Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How the NCSCL Remembers Harper Lee

It is always a sad day when a significant children’s literature author passes, and this week was a sad one when we said good-bye to Nelle Harper Lee. Going under the penname of Harper Lee, she will always be remembered as an American author who wrote one of the most recognized titles in the United States and showed the world what living in the South was like.

Of course made famous by her Pulitzer–Prize-winning book To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee is  an influential author who taught us about racial inequality and injustice during our grade-school years—the book is still widely part of the American elementary education curriculum. Since its publication, the book has been translated in 40 languages and continues to sell in record numbers.

But what about this novel read by a young audience makes it so profound? One scholar Gregory Jay states: “The consensus interpretation of the novel, generally confirmed by how it has been taught in schools, focuses on the moral lesson of empathy as the cardinal virtue and urgent program of racial liberalism”—but that is not all. Jay states that not only is this novel a prevalent didactic tool of antiracist morality, but “Recently, this consensus has been interrupted by critical analyses of ‘sexual otherness’ in the novel and its many sly ways of subverting gender normativity.” He comments that perhaps there is more behind the stereotyped portal of blacks, and objectification of their subjectivity demonstrates another command of the white, heteronormative, dominant culture that comes from looking at the “destabilization of heterosexuality,” a close reading that looks beyond the more common anti-racist campaign.

Also, as seen in Graeme Dunphy’s article “Meena's Mockingbird: From Harper Lee to Meera Syal,” post-colonial reading of Lee’s works have allowed new books that deal with childhood experiences surrounding racism, such as Anita and Me, the opportunity to show a way of overcoming obstacles of oppression through its narrative. Dunphy connects the titles stating, “The world is seen through the eyes of a young girl as she is growing up, and the strength of both authors is the skill with which they parody their respective juvenile vernaculars” (643). Dunphy turns our attention, as readers, to the innocence and naivety presented within a youthful and inexperienced narrator’s perspective. This allows each book to present the reader with harsh sociological challenges that, through the eyes of a child, suggest the irony of how books can teach diversity and respect for all through such a perspective—a demonstration of childhood innocence as a segue into the harsh realities of society.

And while there are many interesting ways to look and talk about Lee’s historic and influential work, the fact remains that there is a sense of timelessness that one finds with To Kill A Mockingbird and the lessons on empathy that it attempts to promote. So maybe not all didactic texts are taking away from the childhood experience, because what Harper Lee’s work does is expose childhood innocence as a way of productively working through social issues and pushing for positive and open-minded outlooks into future generations.

Dunphy, Graeme. "Meena's Mockingbird: From Harper Lee to Meera Syal." Neophilologus, 88.4 (2004): 637-659.
Gregory, Jay. “Queer Children and Representative Men: Harper Lee, Racial Liberalism, and the Dilemma of To Kill a Mockingbird”. American Literary History. 2015. 27: 487-522.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Voice Your Language 2016 — Juan Felipe Herrera Pays SDSU Another Visit

SDSU and students in the Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education hosted the second annual Voice Your Language forum on February 12, 2016. Voice Your Language is a grassroots organization dedicated to recognizing the dual character of language as both “a means of communication and a carrier of culture and identity.”  

Among its guest speakers this year was 21st Poet Laureate of the United States Juan Felipe Herrera and the first Latino to hold the position. Herrera acknowledged the long-standing issue of accessibility when it comes to children’s books, especially those aimed at multilingual or ethnic families. These are books that harness plots, images, and characters with diverse experiences that need to be told and read across America.  But the problem is that “books are not accessible to everybody,” as Herrera explained. What attracts us as readers and parents to certain books are the colorful, beautifully appealing pictures, which then become a double-edged sword for families with limited incomes. The more beautiful the book, the glossier the pages, the more expensive it is to buy. And that is only a fragment of the obstacles multilingual students face in the classroom.

But Herrera has a few ideas for overcoming these obstacles. “Have your students [in the classroom] break through the paper. Write on the other side all the whys,” Herrera suggested, as a way to shed the negative stereotypes attached to being multicultural and bilingual. Educators should have them physically break through the paper with all the reasons aimed at them to hold them back: because they can’t do it, because it’s shameful, or because they speak Spanish.

At the end of the event, Juan Felipe Herrera stayed to sign books and gave each of the people that came to see him a little bit of his time to chat and expand on the topics touched on in the talks. We, here at the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, would like to thank Mr. Herrera for attending San Diego State University this year and voicing his opinion and knowledge about how multilingual educators, citizens, and learners can imagine the future of multilingualism in schools.

And for this great picture! 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Fairy Tale of Love Day's Simulation

With the hallmark day of love approaching, there are usually two groups of people that begin to emerge. The first group are those who love being in love, buying things for those they love, and waiting to get that special treat from the person they love; while the second group are the ones who say bah-humbug to another corporatized holiday.

