Project 40 Essay 2

Literature as the key to imagination, language and meaning

4o logo 1972–2012

April 2013

Regarding the teaching of children’s literature, what can we say about PETAA’s 40th anniversary?

Dr Lorraine McDonaldDr Lorraine McDonald 

Author of A Literature Companion for Teachers

The second of a series of Project 40 essays supported by video interviews and key PETAA resources.

Video interview  

Reflections in relation to children’s literature on PETAA’s 40th birthday

Three important areas come to mind as I reflect on PETAA’s 40 years: one, that PETAA has always had a vision of what is the ‘next’ thing for teachers; two, the correlation that PETAA publications have often ‘set the agenda’ for primary classroom teaching in Australia; and three, that PETAA has always followed the principle that real texts are essential for real reading experiences.

To consider the first area: the decision by PETAA to publish a book on children’s literature at the end of its 40th year showed the kind of advanced thinking that PETAA has been noted for since its inception, and throughout its years of publishing resource texts for teachers.

Peter Freebody, in the first Project 40 video and essay, began by congratulating PETAA on achieving 40 years, the equivalent to 200 ‘dog years’ as he mischievously put it — and I would suggest that this keen perception of what is needed ‘next’ would be one of the reasons why PETAA has survived so well. In this latest focus on children’s literature, PETAA drew on its history of publications in this field as it looked ahead to the requirements of the new Australian Curriculum: English, which places literature at the core of the curriculum.

Second, PETAA has always been a pioneer in resources for the teaching of English, and its publications have disseminated solid research from Australia as well as from other nations. In effect, by putting such resources into teachers’ hands PETAA has frequently set the agenda at the ‘chalk-face’ (or perhaps today it should be the ‘electronic-whiteboard-interface’), for what becomes established teaching practices in Australia and often internationally as well. I’d suggest that this agenda setting has not been haphazard. PETAA has always carefully thought through what teachers may need as a guide to their teaching in the climate of the time, so that they have a research-based resource for what they will need, even before they may realise they need it!

Third, PETAA has broadcast a range of pedagogical frameworks around the teaching of English over its 40 years. These frameworks have invariably involved working with ‘real’ texts, rather than the basal texts that have been prevalent here and elsewhere. PETAA publications have foreshadowed the shifts to literature-based reading programs, the whole language use of Big Books (the best of which were published children’s literature), the focus on the meaning-making role of language in literary and factual texts and has taken seriously the need for effective teaching for diverse students, such as those with English as an additional language. Several of its publications have been seminal in the way they have initiated fresh ways of teaching literacy, especially in the teaching of writing and grammar. I’d suggest that PETAA has been able to ‘pick the moment’ for disseminating research-based approaches in practical ways for teachers.

What’s the importance of children’s literature in the primary English classroom since 1972?

Children’s literature in the classroom since 1972

Peter Freebody, in the previous video and essay, referred to a range of curriculum movements that were ‘in the air’ in 1972. For example, what was called a ‘new’ view of teaching English was emerging in 1972, one which concentrated on the teaching of the use of English in context — a radical idea in 1972–73. At this time, the UK’s James Britton’s text Language and learning was a major influence as it emphasised the crucial role of children’s talk for learning. Now subject English became the ‘Language Arts’ — the very name emphasising the ‘art’ of language.

Now the teacher was no longer an ‘instructor’ but a ‘guide’ who planned for integration, flexibility, group work and talk of all kinds. These ideas in the 1970s permanently changed how primary classrooms across Australia are organised — as the active involvement of students in making meaning through talk was encouraged and supported in several PETAA publications over the next decades. This was a huge swing away ‘from the serried rows of silent faces which is still all too common in our schools’, as Gordon Winch (1973, p.17) expressed it in an early PETAA publication. It seems strange to think it was only 40 years ago that traditional classroom structures from the 1900s were the dominant model of classroom organisation.

