Academic journal article Education Next

Protagonist Meets Antagonist: When 2nd Graders "Do" English Lit

Academic journal article Education Next

Protagonist Meets Antagonist: When 2nd Graders "Do" English Lit

Article excerpt

It is 1:15 on a Sunday afternoon. We are standing in the children's department of our public library, twelve 2nd graders and their parents sprawled on carpet-covered risers in front of us. On one side is a pink three-little-pigs chair; on the other, a table piled with cookies, juice, and grapes.

It is parent-child book day. Today's selection is one of our favorites, Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White.

"Okay," we say, "Let's start by taking nominations for protagonist."

Hands go up all over the room.

"Charlotte," answers a boy.

"No, I think it's Wilbur," says a mom.


We have been running these groups for six years now. The kids range in age from seven to ten, and they can identify a book's protagonist and antagonist, characterize its setting, isolate the climax, and dig out underlying themes. They've wrestled with the notion of prejudice, debated the definition of totalitarianism, and discussed the nature of bravery. When we mention this to people, they often treat us as if we'd just announced that we're Napoleon and Josephine. Before we began the groups, we solicited advice from reading specialists, who told us that the most important thing was to keep the books easy. It doesn't matter what they read as long as they read something.

We were confused, and not a little disturbed. We believed that it mattered a great deal what a child read. The real danger of turning kids off from reading and hurling them permanently in the direction of electronic media, we were convinced, was in making books too superficial. Restricting children to pop culture denied them the excitement of discovering the beauty of language and the power of meaningful ideas. We felt certain that engaging children in a sophisticated discussion was only a matter of the way in which the dialogue was structured.

For example, the words "protagonist" and "antagonist" scare off elementary-school teachers, because they think the words are intimidating. …

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