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Children Literature

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Literacy to Inform and Transform: Empowering Lessons From Children’s Literature

Janelle B. Mathis Leslie Patterson
University of North Texas

No kind of writing lodges itself so deeply in our memory, echoing there for the rest of our lives, as the books we met in our childhood (Zinsser, 1990, p. 3). Students learn literacy lessons every day they walk into classrooms. Each day brings the potential for powerful literacy lessons—lessons from teachers, lessons from textbooks and instructional programs, and lessons from trade books. Some of these lessons are intentional, but many are so much a part of the way things work in schools that we may not recognize them as literacy lessons. Too often students are not invited into understandings of literacy that empower them to be proud of themselves or use literacy to change the world. They are immersed in literacy experiences to test and measure their academic achievements or capacities, and inferences based on those data make a powerful difference in how individual students are treated. With the current proliferation of curricular mandates and scripted programs, students may also be surrounded by limited notions of literacy as practiced in the marketplace or workplace and by literacy practices that require rote answers and convergent thinking. In short, current literacy practices in schools can label, stereotype, and set limits on expectations for students; they can impose mainstream culture and values at the expense of students’ home cultures; and they can constrain divergent thinking and creative problemsolving. Acknowledging that these bureaucratic and cultural literacy practices are inherent to the way today’s schools work, many literacy teachers look for ways to demonstrate that literacy can be a source of joy and power to help students experience literacy in a variety of contexts that call for both aesthetic and efferent stances. Those literacy teachers often turn to children’s and young adult literature as a basis for literacy lessons. For those literacy teachers, the question becomes, “What can students learn from the literature about the power of literacy to inform and transform?” In light of this, we began reexamining children’s books, wondering what demonstrations are provided across the many books that concern reading, writing, and storytelling as central to the plot, theme, or character development. This exploratory study began with a focus on the messages about literacy that lie within the books that might be found in classroom and school libraries. Our initial concern focused on what children’s books might teach students about why people read and write as well as about why literacy is a powerful impetus to inform and transform. That led us to a content analysis of selected children’s literature guided by this question: “What messages about literacy are we sending to our readers through children’s and

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as stated above. 1993). 15). Many educators agree with Charlotte Huck (1989) that.. 2002. we achieve literacy through literature” (as quoted in Sipe. 1996. “We can’t achieve literacy and then give children literature. Shockley. 1992. Teachers at all grade levels (Crowell.g.g. Cornell examined traditional rhymes and folktales and found “monsters” of both language and culture exist in these early literacy lessons. Thematic content analyses from a qualitative perspective have provided powerful explorations of the content of this literature. students begin to realize specifically why and how literacy can empower individuals and groups to bring about social change. Harste. Through literature. p. Moore. 1999). Subsequent studies fit within these categories as well as offer insight into literacy and learning (Bushner. Harste. Cullinan. Cullinan. as these are easily recognized as literacy events by readers. Galda. art. Educators readily acknowledge the role of children’s literature as an important aspect of reading instruction as well as models of excellence in writing (Harwayne. 1996. Hickman. & Hepler. And Rocha & Dowd addressed the misrepresentation of Mexican-American females that focuses not only on images that lack gender equity but also on the lack of accurate portrayal of the female within the Mexican culture. Within each subcategory one would find a variety of themes that touch on literacy issues.. For example. 1993). and gender (e. with Burke. 1994).. 1996. mediate the world for the purpose of learning” (Short. 1993). we focus on the sign system of language—on books that concern reading and writing and the power of story. with Burke. For this study. Cornell. music. Advocating for literature discussions that invite children to engage in critical meaning making with their peers. social issues (e. we chose to focus here only on books that concern reading and writing and the power of story. THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK In our work with teachers and their students. as humans. Short (1995) identified four subcategories of issues. 1995) use literature to prompt discussions about society and the need and possibility for change. Greenway discovered the many lessons of submission and disempowerment that exist in literature. 1999. dance. People mediate the world by creating “sign systems— mathematics.g. Greenway. we also believe a critical role of literature is nurturing literacy understandings (Gambrell & Amalsi.g. 14). p. & Hepler. Foss. including culture (e. These teachers point to the ability of children to think critically and sensitively about these issues and the role that books about literacy can play as catalysts to inform and transform.14). Sipe. life cycles (e. Rocha & Dowd. we recognize literacies as multiple and “as the processes by which we. 1997). 1993. Through literacy we use language (both written and oral) to think about our experiences. & Pelligrini. Sipe spoke of literature’s potential for being an informing and transforming force in children’s lives. p. to . Moore found unique messages about life in boarding schools in children’s books. Building on a belief in William Zinsser’s quotation above. 1994.Literacy in Children’s Literature 265 young adult literature?” Although this exploration might include more complex notions of what it means to be literate. language—that stand between the world as it is and the world as we perceive it” (Short. 1993). Radencich & Harrison. Hickman. In a review of research on thematic content analyses..

