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Children’s Lit.

 

 

 

[3] Like a Shot to the Heart

by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., President of Calvin Theological Seminary (2002-2011)

A friend recently told of hearing a sermon that began roughly like this: “Have you ever seen . . . a train? Have you ever seen a train? Have you ever . . . ?” And so on.

Because he was harried, or lazy, or merely unaware, this preacher had tried a greasy old recipe. You ask an outstandingly uninteresting question. Then, using a pattern of alternating emphases–the homilist’s hamburger helper–you ask it repeatedly till you enrage all listeners not already numb.

Preachers err when they suppose such devices charm everybody but snobs. My grandfather was a devout farmer who loved the church and the things of faith. One Sunday noon he complained angrily of a sermon he found insulting. Jesus, the preacher assured the congregation, had healed a blind man: “He was blind, beloved! He could not see. His eyes were dark. Things were hard for him to spot. His optic nerves were shot. Blind, beloved!”

I know that a preacher can sabotage his own sermons in ways beyond meaningless repetition. Some sermons run on tangents to their texts. Many lack point or force, even if adorned with cute alliterations or blusteringly delivered. Some suffer from predictability more in concept than in language:

A man was born two thousand years ago. He preached and worked miracles and went around doing good. But his followers abandoned him in the end, and when he went to his death he nearly despaired. But three days later an astonishing thing happened that changed the course of history. Perhaps by now you’ve guessed that . . .

Oddly, pretentious sermons often pack the same sedative power as humbler ones. In my own tradition, the three-­points-­and-­a-­poem variety has often appeared in the sort of heavy, Latinate language that rises to an almost genius level in its ability to fetch a yawn:

The Prodigal Son: Three points, beloved, under the general heading, “Election of Guilty Sinners.” First, election’s predestinate origin in the eternal decree. Second, its forensic accentuation in the justification of sinners. Third, its vindication in eschatological glorification. First, then, its predestinate origin. . . .

Whatever happened to the story? Where’s that heartbroken word lost (“My son was lost and is found again”)? Why can’t we see the picture of grace — a parent running out like some finishing sprinter, arms splayed, robe flapping, beard crushed against that familiar rebel who is sheepishly trying to recall his memorized confession?

Pulpit language undisciplined by apt reading, good models, and careful preparation tends to become flat or puffy. In either case it may suffer from terminal banality. Given how much preaching matters, the struggle for cure is worth trying.

My own reflections on pulpit language have recently had two sources. First, I’ve been noticing my own pastor’s mastery of it. His sermons are lean and meaty, full of insights into Scripture and outsights onto human life. But what especially impresses is how much gets said in twenty minutes. The style is so efficient as to be almost epigrammatic.

Second, a few years ago I wrestled with an assignment to write a doctrine book for thirteen-­year-­olds. This is a difficult audience not only because their interest in, say, the Second Coming is typically mild, but also because an author cannot hope even to arouse interest unless he uses a particular voice. The language has to be right. On the one hand, theological jargon would be worse than useless, smothering whatever low fires got kindled. On the other hand, patronizing simplicity (“He was blind, beloved; he could not see”) is just as insulting to teens as to grandfathers

So where’s the middle of the fairway? C. S. Lewis once said it exactly: “Any fool can write learned jargon; the test is the vernacular.” And Lewis had in mind a certain sort of vernacular — the sort of artful, sparkling vernacular that, at least as he used it, never thinned down to routine prose. Lewis, in fact, passed his test of the vernacular so transcendently that his place as the best Christian writer of the twentieth century is probably forever secure. As nearly everyone knows, Lewis’s vernacular could often be so tight, spare, and evocative that, like a change in a Mozart score, the replacement of only a few words would mean diminishment:

Many people are deterred from seriously attempting Christian chastity because they think (before trying) that it is impossible. But when a thing has to be attempted, one must never think about possibility or impossibility. Faced with an optional question in an examination paper, one considers whether one can do it or not: faced with a compulsory question, one must do the best one can. . . .

The quoted passage is from Mere Christianity and was written for adults. But Lewis’s children’s literature is probably an even purer recording of this simple and yet redolent voice that at once instructs and delights:

They say Aslan is on the move — perhaps has already landed.

Aslan isn’t safe, but he’s good. He’s good and terrible at the same time.

“And now,” said Aslan, “to business. I feel I am going to roar. You had better put your fingers in your ears.”

