Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Key themes in children's books - Being different

1. The many purposes of literature

As I have argued in previous posts (
here, here and here), we learn from literature. Literature brings great pleasure but it also teaches us many things. For a start, 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

2. Key themes in literature - Being different

One of the great struggles of childhood is coping with peer pressure. This commences from an early age. From as early as 4 years of age there is increasing pressure on children to dress the same, to like the same games, to watch the same television, to have the same toys, to talk the same and so on. By early adolescence there are significant issues facing teenagers, including pressure to seek an 'ideal' body shape, a specific 'look', consumer tastes, pressure to try alcohol, sex and drugs, and to align with peers rather than with parents or teachers.
There have been significant societal pressures that haven't helped us in this area, including the power of popular culture to set standards and shape values, the weakening of adult authority, a reduction in interaction with adults (especially parents), increased freedom, increased disposable income (Nicholas Zill & Christine W. Nord have written an interesting report on some of these factors - here). What can parents do to help children develop their own personalities and to avoid the constant pressure to conform that by the teenage years can have disastrous consequences? There are at least 7 basic things that parents can do to support their children in this area:
  • Acknowledge, support and celebrate the differences in your child.
  • Talk to them about the pressures they face to be like everyone else and why other children do this.
  • Love them and show them that you value them for who they are.
  • Spend time with them, including at least one meal each day and cultivate some common areas of interest; build common ground.
  • Bring issues into the open – encourage your children to talk, even when they don’t seem to want to (this is especially the problem in the teenage years).
  • Share your beliefs and values - make sure your children know what you believe. "In our family we don't do that because....".
  • Help your children to develop quiet confidence and respectful assertiveness.

3. Literature as a vehicle to address struggles

Literature doesn't offer the key to everything, but it can play a part in two main ways. First, it is a good way to establish the common gound I referred to above. Books help us to have a shared experience and history and can act as valuable shared knowledge that you can talk about. Second, literature deals with the issue of 'being different' and not conforming simply to group standards and peer pressure. In fact, the struggle the be different is a common theme in children's books from early picture books right through to adolescent novels. There are sub-themes; for example, some children's books portray the negative aspects of being different too and can stress the positive things about conforming and fitting in. But in this post I want to concentrate on books that focus on the child struggling with being different and how they learn to see that you don't need to conform to every group standard to be worthwhile.

What literature can do is to offer a vehicle for children to reflect upon their own struggles as they see in the situations and characters, the same struggles that they have to be themselves and not simply to be moulded to fit the expectations of others. Books are also a wonderful vehicle for parents and teachers to sensitively and naturally raise some of these issues. In the rest of this post I will offer some examples of books that deal with the theme "Being different" for younger readers.
(i) "The Ugly Duckling" (1843) Hans Christian Andersen - This isn't a new theme in children's books, in fact for centuries it has had a place in fairy tales. Hans Christian Andersen addressed it in the classic tale of 'The Ugly Duckling'; in which the rejected outsider seen as unwanted and rejected eventually finds their place.

(ii) "The Race" (1990), Christobel Mattingley - In this beautiful picture book the story is told of Greg who is good at drawing, but not so good at lots of other things at school. "Greg was like a piece of jigsaw that did not quite fit in". A careless daydreamer at school till one day a teacher catches a glimpse of something that leads Greg to discover that he can run.

(iii) "Counting on Frank" (1995), Rod Clement - Frank is the stereotypical smart kid, complete with the horn rimmed glasses. He's smart, and he loves mathematics. But his Dad has a simple message for him, "If you've got a brain, then use it!" And he does, with is over-active imagination and a practical application at the end that has an equally practical outcome for Frank and his Dad. This book was an Honour Book in the Australian Children's Book Council (CBC) Awards in 1991.

(iv) "
The Story of Ferdinand" (1936), Munro Leaf - Ferdinand is a bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight. While every young bull wants to end up in the bullring, not Ferdinand. But circumstances thrust him into the spotlight. Despite the urgings of the banderilleros, picadors and a very vain matador, Ferdinand chooses simply to resist the call to fight. Leaf's timeless story and Robert Lawson's wonderful pen-and-ink drawings, make this book a classic. One of the best American books not to win the Caldecott Medal.

(vi) "Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley" (2007) and "Sunday Chutney" (2008), Aaron Blabey - Blabey won the 2008 Children's Book Council with his first book (see my previous review here) and his second book has many of the same qualities. His first book tells the story of a boy and girl who while very different are great friends. "Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley are friends. Really great friends. However, people often ask, 'Why are Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley friends? They are just so different!' His second book, 'Sunday Chutney', is a simple first person narrative about an unusual girl who leads an unusual life. Moving from school to school due to her Dad's work, she faces many challenges; especially with other kids. Sunday Chutney knows what she likes, and doesn't like, and has great inner strength and imagination that gets her through. In her words, "I'm Sunday Chutney....and I'm a bit unusual..."

(vii) "
Penny Pollard's Diary" (1983), Robin Klein (illustrated by Anne James) - This is really a short graphic novel written in diary form and is suitable for children aged 7-10. Penny Pollard is a feisty little girl who doesn't want to conform. The book tells how she is helped to see that you can be different without being obnoxious and diificult. After hating old people she is helped to cope with her non-conformist ways by an 83 year old lady Mrs Bettany with whom she seems to have lots in common.
After the initial success of this book Klein wrote a whole series of Penny Pollard books (here).

(viii) "The Great Gilly Hopkins" (1978), Katherine Patterson - Like Penny Pollard, Gilly at age 11 year is different and a non-conformist. She has spent much of her life moving from one set of foster parents to the next. She is bright and at times difficult. Her need to be self-reliant has led her to not only be different, but to be bitter, angry and cynical from years of abandonment and rejection. She gets pleasure from bullying other foster children, but when she meets Mrs Trotter, in the home, seven year old boy named William Ernest Teague and Mr Randolph, she is forced to confront her own rebelliousness and cynicism. I haven't attempted a full list of books here. There are many fine examples in adolescent fiction that could also be reviewed that typically address more directly one or another of the key areas where teenagers struggle with going against the flow of simple conformism and peer pressure to be the same.

You can find my other posts on Key Themes in Children's Books by using the following these links:

The Environment


BookChook said...

I just stumbled across your bog thanks to Google Alerts. I really enjoyed the opportunity to read your slant on literature. Thanks also for telling me about Blabey's Sunday Chutney.

The Book Chook

Molly said...

It is amazing how many books are about outsiders or kids being different. I wonder whether it's a theme that comes up a lot because writers themselves often feel like outsiders when they're little!

Trevor Cairney said...

Maybe Molly, certainly many people (and children in particular) experience this in their lives. Thanks for your comment.