reading. writing or storytelling was the central focus of the content or theme of the book.266 National Reading Conference Yearbook. and to make a difference in our worlds (Mallow & Patterson. and learning through language. As we read each selection. For example. we charted the title. 2003). Additionally. This analysis allowed . we searched Internet sources using the following descriptors: literacy. We do not claim that this is a comprehensive list of such books. and definition. and re-read books of all genres published through 2002 that focused on literacy. DATA ANALYSIS The questions guiding our inquiry were: (1) What demonstrations about reading. & Mizokawa. read. writing. purpose and function. writing. learning about language. To investigate the first research question (What demonstrations of literacy can be found in children’s and young adult literature?). noting the frequency of certain criteria: literacy form. to communicate with others. we examined award winning lists such as Notables in Children’s Literature. 2001). 2003). and Young Adult Choices. or storytelling). or writing were peripheral to the focus or theme. reading. Aoki. The criterion for inclusion was that reading. The significance of such a powerful communicative medium also sends us a message that speaks to its own strength for both personal and societal empowerment. the context in which literacy was used. 53 make sense of written messages. how literacy was defined within this context (reading. International Reading Association. Finally. we noted that children might see characters and/or authors learning language. Your Reading (Brown & Stephens. We did not include literature in which books. and storytelling. we began with an informal search of book review sections of journals published by National Council of Teachers of English. American Library Association. revisiting the original sources (the children’s books) to verify that the context did indeed support a specific function or definition of literacy. context of literacy. 1980) for further elaboration (See Figure 1). type of literacy being used. Additionally. the purpose/function for which it was used. Using these three categories as “domains. and Kaleidescope (Hansen-Krening. and National Council of Teachers of Social Studies. Books for You (Beers & Lesesne.” we generated a domain analysis (Spradley. We then searched according to theme and/or topic in children’s literature resource texts such as Adventuring With Books (McClure & Kristo. Halliday’s (1982) descriptors of language learning seemed an apt frame for these emerging findings. in these selections. we included only books using language as the foregrounded sign system and not books that focused on the broader notion of multiple literacies. We searched for patterns. 1999). writing. but it is a significant sample of the selections that teachers might choose for their classroom libraries. and story does children’s literature provide? (2) What potential messages does children’s literature send about the purposes of literacy in life? We identified. As we coded these items. To identify these books. We identified 152 books. 2002). key concepts emerged. genre. International Board on Books for Youth. we used an inductive approach to analysis. Children’s Choices Awards. and other comments. the International Reading Association’s Teachers’ Choices Awards.

and publishing • Literacy in schools • How language works • • • • To feel— enjoy ideas. for what purpose? Who? How? . About learning to read and/or write Why. for what purpose? • • • • 267 To feel—enjoy ideas. self-discovery To proclaim who we are/ To tell our stories/ To express ourselves • To function in daily life/To claim power over our daily lives • To investigate the world • To make the world a better place • Adults • Children • Home • School • • • • To feel— enjoy ideas. self-discovery To proclaim who we are/To tell our stories/ To express ourselves • To function in daily life/To claim power over our daily lives • To investigate the world • To make the world a better place • Adults • Children • The response to literature • The process of research. words.Literacy in Children’s Literature Figure 1 Domain analysis of children’s and young adult literature that offer literacy lessons. literacy. writing. words. self-discovery To proclaim who we are/ To tell our stories/ To express ourselves • To function in daily life/To claim power over our daily lives • To investigate the world • To make the world a better place • Adults • Children • • • • • • Letters Diaries/journals Books Poetry Political signs/slogans Newspapers Who? Where? About language. images To connect with family & friends To know myself. images To connect with family & friends To know myself. and literature Why. for what purpose? Who? To learn what? About using literacy as a tool or a vehicle for a range of purposes Why. images To connect with family & friends To know myself. words.

