Module 2 – Diversity in Children’s Literature

Before commencing this module conduct a personal stock take of your knowledge of Children’s Literature.

As an avid childhood and teen reader I have a good knowledge of the fiction around in the 1980s and 1990s.  As an early childhood teacher I have a good awareness of the young children’s literature around in the early noughts.  As a parent of five children (currently aged five to nearly fifteen) I have a pretty good grasp of what’s around, although it’s certainly not comprehensive – not as much as I would like it to be as a teacher-librarian.

On your blog list some strategies you use or could use to increase your professional knowledge of children’s literature.

Each year booksellers publish a guide to children’s literature and I’ve found some great books that way.  I follow many organisations through Facebook and Twitter (such as Better Reading, Booktopia and local independent bookstores) and so receive updates through those avenues.  I would like to be able to read Good Reading and Magpies magazines more regularly (these are available from my local library).

FictionFinder

I found FictionFinder a bit disappointing.  It’s certainly not comprehensive.  As an experiment I looked for Dystopias (one of my favourite genres) for adolescents, and The Maze Runner and Hunger Games series were not mentioned.  Nor were Ready Player One and Armada.  Of course there are plenty more however these are the ones that have come my way in the past few years and I found their absence noticeable, especially since all but Armada have been made into movies.  In the adult section, Hugh Howey’s books are not present at all, nor are any of John Wyndam or John Christopher’s books, such as The Chrysalids or The Death of Grass.  The service is obviously not comprehensive, which is disappointing.  The aspect I was most excited about was the “place” feature.  I’m not certain if its’ useful in all genres, but under “Urban Fiction” you can search for places, however “London” only retrieved two results while “Sydney” and “Australia” did not return any results.  I feel this is a project with a lot of potential but it’s just not there yet.

Chart

I opened the file for the chart and I personally don’t think an excel spreadsheet is a useful format for me to document that sort of information.  Instead, I have created pages on my Thinkspace under the heading of Children’s Literature to document that information.  The information contained on these pages may be useful to other people, but I cannot guarantee that it will be polished work, as it will be my own notes.

Contemporary Realistic Fiction

I’m interested at the examples provided for this genre, as some of them are quite old, notably S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book and I read it myself in high school, but if *I* read it in high school it’s not what I would consider “contemporary” and it wasn’t new when I read it, in fact, it was published in 1967.  Then I read the abstract for Michaels (2004) and see that it again refers to the books of *my* youth (which actually were contemporary then) such as the works of John Marsden.  I would be interested to see a definition of “contemporary” – in our assignments we are required to refer to works published in the last fifteen years, and the books I’ve seen recommended so far are not consistently from that time period (three of the six in the module as displayed below).

A series of book covers - Bridge to Terabithia, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Holes, Tales from Outer Suburbia, The Outsiders
Screenshot from our unattributed module.

I found the Michaels (2004) reading quite fascinating as I was an avid John Marsden reader as a teen.  I read all but one of his books mentioned in the article (Dear Miffy, the latest one mentioned) and many of his others not mentioned.  In contrast, I had only read one (Saving Francesca) of the five more realistic books mentioned.  I found it interesting to reflect on Marsden’s book’s now as an adult, about the untrustworthy adults in the books, and adults as a source of the problems, rather than a source of support.

Postmodernism

I first encountered the term “postmodern” when I was doing my undergrad degree in the late nineties.  I didn’t really understand it then (as “modern” meant up-to-date as opposed to the past) and the Klages (2003) article certainly gave me more information about postmodernism than I had gleaned in the intervening decades.  I am still unsure how we get from postmodernism in this general sense to what Aiken (2015) states as postmodernism in children’s literature, but I can live with that ambiguity (Belshaw, 2014).