Of course none of us who preach will ever be as good as Lewis. We are all Salieri to his Mozart. But we can learn from him and others. One of the most important lessons I myself learned from trying to write for teens is that the kind of language you want–Anglo-­Saxon nouns, vivid, active verbs, sparing use of adjectives–is exactly the kind of language needed in the pulpit. Educated pulpit language is not that of The New York Times Magazine; it’s the language of The Wind in the Willows.

After all, why (apart from length) are adults more interested in their preacher’s children’s sermons than in his regular ones? They are delighted by images instead of arguments, by plots instead of outlines, by crisp language instead of some other kind.

Thus two suggestions. First, all preachers should steep themselves in good children’s literature (Lewis, Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, E. B. White, Kenneth Graham, A. A. Milne, Ursula Le Guin, Katherine Paterson, Paula Fox, etc.). The best children’s literature has a quality of language that is equally potent for adults and that therefore transfers naturally to sermons. I mean, especially, a kind of deceptive simplicity. In between flat and puffy banality is the sort of simplicity that sets off depth charges in us.

You can often find it in music. As one of my friends likes to point out, the five-­note descending motif in the slow movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto is eloquent not just because, harmonically and thematically, it is perfectly set up. The eloquence comes just as much from the sheer simplicity of the motif itself. There it is: just five notes going down a scale, and yet the notes seem to be struck “at a depth not of years, but of centuries.”

In great children’s literature one finds this same deceptive simplicity. The words look ordinary, and yet they are freighted. It’s a simplicity of essence, of concentrate, of distillate. In a wonderful little book (How to Read the Bible as Literature), Leland Ryken makes a similar observation about biblical poetry. For example, on God’s care, the earnest, but uninspired, authors of the Westminster Confession instruct us thusly: “God the Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his wise and most holy providence. . . .” Inspired poets say this: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

Second, where necessary, church councils ought to take quality control of their pulpits by writing a reading requirement into their preacher’s job description. Then they ought to appoint a small, friendly committee (including, perhaps, a librarian and an English teacher) whose task is, twice a year, to furnish their preacher with a thoughtful list of recommended reading. Moreover, twice a year this committee would report to Council on the minister’s conquests in the field of reading.

For preachers the test is always the vernacular. The supreme test is the dignified and deceptive vernacular—terse, spare, apparently simple, but cocked and loaded and ready to pierce the people of God like a shot to the heart. Very good involvement, Carolyn, and good posts.

Although this is about preaching, Dr. Plantinga’s allusions to children’s literature are powerful, coming from a theological perspective.  This is adapted with permission from The Best of the Reformed Journal, published by Wm B. Eerdmans in 2011. 

[2] Midnight Save

(Nonfiction with added spiritual application)

by Emily Downs

“Wake up.”

Dad shook me out of my deep sleep under a mountain-sized heap of blankets on a coldMichigannight.

“Come with me.” He beckoned, heading out the doorway.

I groaned as the cold chilled me through my pajamas. Tempted to just pull the covers up around my ears, curiosity won out, as it usually did.

I stumbled through the dark, too cold and tired to even wonder why dad wore his knee boots and coveralls in the middle of the night.

“Shhh,” Dad put a finger up in front of his winter beard.

He pulled open the oven door.

“Look,” he said, pointing into the oven.

Two black eyes stared back at me.

“Shh,” Dad said again in an attempt to subdue my surprise.

I reached into the toasty oven to stroke the little lamb. He bleated in the high-pitched whine of a baby wanting his mother. He won my heart instantly.

“I think he’s warm enough.” Dad scooped him out of the makeshift incubator and deposited the newborn lamb in my eager out-stretched arms.

His long black legs spilled over my grasp and I sat on the kitchen floor in my pink pajamas. His small black lips sucked on my fingers in search of food.

“He’s hungry,” I told dad. “I think he wants his mom.”

Dad waited a second before answering, his eyes looked sad, “His mom is very sick and she can’t take care of him, so you have too.”

I looked down at the new baby lamb. He nibbled at my nose.

“I’ll take care of him,” I promised.

Dad handed me a bottle of milk.

As I feed the lamb, Dad patted his head. “He’s looking much better. Poor little guy was almost frozen when I found him in the field. His mom was too sick to feed and keep him warm.”

“He could have died?” I asked.

