Archive for February, 2007

Wanted: Sympathetic Aliens in Children’s Literature

Posted on February 25, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Science Fiction |

When he created the Star Trek franchise, Gene Roddenberry insisted that futuristic alien-human interspecies relationships were a metaphorical way of looking at present-day interracial relationships in the United States. In the utopian frame of the show–we are to assume Earth (including the U.S.) has already outgrown racial prejudices and that human beings are now at a stage where they are working to make nice with “humanoids” much more different from them than they are from one another.

In genre terms, Roddenberry wasn’t doing anything really new–aliens as outsiders, or “others” to borrow a postcolonial term, have a history almost as long as the genre itself. And though there’s plenty of adult science fiction that features space marines with big guns ready to exterminate any alien menace (genocide, anyone?), I’ll wager there’s an equal amount of adult science fiction that takes the notion of alien otherness quite seriously. I’ll spare you the full genre tour, but suffice it to say that as early as the 1930s, writers from the U.S. and elsewhere were creating sympathetic alien characters and using the relationships between those characters and their human counterparts to explore ideas about difference and tolerance (in terms of race, creed, color, gender, ability, etc.) that would not surface in popular discourse until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

On to the Amazon search I did this afternoon. I thought it would be fun to dig up some kid’s picture books on aliens as an oblique way of opening some points of discussion on difference and tolerance. I was assuming that what’s true of adult science fiction was likely true of kid’s SF as well. Imagine my surprise when I had trouble finding even a handful of picture books that featured sympathetic portrayals of aliens. And not that many overall that featured aliens of any kind. Doesn’t anybody remember how popular E.T. was, or even Lilo and Stitch? In chapter books, there were more aliens–but fewer of them sympathetic in any way. With rare exception, I was thrown back on the few titles I was already familiar with. I’ll list those in a minute, but right now, I’m still absorbing my—admittedly superficial and anecdotal–findings. But assuming those findings aren’t too far from the mark (including picture books and chapter books, I looked at well over 100 titles in Amazon’s 4-8 age bracket):

What does it mean that most readily available children’s books about aliens feature them as a evil invading armies rather than curious individual explorers? Or that those books that do include arguably harmless aliens generally characterize them as ugly, gross or stupid?

I think those questions are a lot more powerful left open, so I’m just going to skip to my recommended list of kid’s picture books featuring sympathic aliens (for chapter books, READ BRUCE COVILLE!):

Sector 7 by David Weisner
Surreal rather than typically sci-fi, Weisner nevertheless captures a playful friendship between a boy and a cloud.

Company’s Coming and Company’s Going by Arthur Yorinks
And why should we not simply invite the aliens over to dinner when they arrive?

George Hogglesberry, Grade School Alien by Sarah Wilson
New to me, but definitely on my get-it list: George is an alien new to Earth and new to school. Great example of what could be happening with the trope in kid lit.

Andy the Alien by Jeffrey Scott Chase
Bending the picture-book definition here, but Andy, our fictional tour guide to the actual universe, looks like such fun.

Hedgie Blasts Off by Jan Brett
Okay, so other than the talking dogs, the aliens here aren’t all the most responsible cosmic citizens, but there’s certainly nothing mean or threatening about them.

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Mindfulness Markers

Posted on February 17, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Homeschooling, Web Resources |

On to some of the most disposable books in the world of kid lit: coloring books. And yet–what an incredible experience to sit quietly with a child and simply color a page. Though, okay, we have days where coloring is an olympic event with elements of both snowboarding and javelin throwing involved, more and more often, coloring is becoming an exercise in mindfulness for both of us.

I wouldn’t natively have used the term “mindfulness” for our marker sessions until I talked to a therapist friend and asked if he knew anything about coloring as therapy–he noted that he’d seen it used as a mindfulness technique and I think it fits. If mindfulness is about bringing ourselves more completely to the present moment, then coloring has certainly done that for us. When my daughter colors she’s absorbed in it as a project–sometimes so deeply that she fills the whole image with a single hue. For me, it’s become a lovely way to center my energies on a task: finding the right color, filling the shape with the chosen color, smoothing out the texture into a more uniform matte or inventing some texture for contrast.

To find some coloring books that might hold my attention as well as hers, I did some digging and found a lot more resources than I anticipated. Dover and Bellerophon are the two biggest publishers, but the Running Press series, many of which are now out of print, are truly beautiful books–and sturdy! I’ve included some coloring-pages sites, though many of them are extremely ad heavy. We use DLTK a lot, in large part because it offers a quick ad-free printing option. The coloring pages on Wendy Wallace’s site all arrive as one gigantic download–over 1600 pages. The list of coloring books by government agencies is well worth exploring, if only for the giggles. The Coloring Addict list and the Wildflowers list I think are useful, as each of them pick up titles I hadn’t seen noted elsewhere. Right now, however, I’m thrilled that my Googling this evening led me to Jan Brett’s coloring pages. I’m a longtime fan and am delighted by the range of coloring pages she’s made available.

