Monday, 5 August 2019

What is Children's Literature in 46 questions.

What’s in children’s books? Why? Who are they for? What methods can you use to analyse them? Who decides which ones are good? How have they changed? Where do they sit in UK or US (or any) culture? How are minorities represented? How is class represented?

What is narrative? Is there anything distinctive or peculiar to the narratives of children’s books? Is there a story-grammar? Where do the motifs of children’s books come from? Have they changed? Why? How do children’s books reflect social change?

What if you study children’s response to books? Or how you could engage the children who can read but don’t read? Or how do children read race, identity, culture and ethnicity in books? What happens if you do free browse, choose and silent reading 20 mins a day?

What are the genres of children’s literature? But are there hybrids? How do children read genres? Where do these genres come from? What is the grammar of each genre? Is a writer a psychoanalytic player of types? Does the reader get to play? Or just receive?

Why were children’s books invented? Who invented them? What were their motives? Does this tell us anything about what children’s books are about or for today? How can I widen my knowledge about unusual, challenging, and surprising children’s books?

Where do children’s books sit in the multimedia world? In the
‘inter-mediate’ world? Does it slot in? Challenge? Provide an alternative space? Are its methods the same or different? Have the determiners of taste changed? How? Why? Is taste constructed?

Why is so much children’s literature interested in ‘Nature’, what is ‘natural’, what is innocent, what I’d obedient, what is not-obedient? Who decides the social order on children’s stories and poems? Who or what defies it? Do they get away with it?

What is the role of chaos and disorder in children’s books? As an outlet? Or as a means of social control? Who has control in children’s books? Is this questioned? By whom? Who narrates this? How does the method of narration control the perceptions of the reader?

Is there such a thing as ‘the’ reader? How do we differentiate readers? On what basis? Identity? Class? Gender? Are these categories entities or fluid? How do the books reflect the fixing or unfixing of these categories? Do the books construct the categories?

What is the sound of children’s books? Is it different from the sound of books for adults? Why? Is the child’s ‘ear’ constructed by adult writers? Or is it intrinsically different from the adult ‘ear’? How do we analyse prosody? Across what length of text?

What are different children’s intertextual knowledges like? How goes this affect response? Or is it part of the response? How can we investigate that? If we investigate that, does our method of investigating influence the data?

Three big ideological ‘institutions’ control children’s literature: family, school, publishing. But how? With what effect on eg authors, books, readers, parents, shops, homes? Who has power in this network?

What does it mean to know about a writer’s milieu? Does this condition, shape or determine the output? How? What are the mechanisms of influence acting on a writer’s output? In a contemporary situation is the reader part of that?

What is the role of fear in children’s books? Where does it come from? Who saves the child from fear? Who saves the reader from the fear? What are the mechanisms for this? What is the ideology of this?

If the world is bad, is it the role of children’s books to make it less bad? Why? If it is the role, what are the mechanisms and motifs which construct that role? Do any books escape from that role? How has this role changed?

Society is full of hierarchies, castes, classes along many different lines - do children’s books reflect these? Accept them? Co-construct them? Challenge them? Do some books challenge one hierarchy while reinforcing another?

What does it mean to create a text that subverts at the level of the signifier? Do signs and signifiers determine and construct a child’s world of perception? What hierarchies are there in this ‘world’? Is it possible to resist them?

How do children’s books handle trauma, distress, stress, detachment, loss, breakdown, dissolution? Should they? Or do they become part of the problem by trying to be part of the solution?

What is subversive laughter? What is the ‘carnivalesque’? Do children’s books represent these ideas? Which ones? How? Is the subversiveness contained? Repressed? Or released? Does the ‘economy’ of release’ apply here? What’s the tension though?

Are the motifs in a children’s book the ‘transitional objects’ of the mind? Symbolic toys to hold on to in order to help the child construct a meaningful world? Do these enable the child to detach whilst maintaining security?

What do we learn when we look at children’s books in societies different from our own? What do we learn from looking at children’s books under totalitarian regimes ? How did they try to control children?

What do we learn if we do an archaeology of our own reading history? Who constructed that library, that repertoire of texts in our minds? How? Why? What was the ideology behind that? Where did that come from?

Are children’s books contained within the model of ‘the realisation of the self’? But if the ‘self’ is a consequence of the interactions between people are there books which show the realisation of the group? The collective? If so which group? Why?

Freud posited the process of ‘projection’ by which we put on to others what we feel or fear in ourselves. Is this what writing is? Writers projecting on to characters? How is this refracted by the specifics of an adult writing for children?

