Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Lasting Effect of Diversity Talks in Education

           For educators to ask young Black person, someone who is not often represented in canonical literature, to divulge the title of the book that had the greatest impact on them as a child can be a sort of loaded question. As a Black person who grew up in South Georgia, it was especially challenging for me to recall reading texts such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or To Kill a Mockingbird and remember the old let’s take turns reading this aloud as a class exercise. Imagine for a moment sitting in class with a white teacher surrounded by mostly white students and hearing “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a n*****[1]; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.”[2]  Imagine being on the receiving end of curious stares when a white classmate reads “Well, if they like it, Tom, all right; but I don’t want to be a king and have only just a given name, like a n*****.”[3] Imagine the confusion a child would feel hearing a classmate read the following passage aloud as if it’s normal conversation: “Suppose you and Scout talked colored-folks’ talk at home it’d be out of place, wouldn’t it? Now what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church, and with my neighbors? They’d think I was puttin’ on airs to beat Moses.”[4] My teacher in those classes did not take the time to highlight the objectification of the human beings in these texts. She in no way reached out to those of us who were obviously uncomfortable. She did not handle this potentially pivotal moment in a way that would invite the Othered beings in the class into the conversation. We, like the Othered characters in the texts, remained in the margins.
These novels, set in what most simply refer to as The South, normalize referring to Black people as “n******” and “colored folks.” Situating these novels within their historical context is important to discussions about the literary canon because doing so exposes the pitfalls of American culture. According to Randall Kennedy, “. . . regardless of Twain’s intentions, Huckleberry Finn (like any work of art) can be handled in a way that is not only stupid but downright destructive of the educational and emotional well-being of students”[5] Texts such as these reveal issues not only with race, but also with issues of gender, class, and nationalism to name a few. Often times, the discussions about what is wrong in these novels stop at how freely the authors use derogatory language, but there are much bigger issues that are often ignored in mainstream and academic discourse about the works. Let’s have a discussion about how the novels illustrate how white children learn about race and racism. Let’s have a discussion about how the novels depict children’s indoctrination into classism. Let’s have a discussion about how these novels are the Southern bildungsroman. So yes, they are painful to read but they definitely should not be burned or banned because that is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. These problematic texts illustrate a part of American culture that many want to pretend did not happen. But it did happen. It happened to people who went on to have children of their own, and those children are now living with a different version of the same issues. What novels are they reading? Do they see themselves represented in their assigned reading? What will they learn about how America sees them when their classmates are asked to read aloud?
Fortunately, educators, scholars, publishers along with children’s and young adult authors are making great strides in building a catalogue of scholarly and fictional works that call out canonical works. Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, for example, discusses the complicated nature of “race talk dilemmas” in her article, “‘We Always Talk About Race’: Navigating Race Talk Dilemmas in the Teaching of Literature” (2015). Thomas notes that “Reading literature that wrestles with both the history of race in the United States and contemporary race relations encourages a critical view of social and cultural reproduction (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990), with the ultimate intent of creating ethical and literate citizens (Alsup et al., 2006)”6. We all play a role in the development of discourse and the subsequent discussions about intersectional identities. Fortunately, there are a great many more diverse books ( being published from the perspective of various American identities and this gives us all an arsenal of texts to be taught in place of or preferably in conjunction with canonical and banned books. Most importantly, these texts provide an array of identities that reflect the lives young people in America today.

Check out the following links for additional resources:


[1] Kennedy, Randall L. (1999). Who Can Say "Nigger"?...And Other Considerations. Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, (26), 86-96.
[2] Twain, M., & McKay, D. (1948). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Illustrated junior library). New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
[3] Twain, M., & McKay, D. (1946). The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Illustrated junior library). New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
[4] Lee, H. (1982). To Kill a Mockingbird (Warner books ed.). New York: Grand Central Pub.
[5] Kennedy, R. (2002). Nigger: The strange career of a troublesome word (1st ed., Black thought and culture). New York: Pantheon Books.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Introduction to Literature: Personal Accounts (II)

For this installment of my Introduction to Literature Series, I will be featuring Sequoia Stone. She is a second-year M.A. student in SDSU's English and Comparative Literature department, with a specialization in Children's Literature. This is her first semester teaching and her English 220 course is entitled "Reimagining Canon: Literary Confrontations, Adaptations, and Subversions." The following entries are from Sequoia herself!

