Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Literature that Deals with Human Diversity: Helping to overcome fear of the 'other'

People have a tendency to fear the unknown, and this includes people who are different to us. I have argued in previous posts (here & here) that literature can teach us a great deal about life, including giving us greater understanding of people of other races, personalities, genders, faiths and so on.  Literature brings great pleasure but it also teaches us and can impact on us emotionally. It passes on aspects of our cultural traditions, it introduces us to other cultures and it teaches us about our world, its history, its people and what it is to be human. A piece of literature is more than just a good story. I wrote in one of my books (Pathways to Literacy, Cairney 1995, p.77-78) that literature can act as:

  • A mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances
  • A source of knowledge
  • A source of ideological challenge
  • A means to peer into the past, and the future
  • A vehicle to other places
  • A means to reflect on inner struggles
  • An introduction to the realities of life and death
  • A vehicle for the raising and discussion of social issues
In this post I revisit (essentially re-publish a previous older post) to look at a group of books that I would loosely term books that help children to become aware of the 'other'. The concept of 'otherness' has its roots in continental philosophy. The German philosopher Hegel was one of the first to use the concept. The notion of the 'Other' is important in defining our sense of self.  In the social sciences it is also used to help us understand the way we exclude groups within our society or across broad cultural boundaries.  The emergence of a sense of the ‘other’ is one of the ways that children first become aware of those who are different and to differentiate between that which can create fear, and that which is familiar and certain. Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel LĂ©vinas helped to popularise the term in modern times and suggested that a sense of the other comes before our need to respond by ignoring, rejecting, helping and so on.

Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale 'The Ugly Duckling' first published in 1843 is a fairytale that speaks directly to this theme.  As the young ducks grew older they could see that the last 'duck' was not like them: 'He's too big!" "You're appallingly ugly!" "I wish you were miles away". They struggle to work out how to deal with his difference, "But why should we care so long as you don't marry into our family?"  While the 'Ugly Duckling' and other stories often speak of many things, some have the wonderful quality of shifting children's focus beyond themselves, to become aware of the other, to understand their difference, and to re-shape their sense of self as they see themselves in relation to those who are 'other' than themselves.

The books that follow are just a 'light' sample of the many books available for young readers. I have mainly chosen picture books but there are many children's novels that include this theme. I may re-visit this theme for older readers later. I have also used some sub-headings to offer a sense of just some of the senses of 'difference' that are brought into focus.

1. The Aged

'Remember Me' by Margaret Wild & Dee Huxley (illustrator)

Margaret Wild's delightful book centres on the first person narrative of a grandmother who talks about her life and how frustrating it is when she forgets things. Her granddaughter is her little helper, enabling her to survive the day. While Wild's intent is to look specifically at memory loss and how it impacts on the aged, it also offers an insight into how this is read and responded to by others. In time the woman even forgets her granddaughter; but by mentally reliving her experience of the little girl (from birth to the present) she remembers her and the little girl promises that she'll be around to help her remember.  The older person with failing memory is not a problem, but someone to be loved, supported and learned from. And of course, in the process, our lives are enriched.

Other examples in this category include 'Wilfrid, Gordon McDonald Partridge' by Mem Fox & Julie Vivas (illustrator). This is probably my favourite Mem Fox book.  Another example is 'Waiting for May' by Thyrza Davey. In this wonderful story a social worker wants an old man 'Old Alec' living on a houseboat in Queensland with his dog to move to a retirement home. He 'escapes' to avoid this fate but in escaping his fate, a fierce storm and a little young boy change everything.

2. The person of different race or ethnicity

'The Burnt Stick' (1995) by Anthony Hill & Mark Sofilas (illustrator)

This novel for younger readers (8-10 years) is set in Australia prior to the 1960s.  It is the story of a young Australian aboriginal boy named John Jagamarra, who had been taken (like thousands of other Indigenous children) from his family. John was taken from his mother by the Welfare Department of the day, and sent to live with his white Father at the Pearl Bay Mission for Aboriginal Children. He grew up in this beautiful place, but he knew it was not like being home with his mother and his people.  He remembers how the 'Big Man from Welfare' had come and taken him away. His story illustrates how well intentioned government policy at the time failed to deal with the problems of Indigenous communities and failed to understand the full needs of people 'other' than themselves. While the story positions us as reader to see the tragedy of the 'Stolen Generation' through John's eyes, at the same time it offers child and adult readers the chance to consider the issues of racial difference and how we understand, live with and when necessary, reach out to people other than ourselves.