Whatever the apparent, explicit or surface ideologies of a text, how do we know if child readers accept or resist or adapt these? If we notice ideology at work does that mean we overlook another ideology in the same text?

Writers for children have often been part of movements, participants in them - religious, political, social etc. How does this show in their work? Was this conscious and deliberate on their part? Or just an absorption of values or motifs?

Society creates marginalised people. How do children’s books represent them? From the perspective of the marginalised? From the POV of a sympathetic outsider? Does the book (or a character) ‘save’ the marginalised? Or are the marginalised their own agents in what happens?

If children are in an in unempowered category of their own and therefore marginalised, does every children’s book empower the child by giving credence and value to the minds, actions and lives of children?

What’s the role of ‘warning’ in children’s books? Warning’s a form of what-if. Is this adults imposing the disasters they can’t solve on to children (who can’t solve them either)? Are children colonised in order that adults can hope that children solve adults’ mess?

Do children’s books resist ‘othering’ or contribute to it? If you are an ‘othered’ person where do you position yourself in relation to a text that is othering you? Is critical literacy a matter of unravelling othering?

If a parent, critic, newspaper article or children’s book editor says, ‘You can’t say that in a children’s book’ - what does that mean? Why not? What does that say about the genre ‘the children’s book’? How is this genre defined? Who defines?

There are many ways to narrate a children’s book eg first person, third person, multiple. Narration can show less or more ‘interiority’, one or more POV. It can be less or more reliable. Is all this ideological in respect of it implying a view of the reader?

Books marked as ‘for children’ and are for, say, under-sevens, are in fact ‘for’ multiple audiences of all ages and various roles within parenting, care and education. So are they children’s books? How is this multiple audience spoken to in these books?

Books for self-supporting readers are frequently about the child’s relationship to carers, parents, teachers even if they ask what would it be like to be free of them. So are these books about adults? Yet written by adults. Yet written for children? Really?

You can only read with what you know. What do children know? What are experiences of life of the child-reader in front of you? What are the experiences of texts of the child reader in front of you? This is what they are reading with.

What is the role of the ambiguous, the indeterminate, the suggested, the inexplicit in children’s books? Does it offer autonomy to the reader’s speculations? Or evade necessary choices? Project loss of nerve at a time of crisis?

Every act of reading involves the reader in an act of making analogies between what's read and something in the reader’s life. Does this help us develop an objectivity towards ourselves?

If you dissect out the motifs and story-grammars of books for adults, how many of these motifs etc are found in (and therefore learned through) children’s books?

Many (most?) children’s books involve resolution or redemption or a ‘return’ to a real or metaphorical ‘home’ or a restitution of the previous disorder or imbalance or crisis. Why? Why can’t the dilemma or crisis just carry on?

How many children’s books are in part self-help parenting manuals? Roald Dahl hoped that ‘Matilda’ would help reform adults - either the adults who read it, or the adults the child reader’s of the book would become.

‘A hand on a table. There is something under the hand.’

These two sentences represent the core method of writing: it ‘reveals’ some facts but ‘conceals’ others. This is in order to encourage us to read more. What are the 1000 methods of Reveal-Conceal?

What is ‘tradition‘ in children’s literature? Whose tradition? How many traditions? Is it the job of children’s literature to find, explore, display many traditions? How can it do this? What are the obstacles to it? Who writes these many traditions? Who reads them?

Free indirect discourse in written texts represents the interiority of characters without saying that it is (ie no tags such as ’she thought’). Does artwork in children’s books often do the same?

We all experience loss, children ‘lose’ the 100% attachment of the mother and other kinds of attachment too. Stories often picture or represent detachment. Do these ‘contain’ the child’s troubled feelings in a ‘safe’ way? Do they begin a conversation about them?

Society brings us together in collective efforts to produce things, but we own these things individually - most noticeably with the profits of production. Do we see this contradiction symbolically in fiction for children? (eg in ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’? )

In ‘The Tinder Box’ we see the symbolic enactment of the destruction of the aristocratic ruling order AND a yearning to be part of it - all in the one story for children. Is this what eg Macherey and Jameson mean by ‘contradiction’ in fiction?

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Review of my book 'The Author' - a study of how and why we write.

"I've never read anybody's Ph.D before but Rosen's is as readable as 'We're Going On A Bear Hunt'.  Alright, chapter 2 setting up the theoretical framework is a bit (stumble, trip) harder going but I gobbled the rest of it up as quick as Goldilocks gobbled up the right sort of porridge.

