The Immigrant Experience in Children’s/Adolescent Literature

By Tami Morton, Lois Knezek, & Betty Reily, University of North Texas, Denton, TX

Children’s and adolescent literature is a wonderful starting place for young readers to begin considering and understanding experiences of immigration to the United States. Many talented authors have provided characters with whom many children and young adults can relate.

Milly Lee (2006) introduces readers to Sun Lee, a 12-year old Chinese boy, who immigrates to America in the book Landed. Sun’s parents believe that there are more opportunities for him in the United States, so they prepare him for his departure. Though Sun is a bit nervous, he knows that his older brothers went to America once they reached the age of 12, so he was ready and willing to make the trek. Sun’s immigration to America was totally voluntary. In the story, the description of Sun’s preparation, traveling experiences, as well as the extended time he remained at Angel Island before he officially “lands,” were a testament to bravery. It was clear at the end of the story that Sun really was happy and proud to be in the United States. Though this story took place in the 1930’s, it provides readers an opportunity to think critically about the entrance of Chinese people who wanted to come to America.
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The Immigrant Experience in Children’s/Adolescent Literature

Janelle B. Mathis, University of North Texas, Denton, TX

Stories of immigration to the United States are not new in children’s and adolescent literature. Earlier stories often depict immigration in a joyful, nostalgic way as people journeyed to America, most frequently from Europe, in search of a better way of life. However, recent titles explore immigration through a more critical lens as authenticity issues and the current focus on social justice impact the portrayal of social issues in literature. Such social issues include the ongoing debates in the U.S. that focus on immigration laws and potential reform. These debates present perspectives that are seated in ideologies representing a spectrum of beliefs as to whether immigration, both legal and illegal, should be prohibited in this country or acknowledged as necessary to maintain the current work force. Of course, there are additional issues as a result of immigration that involve the personal identity of immigrants, their involvement in their newly found communities, reaching immigrant children in classrooms where they may not speak the dominant language, and other complexities that are often not addressed when entering new cultures. It is not surprising, then, that we now meet characters in books whose lives are forever changed in a variety of ways as they immigrate to the U.S. So, who are these characters? What are their stories? What languages and cultures do they bring with them? Does literature represent the immigrant experience in all its complexity? Are critical topics missing in the stories read by both immigrants and those who have never been outside of the U.S.? Are we as readers and teachers aware of these complexities—enough to be able to seek out particular books and to use them effectively with students to establish insight into the people who make up their fellow community members? What is the potential curricular role of children’s literature about immigration. Should immigrant literature be “core” literature in social studies and other multicultural studies? By that we mean, with few exceptions, aren’t we all the descendants of immigrants and/or reflect the immigrant experience or a blend of cultural traits in some way?
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Fairy Tales: Zero Tolerance?

By Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA

boundLast week I wrote about the challenge of evaluating fairy tales for cultural authenticity and the tools that help meet that challenge. In this post I explore the question: should there be zero tolerance for cultural inaccuracies in fairy tales? I’ll by describing the process of evaluating a novel-length version of Cinderella set in China.

When the book Bound, by Donna Jo Napoli, arrived in my office I grabbed it to read immediately. I had previously read all Napoli’s novel-length versions of the fairy tales like Zel and Beast. These tales were favorites of mine. My students also had enjoyed them. I was eager to have a new book to booktalk for my teen literature class. I was especially interested in Bound since it was a Cinderella story set in China, so I started reading it with a positive view based on my previous experiences with the author and her books.
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Culturally Authentic Fairy Tales

By Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA

Fairy TaleEvaluating fairy tales can be a challenge especially if the setting is another culture or country. Serving on the Children’s Literature Assembly for the National Council of Teachers of English Committee for Notables Books in English Language Arts demonstrated that challenge to me.

Our committee read over 900 books to find the thirty we would list as Notables. One of the books we selected was a tale set in China that had been recast from a familiar European story. The new setting was a vehicle for the illustrator to retell the story with a Chinese setting and characters. After a thoughtful discussion we selected the book for our list. Later, one of our committee members learned from a colleague who had been born in China that the book had numerous errors. That colleague wrote, “I don’t see any rationale for setting the story in China except to exploit the Chinese culture. There are many cultural inaccuracies in the story.” The committee had a lengthy discussion over e-mail. We consulted other colleagues who had grown up in China. They all agreed that there were many cultural inaccuracies. Concerned about those inaccuracies and the erroneous portrait of Chinese culture that children would receive, we decided to remove the book from our Notables list. Fortunately, no articles reviewing the books on the list had yet been published.
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Exploring Fairy Tales Part II

By Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA

“Just as the child is born with a literal hole in its head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in its heart.  Slowly this, too, is filled up.  What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow.  Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart” (Touch Magic by Jane Yolen, p.26).

