professornana (professornana) wrote,

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What Books Do

Last Sunday, Walter Dean Myers wrote about the lack of diversity in books and what that means: "Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?" We have been aware for almost 50 years of the lack of characters of color in books for youg readers. Nancy Larrick wrote about it in the 70s. Each year, data is published that indicates we have not come too far at all. A recent discussion on ccbc-net included voices of academics, authors, publishers, and more (If you are a member, you can click on the archives here: How I wish this discussion were taking place in a much more public forum. Because the problem is not just a lack of African American characters, it is a lack of Hispanic characters, of native Americans, of LGBTQ characters, and so much more.

Myers talks about the mirror role of literature. But literature is also a window that allows us to see out. I try to reach out in my reading todfind characters who are not a reflection of me (though the older I get, the easier this is in all media and not just literature. I want all kids to read books that are diverse in setting in genre in form and format in characters in themes in mood in conflicts in EVERY SINGLE THING imaginable. Reading widely is a precursor, I think, to be able to read more critically. Only if I have read widely am I able to begin to acknowledge a book that does something better than others. How do I know if this GN is superior? I need to have read more than a handful, I think. How can I tell if the character development in this picture book is excellent? I suggest this is possible only if I have read tons of picture books.

As my colleague Karin Perry and I prepare materials for a class on reading critically we are turning to some of these questions, some of these issues. We want to be certain that we are talking about the different between tension and shock when it comes to suspense, authentic dialogue and voice versus unimaginative or inauthentic voices and dialogue. We are returning to our English teacher roots in some cases to bring back to the forefront what is essential in being able to write a critical review or to discuss a book from a more analytical perspective.

So many times I see someone call a book "cute" or "colorful" or "charming" or "provocative" or some other generality (Note: I do this too, guilty as charged from time to time). How can we elevate that discussion? Make it more specific to the text? Describe it so others can see it or at least appreciate that we see it? The questions are almost endless, I think. But the rewards of being able to point to specifics strengths, flaws, etc. within a text is not just a good exercise; it allows us to truly discuss the merits of a work.

I read a rather dreadful book today. I will not blog about it. I will not include it in my presentations. There are too many examples of children's books that are not didactic (and that was the fatal flaw of this book), that treat young readers with respect, that do not feel the need to hammer home a moral or a message. If I had a FTF class, I might bring in this book (and others guilty of being didactic) along with books that deal with similar themes and morals with being preachy so that students can see the difference. I think we can show kids of all ages how to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak.
Tags: books, reading
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