The Disney corporation has most certainly assisted in this holiday’s grandeur with all the “happily ever afters” and “true love’s kiss” ideology—an over-exaggerated romance aimed at young audiences but still capture that “Aw, how sweet” from the adults that continue to buy these films for their children. Disney is also partially responsible for the perceived realities of gender roles, marriage, and love through so many of their early feature length animations—what Jean Baudrillard of course defines as the simulacra. But perhaps it goes back further than Disney, to the beginning of publishing fairy tales—tales of oral tradition that resonated with folk culture making its way into fancy, upper-class parlors and salons merely as prizes of entertainment.

Historically, both oral and literary fairy tales were used to overcome the terror of bestiality and barbaric forces that challenged “free will and human compassion.”  The way the protagonist overcomes, changes, or improves a terrifying villain or situation into fortune, happiness, or tranquility shows the way socio-psychological mechanisms become accepted as ideologies that define what is right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and grotesque. Jack Zipes points out that it is the sense of wonder in these functions that distinguishes fairy tales from other literary works that transform them into agents of ideology. Wonder quoted from The Oxford Universal Dictionary, “the emotion excited by the perception of something novel and unexpected…” can also be linked to a fantasy of utopia that becomes like a memory within the emotions created by these stories (When Dreams Come True 1–4).

Among the first popular publications of fairy tales were the collections written by the Grimm Brothers, and like Charles Perrault, they wrote down folk tales passed down orally over generations. One Grimm story that is interesting to look at for its innuendos on following dominant social practices is “Clever Hans.” This story demonstrates the dominant ideologies working to oppose anything that suggests the grotesque or folk culture—anything acting out of upper class sophistication. The story was written as a dialogue between the characters, which provides a unique view of only the characters without external forces, which exposed more of the childlike innocence Hans’s character brings. Hans is a symbol of what becomes of someone who cannot understand or follow social norms, which presents them as an adult that is not ready to do adult things in society—a character perhaps highly relatable for children.

The dialogue goes like this:
Hans's mother asks, "Where are you going, Hans?"
Hans answers, "To Gretel's."
"Behave yourself, Hans."
"Behave myself. Good-bye, mother."
"Good-bye, Hans."
Hans comes to Gretel's. "Good day, Gretel."
"Good day, Hans. Are you bringing something good?"
"Bringing nothing. Want something."
Gretel gives Hans a needle.
Hans says, "Good-bye, Gretel."
"Good-bye, Hans."
Hans takes the needle, sticks it into a hay wagon, and walks home behind the wagon.
"Good evening, mother."
"Good evening, Hans. Where have you been?"
"At Gretel's."
"What did you take her?"
"Took nothing. Got something."
"What did Gretel give you?"
"Gave me a needle."
"Where is the needle, Hans?"
"Stuck in the hay wagon."
"That was stupid, Hans. You should have stuck the needle in your sleeve."
"Doesn't matter. Do better."

The story continues in the same patter of dialogue that is silly, and the reader is entertained by his “stupidity.” Hans goes to Gretel several more times and returns with items she gives him but always does what his mother tells him to do with the previous item. In the last part of the story, Hans brings Gretel home like a calf and ties her in the barn, because that is what his mother had told him to do that with a calf he had previously brought home. His mother tells him he has done wrong and to cast friendly eyes on her. The last lines in the story read: “Hans goes into the stable, cuts out the eyes of all the calves and sheep, and throws them in Gretel's face. Then Gretel becomes angry, tears herself loose and runs away. She is no longer Hans's bride.” 

Gretel’s character symbolizes the dominant culture, the normative ideologies that expose others who do not learn to docilely follow along, and Hans’s character perhaps represents the grotesque realism of Carnival—a symbol that acknowledges the child and uncivilized. Together the couple demonstrates how these worlds cannot exist together. The last statement shows that working against the “real” social order, one will only be left alone to suffer the loss of a loving spouse—ideology’s mode of interpellation. Hans loses a bride because assimilation is required of an individual in order to exist within the world where social order dominates the average lifestyle. In Hans’s story, he cannot grasp the logical adult order which defines him as more of an outcast or still too childish. His character demonstrates a failure in basic development that society relies on to maintain the dominant culture and the apparatuses that support it. Those who do not accept basic ideologies become laughing stock, the Scrooges or ones who wear black on Valentines day, but this only shows how the judgments of the dominant social order simulate its own aesthetics and ideologies to keep making “true love’s kiss” at the end of “happily ever after” such a desirable thing.


Friday, February 5, 2016

I am Me: An Unlikely Princess Against the Spectacle

Recently (say within the last 30 or so years), fairytales have been getting criticized left and right and from all sides. Feminists scholars, bloggers, and even vloggers, have left no shell unturned, no coral unexplored, when it comes to critiquing the popular folktales from the perspective of modern feminism. These stories have shaped many a young girl’s romantic expectations, with their portrayals of adolescent waiting and dreaming, romanticizations of marriage, bondage to the father before their prince comes along, and, probably the most referenced and criticized aspect of fairytales, the princess’ reliance on external rescue.

There’s no surprise, then, that fairy tale retellings are popular among children and young adult authors and this popularity exposes a complicated ideology many feminist would say needs to be reevaluated among modern fairy tales. I’d attribute this popularity, in part, to one of the most successful novels to come from this genre: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. Up until now, I haven’t found a fairy tale retelling that could possibly compete with it because, let’s face it, that’s a pretty high bar to set — unless you count the Shrek movies. However, buying a copy of Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil from Powell’s Books in Portland was the best decision I ever made in 2015.

