Sunday, October 24, 2010

Boys, Gross Topics & Books

We all know that girls generally begin reading before boys and are more likely to become avid readers.  But does it matter how we try to get them reading? In a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal (24th Sept 2010) Thomas Spence suggests that if we want to teach boys to read, we should avoid "gross-out books and video-game bribes".  We know that the difference between boys and girls in reading ability reflects an earlier start with language than boys and the fact that boys don't read enough. The question is why don't many boys seem to like reading as much as girls and what can we do about it?  Spence lays the blame at the feet of video games and a diet of reading that is based on gross topics. He writes: 
One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn't go very far.

Are the comments of Spence fair to the many authors who seek to engage boys with topics that focus on topics like gory death, macabre crimes, weird and unusual life forms etc? The philosophy of writers for boys like Raymond Bean who writes Sweet Farts, R.L. Stines who writes 'Goosebumps', and Terry Deary and others who write 'Horrible Histories' is to shock boys and to appeal to their interest in death, bodily functions, horror, blood and so on. Their overall aim (beyond selling books) is of course to get boys reading.

While the 'Butt' books by Andy Griffiths (and others) with titles like 'Zombie Butts from Uranus', seem to hit a fairly low mark in terms of linguistic complexity and their banality of plot that I'm not keen to see children read, there are other books like 'Horrible Histories' the work of authors like Jennings, Dahl and others that have a place.  Writing about gross or sensational topics can be done well or poorly. In limited quantities they can be helpful. The key is to make sure that this isn't all that boys read; that boys have their literary horizons expanded.

But Spence wants to take this much further, suggesting that we need to limit access to video games and provide what he would see as classic literature
"The secret to raising boys who read, I submit, is pretty simple—keep electronic media, especially video games and recreational Internet, under control (that is to say, almost completely absent). Then fill your shelves with good books....a boy raised on great literature is more likely to grow up to think, to speak, and to write like a civilized man. Whom would you prefer to have shaped the boyhood imagination of your daughter's husband—Raymond Bean or Robert Louis Stevenson".
While the choice between Stevenson and Bean is easy in literary terms, there are many boys who would need many years of reading before they could tackle the likes of 'Treasure Island'. While I struggle to see much value in some of the worst of the 'gross-out' genre (e.g. 'Sweet Farts'), for some boys teachers need to try just about anything to get them reading. Some of the issues in this debate are not dissimilar to those that raged when I was a child concerning comics (see my previous post 'Comics, are they still relevant?')

Spence implies that somehow the problem with boys and reading is due to schools, but the fact is that most boys who have reading problems at school arrive poorly prepared for reading.   

How can we prepare boys better for reading?

There isn't space in a blog post for a complete answer to this important question, but here are 6 things key pieces of advice that might help.

1. Fathers and mothers need to work hard at listening to and reading with their sons. Reading to and with adults should be enjoyable for any child, not boring or a chore. See my previous post on this topic (here).

2. If your boys find it hard to concentrate on books, tell them stories. You don't have to be a great storyteller, start by telling them about your childhood memories, your interests, real life stories etc.

3. In particular, fathers or another adult male role model should have a key role in any boys' early literacy and learning development (see my post on research in this area here).

4. Boys need a lot of help choosing books that they will not only like, but which they will be able to read. Take the time to help boys choose books, if they pick up a book with an exciting cover and find that they can't read it, this will be a disincentive. Read to them at first and then, as they get older and can read, slowly hand over reading responsibility to them. But do still keep looking for books that they might like and read with your boys, even when they are in late primary school.

5. The writers who are into 'gross' or unusual topics know that boys are more likely to be pick up books and read them when the books and the reading events offer opportunities to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, laugh, consider the curious or unusual, help them to play, see how things work, share trivia, tricks and facts with other boys, explore the unknown, and generally do interesting things.

6. Work hard at helping boys to discover the many authors who try to write engaging material for boys that isn't simply appealing to base instincts and interests (see some of my previous posts on boys and reading below). There is good literary material out there that isn't too difficult but is still engaging. I'll write another post on this soon.

Summing Up

There is little doubt that if your son has spent most of his spare time in the first 10 years of life watching TV, playing video games and spending lots of time on the Internet, then he might well find books dull. If this is the case then you'll have some work to do. I agree with Spence that the answer isn't simply to provide a diet of gross-out material of the poorest kind, but you might well make use of some of this material to excite some positive interest in books. Once you get them started with fiction the key is to move them on and to encourage them to try new authors, genres, themes and topics. Don't forget as well, that there are other pathways to literacy beyond fiction.  For example, for many boys, non-fiction will be a great help in moving them from reluctant readers to independence in reading.

Previous Posts & Suggestions of Books for Boys

Thomas Spence, 'How to Raise Boys Who Read - Hint: Not with gross-out books and video-game bribes', Wall Street Journal, 24th Sept, 2010 (here)

Post on 'Boys and Reading Success: Get them Reading' (here)

'Getting Boys into Reading Through Fiction' (here)

'Getting Boys into Reading Through Non-Fiction' (here)

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

Thursday, October 7, 2010

New Aussie Books - October 2010

This is another of my 'New Aussie Books' updates. There are so many great Australian books published each year that it isn't possible to keep up with all of them. In each of these updates I try to share 8-10 recent books across the ages 0-16 years.