Mark Sofilas' wonderful charcoal images add a haunting and powerful additional dimension to the story. The Children's Book Council of Australia named it Book of the Year for Younger Readers in 1995.

Another more recent exploration of this theme is Matt Ottley's epic picture book 'Requiem for a Beast' (which I have reviewed HERE), that uses story (in picture book form), image and music to explore the painful experiences of the 'Stolen Generation' and in the process helps us to learn much about ourselves and how the non-Indigenous are positioned relative to Indigenous Australians. This book is a picture book for secondary aged readers, not young children.

Yet another wonderful book that offers a greater understanding of Indigenous Australians is 'Playground' (2011) that was compiled by Nadia Wheatley with illustrations and design by Ken Searle. It was short-listed for the 2011 Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Awards. This is an unusual book isn't quite a graphic novel, but then again, it isn't simply a reference book.  Drawing on the stories of 80 Indigenous Australian Elders, 20 Indigenous secondary students and with Indigenous Historian Dr Jackie Huggins as adviser and critical friend, Nadia Wheatley has created a unique collaborative work.  The book offers a wonderful insight into experiences of childhood for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from 1900 to the present.

With stunning photographs and illustrations, it takes us into the daily life of Indigenous children (past and present) who are connected with their land from birth. The stories and drawings help the reader to understand Indigenous life in all its facets - learning, playing, understanding and respecting the earth, the first days of life, relationships in families, what 'home' was, languages, daily food gathering and hunting, the place of song, dance, art and ceremony.  With the arrival of European people there have been adaptations, but Indigenous children remain embedded in their culture. Daily life is different, but Indigenous children are still learning from country and community. This book would be a good introduction for readers who want to know more about Indigenous people not simply read their stories.

I have written more about Indigenous literature here.

From the difficult, to the simpler rendering of this theme, Dr Seuss has also written a number of examples that touch on 'otherness'.  'The Sneetches' is an obvious one that tells of two types of creatures (Sneetches) one with a Star on their bellies and the other without. Needless to say one felt superior and the other inferior. One day a man arrives with the perfect solution, a machine that can add a star to the belly. But without the stars how could the 'superior' group differentiate itself? The man had the solution, his machine could take the stars off (!) the Sneetches who were the original 'Star Belly' kind.

But perhaps an example even closer to the theme is 'What was I scared of?' a funny story about a small creature who while walking at night is confronted by a pair of pale green pants that are out walking by themselves. He is terrified when on each walk he sees them. But of course it turns out that the pants were just as scared of him and finally all is resolved:

And, now we meet quite often,
Those empty pants and I,
And we never shake or tremble.
We both smile
And, we say

3. The person in different social circumstances

'Way Home' by Libby Hathorn & Gregory Rogers(illustrator)

This is the story of Shane, a young street kid (which isn't revealed until the end of the story), who finds a lost kitten. The story takes us through the city streets to Shane’s ‘house’; which the kitten will share with him. The illustrations by Gregory Rogers portray Sydney at night. They show the constant shift (which is part of Shane's life) from busy streets ablaze with lights to dark and sometimes threatening back alleyways. There are hazards and dangers for Shane and the tiny kitten at every turn. The story offers an insight into the life of the homeless and is a poignant story of two survivors. Suitable for 7-10 years olds.

4. Understanding the 'other' gender 

There have been many books that look at differences of gender. A recent author who has focused on this theme is Aaron Blabey. His first book 'Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley' is about friendship and relationships. Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley are the best of friends, but they are different in almost every way. Pearl likes solving mysteries and moves rather fast in the world; Charlie likes taking baths and watching his garden grow. So how can Pearl Barley and Charlie Parsley be such good friends? Because that which is in the 'other' can complement that which is in him or her.  The book won the Children's Book Council Award for Picture Book of the year in 2009.

Blabey continues tangentially with a variation on theme in his second and third books 'Sunday Chutney' and 'Stanley Paste'.  In these, his first person narratives are more focused on how the child copes with their difference rather than us coping with the other. The rather unusual girl Sunday Chutney is always moving from school to school due to her Dad's jobs, coping with difference and awkwardness all the time. 