The book begins with best friends, Sophie and Agatha, who have very different reactions to being kidnapped and whisked away to the fabled School for Good and Evil. Self-proclaimed “most beautiful girl” in their town of Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of this day for a long time—she’s going to earn her high marks at the School for Good and become a full-fledged princess, just as she believes she deserves. But fortune’s not quite so clear-cut and command-able as that. Sophie, with her giant pink dress and long, golden hair, is dropped onto Evil Shore, while Agatha ends up on the other side in Good, and the two must live through the fairy tale in order to get out of it.

The School for Good and Evil is filled with everything that you’d want out of a fairy tale retelling and so much more. It’ll even please fans of the Harry Potter series, with its talk of houses and common rooms and class schedules like Beautification and History of Villainy. There are princes and princesses, good is pitted against evil in classic fairy tale fashion, and it first seems like lines are very cut and clean with princesses still waiting for their prince to rescue them. And suddenly you think, “Wait. This is actually a major problem, right?” And you’d be correct.

There is a great deal at stake in what is geared toward young audiences, and subconsciously, children, especially young girls, can transfer into their lives cultural norms that do nothing but exalt passivity, dependency, and self-sacrifice as a female’s cardinal virtues.

So underneath the complex plot, the snark and the witty hilarious moments in this novel express the heteronormativity common in fairy tales, dragging it into the light and exposing its ugliness, especially when it comes to the “Good Side” of the school, which turns out to be only a hollow, superficial beauty. Read through the lens of Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle,” the students of this school are all focused on regurgitating the school’s idea of who they should be, which Chainani positions as the spectacle.

The author draws a parallel between the authority figures of the school and the numerous adults who inhabit a young person’s life. Parents teach their children the values they hold important, as their own parents did for them, but what else is subtly coded in those values that more-often-than-not are asking children to conform themselves to a certain standard? When Chainani acknowledges this disjunction in Sophie’s definition of beauty and virtue, he is setting up that where we are going as a society is- The School for Good and Evil. The school resembles a society that is dominated by the spectacle, which simultaneously boxes up young people in a false binary based on superficial characteristics, like beauty and gender stereotypes, because it will maintain the heteronormative status quo—boys will be princes and girls will be princesses, but there are repercussions for students failing. And that is where this novel turns dark and eerie. Agatha realizes this before Sophie does, as she stumbles upon the Gallery of Good and “taxidermied creatures loom[ing] over her, stuffed and mounted on rosy pink walls. She dusted off their plaques to find the booted Master Cat, Cinderella’s favorite rat, Jack’s sold-off cow, stamped with the names of children who weren’t good enough to be heroes or sidekicks or servants” and when she catches sight of the beanstalk: “HOLDEN OF RAINBOW GALE. That wretched plant had once been a boy.” The mentality of sexism and homogenization is dramatized into this literal process of objectification. Like Debord says of the nature of the spectacle, it has to erase identity in order to continue on with its exploitation of the spectator (the individual).

While readers typically wave away the supernatural elements in fantasy novels, what is left is ultimately the reality within the spectacle: that what is at stake is individual identity and agency within identity in order for Sophie, Agatha, and others to be themselves. One example of this is Sophie’s mindless readiness to embody the ideology—being the princess—at any cost, even at the dissolution of her individual identity and her friendship with Agatha, though she is the one trying to get them home, which seems ridiculous, but when mirrored with our social reality, the idea is not so farfetched from the lengths young people go to fit media standards. By exaggerating the spectacle, which is an authorial force, to make it out to be ridiculous to the reader, it destabilizes its power, and makes it perhaps a little easier to think critically about and resist the spectacle.

Moreover, Agatha is one of the most fleshed-out characters I have encountered in a young adult novel in a while, and is what makes her the ideal candidate for critical resistance to the status quo at the school is her ability to have sensitivity and empathy for other people, not just for herself. She embodies the critical discourse, asking the question about whether there is the possibility of resistance. Agatha is emotionally and intellectually equipped to see the propaganda put forth by The School for Good and Evil for what is—an exposition of all that is wrong with what society teaches us to take at face value. Her greatest power, what makes her a true princess among the other girls is her power to grant wishes, and this is no more personified than in the class for Communication with Animals. In trying to communicate her wish to a magical fish (as all animals serve princesses), the process goes awry:

“The fish swelled into a ballooning black mass, creeping up her hand [. . . ] and sucked her deeper like a gelatinous grave, stifling her last breaths, leeching her every last drop of life until there was nothing left to—
 Agatha fell back in shock.
 In her arms was a girl. No more than twelve or thirteen, with toffee skin and a tangle of dark curls. She stirred, opened her eyes, and smiled at Agatha as if she were an old friend. ‘A hundred years, and you were the first who wished to free me.’”

Soman Chainani empowers young readers to reach out as Agatha has with a power that is inherently within them but is stifled away by the dominant culture. And maybe readers will go into other books with the same eye for how those novels contribute or try to resist dominant ideologies.