Relatability?

Every semester that I have taught children’s literature courses, I hear and read the phrase
“I really related to this character/book.” or “That book is so relatable.” It has always bothered me a bit, not because relating is bad but because I see people thinking about NOT relating as a negative thing. I sometimes hear preservice teachers talk about children’s literature as if the goal of matching books to readers is about finding a book that is relatable. This is problematic.

Yes, it is important to read books where the reader can “see themselves” but this isn’t the only type of book we should read – regardless of age.

One thing that bothers me about the idea of “relatability” is that I see students shut down and disengage with a book if they can’t relate to it (their language, not mine). I also hear students say a book is “so good” ONLY because they can relate to it – without any further exploration into what exactly they mean by that term. I encourage the students in my class to be honest in what they think about a book – like/dislike, love/loathe – but that they also need to explore WHY they are having that response. So if they don’t like something, I want them to explore those negative feelings more deeply. Negative doesn’t have to mean disengage. I’ve been asking them to think more deeply about articulating what pushes them away or makes them feel like something isn’t “relatable”. This requires have a sense of ourselves as readers, but also have a sense of literary elements, literary devices, and genre because they give us language to articulate our thinking more clearly in writing.

In class this week, I talked to my students about using “connect” instead of “relate”. I’m trying this language because of the way that the term “connect” implies a more tangible thing. The hope is that by more explicitly considering not only WHEN readers make a connection but also HOW they do or do not make a connection they will be able to articulate more of their response.

 

Books that are difficult to describe

Yesterday’s blog post about GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE has really got me thinking about the idea of labels. It’s interesting that so much of what I do as a literacy and children’s literature instructor involves defining concepts, genres, literary elements, strategies, and more. And yet, at the end of the day what I hope that the students in my classes do is take those concepts and think beyond them. This is one of the tricky things about walking the literacy/literature tightrope… while I teach students about text factors and reader factors because we know explicit instruction is important, I also don’t want students to be so tied down by understanding genre that they dismiss a book.

On facebook yesterday, my friend Katherine Sokolowski (@katsok) commented,

I’m finding the books I love the most are the hardest to summarize.

I agree, and would add that it isn’t always books that I love, but also books that make me think. That have a complexity that is both engaging and pushes me as a reader. I worry that as teachers, we don’t share these books enough with students – particularly young students. I’m not advocating sharing Grasshopper Jungle with elementary kids, but I am asking us to be more aware of how our own thinking can sometimes prevent us from sharing sometime with students. I don’t think every book is right for everyone or every time. But a discussion about genre is so much more interesting when it is with a book that blurs the lines – it makes us work to articulate our questions and our thinking. And that’s a good thing.

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

NOTE: Contains some spoilers.    I’ve been doing book-talks for the students in my children’s literature course this semester. Book-talks serve 2 purposes in my class: 1) as a modeling strategy and 2) students are welcome to borrow any books from me to read for their independent reading project or for pleasure. Two weeks ago I book talked Grasshopper Jungle – more accurately, I tried book talking GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE. Granted I hadn’t finished reading it yet, but one of the reasons that I think I stumbled was because of how this book defies easy definition or description – which is one of the things I love about it. At the MRA conference, Cheryl Mizerney (@CherylTeaches) referred to it as “Kurt Vonnegut meets Stephen King.” Now that I’ve finished the book and talked about it, I think I can articulate my thoughts more clearly.

Character is almost always my favorite part of anything I read – this book is no different. The main character Austin is a clear and unapologetic narrator. There are aspects of his life that he is clear about (his love for his dog and his friends, his loathing for the bullies from the public school) but he also is confused about other parts of life. This felt so authentically “teenage” to me – perhaps because there is a teenager living in my house. 

Austin spends most of his time (while not in school at Curtis Crane Lutheran Academy) hanging out with his best friend Robby and his girlfriend Shann. It sounds like a “typical young-adult” book (whatever that is) when I say it like that. But add in bullies from the public school that beat up Austin & his friend, breaking into the local consignment store, and a plague strain; and you have a book that defies typical anything. Not to mention family history vignettes, a brother stationed in Afghanistan, the Tipsy Cricket Liquor Store, a house with doors leading nowhere, and an underground bunker frozen in time.  I could go on… 

Ultimately, for me one of the themes of this book is about wrestling* with labels. For example, Austin wrestles with his own emotions and feelings. He is in love with Shann, he wonders if he is in love with Robby. Although he rarely (if ever) uses these terms – he is wrestling with wondering if he is gay, straight, or bisexual. We don’t know the extent of Austin & Robby’s physical relationship – other than a kiss on the roof of From Attic to Seller Consignment Store. But do we need to know it? Does physical intimacy define if Austin is gay or straight? I think that the vagueness is part of the point – that sometimes labels are more limiting than helpful. 

