Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Monday, November 13, 2006

teaching to the unenthusiastic

One of the great things about teaching children's literature is that usually the students like the books. This is no small thing, especially when one usually teaches Victorian literature (which seems, strangely, to be an acquired taste for some) or, worse, a required course. Nothing in a required course, naturally, can be enjoyable. I cheated last year by teaching a children's novel in my required course (the syllabus is the same for everyone, but we each get to add one text), and it was almost everyone's favorite book for the course. Competing with Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche, Augustine, etc. Well, to be fair, it was my favorite, too. Not that I think the others aren't worthwhile, but there was a little less pleasure in the assigned reading. (By the end most of us did truly enjoy several of the texts--and learn a lot about more of them--and I'm always glad to go through the drill again when I do it. But it's hard, hard work at the beginning.)

But today I taught a novel in my children's lit class that most students seem not to like. This happened last year as well and I made a teaching moment out of it (why don't you like it? what do those qualities suggest? why might someone deliberately write a book like that?), so I decided to risk it again.

It worked even better this year. The students were quite articulate about what they didn't like: the narrative doesn't follow the usual cause-and-effect logic, the characters are underdeveloped and lack interiority, the chronology of the narrative is confusing (the main character is in high school at one moment and raising a child almost the next), the magic seems out of place or unearned, the characters make bad decisions and seem not to face any consequences. Great stuff! I put it all up on the board and asked them if they'd read anything else this semester that shared these qualities.

Turns out that these qualities are rife in children's literature, particularly fairy tales. Snow White is a child in scene one, married at the end, for example. Jack is a thief and a fool but when the beanstalk comes crashing down we're on his side. The narrative logic of most fairy tales is "and" rather than "therefore." We really don't know what Cinderella thinks about what happens to her--no one ever tells us. And most fairy tales heroes and heroines do little if anything to deserve the magical help they get.

Oh! And Weetzie Bat and fairy tales are both age-inappropriate: teen sex is in both, but fairy tales often also involve incest, cannibalism, theft, murder, and mutilation. By comparison we might find Weetzie Bat tame. This raises the question of audience, and it turns out that the whole concept of YA literature is a bit difficult to grasp: my college students are pretty censorious about what they think teenagers should be reading. Hmm, I say.

Of course, I told them, they don't have to like it just because I teach it. But they do have to know what it is they're claiming not to like, and to be able to make some analytical claims about it. And, on the evidence of today's class, they can do that.

1 comment:

  1. awesome post, L... and sounds like a fabulous class, as well - rock on