The Monster at the End of This Book (Stone, 1971) was a favourite of my childhood and my children also enjoy the book either through the physical book or the interactive, animated ebook version.  Aiken’s (2015) article was an interesting take from a Christian perspective, although I wonder if the Christian content will deter some students.  In thinking about postmodern children’s books I am aware of, I couldn’t go past B.J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures, or the books by Beck and Matt Stanton. The Book With No Pictures crosses the “fourth wall” to interact with the reader and question the rules of books.  Beck and Matt Stanton’s books challenge assumptions and change the rules of books, albeit in a different way.  Both ask direct questions of the listener and engage in a sort of two-way conversation.  Reading about different picture books that tell a separate story if you look closely at the pictures (Goldstone, 2001/2002) has made me ponder about other similar books that I have read, but the only one I can remember is one from my own childhood – Chicken Little by Jan Ormerod.  In Chicken Little there are two stories being told – the one of the children on stage, performing the story of Chicken Little, and the one in the audience, with a toddler sibling not sitting still and eventually making his way up onto the stage.  I certainly didn’t think of “faction” books as postmodern – fiction books that also include sidebars and the like with factual information in them (Goldstone, 2001/2002).  These articles are certainly making me regret selling our copy of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka that I used to own (but never read) when we were homeschooling (Pantaleo & Sipe, 2012).  I do find it interesting that Pantaleo and Sipe have referred to such and old book for their article, when surely other more recent postmodern picture books exist?

List of selected titles of postmodern picture books, none of which are published within the last fifteen years
Screenshot from Postmodern picture books PPT

The recommended titles from the PPT in the module also display nothing written in the past fifteen years, despite the proliferation of these titles.

Six books - The Composer is Dead, Mirror, The Red Book, Wait! Wait! Wait!, Did you take the B from my _ook?, The Book With No Pictures
Postmodern picture books from my personal collection

In fact, I was able to grab these six books from my own bookshelves without taking a step.  Not having any recent titles is inappropriate in my opinion.

Books I collected - Willy's Pictures, Into the Forest, Black and White, The Book That Jack Wrote, Tagged, Please Open This Book

I went to two different libraries today.  I was able to find a postmodern picture book (Please, Open This Book! by Adam Lehrhaupt) just by browsing the shelves of this small library.  The other five, ones that are recommended for review in the course (that are all over 15 years old) I had to go to my local university library where they have a teaching degree, to borrow the other books from their curriculum resources.

Please, Open This Book is self-referential and blurs the boundaries between author and reader (Turner, 2014).  The book begins with animals who are relieved that someone has opened the book, so they are no longer trapped in the dark.  They explain their predicament and their relief until it becomes clear that there aren’t many pages left in the book, and they start to plead with the reader not to turn pages and to keep the book open.

Into the Forest by Anthony Browne plays with intertextuality as a boy walks through the forest and encounters characters from other story books (with extra clues to the rest of their story hidden in the illustrations) before stepping into a fairy tale himself.  However, the boy’s own fairy tale deviates from the expected ending.  There is a very intentional use of colour and black and white illustrations, and a lot of detail could be missed when glancing at the black and white illustrations, especially on the double-page spread when we first encounter the red coat.

Black and White by David Macauley tells four separate stories, that maintain their positions on each double page spread.  It is up to the reader to determine in which order to read them, and decide if the stories are linked, and how.  I was quite keen to read this book after reading about it in several of the articles we were given for required reading.  Given that so many articles referred to it, the hype was built up, although I didn’t feel that the story necessarily lived up to it.

Series Fiction

Westfahl’s (1999) description clarified for me why Harry Potter isn’t considered series fiction, but Nancy Drew is.  However, I was surprised to see A Series of Unfortunate Events on the list of modern series’ books as it is a distinct collection of thirteen titles that draw to a climax and give a definite ending.  I believe it was always intended to be a series of 13 titles and they were all written by Lemony Snickett (which is a pseudonym, but for a single author) and so I don’t see how it qualifies as series fiction.