we found that only 14 of this 152 book sample (9. As analysis progressed. Books in the category Learning about Literacy included issues related to how literacy began. write. demonstrating a wide range of purposes for reading. (g) to investigate our world. to tell stories. We were surprised at the small number of books that take a critical stance. Because our second research question focused on lessons about the purposes of literacy. (f) to function in daily life. A critical stance is grounded in what Freire (Freire & Macedo. More detail on this process is provided in the findings section. we found that many books offer demonstrations of literacy used to connect with other people. (d) to proclaim who we are. writing. We defined those three major categories as follows. and to investigate the world. which led to inferences about the purposes of literacy. In these books. and (h) to make the world a better place. the support that learners needed. how language works. In response to the first research question. to feel or experience (to have fun). Examples of titles within each of the three categories as well as the subcategories of Learning through Literacy can be found in Figure 2. This finding is particularly interesting considering our initial concern about the inherent constraints on independent thinking and cultural resistance or creativity within current school literacy practices. Critical . And books about Learning through Literacy included selections about literacy used as a tool for learning and action. contained potential Learning about Literacy demonstrations.268 National Reading Conference Yearbook. (e) to tell stories. and how authors write. FINDINGS Our findings point to numerous books that show characters actively participating in reading. 23%. 1987) calls concientization. or the unity of theory and action in the world. asking specifically. Over two-thirds (103 books). few show the use of literacy to oppress or empower or show literacy as the key to economic or political power. (c) to know ourselves. but fewer books show literacy used for social change. to function in daily life. writing. 53 us to identify subcategories related to how and why literacy is used in this large and diverse sample of literature. readers might learn that literacy could be used for these reasons: (a) to “feel” or to have vicarious experiences. Learning through Literacy.2%) focused on characters who were learning to read or write or tell stories. 67%. (b) to connect with family and friends. which leads to praxis. Books about Learning Literacy included stories about children and adults learning how to read. In response to the second question regarding potential lessons about the purposes of literacy. writing. and storytelling. These categories and subcategories guided our inferences about the potential literacy lessons or demonstrations that these books might hold for student readers. what potential lessons demonstrate why people use reading. we then focused more specifically on the third category. of the books focused on Learning through Literacy. our categories became more refined and guided subsequent analysis. and story-telling events for many purposes. how books are made. or the struggles and triumphs of literacy learning. that is. and storytelling? This phase of the analysis revealed a set of literacy lessons in the pages of these books. and tell stories and sometimes focused on the processes of literacy learning. Less than one-fourth (35 books).

we see Jack beginning to play with language and telling tender stories through poetry. 1995. Anna helps Amber learn to read. NY: Clarion Books. Brain’s empty. NY: Dial. Ralph Fletcher. More Than Anything Else. 1995. NY: Scholastic. The funny animal characters look over her shoulder and give her suggestions about what should happen next. Amber teaches herself to write so that she can write letters to her friend. Trumpet Books. Florence Parry Heide & Judith Heide Gilliland. Ahmed.Literacy in Children’s Literature Figure 2 Selected titles representing the three categories and the subcategories from initial analysis LEARNING LITERACY 269 Amber on the Mountain. Tony Johnston. Thousand Oaks. Washington’s hunger for knowledge and his insight that learning to read and write would lead to a powerful future. When he finally returns home at night. next-door neighbors who see the same event and proceed to write two very different books about it. has a secret that he carries with him through the day. this book gives children an interactive way to get acquainted with their public libraries with the help of a caterpillar and a butterfly. NY: Joanna Cutler. back down to the city. Sharon Creech. Fictionalized Biography The Day of Ahmed’s Secret. as he goes through the city doing his regular chores for his family. 1995. Greenwood. Stevens illustrates how the characters she draws come to life and help tell the story as she makes a book. From Pictures to Words: A Book About Making a Book. A treasure hunt. Richard D. Janet Stevens. this book communicates young Booker T. Realistic Fiction When a new family moves into the mountain community. CA: Museum Mania. Amber and Anna become best friends. and when Anna’s family moves away. 2001. 2003. he shares his secret – he has learned to write his name! This book—Jack’s poetry journal—chronicles Jack’s progress from being a resistant poet— “Can’t write. Through moving language and illustrations. 1998. Realistic Fiction This picture book in story board format tells about two authors. HarperTrophy. Jackson. The story takes young readers through the writing process with these two authors. 1999.”—to his sincere engagement and response to the poems his teacher reads to the class. Informational Informational My Very Own Library Treasure fantasy Hunt. . Fletcher guides young writers through a process of recording their observations and insights into a Writer’s Notebook as they become authors. 1994. Candace J. a young boy in Cairo. NY: Orchard. Realistic Fiction Love That Dog. Poetry LEARNING ABOUT LITERACY What Do Authors Do? Eileen Christelow. NY: Holiday House. Fantasy A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer within You. Reissue. Marie Bradby. Through these journal entries.