“Yes, but God had a plan for him, He provided a warm place, our oven and someone to feed him when his mother couldn’t,” Dad smiled at me.

I held the lamb tighter. “You mean God is using me?”

“Yes, God uses people to take care of others, including animals,” Dad answered.

I prayed that night as the lamb slept in a box in the kitchen that God would use me to help those in need, even if they have four legs.

 Emily K. Downs is a professional freelance writer in Michigan.  This is published with her permission.  Ms. Downs website is www.emilydownswriter.com.

[1]  Between the Covers: Suffering, Trauma, and Cultural Perspective in Children’s Picture Books (1980-2006)

 by E. Christina Belcher, Associate Professor of Education, Redeemer College

INTRODUCTION: TELL THE STORY DIFFERENTLY AND YOU CHANGE THE WORLD

In our modern culture, we sometimes imagine that stories are kids’ stuff: little illustrations, while abstract ideas are the real thing. So Jesus’ stories, people say, were just “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning”, but that’s rubbish!  Stories are far more powerful than that.  Stories create worlds.  Tell the story differently and you change the world. And that’s what Jesus aimed to do. People in Jesus’ world knew that stories meant business; that stories were a way of getting to grips with reality. (Wright, 1996, p. 36)

The texts cited in this research bridge modern and postmodern story-telling. They cover various genres, differing cultures, different perspectives – to some extent they are representative of story-telling in the era in which they were crafted (1980-2006). In the larger context, each story can be read as revealing a particular cultural view, but collectively they also present an opportunity to explore how different eras have viewed suffering, trauma, and the sublime as such realities emerge from between the covers of children’s picture books. It is important in this context to note that the meaning-making process in reading literature is represented as one that is dynamic and active on the part of readers. This active role of the reader in the meaning-making process, and the language used relating to reading is noted in analysis within this paper and is in balance with the insightful article The making of literature: A continuing conversation, by Bellis, Parr and Doecke, 2009. Reading develops social consciousness (Owens and Nowell, 2001), and is thus what I will term a life act; an act that effects us all far more than we may consider.

I must state that even though many articles have been written in the area of literary criticism of children’s picture books from differing worldview perspectives (i.e., Aiken, A. 2007; Johnson, 1999), much of the focus of this paper is in the summarising, synthesising and reflecting on the work that comes out of my own reading of picture books and children’s literature as a young child. This background in literacy informs my current work as a professor of Education in a Christian Institution of Higher Education where I teach literacy courses to future educators. Reflection within this paper has also been informed by my work in worldview over more than twenty years. It also emerges from a current whetting of interest into how worldview is affected by language and language by worldview within culture over time, which has continued into my doctoral work on institutional field differences and overarching worldview perspectives. Hence, this paper is an attempt to apply (rather than to read and leave) former learning and scholarly reading to personal and ongoing work in the field

Since this paper is representative of only one personal perspective, I do not claim that it will be the perspective of other readers, but it hopefully will act as one voice of the other amid many educational voices involved in children’s literature.

This paper explores three key questions. Firstly, how are the narratives of suffering, trauma, and the sublime portrayed in the colourful picture books that line the shelves in bookshops? Second, how do these current picture-laden narratives (understood foremost in postmodern texts through the language lens of the visual), expose a view of current culture? And finally, how have such books changed in perspective from decade to decade?

THE IMPACT OF STORY

It is out of embodied stories that research is written. This concept, relevant in the work of Harold Rosen, and extended in the article entitled ‘Crude thinking’ or reclaiming our ‘Story-Telling Rights’, (Doecke and Parr, 2009, publication forthcoming), ties the reader and act of reading into a formidable alliance. For many confessed and incurable ‘book-a-holics’ (such as myself), the attraction to children’s literature stemmed from being read to within the setting of my Dad’s easy chair or hearing my mother’s voice as she read to me at bedtime. The importance of bedtime stories and the discussion of such experiences is also noted in the work of Shirley Brice Heath, What no bedtime story means (1982). Within the safe comfort zone of home, I became able to read for myself and thrived on children’s stories and poetry by Hans Christian Andersen, C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot and others. Between the covers of such texts, I found characters that thrived despite trauma or suffering. Over time I came to understand that they were able to overcome because they were people of inner faith, strength, and spirit.

