My spouse, a college literature professor, and I once had a conversation at the start of a semester about our students' reading habits. We both had them fill out information cards that listed, among other things the most recent books they had read and their favorite authors. Much to our surprise, we both noted that a majority of them had listed things we considered to be "children's books" and children's authors such as Dr. Seuss. In my May 21, 2012 post, Can E-Books Make Society and Education Better?, I delved more deeply into the apparent lack of serious reading that students do prior to entering college and even after they are engaged in higher education. The findings were not optimistic, but one trend that did provide some hope was that the rise of e-readers was improving the reading habits of many Americans. I am wondering if there might be a way to mesh early college students' interest in children's books with a rich academic focus to help transition them into a scholarly vein and cultivate an interest in more advanced literature to support this upward trend in reading? Here then is a stab at what a "Children's Literature for College Students" curriculum might look like and what it would accomplish.
(Wild About Books, 2004 Image from JudySierra.net)
Suggested Reading List
"It started the summer of 2002, When the Springfield librarian Molly McGrew, By mistake drove her bookmobile into the zoo." (Sierra, 2004)
Book: Wild About Books by Judy Sierra (2004) A lost librarian accidentally drives her book mobile into the zoo and sparks a reading and writing revolution among the animals.
Rationale: Starting the "Children's Literature for College Students" course off with the Judy Sierra offering quoted to start this section is a no brainer. Wild About Books, is one of our family favorites and sets the tone for a course that would transition students to more advanced literature and poetry through its rich allusions and references to classic works and more accessible young adult books, and highlights the benefits of writing your own stories. As a starting point for a course intended to support students' movement toward more scholarly engagement with texts, this book hits the mark perfectly and the metaphor of animals becoming interested in reading and writing, though not subtle, is effective and engaging.
"By reading aloud from the goof Dr. Seuss, She quickly attracted a mink and a moose, A wombat, an oryx, a lemur, a lynx, Eight elephant calves, and a family of skinks." (Sierra, 2004)
Book: Yertle the Turtle and other Stories by Dr. Seuss (1958) An overly ambitious turtle wants to expand his empire, literally on the backs of his fellow turtles.
Rationale: This category could actually include several works by the good Dr. Choosing any of Dr. Seuss' offerings is a given for this course as all are rich with moral lessons that have not lost any of their potency between their original writings and the present day. I chose Yertle because I have taught it in the past in a course on social class, in which I used the pillar of turtles as a metaphor for our own stratified social structure. The outcome of the small disturbance at the bottom of the pile is an unseating of the hierarchy and a new world/swamp order. This book provides insight not only into the very basic structure of capitalism, but also creates an interesting vehicle to open discussions about countless other texts from the Communist Manifesto (Marx, 1848) to The Wealth of Nations (Smith, 1776) or more recent works such as Thomas Friedman's That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. All of these are opened up for the early career college student through a careful and critical interpretation of the Seuss classic.
"She even found waterproof books for the otter, Who never went swimming without Harry Potter." (Sierra, 2004)
Book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997) An orphaned boy discovers the hidden world of magic and wizards all around him and learns that he is the greatest hero of their world.
Rationale: Though HP is appropriate for all ages, it truly is a children's classic at heart and is inviting to children as well as young adults. I have taught the series in past education classes as examples of constructivist learning and the ways in which learning can be facilitated by a skilled educator to make it practical and memorable. I include it here as an example of the value of active learning and what can be accomplished with the things studied in school. The Sorcerer's Stone, in particular, is outstanding at making this point, as classroom lessons seen throughout the story play a central role in retrieving the Stone before Voldemort can.
"At the new insect zoo, bugs were scribbling haiku. (The scorpion gave each a stinging review.)" (Sierra, 2004)
Book: Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein (1974) Classic children's poet Silverstein explores the big and often mystifying world with humor and clever turn-of-phrase.
Rationale: As a product of a liberal arts education I see the value of all genres of text, including poetry. While Silverstein may not be high art, he certainly is entertaining. More importantly, his poetry provides alternative views on how the world works. One of the key elements of a higher education is cultivating an ability to think beyond the constraints of personal experience and to empathize with others. Silverstein's poetry covers every possible topic, all from a perspective that makes any reader think about the nature of reality and other ways in which to approach a problem. This work can serve as an excellent transition to the study of more complex poetry such as my favorite, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning (@1895) or other works that explore alternative perspectives and interpretations such as Camus' The Plague (1947).
Moving Beyond Children's Books
"When you visit the zoo now, you surely won't mind if the animals seem just a bit hard to find- They are snug in their niches, their nests, and their nooks, Going wild, simply wild, about wonderful books." (Sierra, 2004)
Having looked more closely at some of the works that academics commonly turned up their noses at as "children's books" it becomes clear why so many of these works remain college students' favorites well beyond when adults think they cease being appropriate. All of them contain rich content, engaging writing, and stories that inspire and surprise. And these are just a few of the amazing children's books available to all young people. The trick for colleges and universities is in validating the love of these books and helping students transition into an appreciation of all the other great works of literature that are available to them and that they will be introduced to in college.