Levine. Her journal and her poetry reflect her growing sense of self and her increasing control over her life. But Kenyon decides to buy a baseball glove instead of a birthday gift for his grandmother. . 1983. 1997. NY: Dragonfly Books. to create BOOK. Sapphire. Learning to connect with family and friends The Hickory Chair. of meeting the author within the pages of the book. NY: Dell. Alfred A Knopf. . 53 Figure 2. Learning to "feel" through literary experiences—to imagine. Poetry Literacy for . Realistic Fiction Literacy for . the joy. . Beverly Cleary.270 National Reading Conference Yearbook. who writes to his favorite author and receives a surprise in return. Learning to know ourselves Realistic Fiction A long-time favorite. Jeri Hanel Watts & Felicia Marshall. 1998. meets a teacher and a “family” of classmates who help her build a hopeful future. His grandfather encourages him to read and to share stories with his family just the grandfather has always done. NY: Vintage Books. Years later. NY: Arthur A. Keepers. who leaves a handwritten note to each family member before she dies. Selected titles representing the three categories and the subcategories from initial analysis LEARNING THROUGH LITERACY Literacy for . . a teenager caught in horrible circumstances. 2000. and the excitement of reading. . Realistic Fiction Blind since birth. NY: Lee & Low. This is really a story of a young boy learning to deal with life’s challenges. . Lisa Rowe Fraustino. He feels so guilty that he makes a book of her stories to give her. Realistic Fiction The illustrations and word images in this book communicate the wonder. Louis loves his grandmother. Tomas moves with his family to work in the fields. New York: DK Publishing. 1997. Henshaw. con't. . Realistic Fiction PUSH. Louis finds his note hidden in the hickory chair his grandmother rocked him in as a child. Kenyon’s grandmother is the Keeper of the stories. and she decides that he should become the Keeper of the stories for the next generation. Dear Mr. this book tells the story of Leigh. Precious Jones. 2001. ready to pass those stories down to a female member of the family. George Ella Lyon. Tomás and the Library Lady Pat Mora. This book is for mature teens because of the difficult situations the characters face. One summer he finds a cool place and friend in the library.

The School Story. NY: Greenwillow Books. Realistic Fiction Literacy for . Learning to proclaim who we are/ to tell our stories My Diary from Here to There/ Mi Diario De Aqui Hasta Alla. JGC. . Fantasy Archibald Frisby is a clever boy who loves science. and the story of why the family made the move. Lynn Joseph.Literacy in Children’s Literature 271 Figure 2. Straus & Giroux. A 19 year old is determined to begin a school for African Americans in the South to learn to read of their rich heritage in spite of racist threats. Realistic fiction (chapter) Political uprisings provide a place for a young girl to use her voice and writing talents in the Dominican Republic. Aliki. NY: Farrar. NY: HarperTrophy. the other takes that on as a challenge. he continues his inquiries at camp. Realistic Fiction Literacy for . 2001. . Realistic Fiction As her family emigrates to the U. submitting the manuscript. Learning to investigate our world Archibald Frisby. Learning to function in daily life Oh. How I Wished I Could Read!. 2001. . 2001. 1994. NY: HarperCollins. The title character tells her story of her family’s immigration to the states. Children’s Book Press. However. and that her connections with her Mexico home are also strong. . has a series of mishaps that could have been avoided if he could read—like “wet paint” signs. 1998. Freedom School. a little boy who cannot (yet) read. 1995.S. . Amanda writes about her sadness and her fears in her journal. By writing letters. . settling into a new classroom. . Learning to make the world a better place The Color of My Words. Her writing that journal gets her in trouble with her friends and she learns to balance her investigations and journalistic efforts with her relationships with friends and family. con't. 2002. she realizes that she is stronger than she thought. One wants to write a book. from Mexico. Historical fiction (picture) . NY: Philomel. John Gile. His mother wants him to take a break from his investigations so she sends him to summer camp. Realistic Fiction Literacy for . Painted Words and Spoken Memories. . Michael Chesworth. Amy Littlesugar. Her paintings tell her stories until she learns the English words to communicate with her new friends. Louise Fitzgerald. Through these stories and memories. Amada Irma Perez. they do succeed. and negotiating other details of the publishing world. 1964. Andrew Clements. Harriet the Spy. Selected titles representing the three categories and the subcategories from initial analysis LEARNING THROUGH LITERACY Literacy for . Yes. Harriet is a very observant young girl whose journal is a constant companion. NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. This little novel highlights the exploits of two middle schoolers who are best friends. Marianthe’s Story. Realistic Fiction The main character.