I also think that the book itself defies labels. In terms of genre, it is part contemporary realistic fiction, part historical fiction, part science fiction. Taking away any of these genres changes the story, it is all three at the same time – and also something completely different. There are gay characters and straight characters. There are family dynamics and a town struggling financially. There are enormous bug that eat humans. But none of these make it a “gay book” or a “friend book” or a “contemporary issue book”. It is all of these things, with enormous, human-eating insects. It defies a genre label – much like Austin does. So maybe this isn’t as clear as I thought it would be, I’m still wrestling with my thinking about the book – which I love. Ultimately, Smith has written characters and a story that is intriguing, thought-provoking, hysterically funny, poignant, and engaging.

Andrew Smith’s website
Follow Smith on Twitter: @marburyjack

*I prefer the term wrestling to struggling. Struggling implies a negativity and need for resolution. Wrestling implies something that is more fluid and doesn’t require being “solved”. 

Thinking about didactic (and not) books in classrooms

Higher Higher by Leslie Patricelli

I love the book Higher Higher by Leslie Patricelli for many reasons. The rich colors, full bleed illustrations, and double page spreads invite readers to join in on the adventure of the main character. The repetitive text as she swings (“higher, higher”) provides an opportunity for pre-emergent readers to read along, but also doesn’t limit opportunities for readers of all ages to fill in gaps and add to the story on their own. It presents the possibilities of imagination when doing something as seemingly simple as playing on a swing set.

This weekend I discovered a newer book by the same author, No No Yes Yes.  Even though it is written and illustrated by the same person, it is a very different kind of book.

No No Yes Yes by Leslie Patricelli

In this picture book, a diaper-clad baby is told “no no” to things s/he shouldn’t do and “yes yes” to things s/he should do instead. For example, drawing on the walls is “no no”,  but drawing on paper is “yes yes”. My 18-month-old niece loved the book, as do her parents. It has given them language to help her not hit the dog or dump food on the floor.

While both of these books could be read with an 18-month old or a preschooler, No No Yes Yes is a great example of a didactic book. It is a book that I would use in my children’s literature class to help students to understand that a didactic book has a clear and distinct lesson. This is does not mean that No No Yes Yes is a “bad book” and that Higher Higher is a “good book”. But understanding how didacticism can function in books (for children or adults) is important for teachers to consider when selecting books. This means that if you are looking for a book that is going to foster interesting, open-ended, and authentic discussion focused the book, you wouldn’t want to use a text that is strongly didactic. The discussion will usually fall flat, or move into other responses about the “lesson”.

Students who are more advanced thinkers often prefer more open-ended books because they allow for a wider range of interpretations and thinking. Ultimately, didactic books fill a need, but it’s important to have (and use) a variety of types of books in our classrooms.

Living Bookshelves

Like many of my book loving friends, I own lots of books. I think of them very much as “living bookshelves” because the books don’t just sit there. I read them, my daughters read them, I lend them, I teach with them, I share them with students, and sometimes I just sit near them for inspiration. I used to have them organized so that I when I would teach certain subjects, it was relatively easy to grab them by genre. This didn’t last though. Because when they are “living” bookshelves, things get moved around for very good reasons (or because it’s and hour before teaching and I remember a book that I know one particular student will enjoy).

Work in Progress

Work in Progress

So I decided to reorganize my shelves, but how? Should I try and organize them again by genre – this is completely driven by the children’s literature course that I am currently teaching. We spend about half the semester using genres to help us divide and organize our study. Except that I don’t just use them to teach children’s literature.semester I’m going to be teaching a language arts methods course. I’ve taught it before and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to incorporate children’s literature into the course as a way to model for students the connections across their children’s literature and subject area course work.

so many stacks of books...

so many stacks of books…

And what about when my family and friends ask to borrow books? Sometimes they don’t ask, but i discover a book that makes me think of my eldest daughter who loves mysteries and wants to be a writer. Or I read a book with a fabulously non-stereotypical female character that my friend Jon may want to read to include in his course next semester. Or I’m participating in a #titletalk and want to find a book that would match a description someone is asking for. You get the idea.

So what to do? While I was sitting on the floor surrounded by piles of books and staring at the wall of shelves, my husband asked me an interesting question.

Which children’s literature hat are you wearing right now? Your teacher hat, librarian hat, or reader hat?

