and still today, I’m not much of a group person, most likely related to my introversion. From childhood on I can recall being part of groups of people I liked, but they almost always wanted to spend way more time together than I did. Shyness is probably also a factor as we moved a lot and so I was never in a school more than three years. This made me happy to find just a single friend. Now Shannon wanted this too, but in her case the single good friend always seems to be tied to bigger group politics which was not my experience. So I wasn’t gravitating to read this one, but did because this is so much the reality of many children and especially my students.

That is, I’ve been a classroom teacher for decades and have observed and helped kids navigate friendships throughout that time. Sometimes it is one person snubbing another, sometimes it a group thing (with the popping up of clubs always a sign that someone is probably being excluded), sometimes it is sweet and lovely, and sometimes it is mean and vile and intractable. And so while I didn’t read Real Friends for nostalgic or personal reasons, I did read it because it was so real and raw in terms of many children’s reality.

Shannon’s description of the ups and downs of friendship and, especially, the complicated dynamics of groups and popularity are vividly and honestly done. For kids for whom this resonates this book will be a life-saver, something that will speak to them, that they will see themselves in. Or perhaps they are yearning to be part of a group — this may help them understand it isn’t necessarily nirvana. I appreciated that Shannon isn’t represented as perfect when part of a group by any means  — she doesn’t do the usual forgiving of one culprit, she doesn’t significantly help another bullied child (authentically being too self-absorbed in her own woes to do more than recognize her and talk to her when they are thrown together). Kudos to Shannon for being so authentic and real and honest. As an adult, I found the family dynamics most potent, especially her relationship with her big sister. Shannon doesn’t hold back and, boy, is some of it rough. Fortunately, there seems to be the start of a better understanding at the end and more in the afterward that is reassuring for any who worried about Wendy.

A piercingly honest view into the complicated social life of one young girl that is certain to resonate for all who have observed, participated, or otherwise experienced the difficult dynamics of school friendships.

 

 

 

 

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Indie Press Spotlight #3

Here are two oversized books that feature languages from around the world.

The Hello Atlas by Ben Handicott and Kenard Pak is a very cool look at language from all over. It is remarkably comprehensive (while, of course, not able to be complete) and a rich reading/looking/listening experience. (That last is because it comes with an app.) Each section begins with a map showing the languages highlighted, provides brief text about them, and then come a series of illustrations for representational children saying something in their language.

Hello World by Jonathan Litton and illustrated by L’Atelier Cartographik is an oversized board book featuring a handful of languages from different continents. Large double-page spreads are provided for Europe, North and South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia/Oceania. Fun lift-the-flaps provide tidbits of information and pronunciations. While definitely fun and worthwhile adults should discuss with child readers those images that are stereotypic.

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Celebrating Rick Riordan

I’ve been a fan of Rick Riordan‘s kid books from the very beginning and of the man as well. (He previously wrote books for adults.) After reading and loving The Lightning Thief and checking out his teacher guide, I wrote him of my admiration for both. At the time he was either still teaching middle school or had only very recently stopped and the guide was one he’d developed himself for his own classroom. Happily it is still available on his website here. He wrote me a lovely handwritten letter back (which I, sadly, no longer have) and sent me an extra-large Camp Half Blood t-shirt (which, I believe, he may have been making on his own dime at the time).

A few years later we were fortunate to have him speak at our school and since then I’ve seen him here and there. One of my favorite times was at the Brooklyn Museum for his launching of The Kane Chronicles. Of course, going through the Egypt galleries with Rick was awesome, but I got a kick out of something so totally out-of-context that I have never forgotten it. Alex McCord, one of the original Real Housewives of New York, was there with her family and it was so …odd.. that I couldn’t get over it. She just loomed over all of us frumpy sorts in her heels and tight blue sheath and told me her children loved Riordan’s books which is no doubt true. (She has since moved to Australia and become a psychologist — not the life of any of the other original ladies, that is for sure.) I was amused to see Riordan in his usual tweed jacket with leather elbow patches in a photoshoot with them. Along with everything else, the man is incredibly generous.

Riordan is also a model for how to do it right as a white writer in terms of diversity, LGBT, and #ownvoices. He has included characters of various ethnicity and race in ways that feel real and never forced. When someone on twitter questioned him about a problematic line about spirit animals in The Sword of Summer and Debbie Reese asked if he could have it deleted in future editions, he apologized immediately and said he’d asked his editor and it would be done.  His superb rendering of a gender-fluid character in Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Hammer of Thor was recognized by the 2017 Stonewall Committee. And he’s started a new imprint Rick Riordan Presents that will

… publish great books by middle grade authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, to let them tell their own stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage.

This post started out as I wanted to put down some thoughts about Riordan’s latest, The Dark Prophecy (The Trials of Apollo, #2). Plot-wise it offers many of the same thrills as earlier ones — cliff-hangers, prophecies, battles, obstacles to overcome, tests, etc. But Riordan elevates these tropes into a different reading realm from most. This is because of his stellar writing. There is wit, stuff to make you think, and an economy and tightness that keeps everything moving briskly along. Riordan’s characters are well-drawn and nicely varied diversity-wise in a way that feels authentic and not forced. And then he manages to make it funny, perhaps closer to the way Terry Pratchett does than anyone else I can think of. I suspect I noticed this particularly with this book having recently read one by someone else trying to do similar things. To be honest, I don’t find plots that resemble games (lots of tests, etc.) especially compelling unless— as with Riordan’s works — there is more to enjoy.  There is here and I can’t wait for his next book.  (And there is one delightful thing to see before you begin — Riordan dedicated the book to the great Ursula K. LeGuin.)

Kudos to Rick Riordan for doing such great work.

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Africa is My Home: Scholastic Reading Club Edition

I don’t think I ever posted about this, but Africa is My Home was a Scholastic Reading Club choice last fall.  Was fun to see it in the flyer and to receive copies of the special Reading Club edition.

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Independent Press Update

In order to make it easier for visitors to check out the ever-growing list of independent presses that I started on my “Amplifying Diversity: Independent Presses” post, I’ve created a page featuring them and added it to the menu above. Please continue to let me know of presses to add. (FYI I will only add international presses that have US distribution.)  I will also be continuing my Indie Press Spotlight series — two so far and many more to come.

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