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I'd had the idea for my syllabus knocking around in my head for a while, ever since I'd read one of my course texts (The Song of Achilles, a queer re-telling of The Illiad) right after reading The Illiad in a course during my senior year of college. While I knew I would have enjoyed The Song of Achilles on its own, reading it on the heel of The Illiad was a deeply illuminating experience. I understood The Illiad better (I read TSOA in six hours the night before my midterm or the course--whoops!), and I was able to approach The Song of Achilles with the tradition and history of The Illiad informing my reading. As I thought about becoming a professor in the far-off future, I thought I'd love the chance to put The Illiad and The Song of Achilles in conversation for my students. When I was presented with the opportunity to teach 220 here at SDSU, I took this initial parting and poured over the books in my library and memories of my undergraduate years in order to create my syllabus based around the idea of reading a "canon" book with a "non-canon" one. Some of these pairings were direct adaptations, while others were simply two texts that echoed similar themes and ideas.

1. What Children's and young adult books or texts were included in the reading list for your course? How were these texts received by the students?

I have eight course texts, four canon and four non-canon. All of my non-canon books are young adult novels: Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, Libba Bray's Beauty Queens, Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker, and Scott Westerfeld's Uglies. I have gotten mostly a positive response to these books, and they are often just as intellectually challenging to my students as the more dense canon texts. Something I would hear often is that reading the YA companion book made things we discussed in the canon text more accessible, as students were able to use more "relatable" texts as a way to retroactively understand things that might have been more austere in older novels.

2. What other texts lended themselves to discuss childhood and adolescence in nuanced ways that were either unexpected or surprising? 

Something that was surprising and delightful to me in my course was how concerned my students were with the interiority or backstory of a character. When reading Lord of the Flies, a student proposed that maybe Jack was so violence because he had a childhood, or was abused. Similarly, in Great Expectations in my class wondered if the villainous figure of Mrs. Joe was more so a product of her upbringing than anything else. While I like to steer these observations back into textual analysis, I enjoyed seeing my students approach these characters as so three-dimensional that they asked themselves, why are they the way they are? It seems that the importance of childhood, the impact of how one is raised, was at the forefront of my student's minds even when we were reading texts not specifically aimed at children or young adults.

3. How does your class's theme carry over to the matters of childhood and adolescence?

Something my class has emphasized throughout our semester has been the importance of familial bonds, and how the family unit impacts the way one grows. Many of our main characters have had abusive parents or families that encourage negativity, and a lot of our discussion has been based around following these characters as they navigate the repercussions of abuse, of cruelty, or of neglect. We have also talked a lot about found families, the family one creates that provides support or love, and how this constructed family illustrates the importance of things like kindness, generosity, and loyalty. As we've moved through our texts, we've also looked at the various ways in which society pressures children and young adults to conform. Whether this manifests as discouraging queerness, encouraging apathy, or dictating beauty standards, my class has talked extensively about the different ways the characters in our novels face crushing dominant ideologies, as well the ways in which it is possible to resist them.

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Thank you so much to Sequoia Stone for the robust commentary and amazing engagement with themes of childhood and adolescence!

-A. Elliott

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Introduction to Literature: Personal Accounts (I)

As part of this blog, I wanted to dedicate a small set of short entries that detail the personal experiences of graduate students within our department who have taught English 220: Introduction to Literature. My goal is to highlight how children's and young adult texts are used in these introductory courses and how matters surrounding childhood, adolescence, and development become integral to these courses.

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What I (Alexander Elliott) found interesting in my own course was the fact that adolescence and childhood were at the forefront of discussion quite frequently, thus reflecting how my teaching and research go hand-in-hand. My course is centered on the concept of love and the affective implications surrounding that subject across different forms of literature and genres. Also, my students went to twitter to share their insights about the readings on Twitter using #love220ae in their posts. 

1. What children's and young adult books or texts were included in the reading list for your course? How were these texts received by the students?

One of the genres that I introduced into my course was young adult literature as a whole, but more specifically queer YA novels and their history. I taught my students about how these narratives came up within YA literature with John Donovan's 1969 novel, I'll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip. Additionally, I explained the history of book materiality and the importance of book covers within YA literature. 

As a class, we read Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. With this novel many topics surround LGBTQ+ representation, Mexican-American identities, parental and familial influence on adolescents, and societal/cultural expectations were brought to the forefront of discussion.

Overall, my students were incredibly happy with the inclusion of this text because it engaged with complex subject matters, yet engaged them in a fun reading experience. They were interested in learning about how impactful and poignant the history of this genre truly is. Various students asked for more recommendations of this kind of literature, as well!