One of my earliest efferent (reading for knowledge) and aesthetic (reading for pleasure) literacy experiences is found in Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl, whichportrays a child wholived with trauma, loneliness and poverty. The key character in this story is portrayed as being marginalized and largely unseen by those more fortunate. However, the reader, instead of seeing a victim, is drawn to the spirit and inner goodness of the main character. This ‘young adult’ perseveres to endure whatever tragedy life casts her way while avoiding both bitterness and a victim mentality. The author presents a child capable of coping with whatever sadness or conundrum life casts her way.

C.S. Lewis, in the allegoric Narnia stories imbues the same determined character traits of hope and perseverance in children. Children (or young adults), heroically survive childhood and live to tell the tale well indeed. Life is a mystery; a mystery every bit as worthy of contemplation as the non-ordinary and not tame lion Aslan. Living and searching for truth becomes a mystic and adventurous affair.

J.R.R. Tolkien represents the hardships that accompany what it means to be human in his culture and era. Tolkien’s stories appeal, and continue to appeal, to both children and adults. His works abound not only with adventure, but with deep spiritual resonance within a clear depiction of good and evil. Selflessness and honour become foundations for a higher good; a larger vision.

T.S. Eliot paints the pain of loss, aging and angst in many of his poems. Eliot’s proposal in his lesser read (albeit one of his finest works) Christianity and Culture reveal the foundation for the tone of his writing. Eliot is fervent in saying that real ‘education’ of children or adults occurs from a grounded view of life; a way of seeing life as being predominantly religious in essence.

Many of the above authors operated out of religious faith, and all wrote to give hope to the reader. Within the very complex act of making meaning of such stories, the child may listen or read intently with rapt engagement, and he/she may imagine vividly and illustratively the story being shared. One imagines the story into being represented visually in the mind’s eye. A creative imagination ‘of the soul’ is needed. This is the way of the modern story. From modern books, children assimilate one very significant thing. They learn from a tender age that story matters. Story represents a reality. Story reflects the interaction of the soul within daily life. From postmodern books – both those seen to be postmodern and those operating from postmodern frameworks to inform more traditional literature – children learn too. They learn that how they interpret the story is most important. Story is entertainin

MOVING FROM MODERN TO POSTMODERN STORY

Change has occurred over time not only from the inside out (how the child views picture books), but from the outside in (what kind of child is the reader influenced to become). In contemporary culture, the ‘postmodern child’ views pictures and images that may drive the story forward – or not – as noted in the article mentioned formerly by Ariel (2007). Fewer and fewer words become evident on the pages of the picture book as the decades progress. In this paper, the challenge is to probe how children’s literature has shifted or morphed over time; and subsequently, how such change has affected the themes of trauma, suffering, and the sublime.

In selecting children’s picture books used in this study, it is prudent to note that the number published overall in any one year is not large – but neither is the market for children’s literature in most publishing houses. Despite the fact that the market ‘appears’ to be flooded with more and more picture books, their place in the overall publishing market is still much smaller than it used to be, as noted on http://www.allbusiness.com/retail-trade/miscellaneous-retailmiscellaneous/4649283-1.html.

From this site, I quote:

Both Ottakar’s and Borders report a decline in picture book sales compared to last year. Waterstone’s, which radically cut back its picture book range in 2005, claims to have maintained sales thanks to aggressive promotions and its focused range. Other booksellers have now followed its lead and reduced their range.

Although my selection of texts only reflects my personal research on the matter from within a Canadian context, readers living in other countries may have access to different perspectives. Hence, this sample is reflective of my work, and while it is not suggested that it may be the same for others, I argue that some of the key principles will hold true.

WAR: MODERN STORY AND ITS CONVENTIONS

The following section is about war and the act of war, how suffering and faith have been noted or removed from notice, and how such themes have been represented to young readers from 1980 – 2006. Sub-headings denote shifts that are key to the study.

From 1980-1990, serious themes in children’s picture books were often clothed in the conventional genres of fable, satire, and memoir. It should be noted here, however, that this is not exclusive in all books in this time span of literature; but it is common in its portrayal and style of writing. The selected genre was used to ‘soften’ the presentation. For example, The Butter Battle Book, written by Dr. Seuss (1984), was a political satire on the nuclear arms race. Its purpose was to consider a moral injunction: just because a nation ‘could’ do something, did not mean that it ‘should’ be done. In interviews about this book, Seuss described it as an allegorical tale – he hoped that children would emerge from reading the book thinking that war may be a silly idea; but it is never a good one.[i]

Another allegorical/moral portrayal of war that mutes its brutality is set forth in the personal memoir and writing of Roberto Innocenti (1985) in Rose Blanche, a book written to honor the White Rose Movement in its defiance of Nazism. This book presents the view that although children may experience war, they do not understand it, and thus, the death of innocence also leads to the death of innocents. The ‘message’ is simple: War is sad, and life is fragile.