to speak out (voice). and to do what must be done (action). Reframing our second research question about the purposes of literacy embedded in children’s literature. across these three system levels. family and friends. we asked. school. friends and family. these systems overlap and are nested one inside another. particularly the category of Learning Through Literacy. and the larger world/society (see figure 3). As we contemplated the literacy messages related to social action. to tell our stories • Action – To take social action at home. meanings that ask not only why things are as they seem but also who stands to benefit. characters used literacy for three primary purposes: to find out what they need to know (inquiry). “What potential lessons do these books offer about why and how we can use literacy within the three systems within which we live our lives: Ourselves? Our transactions with family and friends? Our place in the larger world?” A closer look at these selections suggested that. and political systems into account. They are most Figure 3 Potential literacy lessons for inquiry. voice and action in three nested systems: self. but we can focus on any one of these three system levels as a way to more carefully explore these literacy lessons made available in books.” or to assign meanings to our perceptions of the world—meanings that take social. Within the books in this category.272 National Reading Conference Yearbook. We realized that our initial categories needed further refinement. we looked again at the literary selections that might hold lessons about literacy as a tool or vehicle for this kind of reading. and neighborhood LARGER NATURAL OR SOCIAL SYSTEMS • Inquiry – To investigate the world • Voice – To make public statements about what is & what should be • Action – To take action to make the world more just or self-sustaining . we saw that each text seemed to deal with a particular “level” of a social/cultural system: self. Of course. and the larger world SELF • Inquiry – For self discovery • Voice – To proclaim who we are • Action – Transform ourselves FRIENDS AND FAMILY • Inquiry – Explore cultural and family identities • Voice – To claim power. Our analysis suggests that these categories overlap. economic. 53 theorists and educators seem to agree that the foundation for such praxis is a willingness and ability to “read the world.

In response to Trino’s. One summer he finds a cool place in the city library and finds a friend in the librarian. His grandfather encourages him to read and to bring the books home to read stories to the families—stories in print to add to the stories that his grandfather has always told. and investigation into issues related to self-knowledge. It matters when a lady asks you to sign something and next thing you knew. Archibald. thus. identity creation. man. That’s why it matters. does not stop his investigation and inventing just because he is at camp. 1999). however. Literacy for Inquiry Self. illustrated by Raul Colon (2000). and action demonstrations are meant to be suggestive of a wide range of possibilities. Family and friends. In Trino’s Choice (Bertrand.Literacy in Children’s Literature 273 useful as heuristics for consideration of the literature and are not distinct. We owe our children opportunities to become literate in the sense demonstrated here—what Harste and Leland (2000) described as having “the power to elect a stance that allows him or her to avoid becoming a victim” (p. people’ll tell you what you ought to think and that you can’t do more than scrub toilets the rest of your life.” Montoyo replies. These examples of inquiry. Tomàs and his family follow the crops. Several books focused on using literacy for inquiry into larger issues about the natural world or social realities. is also supporting his mother’s role in the custodian’s strike and. Montoya rolled the white books between his hands…I’ll tell you something no one ever said to me son. Do you know how to read? Not just figure out letters and sounds. Se Puede!. A familiar example is Tomàs and the Library Lady by Pat Mora. Wanting him to take a break from his investigations. and transformation. we could argue that the boy in ¡Sí. taking action in the larger world. The following explanations provide examples from children’s literature to illustrate each of these categories. Tomàs enables his whole family to imagine worlds beyond their current experience and enriches their family time through these stories in the library books he brings home. voice. With his . Yes. I can read. Many of these books offered lessons about literacy as a tool for exploration. Can you read like that?” Trino’s answer elicits a powerful response from Montoyo: It matters when a guy asks you to sign a paper and suddenly he’s hauling you off to jail. For example. your kid’s going to be raised as some other man’s son. but get into the words and figure out what they’re saying to you. moving each season to work in the fields. Trino is talking with a visiting poet.A. “Of course. inquiry. while developing his personal literacy in school. If you can be smart about reading. You’ll know how to protect what you love most. World/society. who asks Trino if he can read. If you can’t read. nobody’ll ever take what’s yours out of your hands ‘cause you’ll know more than they do. For example. 2002). (pp. mutually exclusive categories for data analysis. 1994) is a clever boy who loves science. “No. His mother thinks he spends too much time doing science. Montoyo. 46-47) These are powerful words and significant knowledge for a young man at the point in his life where he must make decisions that forever will affect his future. We Can! Janitor Strike in L. Other selections offered lessons about literacy as a tool for inquiry into issues about family and friends. man. she sends him to summer camp. (Cohn. man. Archibald Frisby (Chesworth. 67).