Written in 1997, Rosen's analysis of his own socio economic background and of its influence on his writing - including in-depth analysis of twelve poems in his book of children's poetry "You Wait Til I'm Older Than You!" (Puffin)  is fascinating. There's also some interesting historical background about children's literature and poetry and plenty of acute insight into inter-class relations (I enjoyed the little paragraph about the tensions between working class artisans and the intellectual middle class, for instance).

Moreover, for writers, this is a book that will make you think more deeply about your own relationship with class and material reality and how it has influenced your decision to be a writer and your writing itself. You also get the very enjoyable poems from 'You Wait Till I'm Older Than You'. Absorbing stuff!"
Justin Coe

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Tragic! But is it tragedy?

At some point in my education (possibly reading John Holloway on tragedy)I learned to view classical tragedy as (crudely) hubris or corruption in the entity of the King/hero causing chaos in the 'polis' - the city, the society or amongst the public.

One of the enjoyments of Shakespeare is listening out for laments and complaints by people (often walk-on good guys) saying how the 'polis' is falling apart - you hear it in e.g. 'King Lear' 'Hamlet'  and 'Macbeth'. The good/natural order is giving way to bad disorder.

It's then curious for me to open a school edition of e.g. 'Macbet'h and see no mention of this. Isn't one of the interesting things about Shakspeare that he took the Graeco-Roman view of 'tragedy' and made it work for a modern audience by putting modern (then) anxieties in?

So, in 'Macbeth' - aside from getting the view of the 'good' monarch (anything about or said by Duncan and Malcolm) we hear about the *effect* of the bad/evil ruler on the rest of society. That's the 'tragedy' not just that the evil ruler killed his mates.

So, one of the great advantages for us watching this sort of thing now is that we can (totally anachronistically) map this 'corruption at the top spreading downwards' on to rulers and societies in the world today.

So tragedy isn't just 'sad stuff that happened'. Tragedy in classical drama is social. It's what affects the whole 'polis' caused by errors/evil/hubris/corruption/pride at the top. The cause of this hubris may be e.g. greed, ambition etc but the effects are everywhere.

'Alas, poor country, 
Almost afraid to know itself!
...sighs and groans and shrieks, that rent the air
Are made, not mark'd
....good men's lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.' 
(from 'Macbeth')

"Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack'd 'twixt son and father...the King falls from bias of nature; ... there's father against child...Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves."
(from 'King Lear')

In 'Romeo and Juliet', the 'hubris' is mapped on to the two families: it's their feud: 
"In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, 
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, 
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean." 

A warning that the whole 'polis' gets drawn into the feud.

All tragedies end with a new order - which, in my subversive way, I always read as future disaster. I start to imagine how the new order could or will go wrong...! 

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Some brief thoughts on the Phonics Screening Check and SPaG Grammar

As it’s summer: some brief thoughts on the Phonics Screening Check and SPaG Grammar:

The phonics screening check is designed to test solely the 'alphabetic principle' - the ability to apply the principle of decoding graphic symbols (letters) in relation to a sound or sounds that we make with our mouths. It does not test for understanding anything.

The test is based on the idea it's best to create stages in learning to read: first, learn the alphabetic principle, then read for understanding, but 'understanding' means in English schools, 'comprehension' and is greatly limited to retrieval, inference, chronology and presentation. This overlooks multiple meanings. The tests forbid multiple meanings. There can only be one meaning.

The stages principle ('first, fast and only' for phonics, then 'read real books' later) involves, in its purest form, preventing children at the phonics stage from looking at the texts of real books.

The theoretical issue here is common to a lot of learning: just because we CAN break things down into stages or simple and more complex elements, it doesn't necessarily follow that these created stages represent the best process by which all of us learn something. We don't learn to speak or walk that way.

We should always remember that these elements or stages are not God-created, they are simply categorisations that we have created. It doesn't necessarily follow (it may or may not) that we can best learn something by following the categorisations we created in the first place.

Another example, is when people claim that it's best if we learn to write by learning sentence grammar. This leaves out the possibility that we might learn to write better, for example, by learning other kinds of grammar, or, say, by imitation-and-adaptation, or by immersion ('reading for pleasure') etc

'Sentence grammar' is not the 'building block' of how we learn to speak. We also know that children who read 'widely and often' for pleasure will write well, quite independently of whether they've been taught sentence grammar or not.

'Sentence grammar' has no explanations as to why we use language in the social sense - whether that's for face-to-face oral situations, or in writing in the many and overlapping 'genres' of writing out there. In other words, sentence grammar can't explain the very thing we have language for.

This means that when we teach decontextualised sentence grammar as in the SPaG/GPS test, we are not giving pupils the means or the help to know why they might say or write one thing rather than another.

Sunday, 16 June 2019

What kinds of playing and games can we play with books?