My own experiences of series fiction began with The Babysitters Club in the late 80s and early 90s and progressed to Nancy Drew and Sweet Dreams romance novels in the very early 90s, although, if my memory serves me well, I had basically given them all up by high school (1993).  Certainly, by early 1995 I had discovered John Marsden (as mentioned earlier).  I do recall the Babysitters Club never got older than sixteen, despite having several Christmases and Summer vacations.  I don’t recall any gross stereotypes like Mackey (2013) mentions, and The Babysitters Club series did include a Japanese-American teen and an African-American teen, but I’m sure I would find other surprises within the books (aside from parents’ willingness to leave their children with fourteen year olds for long periods).  I do find that my experiences mirror that of many other readers (Ross, 1997) where readers go through a stage of reading series books, before progressing to more complex titles.  It also reflects my observations of my own children who devoured Rainbow Magic Fairy books and the 13 Storey Treehouse Series (as well as the Mandie books, amongst others) before progressing onto Harry Potter and other novels.

Literary Non-Fiction

Literary non-fiction takes narrative style and uses it to communicate factual information (Damaso, 2011).  Some of the drawbacks with many books that are considered “faction” (or one of the many other names these books go by) are: facts are often compromised in the pursuit of a good story; the illustrations don’t reinforce, and sometimes even contradict, the text; attribution and the establishment of author authority may not be present, especially in books for young children; and at times the line between fact and fiction is blurred too much so that a student cannot reasonably determine which of the text is factual and which is not (Gill, 2009).

Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines

Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines is written by Prue and Kerry Mason and is nominated for the 2018 Eve Pownall Award for information books.  The general format of the book is each two page spread covers one Australian.  The left hand page contains their name and date of birth (and date of death if applicable), a picture or sketch of their “flying machine” and a description of their activities, written in the first person.  On the right hand page is a more traditional non-fiction, third person page of information about the person and their contribution to the world of “flying machines” in a box labelled “Crash! Success!”, a “Did you know?” sidebar and a “3 Amazing Facts about <person>” box.  The illustrations have a mid-century, cartoon feel and the minimal colour palette (mostly greens) ensures the attention remains on the text. An author’s note at the end of the book explains the reason for writing the book and how they have come to research aircraft, and the endnotes include a bibliography of works that could be further researched and finally an acknowledgement to those who assisted in the research, which increases the transparency of the otherwise hidden work of museums, archives and those who work in them.  This book would best be suited to stages 2 and 3 (years 3-6) in studies of Australian history (Humanities and Social Sciences in the Australian Curriculum).

Multicultural Literature

I was encouraged by the reading given about the lack of diversity in children’s publishing (Bluemle, 2010) in that it offered suggestions about what librarians can do to promote diversity in children’s literature.  Jalissa (2018), writing for multicultural children’s publisher Lee & Low Books, highlights CCBC Statistics about cultural representation in children’s literature.  While representation of diverse characters reached the highest recorded level yet, representation of culturally diverse authors was a mere 7%.  In fact:

  • A character in a picture book was 4 times more likely to be a dinosaur than an American Indian child.
  • A character in a picture book was 2 times more likely to be a rabbit than an Asian/Pacific or Asian/Pacific American child.
  • A female character in a picture book was highly likely to be wearing pink and/or a bow, even if she is a hippopotamus, an ostrich, or a dinosaur.
  • A child with a disability appeared in only 21 picture books, and only 2 of those were main characters. Most others appeared in background illustrations.

Tyner, 2018, para 10.

Australia’s population, as at the 2016 census, has roughly 28% of people born overseas and roughly 3% of people are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (Hanrahan & Elvery, 2017).  While we do not have access to Australia statistics in the same way that the CBCC has produced them for America, the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA), in their 2016 Judges report acknowledged the lack of diversity in titles nominated for awards (CBCA, 2016). I found Nimon’s (2003) article to be utterly uninspiring.  Apart from contributing to the ANZACary of Australian history (a term I first came across in Bonnie Wildie’s (2018) talk at CoGLAMeration 2018) it does nothing to add to the conversation.  Maybe it did in 2003, but I don’t feel that it does now.  Has no one published about diversity in Australian literature in the last 15 years?

What the available statistics reveal, and Cai (2002) omits is that we need more “Own Voices” literature, that is, books about people that are written by people from that community.  So Aboriginal people writing about Aboriginal people. Disabled people writing about disabled people.  Latinx people writing about Latinx people.  Drawing an Asian looking kid and a black kid in a classroom scene is not multiculturalism, its tokenism.  This theme is taken up by Kwaymullina (2015) who argues, alongside Ayoub (2014), Wang (2014) and Gough (2015) that young Australians deserve books that represent themselves and their classmates.