she decides that Kenyon should become the Keeper of the stories for the next generation. we can read of her experiences in the new school from the other cover. a few of the books showed characters speaking up. he leads fellow campers to consider larger issues and complexities of the natural world within which the camp functions.274 National Reading Conference Yearbook. a number of books focused on literacy and voice. and. a journal kept by Keoko. Family and friends. and then. One chapter ends with: If the Japanese lost the war. Uncle could come home. We can first read Marianthe’s story of her homeland. An example that children might find particularly relevant to their personal experience is Marianthe’s Story: Painted Words and Spoken Memories (Aliki. and how Marianthe settles into her new classroom. The format of the book demonstrates the complexity of our interconnected stories. How could an alphabet—letters that didn’t even mean anything by themselves—be important? . 53 knowledge of physics and the natural world. In turn. turning the book over. Marianthe tells her story of her family’s immigration to the states. Archibald’s concern is that of the larger world and making others more universally aware. and their realization of the importance of their Korean names when given Japanese names all speak to this notion of having voice. We could use our real names again. World/society. And Abuji could teach me the Korean alphabet. This theme also can be seen at each of the three system levels. If they lost. Both stories demonstrate how she uses her paintings to tell her stories until she learns the English words to communicate with her new friends. Self. in sometimes courageous ways. Literacy for Voice Second. the reader becomes aware of the role of literacy in trying to keep culture alive and preserve their voice. The books showed characters using literacy to proclaim themselves and tell the world who they are. This story takes place in northern Korea during World War II at a time when the Japanese had taken over this part of Korea and were attempting to eliminate the culture and language of those living there. is preparing to pass those stories down to a female member of the family who will become the new Keeper. to write about things as they are or as they should be. Some books showed characters using literacy to tell family and cultural stories—to proclaim who we are as a family or as a group of people. A powerful example of voice in the larger world is found in When My Name Was Keoko (2002) by Linda Parks. Kenyon spends much of the book searching for a worthy gift for his grandmother’s birthday and finally decides to make a book of her stories to give her. Rather than a focus here on the personal issues of friends and family. using literacy to make a place for ourselves and to participate in various discourse communities. Told through the eyes of a young girl and her brother. 1998). why the family made the move. Abuji could be principal of his own school. Kenyon’s grandmother is the Keeper of the stories. At this level. We could learn Korean history. An underground newspaper. according to family tradition. Keepers by Jeri Hanel Watts and Felicia Marshall (1997) demonstrated this use of voice.

the other takes on that challenge and becomes the chief agent and publicist.A. “Language is the means to a critical consciousness. xv). Se Puede! Yes We Can! Janitor Strike in L. people rooted for all of us marchers on the street. My mama and the janitors finally got the respect and the pay raises they deserved. ‘this is a celebration of courage. Although not completely believable. (Cohn. a second pregnancy by her father. mentioned earlier. Finally. ‘Carlos. There were thousands and thousands of people all around me! I held on tight to Miss Lopez’ hand. By writing letters. ¡Sí. Her journal and her poetry reflect her growing sense of self and her increasing control over her life. World/society. with it. The School Story by Andrew Clements (2001) highlights the exploits of two middle schoolers who are best friends. the power of envisagement. Reading the Word and the World (Freire & Macedo. which. 107) 275 In keeping with the words of Ann Berthoff in the Forward to Literacy. including learning to live with HIV. or neighborhood situations. we saw that some of these selections focused on literacy as a tool for action. the strike was over. and negotiating other details of the publishing world. is a picture book depicting the janitor strikes in California. Other selections focused on characters using literacy to make changes in family. our alphabet. this book offers a demonstration of how young people can use literacy skills to influence the people around them. they succeed in getting the book published. our names. Even Uncle’s newspaper. Our stories.Literacy in Children’s Literature But it was important. . submitting the manuscript. Precious Jones is a teenager caught in devastating circumstances. 2002). A young child is shown making signs to do his part in helping his mother and other workers improve working conditions and pay for custodians.On the sidewalk.’ she said. in turn. A particularly sobering example is PUSH by Sapphire (1997). As we marched. Some of the books showed characters using literacy in a struggle to make changes in themselves or to transform who they are in their worlds. and her expulsion from school. This book is for mature teens because of the difficult situations the characters face. Precious meets a teacher and a “family” of classmates who help her build a hopeful future. they wouldn’t try so hard to take them away. we saw selections in which characters used literacy to make social and political changes. school. It was all about words. When Mama saw us. 1987). The next day Miss Lopez took some of the kids from my class on the bus to downtown Los Angeles. One wants to write a book. she was so happy she almost cried.’ After three long weeks. (p. I held my sign as high as I could…. In an alternative school. Family and friends. If words weren’t important. Literacy for Action Third. Self. is the means of conceiving of change and of making choices to bring about further transformations…Liberation comes only when people reclaim their language and. the imagination of a different world to be brought into being” (p.