1. Picture Books (0-6 years)

'A Giraffe in the Bath' written by Mem Fox & illustrated by Kerry Argent (Viking, 2010)
This is a very funny picture book. The cover alone suggests this, but the text is also amusing and engaging for young children in the typical Mem Fox style. Would a giraffe in the bath make you laugh? Maybe a frog in the flour? A sheep in the shower, an owl with the flu, or even a roo on the loo? Well if not, maybe a crocodile with style will just make you smile? Mem does her magic with the text once again. Simple but effective language that is predictable but not repetitive and boring.

Kerry Argent's wonderful illustrations add greatly to the text and helps to create a book that children will want to return to again and again.

'April Underhill, Tooth Fairy', by Bob Graham (Walker, 2010)

This is the story of two fairies who come of age. High in the sky above Parkville, toothfairies April (7 and 'three quarters') and Esme (6) leave their nervous parents as they head off on their first tooth collecting journey. There are many challenges along the way but they experience success on their first very unusual visit to Daniel Dangerfield's house. As always Bob Graham does a wonderful job as storyteller and illustrator; he never disappoints. Children up to age 6 will love this book.

'Queen Victoria's Underpants' written by Jackie French and illustrated by Bruce Whatley (Harper Collins, 2010)

Fans of Bruce Whatley as an illustrator and Jackie French as an author will remember  the brilliant 'Diary of a Wombat' (Jackie French & Bruce Whatley) and its companion volume 'The Secret World of Wombats'. This lovely new book might well have lost them their heads once (!), but it amusingly offers an insight into the reign of Queen Victoria and her underwear. Against the revealed fact that at the beginning of the reign of the 'Empress of half the world' very few women wore underpants, the book asks, did Queen Victoria have underpants?

After briefly setting the scene for the question, we soon meet Lizzy whose family are in the clothing industry, and find out about Queen Victoria's role in developing underwear. Few would know that Queen Victoria made the wearing of underpants popular. We learn of Lizzy's mother and the events that lead to her final development of the underpants. P.S. - By the time Queen Victoria died most woman in Britain wore underpants.

'Love from Grandma' by Jane Tanner (Penguin/Viking, 2010)

Every Jane Tanner picture book is a joy, and this one is no exception.  This is the story of Emily and her relationship with her Grandma. When her Dad gets a new job, and her family moves to the country, her life changes.  Her Grandma gives her a strawberry plant as a reminder of the gardening they did together, and she promises her that by the time it has ripe strawberries she will be out to visit. Time drags on, but eventually her Grandma arrives with a special surprise.  This is a simple story with no dramatic twists, but it is beautifully told and illustrated, and offers an insight into the special relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren.  

2. Younger Readers (6-9 years)

'Chicken Stu' by Nathan Luff (Scholastic, 2010, 186pp)

This is Nathan Luff’s first book. Stuart is an 11-year-old boy, who likes books, is asthmatic and lives with his widowed Mum in Sydney. He is forced to spend the summer holidays on his aunt and uncle’s farm. He doesn't cope well at first and prefers to stay inside the farmhouse reading. But then two of his wild cousins introduce him to some of the fun of the Australian bush. They name him Chicken Stu and the fun-filled action begins. Amidst the fun, the 'Good facts about chickens you may not know' and the action, there are some serious sub-themes being developed. These include how Stu copes with his asthma attacks and the death of his father.  This book will be enjoyed by boys aged 7-11.

'Toppling' written by Sally Murphy and illustrated by Rhian Nest James (Walker, 2010, 127pp)

Sally Murphy's previous book 'Pearl Verses the World' was named as an Honour Book in the Children's Book Council awards for 2010 (see my post on the CBC awards here). This book continues in the same style, which is probably best described as a verse novel. Once again Sally Murphy tackles serious issues that centre on the stories of John and Dom. John is the narrator. He loves making long domino patterns and toppling them. This simple past-time helps him to cope with the illness of his best friend who has cancer. The deceptively simple book challenges children to think about deep issues that many encounter in their lives and the verse form seems to create the 'gaps' that facilitate this type of reflective thought. Here's a sample:

Okay, I say.
Dom threw up all over his desk-
…Is he OK asks Mum.
I tell her that he went home
looking white
and how we couldn’t use the classroom
because it was
all stinky
from the spew.
You should have smelt it!
It’s good to see Tess’s face
When I say that
But then I think of Dom...

The text is well supported by the excellent simple pen and wash illustrations of Rhian Nest James. This is a moving book that speaks of friendship, the strength of the human spirit and triumph in the midst of suffering and adversity. This book will be enjoyed by mature boys and girl aged 8-11 years.

