Saturday, October 16, 2010

Key Themes in Children's Literature: The Other

As I have argued in previous posts (here & here), we learn a great deal from literature. Literature brings great pleasure but it also teaches us and can impact on us emotionally. It passes on aspects of our cultural traditions, it introduces us to other cultures and it teaches us about our world, its history, its people and what it is to be human. A piece of literature is more than just a good story. I wrote in one of my books (Pathways to Literacy, Cairney 1995, p.77-78) that literature can act as:

  • A mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances
  • A source of knowledge
  • A source of ideological challenge
  • A means to peer into the past, and the future
  • A vehicle to other places
  • A means to reflect on inner struggles
  • An introduction to the realities of life and death
  • A vehicle for the raising and discussion of social issues
In this post I want to look at a group of books that I would loosely term books that help children to become aware of the 'other'. The concept of 'otherness' has its roots in continental philosophy. The German philosopher Hegel was one of the first to use the concept. The notion of the 'Other' is important in defining our sense of self.  In the social sciences it is also used to help us understand the way we exclude groups within our society or across broad cultural boundaries.  The emergence of a sense of the ‘other’ is one of the ways that children first become aware of those who are different and to differentiate between that which can create fear, and that which is familiar and certain. Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel LĂ©vinas helped to popularise the term in modern times and suggested that a sense of the other comes before our need to respond by ignoring, rejecting, helping and so on.

Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale 'The Ugly Duckling' first published in 1843 is a fairytale that speaks directly to this theme.  As the young ducks grew older they could see that the last 'duck' was not like them: 'He's too big!" "You're appallingly ugly!" "I wish you were miles away". They struggle to work out how to deal with his difference, "But why should we care so long as you don't marry into our family?"  While the 'Ugly Duckling' and other stories often speak of many things, some have the wonderful quality of shifting children's focus beyond themselves, to become aware of the other, to understand their difference, and to re-shape their sense of self as they see themselves in relation to those who are 'other' than themselves.

The books that follow are just a 'light' sample of the many books available for young readers. I have mainly chosen picture books but there are many children's novels that include this theme. I may re-visit this theme for older readers later. I have also used some sub-headings to offer a sense of just some of the senses of 'difference' that are brought into focus.

1. The Aged

'Remember Me' by Margaret Wild & Dee Huxley (illustrator)

Margaret Wild's delightful book centres on the first person narrative of a grandmother who talks about her life and how frustrating it is when she forgets things. Her granddaughter is her little helper, enabling her to survive the day. While Wild's intent is to look specifically at memory loss and how it impacts on the aged, it also offers an insight into how this is read and responded to by others. In time the woman even forgets her granddaughter; but by mentally reliving her experience of the little girl (from birth to the present) she remembers her and the little girl promises that she'll be around to help her remember.  The older person with failing memory is not a problem, but someone to be loved, supported and learned from. And of course, in the process, our lives are enriched.  

Other examples in this category include 'Wilfrid, Gordon McDonald Partridge' by Mem Fox & Julie Vivas (illustrator). This is probably my favourite Mem Fox book.  Another example is 'Waiting for May' by Thyrza Davey. In this wonderful story a social worker wants an old man 'Old Alec' living on a houseboat in Queensland with his dog to move to a retirement home. He 'escapes' to avoid this fate but in escaping his fate, a fierce storm and a little young boy change everything.

2. The person of different race or ethnicity

'The Burnt Stick' (1995) by Anthony Hill & Mark Sofilas (illustrator)

This novel for younger readers (8-10 years) is set in Australia prior to the 1960s.  It is the story of a young Australian aboriginal boy named John Jagamarra, who had been taken (like thousands of other Indigenous children) from his family. John was taken from his mother by the Welfare Department of the day, and sent to live with his white Father at the Pearl Bay Mission for Aboriginal Children. He grew up in this beautiful place, but he knew it was not like being home with his mother and his people.  He remembers how the 'Big Man from Welfare' had come and taken him away. His story illustrates how well intentioned government policy at the time failed to deal with the problems of Indigenous communities and failed to understand the full needs of people 'other' than themselves. While the story positions us as reader to see the tragedy of the 'Stolen Generation' through John's eyes, at the same time it offers child and adult readers the chance to consider the issues of racial difference and how we understand, live with and when necessary, reach out to people other than ourselves.