fantasy. (unpaged) In Freire and Macedo’s (1987) words. writing. although books concerning literacy lessons about making the world a better place are not numerous. SUMMARY OF FINDINGS Here. our communities. but by a certain form of writing or rewriting it. and storytelling to change their worlds. we see these characters reading and writing in a variety of forms: letters. Even in classrooms where teachers and students feel the constraints imposed by high stakes assessment systems and mandated instructional materials. writing. and teachers will want to use the books as springboards to more complete discussions about the challenges and potentials for working to make significant changes.’ she said. Third. we noticed that books foregrounded one of three purposes: inquiry. political signs. 35). They would learn that literacy is a cultural practice—one of those practices that help us build and rebuild our multiple identities. informational books. of transforming it by means of conscious. friends and family. “Reading the world always preceded reading the word. and storytelling. and action. books. In other words. writing. Sometimes these lessons are subtle. historical fiction. newspapers. They would learn that stories and letters make strong links across time and distance and can strengthen relationships with those we love. Teachers who take a critical stance not only try to teach students that literacy can build individual power but that literacy can also be a tool for social and political change. we found in this sample many demonstrations of literacy as a way to build relationships and connect with family and friends. these books showed that literacy could be used for inquiry. practical work” (p. voice. including a range of genres: realistic fiction.’ Mama said. that is. and poetry. and storytelling help us feel more a part of our families. we find a great deal of variety in the demonstrations of literacy embodied in these books. These teachers can find books that offer compelling demonstrations of actual people and fictional characters who use reading. we did find excellent examples for classroom use. Fourth. diaries. for speaking out. ‘I couldn’t have done it without you. Fifth.’ She hung the sign I made on our living room wall. journals. Students reading these books would learn that reading. and reading the word implies continually reading the world…. 53 ‘Carlitos. as we examined the books that demonstrated the use of literacy to change the world. slogans. In addition. They can make time and space for students to learn about authentic literacy by giving students access to books that offer lessons about the power of literacy. and larger social and natural worlds.276 National Reading Conference Yearbook. and poetry. ‘It’s the most beautiful sign in the world. we found it useful to envision change in three systems: self. First. and for taking action in our individual or personal . this analysis of children’s and young adult literature suggests that teachers have access to a wide range of quality literature that can provide students with rich and diverse demonstrations of how and why people use reading. Within each of those systems. our cultural groups. biography. teachers can fill their classroom libraries with books about literacy.Reading the word is not preceded merely by reading the world. Second. we summarize our findings related to our two research questions.