3. Independent Readers (10-13 years)

'Jaguar Warrior' by Sandy Fussell (Walker Books, 2010, 212pp)

This is the story of Atl, a young Purepechan slave. It is set in the age of the Aztec empire and a place we know today as northern Mexico. Atl is imprisoned in a box and has been there seven days and awaits death as part of an Aztec ceremony of sacrifice to the Mexican gods. He is not afraid as the anger rises within him and significant twist occurs in his story. A war-party of conquistadors attacks the head temple and Atl’s reputation as the fastest runner in Technotitlan leads the High Priest to set him free to send a message to get help for the Purepechan people. He escapes through hidden tunnels of the temple and heads into the jungles of South America, encountering dangers and collecting companions on the way.

Sandy Fussell delivers a fast moving adventure story that 10-14 year old boys will enjoy.  It is a well-researched historical narrative (see my earlier post on this genre here and here) that is worthy of consideration.

'The Ruby Talisman' by Belinda Murrell (Random House, 2010, 241pp)

This is an historical timeslip fanstasy set in the period of the French Revolution. The main character of the story Tilly is told by her aunt of an ancestor who survived the French Revolution. She shows the 15 year-old a priceless heirloom, a ruby locket. She falls asleep wearing it, wishing she could escape to a more exciting life.  She travels back in time and finds herself in France, during the French Revolution.  It is 1789 and Amelie a French aristocrat living in the Palace of Versaille also falls asleep wearing the same locket wishing to be rescued from a marriage that she does not want. The girls wake to find each other and are immersed in the dangers and violence of the Revolution.  This well written and historically well researcher novel will be well received by children aged 12+ (especially girls).

Other Posts on Literature

For all my posts on Children's Literature use the site label (HERE)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Children as Authors - A Tribute to Don Graves

Professor Donald Graves passed away on Tuesday 28th September 2010 from pneumonia aged 80. I rarely publish posts of this kind, but Don Graves was a great man, and we owe him a great debt for teaching us much about children's writing.

I first met Professor Donald Graves on the 19th August 1980. He was plenary speaker at the 'Third International Conference on the Teaching of English' at Sydney University, Australia. I was a Curriculum Consultant at the time and was one of 500 people crammed in a room that knew little about this man before that day. I can still see this jovial softly spoken man in his checked jacket, quietly but dramatically telling us about his research with Susan Sowers and Lucy Calkins in a New Hampshire school. His address was mesmerising and his opening statement simple:
Children want to write. For years we have underestimated their urge to make marks on paper. We have underestimated that urge because of a lack of understanding of the writing process, and what children do in order to control it.  Then we say, "They don't want to write. What is a good way to motivate them?"
This talk was one of the major springboards for Don's work to become more widely known around the world. I was fortunate not only to be there that day but also to drive him to my hometown some two hours away and talk non-stop the whole way about children, writing and learning. In 1984 I was fortunate enough to spend time with Don in one of his schools in New Hampshire. What a great privilege it was to know this man and learn from him.

Don taught us many things and was arguably the Father of 'Process Writing'. He had spent time looking at what adult writers did, and was bold enough to apply the knowledge of process that he gleaned from such writers, to his work with and observations of children. His friend Donald Murray (a great writer and teacher of writing at the University of New Hampshire) was a key influence on him. But it was his close observation of children that brought forth some of his greatest insights:
  • Like adult writers children must be given the chance to choose their own topics, to have an environment in which writing is encouraged and facilitated, to take greater control of their writing.
  • They must have 'real' readers - people who read their writing to hear what they have to say, not just to correct their spelling and grammar.
  • Children must be allowed to make mistakes, to use approximations in draft writing and to become risk-takers in writing.
  • As teachers we need to shift our attention from simply product and the surface features, to an equal concern with process and meaning.
  • To teach young writers is to teach them the craft of writing.
  • Spelling and grammar are best taught in the context of meaningful writing not simply as decontextualised activities.
  • Teachers (and parents) must become observers of young writers, asking them questions that teach and that focus their attention on meaning not just the surface features of writing and neatness.
  • Writing is about revision and re-writing and that like adult writers, children often need to 'make it messy to make it clear'.
  • He also shared his practical tools for encouraging writers - folders for first drafts, dates to track development, writing conferences, celebration of authors, 'publishing' children's work, blank books in the hands of preschool children with the instruction, 'Why don't you write' and so on.
Some who didn't understand the richness of what Don was saying criticized him. Don saw invented spelling as evidence of progress for young writers as they grappled for the words to give expression to their many ideas. He implored us to look for patterns in invented spelling that could help us to we can plot progress as well as glean areas for support and teaching. When freed to use approximations as they got their ideas down, children will use expanded vocabularies.  Just as for adults, first draft writing doesn't have to be perfect in spelling and grammar. Writing was to be experienced as a cycle of thinking, writing, sharing, revising, thinking, sharing, revising and so on.  And sometimes it would be published for other readers and would be polished until spelling and grammar were correct for other readers.

We will miss this great man who taught many of us many things.

Other reading

Don wrote many things but a couple that many of us know were:

Donald H. Graves 'Writing: Teachers & Children at Work', Exeter (NH): Heinemann, 1983

Donald H. Graves 'A Fresh Look at Writing', Exeter (NH): Heinemann, 1994.

That first famous talk in Australia can be found in:

R.D. Walshe (Ed), 'Donald Graves in Australia', Sydney: Primary English Teaching Association, 1981