Literary Issues

Although children's books have enormous potential as educational tools, there is far more to literature than its usefulness for teaching academic skills. Preservice teachers must understand that while Kevin Henkes' The Purple Plastic Purse is great to pair with a phonics lesson on the letter p, the author probably had a very different purpose in mind for readers and listeners. And while Mildred Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is an excellent choice for teachers who want to address social, historical, and even geographical issues related to the Civil Rights era with their students, the book's distinct characters, theme, and style affect readers far beyond the parameters of a social studies curriculum.

Children's literature instructors whose courses focus on “how to teach with trade books” do a disservice to preservice teachers, children, and children's literature. In a commentary about the role of literature in teaching phonics skills, Trachtenburg (1990) states that “if we wish to stimulate the imagination, provide stimulating language models, expose students to lucid discourse, and expand their cultural awareness, we need quality, meaningful literature” (p. 649). A third issue related to children's literature, then, is its literary value and how best to convey it.

According to C.S. Lewis, who wrote books for both children and adults, children's literature is a true literary art form. Picture storybooks are both literary and artistic art forms; as Huck et al. (1997) point out, “The picture storybook conveys its messages through two media, the art of illustrating and the art of writing” (p. 198). Rosenblatt (1976) explains the literary power of children's books, stating that “through the medium of words, the text brings into the reader's consciousness certain concepts, certain sensuous experiences, certain images of things, people, actions, scenes” (p. 30).

Preservice teachers must be shown the aesthetic worth of children's worth and have opportunities to savor its literary value. They should be able to wallow in the wonder of naughty rabbits who steal vegetables from gardens and resourceful spiders who weave messages into webs. I have already suggested that instructors of children's literature should provide preservice teachers with opportunities to select, read, and analyze literature -- something that will promote their understanding of a book's educational benefits. This same opportunity can also provide them with literary satisfaction. Britton (1978) asserts that “a student should read more books with satisfaction...[and] he should read books with more satisfaction” (p. 110).

The nuances of meaning that preservice teachers derive from text can be enhanced by the adept instructor of children's literature, so as to highlight the significant aesthetic aspects of literature. Stories, poetry, and passages from literature selected by the instructor or by the students should be read aloud during class. The “heads down, eyes closed” technique as someone reads a chapter from a children's novel aloud might be the best way to encourage aesthetic awareness and appreciation of children's literature. Huck et al. (1997), Pappas (1993), and Smith (1979) note that children's books often include their very own brand of rich and sophisticated language, rhythm, and structure, different from the language we use to talk with one another. Hearing stories read aloud can assist listeners -- children or preservice teachers -- in grasping the differences among literary forms and functions, teach them to anticipate story patterns and endings, help motivate additional reading, and expand vocabulary.

I have already suggested that preservice teachers should have the opportunity to explore children's literature in small-group discussions, giving them a chance to explore aa practice they can apply to their own future classrooms as well as encouraging insights about stories. Small-group discussions also provide a means for preservice teachers to enjoy the beauty of books as they share their insights about the literature they have read and hear and describe personal responses to it. Allen (1997) comments on a classroom designed this way: “Through their interchanges with each other and the teacher, the students mulled over and clarified their literary responses. Although they spent time simply retelling story events, they also shared interpretations and evaluated the author's choices” (p. 65).

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Reading Online, www.readingonline.org
Posted February 2000
© 2000 International Reading Association, Inc. ISSN 1096-1232