2. What other texts lended themselves to discuss childhood and adolescence in nuanced ways that were either unexpected or surprising?

I started the semester off with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and it was very interesting to see how the students discussed adolescence as a crucial part of the play without my prompting them to do so. Interestingly enough, other texts worked in a similar manner like McCarthy's The Road and Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, where both texts were great in discussing how conceptions of childhood were complicated within speculative narratives. This often led to discussing how maturity and development need not work in a linear manner.

Another text, Vaughan and Staples' graphic novel Saga, also highlighted childhood and development as quite complicated especially because of the science-fiction element. Morrison's Sula served as a great novel to examine how two characters develop from their childhood into their adulthood, in that it gave our class a more prolonged discussion of difficulties in growing up at as a marginalized person within a real-world society.

3. How does your class's theme carry over to the matters of childhood and adolescence?

An overarching idea that has connected the texts is just how impactful familial relationships are in affecting the children and adolescent characters' interactions--be it romantic or platonic. Often time, the family structure (or lack thereof) and the surrounding environment that affect the young characters, results in changing the extent to which they are able to foster productive forms of kinship. Therefore, these family relationships are represented as having a clear impact in the affective component of the characters' later relationships. Overall, love is an abstract idea that cannot be rigidly defined and when childhood and adolescence are introduced, my class found it interesting to see how these stages in development were impactful on the later representations of these characters.

-A. Elliott

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Musicality of Poetry for Children and Adults

Perry Nodelman claims in The Pleasures of Children that "Many children first experience the pleasures of literature in the form of poems: rhyming songs or nursery rhymes like [Humpty Dumpty], recited to them long before they themselves can speak or even understand much language (193). Nodelman goes on to say that what poems like "Humpty Dumpty" means is less important "than how it says what it means" (194). JonArno Lawson, a Canadian/American citizen living in Toronto with his family, writes poetry for both children and adults. “Lawson is a four-time winner of the Lion and Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Children’s Poetry” ( He’s the author of more ten collections of poetry including, Black Stars in a White Night Sky (2008), A Voweller’s Bestiary (2008), and Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box (2012). So many of us enjoy JonArno Lawson's work because he is a master of word play. Lawson confesses in "A Talk from the Bottom of the Box: Reflections of an Award-winning Poet for Youth" that his "father sang songs a lot of folk songs and songs that had word play in them" ( 1:57-2:04). This reinforces Nodelman's point that wordplay not meaning is what makes " ... poems originally intended for adults that editors of collections of poetry thought might interest young readers" so enjoyable (193). Whether the words are read or sang, word play encourages playful thinking.

While we can easily point to the didactic nature of "Daniel in the Lions' Den," the pleasure derived from laughing at a mother lion chastising her cub and encouraging it to wait for a less "scrawny kid" to eat is way more fun to talk about for his audience regardless of age (9). The playful reimagining of the Biblical parable may make die hard Christians shiver at the notion of rewriting such a closely regarded story, but it is harmless fun for everyone else. What’s more fun is the "People Through the Peephole" poem (I absolutely just typed People Through the People and had to correct it) with its playful rearranging of the pieces of compound words (9). The rhythm along with the ē and ō rhyme makes the poem fun to say or sing if you are feeling kind of folksy.

Similarly, there is a catchy musicality that comes with the experience Lawson's poetry whether the audience reads it to themselves or aloud. In "Convincing Contradictions," the additional echo produced by highlighting the musical nature of the work is lightheartedly fascinating. There is the resounding -tions: “Unpredictable predictions./ Hospitable evictions. . . .” and the invasive -osity: “Tight-fisted generosity./ Indifferent curiosity. . . .” (23). On top of all that cleverness there is a neat little line drawn between the antonyms on every line from beginning to end.

Another piece in the collection, "Greenblatt, Goldblatt, Grenby, Grinch" may sound like the name of a cliquish law firm with a not so fun partner, but it too is a poem that recycles syllables for the sake of a poem that a child could easily jump rope to: "Obadiah would you try a little bitta jumbalaya?" (27).  The 'blatt' is repeated in the first two words of the first line of the poem while the 'Gre' in the first word is not repeated until the last two words of the line. And if your tongue isn't already tied up, then the second line won't hurt you much with the 'sc' and 'yard' from the first word being repeated in the second word and the 'inch' from the third word being carried over to the fourth. The catchy tune in the entire poem made me want to break out the jump rope for a trip down memory lane.

All in all, Jon Arno Lawson did it again.

JonArno Lawson’s work can be found at the following presses:

~Kiedra Taylor