Mem Fox (1989), in Feathers and Fools, presents a fable that clearly portrays war as being an inevitable outcome when fear and ignorance unite, resulting in death until hope emerges. Hope, or the sublime, is usually left to be acted upon in the next generation. This theme is also found in Eve Bunting’s (1990) The Wall, a Vietnamese memoir of a son and grandson searching for a grandfather’s name on the Vietnam War memorial. It presents the view that death may be noble, but it is better to be alive.

The authors of the aforementioned texts between 1980-1990 not only portray a view of the trauma of war, they also represent a storied view of the world culturally as they have been able to understand it. These authors re-lived the trauma narratives told by parents/ grandparents of the Second World War. Many of them lived through a period of civil angst, be it the Vietnam War or other forms of civil resistance or protest. There was a solid sense of national patriotism or sense of ‘Empire’ amongst them, which continued to be fostered within the living extended family. Since these authors knew personally some of the feelings and eventual consequences of such events, they wrote stories to pass on a warning of the loss generated by war to the next generation.

WAR: LOSS OF A SENSE OF PLACE

Many of the authors of texts from 1990-1999 would have roots in the later baby boomer or emergent Gen-X generation. Typically, these groups are represented as interested in social change, and holding the view that surely something can be learned from history that may prevent people from repeating it. They had more Modern tendencies than Romantic ones, developed the opinion that education was the cure for all ills, and felt that ‘calling a spade a spade’ may be a better incentive to the next generation to not repeat past mistakes. Most publications still told a traditional story with the need for a reasoned and logical ending. Life was ordered, and ideas produced consequences.

During the 1990s, a shift began in the tone and genre of children’s literature from seeing war and trauma as a fable, satire or memoir to that of seeing such a story in the context of history, family history and truth narratives. The emphasis became not the horror or sadness of war per se, but rather, the character of the participants and the trauma of the environment. Eve Bunting’s Fly Away Home (1991),for example, considers the trauma of homelessness, or loss of ‘a sense of place’. The emergent theme in this group of picture books promotes the idea that a human can endure being homeless if he/she has the hope that some day this will not be the case and one can reclaim a sense of place.

The book Sadako (1993) portrays the sad outcome of radiation poisoning after Hiroshima. The atomic bomb had perpetrated a mass outbreak of leukemia for children of survivors. War became linked with characters of ‘the disease’. This disease in turn created a ‘dis-ease’ as it removed children from their homes to the sterility of the hospital ward. The main character does return home before death, and interprets life and death in the process with a wisdom beyond her years. Polar the Titanic Bear (1994), the true story of a family who survived the sinking of the Titanic only to lose their only child tragically at age nine in one of the first motor vehicle tragedies, portrays the fact that tragedy comes to all, and death is no respecter of age. Whether a person is in a place of emergency – such as the sinking of a ship – or in the common surroundings of home, death may find you. This theme is echoed in the true story of John McCrae in the poetic verse In Flanders Fields (1995), where men of courage die, young and old, and no one has victory over death. However, it is to be noted that even in death people of character do become heroes. Popov, in the wordless book Why? (1995), summarizes his personal experience of living through the trauma of war with the simple idea that war is senseless because it destroys one’s sense of place, emotionally and physically. In all of the above books, one’s ‘sense of place’, (as noted in Bourdieu’s work {1983, 1993, 1994, 1997} on field, agency, language, meaning and epistemic reflexivity in the institutional realm of my current study), is grounded in character and overarching narratives for life even more than in geographical location or ethnic origin. However, during the mid to late 1990’s, additional changes in focus emerged out of the influence of postmodern and poststructuralist authors.