First of all, I love that he knows me and my work well enough to ask this question. It actually relates to my interdisciplinary dissertation. Interestingly, I ended up organizing them with what I think of as “my librarian hat”. There are is a shelf just for poetry, shelves for non-fiction, informational, and biography. Historical fiction picture books, graphic novels, and “transition readers” are separated for very practical purposes – I don’t have many of any of them and often need to pull them quickly for examples. The rest of the picture books, young adult books, and “chapter books”* are arranged alphabetical by author’s last name.

*I don’t really like the term “chapter books” but there isn’t another one that I like better.

As I was shelving them and thinking about teaching and recommending books, I was reminded of something. If I am going to effectively make recommendations to my students and also thoughtfully select books for instruction, I must know the books on my shelves – and more. There are definitely books on my shelves that I haven’t read yet. And there are books that aren’t on my shelves that I will recommend.

When I am clear about the purpose or goal when looking for a book (e.g.fostering reading engagement, literacy instruction, content area instruction, etc.) AND when I know my students (or friends, colleagues, etc.) AND when I know the books that are available (and where to find them) — that is when I am most effective as a teacher and children’s literature specialist. That’s what makes my bookshelves live.

Finished!

Finished!

Jumping in to #nerdlution

Last week, the idea for #nerdlution was born out of a twitter conversation – as many fabulous ideas have been. If you want to know more, check out this post over on Christopher Lehman’s blog.

I’m joining in. I am going to write my dissertation. Every day. It’s important that I use the verb WRITE. Sometimes I think that I need to reread things – which I may need to do, or I may be using as a reason not to write. It is ok for me to reread things, but I also will WRITE.

I am going to use my blog to get myself in the mindset for the day. This is a version of something that author Linda Urban (@lindaurbanbooks) shared at an NCTE session about the writing process. So each day I will write a post about the following:

  • what I accomplished the day before as a word count
  • something that is inspiring for me
  • what I am going to write about on that day
  • Other ponderings that I want to keep track of, but can’t write about yet.

Once again, I am grateful to my @nerdybookclub tribe for their fabulous ideas and virtual cheering. Being part of this tribe means more than I can say.

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Literacy, Libraries, Literature… Writing my Dissertation

I’m writing a dissertation these days. My dissertation.
This means that I’m not spending as much time reading children’s and YA literature.
It also means that I’m not writing as much on this blog. But I’m still here.

My dissertation is interdisciplinary. It is about children’s literature. Children’s literature in literacy and education studies, in library science studies, and in English and Literature studies. I’m thinking and writing about the similarities and differences in the ways each of these disciplines “sees” children’s literature. I want to make these more explicit as a way to think about the ways children’s literature is positioned in schools, curriculum, and with students.

Along my journey to get here, I had some people tell me not to write an interdisciplinary dissertation. It is challenging work, no doubt about it (as is any dissertation). I’m working to be explicit.  The common threads that I see like the air that I breathe need to be put into words. I’m learning to I to answer my own “so what” … and I’m getting there. Each day more words get out of my head and on the page.

So if you are here and wondering where I am and if I still care about children’s literature, readers, and teaching. Know I do, that I’m teaching and writing about all of those things.  I’m still here – I’m just focusing my attention on the next step…

A taste of delicious storytelling

I’m in the car right now reading Kathi Appelt’s new book The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. This is storytelling that gives me goosebumps. Here is a taste for you…

Hogs like to hide out along creek beds, where they lay low in the underbrush so that no one can see their sneaky selves. Like our raccoons, they’re also nocturnal, using the cover if darkness to mask their dastardly deeds.
They usually travel in family groups called sounders. Isn’t that a great word? “Sounders”? We just love that.
But do we love Buzzie and Clydine and the Farrow Gang?
Friends, their is nothing to love there.
Nothing.

Now – back to reading…

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It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

Mon Reading Button PB to YAThis week I read: 

The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen
This did not disappoint, I’d had it on my tbr list and was reminded of it during #titletalk last month. Had to go out the next day and get the second book.

The Runaway King by Jennifer Nielsen
I wasn’t kidding, I went to the library the next day to get this one and finished it in a day. Love this series for middle grades fantasy, would be a nice precursor to the Graceling series as a “world building” fantasy.

Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac
This was required reading for the students in my online graduate children’s lit course so I wanted to reread it. A great entry into discussion about representations of American Indians in children’s literature.

This Week I’m Reading:

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
I’ve missed you Gansey. And Blue. And Adam, Ronan, and Noah.

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
We’ve decided to use this as one of the required texts for our fall children’s literature course and I’ve never read it. Super excited because Patrick Ness is a brilliant writer.