Conversations and thoughts about diversity in literature

I’ve plunged into the abyss of reading 1,000’s of articles for my current course and next assignment. Well, not 1,000’s – my Evernote count tells me 333.  Nice number.  I’m also engaged in conversations, in real life with colleagues and ex-colleagues and online with my peers and people I’ve been introduced to by people who know I’ve entered this specific rabbit warren.  Not that I know what this specific rabbit warren is or where it’s leading to.   I have but a vague notion of where I think I’m directed, and until I’ve waded through those 333 thoughts that are other’s takes on 10,000’s more thoughts may I have an inkling of what my own thoughts may be.

Conversations?  The idea that access to diverse / multicultural literature can be thought of as a venn diagram (thank you Katie Day).  That perhaps we need to make sure that there is a minimum level of overlap between the world of the book/writing (it needn’t be a book) and the world of the reader. That idea of “personal connections” – below is this concept at a simplistic level

venn_dia
Image created by Stuck (2015)

 

Autobiography would be the ultimate overlap, while perhaps some of the literature we attempt to invoke on our students result in two circles that never meet – and thereby the student rejects not only the book itself – the physical manifestation, but the idea behind? I put that as a question – since as Maya Thiagarajan pointed out to my last post – we are planting seeds – in the hope (and what is literature for if not to provide hope (Michaels, 2004) that they will take.  The conversation led me to Ass. Prof. Rhoda Myra Garces Bacsal of the NIE (National Institute of Education in Singapore) who is doing some fascinating research on just this topic, and has this great blog that led me to the the International Youth Library Munich (which has a fellowship for anyone who’s interested!)

So what are my thoughts? They are not yet in a coherent form, but the revolve around the ideas of socio-emotional development; developmental stages of children, the need for many or few books that point to moral lessons or anecdotes or examples of that aforementioned development.  About what should drive that choice and how the collection should be curated and culled to fit the needs of your specific population, or even the specific needs of a specific child.  About the knowledge and ability of teachers to do so. Through Cremin & Mottram (2008) writing on the literary knowledge of  teachers with the idea of the ability of teachers to recommend books to individual readers and the personalisation and matching of readers to texts, I stumbled on Cox & Schaetzel (2007) writing about the characteristics of “teachers as readers in Singapore: Prolific, functional, or detached?”

I know in my library I have large lists of books curated to fit into the PYP learner profile (principled, caring, balanced, thinker, knowledgeable, communicator, inquirer, open-minded, risk taker & reflective) and the PYP attitudes  (empathy, respect, appreciation, curiosity, enthusiasm, integrity, independence, confidence, creativity, commitment, tolerance & cooperation).  10 elements of the learner profile and 12 attitudes, – can a child realistically be expected to remember all 22, let alone apply them?

My lists were created way back when by who knows who, and are added to each year as we buy new books.  What does the fact that we have 63 books in the list about “creativity” versus 15 books on “integrity” say about us as a school, the library as a repository of culture, the publishing industry as a disseminator of socio-cultural, value based literature?  What is the right number of books to have anyway? 5 – 10 -50 – 100? Or maybe just one.  Just one book that will really make a difference*. How many can our teachers / teacher-librarian absorb so as to be what we want them to be – and is that prolific or functional or impassioned, or perhaps just effective?

When I dig into the books I also wonder about that little venn diagram thing.  Not having red pajamas is the least of my concerns. So much of my multi-cultural literature originates in the USA where multi-cultural is taken to mean Latino, Hispanic, African American, Native American or Asian-American. And the idea of a good tale entails the involvement of baseball or snow or backyards or pets or farms. None of those are part of my students’ current realities. Or even past realities.  While reading I often ask my privileged third culture kids how many of them have ever been to a working farm, how many have a pet larger than a hamster? If I’m lucky I’ll see one or two hands raised, plus a plethora of those desiring a dog or cat or pony. They don’t fit neatly into cultural boxes either. Parents and grandparents are not a homogenous identifiable category, but rather a blend of East and West, of language and religion. Of nationality and residency and movement. That picture book of a black child with a baseball bat in his hand does not get borrowed, no matter how often I put it out on display. Am I allowed to say that?  I say that a little in despair.  One of my students researched Ebola in Africa – he presented his findings to me and I asked if he’d ever been to Africa. He hadn’t and it was obvious. His generalisations and thoughts and ideas even after weeks of so-called research were primitive and naive with all the characteristics of the “dangers of the single story“.  I was torn between keeping the tone positive, remembering he was 11 and shouting “you have no idea” (sometimes I feel very African, even if I’ve not lived there for the last 25 years).  A colleague just got back from Nigeria – she has a Nigerian partner, she’s travelled elsewhere in Africa. I asked her if it was anything like she’d pictured. No she said. Not at all. Not in any picture she’d had of what it may be like.

Travel. Travel through literature. Are our travels through literature too limited, too stereotypical, too simplistic, too attempting to be unique while still being representative and universal?  Or is it a symptom of supply and demand where one reality is more publishable as it more closely reflects (our / the editor’s?) presumptions about how things are? See Michael’s (2004) discussion on the near-past “reality” of YA fiction in Australia in this respect. Certainly anyone reading that genre from that location for a period of time would have a very distinct view of growing up in Australia as an adolescent that is no less horrifying than being a child in Deborah Ellis’ “The Heaven Shop“.

Back to reading.

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* One of my G3 teachers has been reading “People of Sparks” to her class during the UOI on migration – that is one book that sure has made a difference – to their understanding of migration and hopefully to their empathy around the topic.

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References:

Cox, R., & Schaetzel, K. (2007). A preliminary study of pre-service teachers as readers in Singapore: Prolific, functional, or detached? Language Teaching Research, 11(3), 301–317. http://doi.org/10.1177/1362168807077562
Cremin, T., Mottram, M., Bearne, E., & Goodwin, P. (2008). Exploring teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature. Cambridge Journal of Education, 38(4), 449–464. http://doi.org/10.1080/03057640802482363
Michaels, W. (2004). The realistic turn: Trends in recent Australian young adult fiction. Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature, 14(1), 49–59.
Stuck, A. (2015). Connecting to prior knowledge. Retrieved 5 December 2015, from http://www.ohiorc.org/Literacy_K5/strategy/strategy_each.aspx?id=000008
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3 thoughts on “Conversations and thoughts about diversity in literature

  1. Reading this reminded me of an interview I once read ( but now cant find again ) with a Zimbabwean author, Petina Gappah, who recalled being an African child who read Enid Blyton books voraciously because they were the books available in the library at the previously white-only school that she attended after Independence in Zim. No relation to her life at all ( then again the stories are a form of fantasy to most children now ). She also made the point that she still would have rather read those books than the very worthy but dull and patronising books that were starting to be written for young African children to read. Here are two links to Guardian interviews – if you have not come across her before: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jun/11/interview-petina-gappah-zimbabwe and http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/05/petina-gappah-interview-ive-written-very-zimbabwean-story?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail

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  2. Interesting … I wonder who wrote those dull and patronising books and to what end? To create “the good african”? The more I look into the issue of diversity the more depressed and powerless I feel. There has to be some hope out there somewhere….

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  3. Hi Nadine! Thank you so much for linking up to my write up about the IYL. I wrote a much more recent piece on the library here:
    https://gatheringbooks.org/2016/06/09/international-youth-library/
    I was lucky enough to be one of their research fellows this year.

    I hope I’d be able to see you next week for the talk organized at Tanglin! And here is the new link for our research project at the NIE: http://www.nie.edu.sg/project/oer-15-14-rb

    Warmly,
    Myra

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