WAR: THE NEED TO SURVIVE

Around 1996, my analysis reveals that the theme of ‘the good old days’ becomes altered in children’s literature as authors begin to paint the past as a temporo-spatial landscape far better than the future. For example, a World War I book, The Bantam and the Soldier (1996), reveals the theme of survival of the natural world in spite of war, and this gives hope to soldiers in gruesome conditions in the trenches. The book, Passage to Freedom: the sugihara story (1997),presents the true account of a God-honoring Japanese diplomat to Lithuania in 1940, and illustrates that care and respect for people could permit even one person to make a difference through abetting the suffering of others. In the same year, Nim and the War Effort (1997), considers the theme of sense of place in individual and cultural identity for children of those who were involved in World War II, and were, after deportation or refugee status, born in the ‘new country’. This book again raises the idea of finding a sense of home and having cultural roots that survive even within a new geographical location; but the idea of the environment is also becoming central. The Cello of Mr. O (1999) similarly, sees courage in times of disaster as a metaphor for music. The motto emerging from this story and others like it is that war can remove everything but the hope that resides in those with the perseverance to continue to play the song. In all of these texts, from 1996 – 1999, the authors tend, in part, to gloss over the realistic accounts of trauma and suffering in order to show the wonder of human nature to continue to press on, even when at personal risk, and often in spite of it. History repeats itself, so remembering one’s roots provide windows to a safe sense of place in an ‘unstable’ environmental war zone.

It would seem that an innocent or downplayed view of war, as presented in the 1980s, was seen to be too old fashioned or naive, while a realistic but muted view of war in the early 1990s was seen to be too honest. However, researchers and readers need to be aware of the ways in which publishers are dictating the sorts of books that are published and even the critical slants on things such as war, as this too is part of the cultural context. Revisionist history and virtual reality were becoming part of the culture. What emerges next is a move away from the reality of trauma, suffering and the sublime as authors formerly ‘storied it’ to a view of how a post-modern society may choose to view it!

WAR: FROM A POSTMODERN CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE

This phase of thinking occurred in tandem with the philosophy held by some Christian and non-Christian theorists that postmodernists operate out of a hermeneutics of distrust rather than a hermeneutics of optimism within a burgeoning technological age (Walsh and Middleton, 1984; Schultz, 2002; Naugle, 2004; Noddings, 2004; Senge, Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, & Flowers, (2004)). The disappearance of childhood (first brought to American attention in a book of the same title by Neil Postman in 1982, and re-issued in 1994 upon his death by Vintage publishers), began to emerge in the North American culture. Youth was wasted on the young, it seemed. Children were portrayed in novels of teen fiction as more of an inconvenience than anything else – ‘grow up and leave home’ – appeared as a common mantra. This idea of ‘dis-ease’ which I referred to earlier in this paper, also became apparent in situations where parents were represented as bumbling idiots within new media literacy and television (e.g. The Simpsons), accompanied by a surging proliferation of teen and childhood heroes or villains in video games, adult cartoons and T. V. sitcoms (e.g. Malcolm in the Middle). Children under the age of 14 were going to elementary graduation dances in limousines and tuxedos, while wealthy executives were going to work in Nikes and designer jeans. Such shifts in culture in my view, mirrored concurrent shifts in literacy.

The virtual reality of the Gen Net generation was echoing the mantra of Marshall McLuhan, reawakening readers to the possibility that the ‘medium is the message’ once again. Indicative of an era of urgency, angst, distrust, and rapid change, the time between shifting perspectives appeared to accelerate in order to match the frenetic pace of ‘the lifestyle’ it sought to represent or deconstruct. In a virtual and fast paced media world, viewing habits changed rapidly from contemplating what the medium was actually saying to surfing the net, or clicking channels during commercials. Instead of viewing to find the reason for the story, one viewed to scan as many story fragments as possible in order to find the one most stimulating to the viewer. This viewing behaviour set the stage for the emergence of the ‘fragmented self’ (Gergen, 1991) within story.

WAR: VIRTUAL REALITY AND CHANGE IN STYLE: THEMATIC SEARCH OF ‘DIFFERENCE’

A fragmented change in perspective is noted in the many themes and narratives expressed within picture books written from 2000-2006; and change for the sake of ‘difference’ has accelerated. In order to explore these, I have organized them as sub-themes, or lenses from which ‘reality’ came to be viewed.May I remind the reader that these categories and this act of organising texts into categories and themes is a result of personal research. The categories do not (and did not ever) exist out there for all authors and publishers to comply with. The following examples of late micro-modern/meta-fictive and postmodern children’s literature are thus distinct in focus and in tone reflective of the above shifts.