Dover Publications

Bellerophon Books

Running Press Coloring Books:

Coloring pages at intuitive counselor Wendy Wallace’s website:

Coloring Book Fun (free coloring pages)

DLTK’s Coloring Pages

Coloring books and pages from various government agencies:

Coloring Addict’s Essential Coloring Books

Celebrating Wildflowers coloring books

Jan Brett’s Free Coloring Pages

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Poetry Friday: Pattiann Rogers’s “The Significance of Location”

Posted on February 16, 2007. Filed under: Poetry Fridays |

“The Significance of Location” from Firekeeper
Pattiann Rogers

The cat has the chance to make the sunlight
Beautiful, to stop it and turn it immediately
Into black fur and motion, to take it
As shifting branch and brown feather
Into the back of the brain forever.

The cardinal has flown the sun in red
Through the oak forest to the lawn.
The finch has caught it in yellow.
And taken it among the thorns. By the spider
It has been bound tightly and tied
Into an eight-stringed knot.

The sun has been intercepted in its one
Basic state and changed into a million varieties
Of green stick and tassel. It has been broken
Into pieces by glass rings, by mist
Over the river. Its heat
Has been given the board fence for body,
The desert rock for fact. On winter hills
It has been laid down in white like a martyr.

This afternoon we could spread gold scarves
Clear across the field and say in truth,
“Sun you are silk.”

Imagine the sun totally isolated,
Its brightness shot in continuous streaks straight out
Into the black, never arrested,
Never once being made light.

Someone should take note
Of how the earth has saved the sun from oblivion.

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Firing the Canon

Posted on February 10, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Homeschooling, Reading |

I owe a great deal of my recent thinking about canonical issues to an article that appeared in November/December 2006 issue of Home Education Magazine: “One Mother’s Search for the Meaning of Literacy” by Sheri Kinser. In the article, Kinser discusses the difficulties of determing what it is her son “should” know in order to be considered literate. It’s a thoughtful article and filled with a lot of the same questions I ask myself. However, she ends up consulting E.D. Hirsch’s cultural literacy books and slides into the kind of anxiety only books like Hirsch’s can produce: Do I know enough? Does my child know enough? How is my child going to learn all this material?

I began to wonder how widespread Kinser’s anxiety was, especially among homeschoolers. So I’ve been gathering a little anecodotal information–listening to a lot of conversations and making some discreet inquiries. And guess what? Everybody (homeschoolers, public schoolers, private schoolers) I heard or overheard is concerned about whether our kids know enough of the right stuff to survive out in the world without us. Now, not all of those conversations revolved around book knowledge, but a fair number of them did. And it’s no big surprise.

But what did surprise me was how few of the people I listened to seemed to have ANY idea how the Western Canon came into being. Most people seem to assume there’s this core of books you’re supposed to read just because they’re important books. And here’s where I can feel grad school starting to pay off. On Groundhog Day (And it was about that time that it started being known as Groundhog Day) in 1835, Thomas Macaulay addressed the British Parliment concerning its policy on the education of the people of India. While Macaulay’s “Minute on Indian Education” didn’t break any new ground, it did succinctly put forward several ideas that became key to the British occupation of India for the next 100 years. Macaulay called for the teaching of British materials in all disciplines, for the teaching of those materials in English and for the teaching of only a small segment of the Indian population, who would then be responsible for the education of the rest of the nation.

In its attempts to educate India, the British nation systematized its own cultural heritage–the canon-making process began in earnest. And there were fights even then about what should go in–calls for sealing the canon at the year 1600, for example. By 1909, this obsession with determining the proper books one ought to read in order to be culturally literate had jumped to the U.S. with the publication of the Harvard Classics series. The next big step was the Great Books of the Western World series, edited by Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. While the Great Books folks are still around, they are now only one of many sources happy to tell us all what we should know in order to be literate. Harold Bloom, of course, would cheerfully like to be taken as the proper contemporary authority on all such issues.

What’s missing from those programs–from Harvard to Harold and Hirsch–is *why* their particular assemblage of books or facts makes us literate, what such literacy means. The canon that emerged after Macaulay’s speech had a purpose: propaganda and indoctrination. To Macaulay, literacy among the Indians meant grateful acceptance of their status as second-class citizens of the empire. Are we to assume the purpose of each successive rendering of said canon is similar in nature? What about the alternative canons to have emerged? The canon of women’s literature, for example, as exemplified in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women? Or are we to assume each successive rendering of the Western Canon or each variant thereof has its own agenda? Or at this point, is it all about using guilt and anxiety to make money?

I find myself drawn in many different directions by those questions, but what seems clearest to me today is that it’s important to consider the source creating a canon, the contents of the canon, the purpose of the canon and its relevance for our own lives and goals. It would be too easy for me to lay out examples that use the notion of a canon to bully, intimidate, indoctrinate or exclude, so instead I want to offer a couple examples of creative and liberating projects that use the canon idea.