On Facebook, I asked:
What kinds of playing, jokes, games, challenges can you do with books which have succeeded in getting children and young people reading?
Freeze frames?
‘What would YOU do if you were (the character)’?
Comic strip retelling?
Make up a dance/take a photo/compose some music/do a picture to go with a book?

Here are the replies:
  • Bonnie Craven I used to read stories to my ks2 classes and ask them to sketch whatever they were inspired to do as a result of the words they were listening to.
  • Debbie O'Brien I love using "conscience alley', which is an idea in CLPE Power of Reading. When a character faces a dilemma, the class form 2 lines facing each other. One side thinks of reasons for and the other reasons against a choice. A child role plays the character and walks through conscience alley slowly. As they do, the children lean in and whisper advice to them. At the end, they share some of the advice and which they might take.
  • Rita Chakraborty Hot-seating as characters - especially the less vocal/visible side characters - has worked really well. Acting out a scene, or re-telling a scene the way you would have liked it to play out, with children assigning roles and lines themselves has been lots of fun when I’ve done it in the past. Also, just a good old-fashioned craft activity based on the book...a collectively built robot or spaceship is what we’re planning for the upcoming SRC...
  • Marcus Moore Getting kids to act out a book never fails, in my experience - whether it's a simple re-telling of the story, or using the actual text as a hand-held script, with one (or more) child(ren) narrating and others in the group (of 3 or 4) doing the actions etc.
  • Jane Bernal My step-daughter, who will not do FB had the whole class making snacks and sending them across the class-room on a pulley for the Lighthouse Keepers Lunch.
  • Suzie Phillips I’ve taken random images/illustrations from picture books/film/animation for younger pupils - or wordless books by Shaun Tan for older students, and asked them to order the images and create a narrative, to get them to begin to analyse and infer, and tSee More
    • Dawn Louise Hulland We love Shaun Tan. His textless illustrations are fabulous for inspiring writing and boys are truly engaged!
    Write a reply...

  • Rowan Mcmanus I put books in different areas of the classroom based on their content i.e. Maths corner. I ask the children to tell me what topic they're interested in and buy books related. Last topic was Superheroes and I put Supertato, other fun superhero books and some comics in the reading den. I also do hot seating which they love. I have S class of boys who are not reluctant readers any more. 😊😊
  • Nicky Hopkins I did a 100 book challenge with some of the children who raced through the Summer Reading Challenge. I included lots of different things they had to cover - new book, non-fiction, a cover that intrigued you, a cover that put you off, a book to read out loud, a book to be read to you that kind of thing. Plus a book version of consequences is always fun
  • Lizzi Roche I used to play a game with my class and small groups (creatively called The Reading Game). With any genre of text, I'd pick a child to start and then at any point after a few words or longer I'd say a different child's name and they'd have to continue straight on, no long pause, no repeats. It massively encouraged them all to follow along the text and engage. They got passionate about not "getting out" (for pausing or repeating, even though nothing happened if they did haha). It also really encouraged my reluctant readers to read aloud as I would switch it to someone else quickly to gradually build their confidence. They got so good at I introduced them saying the next child's name when they wanted. I expected the most reluctant readers to opt out quickly but was actually pleasantly surprised they remained engaged and read more then I expected! It was awesome! I started having children who "hated reading" asking me all the time if we could play The Reading Game. 
  • Amanda Reed I knew a boy who wouldn't willingly look at a book until he got a personalised book with him, his friends and dog as main characters. 30 years later he still names it as his favourite book ever
  • Clarina Mascarenhas They used to teach us Shakespeare by having us paraphrase scenes (we were only 7 at the time) and kill eachother with rulers and pencils it was pretty dope.
  • Debby Thacker You really need to find out about Reading Teachers = Reading Pupils, Michael! So many ideas in that network....
  • Arnton Fell I don't suppose it counts, but I had a shelf of 'forbidden books' - all of which were quickly read!
  • Pat Parr As a primary school librarian I either see for myself in the library or find out from teachers who the reluctant (for whatever reason) or 'stagnant' (ie. they've hit a reading wall) readers are. Also for those who are voracious readers but don't know See More
    • Pat Parr I've also done lots of activities over the last few years to promote reading for enjoyment, as opposed to reading for the curriculum. Probably one of the best a few years back was a fun Doctor Who event after school: lots of new books on display to borrow, take a selfie in front of the Tardis (huge cardboard cutout), write a postcard home from space, make alien masks, make Dr Who/space badges, Dalek colouring, etc. Theme overlapped with time travel, science fiction & space so we had a great selection of books.