Teaching Children's Literature
Three years ago I wrote a book entitled, Teaching Children's Literature: making stories work in the classroom (Duncan 2009) which was written for an audience of primary and Key Stage 3 secondary teachers, trainee teachers and students studying children's literature. The impetus for the book arose from a group of student teachers taking a course in children's literature as part of a specialist English programme in a university education department. They suggested that what would considerably enhance the course was a text which would do two things: offer clearly structured, practical guidance on how to make a text come alive in the classroom as well as provide deeper, theoretical knowledge on a chosen selection of authors, their works, plot, characterisation and so on. There was at the time, a serious lacuna in published material which dealt with both of these elements in one text so the book set out to begin to fill this gap.
The book examined five contemporary, immensely popular children's authors and the genre of comic books. Authors chosen were Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, J.K. Rowling and Anthony Browne. It seems hardly credible, but when I began teaching the children's literature course in 1997 there were virtually no published critical writings on any of these authors, apart from Anthony Browne, whose work had attracted considerable critical debate. Some thirteen years later a host of books and journal articles now exist which address the themes and ideas that pervade Pullman's and Rowling's work and the reasons their work has such a strong appeal to children and adults throughout the world. Some of the more seminal writings on Pullman and Rowling have recently been brought together for the benefit of students studying children's literature in two excellent texts edited by Montgomery and Watson and Maybin and Watson, (2009).
The publication of Pullman's Northern Lights in 1995 marked the beginning of a very exciting period in children's literature which I was keen to capture in my book. Indeed he was unequivocal about the high quality of writing currently to be found in contemporary children's books:
'... children's books, for various reasons, at this time in our
literary history, open out on to a wideness and amplitude--a
moral and mental spaciousness--that adult literary fiction
seems to have its back on' (1998, p.44).
When I was teaching my programme of children's literature in the late 1990s with students hungry to understand why Pullman and Rowling, for example, had so successfully captured the attention of the media, there were scarcely any publications which might have given them even the first of critical footholds on their work. Another reason for writing the book therefore, was to begin to provide some theoretical discourse on these particular contemporary works.
'Road testing' the ideas
The book is organised into six two-part chapters. The first part of each looks closely at one particular book or comic text and gives detailed, structured guidance on how teachers or student teachers could use the chosen text to develop oral language, drama, writing and art activities as well as social and emotional aspects of learning. It also lists the resources which teachers would find helpful, including sound effects for drama and a list of further reading and website information. The second part gives deeper knowledge about the respective author and their particular literary contribution which also includes transcripts of live interviews with some of the authors. The practical sections were each based on a series of workshops which were carried out in a variety of schools in order to 'road test' them in the classroom. Some of these early workshops worked very well, others less so. Where the latter was the case the material was reworked and modified to take account of teacher and pupil feedback as well as my own perceptions of how well they had or had not worked. …