This analysis suggests that current books represent a relatively limited range of ethnic perspectives on learning literacy. and learning through literacy. and storytelling as a means to personal power or voice. First. cinema. the Internet. The professional literature offers an array of instructional ideas about how to engage students in these literacy transactions. perspectives. For example. writing. these titles offer the opportunity to expand students’ notions about literacy beyond academic school contexts to literacy situations outside classroom walls. Future research should seek more cross-cultural examples and make crosscultural comparisons of potential literacy lessons. These books are a promising resource for teachers who work with disengaged or passive students. and storytelling to proclaim ourselves and to speak our minds. and these categories give us a way to think about our choice of books to engage particular students. Researchers and teachers cannot talk about what literacy lessons will necessarily be learned from these books. it is also about the transactions students and teachers have with the texts and with one another. Finally. Short. including teacher research. we found numerous books that focus on reading. but an obvious implication from this study is the development of thematic text sets related to the power of literacy (Mathis. Such text sets would make it possible for students to explore the power of literacy as represented across multiple genre. and these books can be used as springboards for writing or for discussion about how to use reading. Given a transactional stance toward comprehension and response to literature. poetry. as well as wider inquiry into texts other than books—potential lessons about literacy in newspapers. Some students would be intrigued by books that show characters using their voices to make a difference in the larger world. Some students would respond to the use of voice to make a place for ourselves within our family or among our friends. etc. 2002. song lyrics. writing. IMPLICATIONS AND SIGNIFICANCE Implications for practice are clear.Literacy in Children’s Literature 277 growth. 1995). A theoretical implication became clear as we read and re-read these books. but thoughtful and courageous teachers will make the time. drama. It is not just about the texts. and in the larger world. the conversations and engagements around these resources greatly influence the literacy lessons that are learned. Future research should include classroom-based investigations. and knowledge systems. Second. the categories in Figures 1 and 3 offer a scheme for teachers to think about the purposes and power of literacy. Future research should also include both deeper analyses and critiques of the texts listed here. learning about literacy. among our families and friends. These categories promise a useful way to talk with teachers and with students about how people can use literacy to change their worlds. magazines. Some students would respond to books that demonstrate that voice is about proclaiming who we are (self). to document how teachers and students read and respond to these and other texts that hold potential lessons about the power of literacy. Working with disengaged students is arguably the most significant challenge facing literacy teachers. They may still face challenges like finding the time for students to read and respond to these texts. teachers who want to demonstrate that literacy can lead to personal empowerment and social action can choose from a range of children’s and young adult literature. and they can find a range of resources in these books. Third. we can .

. This implication. The books identified in this study can help teachers do that. We learned about particular books that can help teachers bring powerful literacy demonstrations to classroom settings. For this reason. of course. we should not assume that curricular mandates and scripted programs necessarily limit students’ notions of literacy to rote answers and convergent thinking. despite political pressures. given the potential for alternative literacy lessons in some of these books. rather than implying that the meanings are inherent in the books themselves. Teachers cannot control what lessons their students will learn about the power of literacy from reading these books. argued that “there can be no disinterested. Even in an oppressive learning environment. We began this investigation with a concern that political and economic initiatives have cast simplistic and inauthentic roles on school literacy learning. 1999. 1996). Reading these books. also deepened our own notions about literacy as a complex and empowering process. Harste. Teachers’ understandings of the power and purposes for literacy will influence the literacy lessons learned. 1988. we realized that informed book choices can address each of these concerns. As literacy educators we are constantly reminded of the different perceptions of literacy that learners have for academic school contexts and real life situations. To conclude. we achieve literacy through literature” (as quoted in Sipe. with authentic experiences that connect our classrooms to home communities. writing.278 National Reading Conference Yearbook. Teachers and students have the creative power to construct new realities. Our initial objective was to explore texts that broaden and deepen simplistic yet widely espoused notions about literacy and that show literacy empowering people and promoting social change. Perhaps our most significant insight from this investigation is that. p. & Short. they can only provide access and encouragement to engage in those transactions. and teachers as it is for young learners. 53 only speak of potential lessons. The literature a teacher makes available to students reflects what is valued about reading. we return to Huck (1989) who suggested. and oral language. That is as true for teacher educators. Harste. refers back to our original assumption that literacy is meaning-making—a meaning-making potential across knowledge systems and sign systems (Short. Teachers can influence these potential literacy lessons through their choices of texts and their literacy transactions and demonstrations. and value-free definition of literacy: The way literacy is viewed and taught is always and inevitably ideological” (p. we have referred to potential literacy lessons. 15). We strive to bridge these differences. objective. to “talk back” to the bureaucracy with alternative messages about the power of literacy. Auerbach (1991). 9). with Burke. researchers. throughout this discussion. teachers can make the space for potentially empowering literacy lessons. “We can’t achieve literacy and then give children literature. as quoted in Cadiero-Kaplan (2002). Through this investigation. high stakes tests and scripted instructional programs) merely hold a potential for meaning-making. It follows that using these books in preservice and in-service experiences will provide both personal experiences for teachers as literacy learners and will provide a knowledge of these titles for instructional decisions. we learned that these books can help all of us “outgrow our current selves” (Rowe. p. These are books that can inform us and transform our understandings about the power and complexity of literacy. We are reminded that oppressive and limiting literacy texts and demonstrations (for example. 71). however. but more important.

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