In 'Stanley Paste' we learn of the very small boy (Stanley Paste), who hates his size, until one day a new girl arrives at school who is very tall. Like Stanley, she hates the way she is. They become good friends and see different things in each other than many of the other kids at school who have made their lives miserable.

Summing Up

Each of the books above does much more than just present the theme that I have pointed to. In high schools teachers might also include books that deal with sexual orientation as part of the English curriculum for older students. The concept of 'otherness' is important and books such as the above offer children the opportunity to consider how do they situate themselves relative to the 'other'.

Other posts

All previous 'Key Themes' posts HERE

Friday, June 10, 2016

Ten Great New Books for Readers Aged 4-16 Years

1. 'Yak & Gnu' by Juliette MacIver & illustrated by Cat Chapman

This delightful example of rhyming prose is a lot of fun. Yak & Gnu love to row down the river, one in their kayak, and the other in their canoe. Of course, a simple paddle on the river turns into a grand tour with others joining them along the way. A goat in a boat (can that be true?), and a laughing raft, on a raft. You should now get it. All is as expected until the "hippopotamus would have gotten us" without a quick turn. Eventually they survive and reach the sea.

Yak and Gnu conclude that there is no other beast quite like either of them. Climb aboard for a nonsensical voyage featuring an eclectic collection of animals, awash in rhyme and tongue twisters perfect for reading aloud.

2. 'Something About a Bear' by Jackie Morris

Jackie Morris is a wonderful illustrator and writer. This beautiful picture book is a factual picture book about bears. She uses a narrative form and her rich illustrations to introduce us to some of the world's most wonderful creatures. It has pretty much all of my favourites - Brown bears, Spectacled bears, Moon bears, Polar bears, Sun bears and more. The book begins with a large brown bear staring at a child's toy bear, and then launches into wonderful double page spreads showing nine bears. The first is the Brown bear:
'Where the water churns with salmon, thick and rich with leaping fishes, there the brown bear stands and catches the wild king of the river. On the shore the young bears watch him; still others swim the waters, but they are careful not to challenge, for he is the strongest of them all.'

With stunning watercolour paintings, this lyrical picture book describes eight bears from all over the world, all shown in their natural habitats: Black Bear, Polar Bear, Sloth Bear, Spectacle Bear, Sun Bear, Panda, Moon Bear, and Brown Bear.

But which is the best bear of all? Your own teddy bear of course!

3. 'Footpath Flowers' by JonArno Lawson & Sydney Smith (Walker Books)

This wordless picture book is a visual delight. The ink and watercolour illustrations of Sydney Smith are incredible. The 'story' told by the illustrations is subtle and multi layered. Your journey through the full page and comic-sized multi-framed pages is through the eyes of a small girl with red hooded top who sees a world of flowers in a dense urban landscape. She collects them on her walk with her Dad (largely unnoticed by him), and distributes them in the most delightful way.

Award winning poet JonArno Lawson and illustrator Sydney Smith have produced a gem!

4. 'Reflection: Remembering Those Who Serve in War' by Rebecka Sharpe Shelberg & illustrated by Robin Cowcher

This is a very simple but powerful picture book that encourages us to remember those who serve in war. Each double page has but one or two sentences. It parallels images of war with images of adults and children observing commemorative services and ANZAC Day marches. We see images of legs marching; some soldiers in battle, others ordinary families. It begins:

'Left! Left! Left! Right! Left!
We make our way in the dark.'

Next we see soldiers on the battle field huddled writing to loved ones, while on the next page we see families battling terrible weather conditions as they head of for commemorative services.

The delightful water colour drawings and text work beautifully together to offer a wonderful tribute to our service men and women and at the same time, an encouragement to remember them.

The book ends with an author's note that gives short descriptions of different theatres of war that Australians have participated in.

5. 'Willy's Stories' by Anthony Browne

This isn't a new title (published 2014), but I hadn't seen a copy until recently. Any new Anthony Browne title is always an exciting discovery.  Browne is one of the most celebrated author-illustrators in the world.