First in line, Ursula LeGuin’s controversial Norton Book of Science Fiction. Norton hired her to produce an anthology of the best science fiction from the last thirty years. And she did–the best ecofeminist science fiction produced from 1960-1990. It certainly isn’t representative of the genre as a whole, but its purpose is clear, its contents are lively and enlightening and, for me anyway, its relevance is both immediate and enduring. It’s just not what Norton thought it was getting.

A second affirmative example comes from the sweltering pit of canon battles over college-bound reading lists. What should kids read to ready them for college? It’s a great question, and it’s been answered in many different, often nuanced and intelligent, ways. My favorite at the moment is the YALSA list of Outstanding Books for the College Bound. I like its inventive blend of young-adult and adult books, its ongoing maintenance (updated every five years), and its clarity of focus.

So, stay tuned. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this issue again. Though for now, I think it’s time I paid some attention to the canon of unread library books likely to topple over on my dog.

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Poetry Friday: Mary Oliver’s “Spring”

Posted on February 9, 2007. Filed under: Poetry Fridays |

“Spring” from House of Light

by Mary Oliver

a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is racing

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her
her four black fists
flicking the gravel
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
down the mountain
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her–
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.

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You’re a Prisoner of the Ant People, What Do You Do?

Posted on February 3, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Science Fiction, Web Resources |

A. Lie still on the floor.
B. Attack them.
C. Concentrate on excreting pheremones that will drive them away or make you their leader.
D. Search the cave for the naturally occuring components of boric acid.

That’s right. CYOA. Time to read like it’s 1983! For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure, the Choose Your Own Adventure books, many of them still in print (!), were as hot among middle-schoolers in the mid-eighties as Sudoku puzzles are among the middle-aged today. And, hmmmm, there’s a lotta overlap in those two populations–I’ll have to ponder that at greater length later.

Each CYOA book, written in the second person, set up an opening scenario: you’re alone in a room with an strange object; you’re stranded in an exotic location with only basic survival tools; you’re a spy on a deep-cover assignment; you’re, well, a prisoner of the ant people. The opening scenario might be a paragraph, might be two or three pages. At the end, you’d get a choice like the one that opens this blog entry. It would take you to a particular page in the book and from there you’d read another few paragraphs or pages and get to select a path from another set of options. The books were written generally, but not exclusively for boys–that second-person narration left a fair lot of room for girls to play too. Though perhaps the prevalence of the “Attack them” option could be interpreted as a gendered response?

At any rate–the CYOA books, while not great literature, were an important part of my middle-grade reading diet. Why?

1. Great social leveler. We all read them. The insufferable smart kid (me), the kid who’s now serving time for armed robbery, the girls who are now accountants and nurses, the four boys whose parents were splitting up, the kid with severe epilepsy and brain damage, the girl whose babysitter was turning tricks upstairs. We all shared the classroom library copies and, when those fell apart, even each other’s personal copies. It gave us a common, totally voluntary experience (a reading experience!) to share and discuss at length.

2. Bad endings. Nothing said GAME OVER like turning to page 105 and finding out that the serum I’d just swallowed was a lethal poison. A deterrent? No way. I’d go back and make another choice. And that’s where it got interesting. Sometimes I’d discover there were no really good choices on a page and I’d have to work further back in the decision tree to get to a really cool ending. We all shared a lot of information on and had a lot of good arguments about this aspect of the books. Searching for the way out of the ant colony, we were learning a sophisticated lot about cause and effect, story structure, and rhisomal narratives–a key concept in both postmodern literature and hypertextuality. It’s worth noting that many video games follow this same structure…;-)

3. Power. Reading a CYOA book, *I* was always the main character, capable of making things happen or unmaking them. While I loved being able to vicariously enjoy the adventures of fictional characters, getting to BE the character was a thrill all its own. And I’m betting that element was a big part of the draw for the more reluctant readers in our bunch too.

So, well and good, it’s been a nice trip for me down nostalgia lane. But don’t worry. There’s something here for the rest of you too. I believe the valuable experiences my classmates and I shared through CYOA books are replicable–and not just in video game form. The books, as the earlier Wikipedia link indicates, are generally still in print and there are all kinds of print spinoffs that use the same concept.

I’d like to say, best of all, there are now CYOA websites. HOWEVER–most of them contain significant adult content. Google Earth is the possible exception–it apparently has a Carmen Sandiegoesque CYOA that would probably be both home and school appopriate. I think loading Google Earth on my aging machine would about kill it though, so I have left that link unexplored.

Before blogging, I spent some time clicking through all the other Wikipedia links, and though there are some great hyperlinked CYOA stories for kids out there, they exist on the very same sites as stories like “Smutty Sex Romp” and “Super Trooper Blood Bath.” Yeah. Limits their usefulness at school to about zero and their usefulness at home to “Supervision Only Toy.” If you’re brave and you want to find kids’ CYOA stories online, I’d recommend the CYOA Wiki, My Adventure Game and Make Your Own Adventure. For teacher materials that might help elucidate other educational benefits of CYOA books, see Sundance Publishing.

And now, it’s time for me to make a break for it, out through the tunnel that leads to the light, scattering that Macgyver-would-be-proud boric acid as I go.

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