Mark Sofilas' wonderful charcoal images add a haunting and powerful additional dimension to the story. The Children's Book Council of Australia named it Book of the Year for Younger Readers in 1995.

Another more recent exploration of this theme is Matt Ottley's epic picture book 'Requiem for a Beast' (which I have reviewed HERE), that uses story (in picture book form), image and music to explore the painful experiences of the 'Stolen Generation' and in the process helps us to learn much about ourselves and how the non-Indigenous are positioned relative to Indigenous Australians. This book is a picture book for secondary aged readers, not young children.

From the difficult, to the simpler rendering of this theme, Dr Seuss has also written a number of examples that touch on 'otherness'.  'The Sneetches' is an obvious one that tells of two types of creatures (Sneetches) one with a Star on their bellies and the other without. Needless to say one felt superior and the other inferior. One day a man arrives with the perfect solution, a machine that can add a star to the belly. But without the stars how could the 'superior' group differentiate itself? The man had the solution, his machine could take the stars off (!) the Sneetches who were the original 'Star Belly' kind.

But perhaps an example even closer to the theme is 'What was I scared of?' a funny story about a small creature who while walking at night is confronted by a pair of pale green pants that are out walking by themselves. He is terrified when on each walk he sees them. But of course it turns out that the pants were just as scared of him and finally all is resolved:

And, now we meet quite often,
Those empty pants and I,
And we never shake or tremble.
We both smile
And, we say

3. The person in different social circumstances

'Way Home' by Libby Hathorn & Gregory Rogers(illustrator)

This is the story of Shane, a young street kid (which isn't revealed until the end of the story), who finds a lost kitten. The story takes us through the city streets to Shane’s ‘house’; which the kitten will share with him. The illustrations by Gregory Rogers portray Sydney at night. They show the constant shift (which is part of Shane's life) from busy streets ablaze with lights to dark and sometimes threatening back alleyways. There are hazards and dangers for Shane and the tiny kitten at every turn. The story offers an insight into the life of the homeless and is a poignant story of two survivors. Suitable for 7-10 years olds.

4. Understanding the 'other' gender 

There have been many books that look at differences of gender. A recent author who has focused on this theme is Aaron Blabey. His first book 'Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley' is about friendship and relationships. Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley are the best of friends, but they are different in almost every way. Pearl likes solving mysteries and moves rather fast in the world; Charlie likes taking baths and watching his garden grow. So how can Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley be such good friends? Because that which is in the 'other' can complement that which is in him or her.  The book won the Children's Book Council Award for Picture Book of the year in 2009.

Blabey continues tangentially with a variation on theme in his second and third books 'Sunday Chutney' and 'Stanley Paste'.  In these, his first person narratives are more focused on how the child copes with their difference rather than us coping with the other. The rather unusual girl Sunday Chutney is always moving from school to school due to her Dad's jobs, coping with difference and awkwardness all the time. 

In 'Stanley Paste' we learn of the very small boy (Stanley Paste), who hates his size, until one day a new girl arrives at school who is very tall. Like Stanley, she hates the way she is. They become good friends and see different things in each other than many of the other kids at school who have made their lives miserable.

Summing Up

Each of the books above does much more than just presenting the theme that I have pointed to. However, the concept of 'otherness' is an important one in life and each book offers children the opportunity to consider who they are and how do they situate themselves relative to the 'other'; This is just one example of how literature does more than simply present enjoyable narrative accounts.

Other posts

All previous 'Key Themes' posts HERE


Marita said...

A great list thank you. A friend of mine pointed out a while ago that the ugly duckling only gained acceptance by changing themselves into a swan to fit in with the crowd. The duckling was not accepted whilst still ugly.

One book we found very helpful teaching our older daughter about her younger sisters autism diagnosis was 'Ian's Walk' it was recommended by her kinder teacher and is a great book. We've now doanted it to the school library to help other families.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Marita, nice to hear from you. Thanks for your suggestion concerning 'Ian's Walk'. Trevor