 References

Aiken, A. (2015). Postmodernism and children’s literature. International Christian Community of Teacher Educators Journal, 2(2).

Ayoub, S. (2014) Still looking for Alibrandi: migrant teens deserve their own young adult fiction Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/australia-books-blog/2014/nov/27/migrant-teens-deserve-their-own-young-adult-fiction

Belshaw, D. (2014). The essential elements of digital literacies. Retrieved from <http://digitalliteraci.es>

Bluemle, E. (2010, June 10). The Elephant in the room. In ShelfTalker. Retrieved from http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/shelftalker/?p=700

Cai, M. (2002). Defining multicultural literature. Chapter 1. In Multicultural literature for children and young adults: Reflections on critical issues. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Children’s Book Council of Australia (2016, Aug 31) Judges report – CBCA book of the year awards 2016 Retrieved from http://readingtime.com.au/judges-report-cbca-book-year-awards-2016/

Damaso, J. (2011). Elements of creative nonfiction [Slideshare]. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/damaso2/elements-of-creative-non-fiction

Gill, S. R. (2009). What teachers need to know about the “New” nonfiction. Reading Teacher, 63(4), 260-267.

Goldstone, B.P. (2001/2002)  Whaz up with our books? Changing picture book codes and teaching implications. Reading Teacher, (55)4, 362-370.

Gough, E. (2015) The art of influence: On writing The Flywheel. Retrieved from https://killyourdarlings.com.au/2015/03/art-of-influence/

Hanrahan, C., & Elvery, S. (2017, June 27) Census 2016: This is Australia as 100 people. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-27/census-australia-as-100-people/8634318?pfmredir=sm%20website

Jalissa (2018, May 10) The diversity gap in children’s book publishing Retrieved from http://blog.leeandlow.com/2018/05/10/the-diversity-gap-in-childrens-book-publishing-2018/

Klages, M. (2003). Postmodernism. Retrieved from http://www.bdavetian.com/Postmodernism.html

Kwaymullina, A. (2015). Telling the real story: diversity in young adult literature. The Conversation. Retrieved Oct. 2016.

Mackey, M. (2013). The emergent reader’s working kit of stereotypes. Children’s Literature in Education, 44(2), 87-103.

Michaels, W. (2004). The realistic turn: Trends in recent Australian young adult fiction . Papers (Victoria Park, WA), 14(1), 49-59.

Nimon, M. (2003).  We are one and we are many: Rewriting Australian national stories for our young people. Orana, 39(1), 4-8.

Pantaleo, S.J. & Sipe, L.R. (2012). Diverse narrative structures in contemporary picturebooks: Opportunities for children’s meaning-making. Journal of Children’s Literature, 38(1), 6-15.

Ross, C. (1997). Reading the covers off Nancy Drew: What readers say about series booksEmergency Librarian, 24(5), 19.

Stone, Jon, (1971). The monster at the end of this book. USA: Western Publishing Co.

Turner, C. (2014). Opening the portal: An exploration of the use of postmodern picture books to develop critical literacy and contribute to learning in the Australian Curriculum: English. Literacy Learning: Middle Years(1), 52-61.

Tyner (2018, Feb 22) CCBC 2017 multicultural statistics Retrieved from http://ccblogc.blogspot.com/2018/02/ccbc-2017-multicultural-statistics.html

Wang, G. (2014) Growing up, all I wanted was to be white. Retrieved from https://gabriellewang.com/growing-up-all-i-wanted-to-be-was-white/

Westfahl, G. (1999-2-16). Series fiction. World of Westfahl. Retrieved from https://www.sfsite.com/gary/ww-ref-series01.htm

Wildie, B. (2018) Critical making: Rethinking access and engagement in GLAM, Recorded at CoGLAMeration 2018, at which I was a participant. https://youtu.be/pP-IC8Iu55I

 

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