—The first thematic lens focuses on identifying a voice representative of youth in trauma, suffering and the sublime within the horrible story of war. This is not to be confused with the focus in the era of the 1980’s on youth as a voice in war. By the year 2000, this era was more interested in a representative voice; a meta-fictive voice of war; a virtual and sometimes revisionist voice.

—The second thematic lens focuses on the beauty of the natural world, often overlooked during the terror of war. However, unlike the focus of the 1990’s, there was a metaphysical element attached to the natural world which blended reality and virtual representation.

—The third thematic lens focuses on the perceptual lens perspective (grand narrative, or worldview) from which war is considered. 

Theme 1: A representative voice in trauma, suffering and the sublime

The key to this shift is tied to, in my opinion, the notion that within the dates of publication for this section of texts, stories about war, trauma and suffering relate to society in a way that could imply that ‘society exists to determine what it resists’. Paradox and difference are common themes. Most of the characters or narratives take on the voice of a child. Adult voices are less dominant within many of the texts pertaining to trauma. In the book The Butterfly (2000), a historical account told by a child of a family in the French Resistance Movement in Poland during the Second World War, difference in times of peril, rather than community (common-unity) in times of peril, is stressed. Life must be spared, but especially for those different from us; those marginalized. Likewise, The War (2001) echoes the theme, relying on the visual presentation of primary colors to further the technique of conflict resolution and dialogue to bring war to an end. In Hana’s Suitcase, (2002), a group of children and their teacheremphasize the role that education needs to play in order to erase the brutality of the past, to eradicate genocide for youth in the next generation. In this act of research, and within the categories of organizing these texts, I see such narratives serving as a bridge between the modern and postmodern perspectives regarding trauma, suffering, and survival.

Theme 2: A representative voice of the natural world

In 2003, one could begin to identify a definite postmodern slant in children’s picture books. People did not prompt change; characters in the stories did not have much to say, but nature did. A Red Tree (2003) became the first picture book that I personally encountered that presented despair, boredom, and depression as a common daily trauma for children. It is a book about childhood pessimism. Trauma, clothed in the form of boredom and meaninglessness is presented in this book as the norm for most days unless one could be saved or enlightened by natural ecological beauty; the serendipity in life.

A Telling Time, and The Cats in Krazinski Square (2004)consider and represent what happens when persecution becomes a way of life which children, in times of war, accept as normal. These books, involving children in Vienna and Poland during World War II, paint existence within the trauma of war and the risk involved in giving help to those less fortunate. Within a sense of futility from within the story, resistance or acceptance during times of war may or may not make a difference. There is not always a satisfying ending to the story. Only nature is constant.

Theme 3: Representative voice as a perceptual lens

Gleam and Glow (2005) depicts the Bosnia-Herzegovnian children in the Malkoc family during the war in Bosnia in 1990. While emphasizing the ruins of war, it also presents as paradox the way that nature (represented in this case by goldfish) can thrive despite all of the chaos when it exists in its appropriate element – the pond nearby. In the same year, a new picture book revision of the book Anne Frank, a narrative of Anne up until her death, portrays that even after death a story lives on and its writer becomes immortal. Death is not all that bad if the story is a good one. Death is inevitable whether you are young and innocent or not, but you can still live on via the written word. Death may be sad and unavoidable, but it is no big deal in a virtual world.

The book Show Way (2005), a story about how a child hears about the events of the slave trade and her ancestors, portrays the power of narrative in identify formation. It sees story as a means of providing endurance in tough times, and in recounting family history from generation to generation. Such books suggest that we are the sum of our memories, marginalized or not, and that our job is to pass tradition from generation to generation. While such action is seen as liberating, it is clear what the story values as freedom from, but not what it values as freedom to.

In 2006, the book I am I, represents two young children as main characters. The aspects of war, trauma, suffering, and conflict are presented as being spawned by greed and arrogance where one kills the ‘beautiful thing’ (environmentally portrayed) with hate, greed, and violence to the point that there may be no reconciliation or bridge mending possible between those who started the war. The reader is left to decide the final ending. In this book, the loss of nature is viewed as being more profound than the loss of life. There is a strong depiction of the word ‘hate’ as being central to the story, formerly not common in children’s picture books. However dismal, stories that lack hope do not sit easily into a comfort zone, or have long records of endurance on family bookcases.