This book, like many before it, is a wonderful celebration of Browne's ability as a storyteller who stimulates the imagination. Once a week, Willy walks through an ordinary-looking set of doors and straight into an adventure with echoes of other great imaginative tales like 'Alice in Wonderland'. Each day we wonder where the doors will take him - a mysterious desert island with footprints in the sand; an adventure with Friar Tuck in Sherwood Forest; an encounter with Peter Pan and Captain Hook; falling down a deep, dark rabbit hole full of curious objects; or being swept away like Dorothy on the head of a tornado. Each page a new adventure, and an echo of another tale. Willy is unmistakable as we are drawn into the book and the memory of our favourite tales. A great example of Browne's genius!

6. 'The Cat with the Coloured Tail' by Gillian Mears & illustrated by Dinalie Dabarera

Mr. Hooper and The Cat with the Coloured Tail travel through the countryside in their ice-cream van. They enjoy looking for heart shapes (their favourite game) and making people happy with their delicious moon-creams. But a dark feeling is following the cat. Something is wrong. When the ice-cream van enters the forest, Mr Hooper and the cat realise the heart of the world is in danger. Will they be able to save it? A lyrical fable about love and healing.

This is a wonderful tale of two companions. But this cat with a face shaped like a heart is no ordinary cat! This is a special book about kindness and hope. The work of Danalie Dabarera as illustrator adds greatly to this 74 page book for readers aged 7-9 years.

7. 'The Rest of us Just Live Here' by Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness has twice won the Carnegie Medal the UK's premier children's literature award to the writer of an outstanding book written in English for children and young people.

Mikey is the main character. He is an anxious 17-year-old who worries about the same things that other young adults worry about: relationships, sex, popularity, love, parents, their future and so on. Does life make sense?

What if you’re like Mikey? Who just wants to graduate and go to prom and maybe finally work up the courage to ask Henna out before someone goes and blows up the high school. Again.
Because sometimes there are problems bigger than this week’s end of the world, and sometimes you just have to find the extraordinary in your ordinary life.

This new offering from Ness reminds readers aged 14+ that there are many different ways to live your life, and many ways to be remarkable in the 'unremarkable' in it.
A delightful book filled with empathy and hope for adolescents!

8. 'A single stone' by Meg McKinlay

Every girl dreams of being part of the line—the chosen seven who tunnel deep into the mountain to find the harvest. No work is more important.

Jena is the leader of the line—strong, respected, reliable. And—as all girls must be—she is small; years of training have seen to that. It is not always easy but it is the way of things. And so a girl must wrap her limbs, lie still, deny herself a second bowl of stew. Or a first.

But what happens when one tiny discovery makes Jena question the world she knows? What happens when moving a single stone changes everything?

This is a delightful tale set in a dystopian world where Jenna's village has been cut off from the outside world. They have no way out so the villagers need to adapt their lives to this existence. Girls of fine bones are desirable and special, but boys have little value. Jenna begins to question the work that she was born to do. This is a shocking tale in its own way, but there is also hope.

9. 'I'll Give You the Sun' by Jandy Nelson

This is another book from the acclaimed author of 'The Sky Is Everywhere'.

Jude and her twin Noah were incredibly close - until a tragedy drove them apart, and now they are barely speaking. Then Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy as well as a captivating new mentor, both of whom may just need her as much as she needs them. What the twins don't realize is that each of them has only half the story and if they can just find their way back to one another, they have a chance to remake their world.

This is a novel that will pull the reader's emotions in all directions. The reader will move from laughter to tears as they enter the story of two inseparable twins who are torn apart of a tragedy. 

10. 'The Cardturner' by Louis Sacher

This is the latest young adult novel from Louis Sachar, the New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Newbery Medal in 1999 for 'Holes'. 'The Cardturner' is an exploration of the human condition. "How are we supposed to be partners? He can’t see the cards and I don’t know the rules!"

The summer after junior year of high school looks bleak for Alton Richards. His girlfriend has dumped him, he has no money and no job, and his parents insist that he drive his great-uncle Lester, who is old, blind, very sick, and very rich, to his bridge club four times a week and be his cardturner.

But Alton's parents aren't the only ones trying to worm their way into Lester Trapp's good graces. There is Trapp's longtime housekeeper, his alluring young nurse, and the crazy Castaneda family.

 Alton soon finds himself intrigued by his uncle, by the game of bridge, and especially by the pretty and shy Toni Castaneda, as he struggles to figure out what it all means, and ultimately to figure out the meaning of his own life.
In this excellent novel Sachar explores the disparity between what we know and what we think we might know. What is the difference between perception and reality?

All My Posts on Children's Literature HERE