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.