It is interesting to note that in the same year, 2006, the World War I book Christmas in the Trenches remembers a happier story of hope, truce, team work, and camaraderie even in the darkness of war, as men reminisce upon what it means to be human, to love, to be loved, and for a brief time, war ceases. Perhaps this more reflective and hopeful view of former war experience merely nods and remembers a time past. Or, perhaps this heralds that a new paradigm shift is in the offing.

CONCLUSION

From my own observations and recollections of readings as a young adult (or younger), and partly from my experience and knowledge as a researcher in education, I found modern story easy to relate to.

Modern story was predictable and safe; a bit boring at times, but reflective of a positive aspects of humanist ideal. It was not all ‘good’ in the literary sense of being well written, nor did it consistently provoke critical thought; but it did focus on the importance of good character in society.

Postmodern stories beg room for meaningful critique, problem solving and different ways of making living relevant and interesting. Postmodern texts beg discourse about ethics, faith, morality – but that is maximized when such picture books are read in community and discussed, which they often are not. Directed, communal, or interactive reading for the postmodern text is essential for full understanding and maximum benefit. And therein lies the biggest problem.

Individual ‘rights’ and decisions about the fate of others is what is left to rule an individual’s conscience when one only diets predominantly on individual reading. Reading is in many ways a social act – whether one realises it or not, one reads within various discourse communities, or what Stanley Fish (1980) in his book Is there a text in this classroom? The authority of interpretive communities once called ‘interpretive communities’. This emphasis on discourse communities is also brought to the fore in his later text on the virtue of literary criticism (1996). But there is also a sense in which reading is individual and as such it has the potential to affect the conscience, one’s sense of values and beliefs. Not many of these current postmodern picture books make good individually read bedtime stories. However, it has been stated earlier in this essay that using children’s picture books as a form of elementary narrative assists children in grappling with trauma and hope in times of national stress, crisis, family trauma, and war and thus, begs to be further explored.

N. T. Wright declared that stories when told differently could change the world. Teachers of picture storybooks in schools have an opportunity to encourage young readers to ‘speak back’ to the malaise and sadness by discussing postmodern books in community from a position of hope and integrity, and by themselves writing picture books for current young readers – countering the angst of trying to make individual sense of stories with no endings or moral guidance, often vague on the possibility of hope

The loss of hope, of life-giving sustenance within story, has the potential to be the biggest loss to a growing soul. This idea addresses a perspective of grand narrative proportion (Zacharias, 1996); a perspective which educators and parents in current culture should both revisit and reflect upon. I would challenge educators, writers and parents to examine the narratives in picture books as to their ability to position hope, apathy, or despair for the young reader. Change the non-linear story by discussing the ends of behaviour and the outcomes of actions. Open up conversations that present hopeful perspectives for coping with and overcoming suffering and trauma, and encounter hope as being a way of experiencing the sublime. We, as contemporary story lovers have the opportunity to bring renewed hope amidst the trauma, suffering and sublime themes of life around us.

These big themes need to be part of the conversation to explore the perceptual lens from which postmodern children’s literature can be viewed. The farther away one moves from the picture books of the 1980s, the more literature entices readers to ‘think with the eyes’ through illustration rather than ‘reflect from the heart’ through print in picture books. Literary imagination is being altered in the mind of the writer. From such an altered imagination emerges the current view within media literacy and postmodern texts – we are to become mirrors of the movies/virtual worlds rather than compasses to the real world. More graphics, less print. More sensationalism, less consideration. More trauma, less resolution. More shock value; less empathy; More chaos, less hope – less ‘sense of sin’ as my grandmother would have put it. It is premature, however, with the lack of sustained research in this area to predict how this will eventually affect young, developing minds over long periods of time in relation to technology and virtual reality.

ENDNOTE

[1] The Butter Battle Book, perhaps the most controversial of all his books, was written in response to the nuclear arms race. Interviews and background on this topic can be found at: http://www.nea.org/readacross/resources/seussbiocomp.html

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Dr. Belcher is an Associate Professor of Education at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada and an adjunct professor of education at Trinity Western University, Langley B. C. She has formerly worked in New Zealand and Australia in Teacher Education. She is Editor for the ICCTE journal.

This article was published in the Journal of Christian Education, 51 (2), 41-57.  It is reprinted here with permission from the author

E Christina Belcher may be contacted at cbelcher@redeemer.ca.

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