Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

Exploring Issues of National Identity, Ideology and Diversity in Contemporary Canadian Picture Books

Academic journal article Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature

Exploring Issues of National Identity, Ideology and Diversity in Contemporary Canadian Picture Books

Article excerpt

Picture books are one of the first points of contact for children to interact with verbal and visual representations of national identity and they can be an ongoing medium for literary engagement throughout children's schooling. Contemporary picture books appeal to a range of readers, and offer innovative possibilities for exploring questions of representation, identity, culture, race, class, and power. In complex interactions between text and illustrations, picture books take up particular ideological positions and articulate varying understandings of national identity, multiculturalism, and cultural difference (Stephens 1992). As Andrea McKenzie (2003) suggests, picture books can have a significant impact in shaping how children understand the world around them:'Illustrations are not merely adjuncts to the text, but can, as well known illustrations of children's text demonstrate, influence the development of attitudes and values: text and illustrations dynamically interact, each shaping future narratives, both in pictures and in word' (McKenzie 2003, pp.201-202).Similarly, Perry Nodelman reminds us of the ideological basis of illustrations in such texts: 'Whether we are conscious of it or not, illustrations always convey information, not just about what things look like, but how we should understand and what we should feel about the things depicted' (Nodelman 1999, p.6). In this way, picture books have the potential to articulate varying understandings of Canadian identity, offering a double form of representation in the liminal spaces between words and images. They may promote a cohesive and exclusionary view of national identity that can marginalize or exclude diverse immigrant and Aboriginal perspectives, or serve as a counter-articulation to such notions of a homogenous sense of nation.

As teacher educators, we are particularly interested in the potential of contemporary Canadian picture books to engage teachers and students in complex reflections on questions of national identity, ideology, representation, and diversity. Erin Manning explains that identity, as the basis for national unity, 'relies on a simplified notion of culture that ignores the disjunctions and contradictions within historical and social (trans)formations' (Manning 2003, p.62). Neither identity, subject--formation, nor culture can exist in an ahistorical political realm, but each is always subject to transformation and renegotiation. Encounters with difference, even in seemingly simple texts such as picture books, challenge readers to come face to face with disruptions to their socially-constructed subject positions as well as their fears and uncertainties of otherness. Such encounters may challenge readers' sense of self and their taken-for-granted views about contemporary notions of Canadian multiculturalism.

Encounters that disturb a reader's sense of self characterise what Deborah Britzman (1991) calls 'difficult knowledge', a concept meant to signify both representations of social traumas in curriculum and the individual's encounters with these traumas in pedagogical contexts. According to, students come into the teaching context with taken-for-granted views about the world, which she refers to as 'lovely knowledge'. 'Difficult knowledge' disrupts these assumptions and may cause ruptures in students' 'lovely knowledge' of how multiculturalism functions in Canadian society.

We drew upon these post-structural notions of identity in developing our project, a three-year study conducted as descriptive case studies (Stake 1995, Merriam 1998) with English language arts preservice teachers in five Canadian provinces. In the research, we intended to challenge preservice teachers to negotiate their own sense of national identity and to examine their views of otherness through reading and responding to a range of contemporary Canadian picture books. This study is particularly topical, given a growing disparity between the backgrounds of beginning teachers and the students in their classrooms. …

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