Fairy tales can be “serious intruders into the heart,” however, children need adults to lead them to tales that have that potential. Children too often only experience the Disney versions of fairy tales. As I was growing up Disney movies popularized and sugar coated the fairy tales but did so in a way that took away the essential nature of the story and turned, for example, Snow White into a passive character singing, “Someday my Prince will Come.” Disney robbed the tales of what Yolen calls their “invigorating magic.” “The story has been falsified and the true meaning lost …”  (p. 39).

In this WOW Currents post continuing on the subject of fairy tales, I will explore the following questions regarding fairy tales:

  • Why are fairy tales valuable for today’s children?
  • How can we as classroom teachers justify sharing folktales when we are mandated with scripted or time-based curriculum and have the pressures of testing?
  • How can we answer objections to reading fairy tales in the classroom?

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Exploring Fairy Tales Part I

By Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA

SlipperFairy tales fueled my imaginary life as a child. In my play I became Snow White, Cinderella, and sometimes even the Prince when my friends insisted they must have a turn at the “main parts.” The romance of the tales captured my interest. Waiting for sleep at night, I would create new versions of the stories, always starring myself as the heroine.

My elementary students also enjoyed fairy tales. One sixth grade class, all new immigrants from Viet Nam, became absorbed in The Brocaded Slipper and Other Vietnamese Tales by Lynetter Vuong and Vo-Dinh Mai. After hearing the Vietnamese Cinderella, the title story in the collection, they started an inquiry about other Cinderella stories. That investigation led to a discovery of more than forty other Cinderella stories from all over the world.
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Geography & International Literature, Part II

By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

It is place, permanent position in both the social and topographical sense that gives us our identity.

~ J.B. Jackson

Addressing geography and international literature, I want to explore issues of identity with readers. In last week’s blog, I pondered teaching geography through international literature. This week, I am interested in how young readers reflect upon their own geographical identity and resultant affinities for particular places or locations.

Certainly, geography plays a role in our identities and colors our perceptions as readers and writers when the books come from our home culture, but how does that work when the literature is produced outside our geographical selves? How we might read a text from a geographical/cultural location that is outside the book’s cultural backdrop? I am not thinking about outsider/insider perspectives here, but rather, a geographical sensibility that is part cultural but also part physical location or physical affinity.
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Geography & International Literature, Part I

By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

If some peoples pretend that history or geography gives them the right to subjugate other races, nations, or peoples, there can be no peace.

~ Ludwig von Mises

hotblack_20070818_Mumbai_077Because I like to travel, as I mentioned in my last post, geography has become of real interest to me. How can we engage international literature without thinking about geography?

I grew into my fascination with geography, but I believe I have always liked maps and movement. Thinking about Kathy Short’s post about the often dated illustrations of picture books set in present day, I find it important to educate young people about geography, and the present reality of a particular location. Frequently the best of places blend past and present, but young people need to know that the world is connected on a myriad of levels and that progress is a world event. So, what happens “at home” is connected to the world and what happens “a world away” may have an impact on the immediate neighborhood. We could think of it as the butterfly effect in more political or economic terms; an event that may not be noticed by young people in one location, but is prevalent in another place and could influence the former. A case in point is how young people in the U.S. may not be aware of child labor issues in other countries, but wear articles of clothing manufactured by children in sweatshops.
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“Travel” and International Literature

By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

Like most people, when I read I have images playing my head, almost like a movie. I am traveling! But to get that movie and to take that journey, I need some prior knowledge about the setting of the story along with other details that bring the text to life. If I have a sense of the setting I don’t attend to the description as much as when I need to build the picture in my head from scratch. If I have been to a place, it serves as a handy backdrop to the piece of literature I am reading. When I haven’t been there, I need help. Of course, most of us do not have the extensive travel experience we would need (or like) to feel comfortable reading in this way. But travel is handy. It was also my passion when I was younger, and so I find that my experience of different places I have been are useful for my reading of international literature—on two accounts.

ThisisRomeFirst, I like reading about where I have been. The reading is enriched when I can picture it. I pull the images from my memory to help envision the world to which the author has led me. Secondly, the reading enriches my experience of the places I have traveled. It’s also great to find books to read about a place—whether fiction or informational—when planning to travel in it. Some fun texts for cities across the globe are the Miroslav Sasek series such as This is London and This is Rome. These books were written in the 1960s and 1970s, but have “this is today” excerpts that help students see how cities change over time.
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Social Responsibility and the Reader

By Holly Johnson, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH

OneWorldIf you ask me what I came to do in the world, I, an artist, will answer you: I came here to live out loud. — Emile Zola

Kathy Short’s June WOW Currents posts broached the issue of the social responsibility of the reviewer. I should have responded then, but waited because that posting had me thinking about Rosenblatt’s theory of transaction and the relationship between the reader and the author’s text. Searching the Internet, I found a Wikipedia entry on social responsibility along with One World, One Earth: Educating Children for Social Responsibility by Merryl Hammond and Rob Collins. After more thought, I am beginning to wonder, what is the connection to reading and social responsibility, especially if and when we find ourselves “outsiders” to the culture highlighted in the text?
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