Children’s literature and past educational emphases

Children’s literature has always had an educational emphasis — interestingly we can go back as far as Plato who wrote ‘We should therefore regard it of the utmost importance that the first stories they [children] hear shall aim at encouraging the highest excellence of character’ (in The Republic, trans. Lee 1987, p.133). We need to remember that children’s literature, as such, did not even exist until a concept of childhood evolved, with its concomitant sense that young readers differ from adult readers (Nodelman, 2008). It follows that the first children’s books, written many centuries after Plato’s era, were intended to ‘educate’ children into certain attitudes and morals considered appropriate at the time, as, for example, Sarah Fielding’s 1749 Preface to the first novel written specifically for children states ‘... the true Use of books is to make you wiser and better’(Hunt 2001).

Initially, then, literature written for young readers has had a particular didactic purpose to teach moral and cultural behaviours to its young readers (Machet 1992). In a seminal essay, Peter Hollindale (1988/1998), a renowned literary critic of children’s literature, calls this the first level of ideology — where author’s beliefs are explicitly expressed in the story — and this type of story is still written for children in some societies and cultural groups today.

As we know, modern western children do not like be lectured to, and tend to resist such overt messages. As a result this didactic form of story has disappeared in contemporary children’s literature, though we do see evidence of this past in fables — where the moral is stated at the end — ‘Slow and steady wins the race’, ‘A stitch in time saves nine’, for example. What does occur most frequently, however, is Hollindale’s second level of ideology, when an author’s (often unconscious) beliefs are represented and implicitly communicated in the assumptions made by the text. A well-known and extreme instance of this is in the work of the much-beloved Enid Blyton, whose Famous Five series (consisting of 21 novels from 1942 to 1963), for example, involved the four children in dialogue that belittled many characters not of their upper-middle social class as untrustworthy and often dishonest. The dialogue becomes an implicit communication and the views articulated remain unexamined because they are presented as shared by the reader and the community.

Focus on the reader

This unexamined view of the belief systems in literature takes us directly into the primary classroom of the 1970s where a reader-oriented approach to literature came into its own. The reader response model has informed classroom practice around literature work in English-speaking countries for most of the past four decades. In primary classrooms young readers are expected to be active participants in constructing meaning from the text. Teachers will recognise that they encourage their students to participate emotionally with characters and to see the characters’ experiences as analogous to their own. Wolfgang Iser (1978) calls these lived experiences the reader’s ‘repertoire’. Reader-oriented approaches matched well with the concepts from the ‘new’ English — as groups became an organic part of the classroom arrangements, and guided classroom talk was encouraged, an ‘interpretative community of readers’, to use Stanley Fish’s term from 1976, could develop. The idea of literature-based programs evolved in the 1980s with much planning of literacy sessions and associated talking and writing linked to the reading of literature.

Literature was seen as a springboard for reading and researching factual texts as well, and offered the potential for a truly integrated program across the curriculum. However, at the same time, there was much critique about the privileging of readers’ responses. What was being argued was that literature articulates the views/the ideology of the middle-class that produces it. Remember this is the 1980s – voices from the margins were being heard around the world – in Australia political battles for land rights, the environment and a strengthening multiculturalism were the order of the day. In this light, if the precepts the text presents are unquestioned by the reader, because they are seen as ‘normal’ and ‘real’, the use of literature in the curriculum becomes a major socialisation practice into dominant middle-class views of the world. This idea is contained in Hollindale’s third level of ideology which recognises that ‘ideology is inseparable from language’ (Hollindale, 1988, p.15): ideology occurs in all texts and can be insidious and invisible in the way it conveys meanings in language.

This third level of ideology takes up Bakhtin’s (1992) point that the dialogic potential of language constructs language as a site for the struggle of meanings. NAPLAN (Australia’s National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) can be a current example here — the nuances of the conversations it prompts (often in opposition to each other) indicate how a range of groups have invested in diverse sets of meanings for what counts as NAPLAN. This idea of language as a site for struggle presupposes the claim that language per se cannot be neutral; it is always significant in different ways for different people and social groups. This third level of ideology points to the critical literacy paradigm, which emerged and gained momentum in the 1990s.

Literature and changing classroom practice

What this critical shift reminds us is that literature’s use as reading material in schools situates it as having authority. When presented in the classroom, children’s literature gains an added power in its inscription of young readers. So critical reading is particularly important as a teaching practice that makes visible the ideologies of the text. Even young readers can be guided to see how they are positioned to think in particular ways about the text’s hidden beliefs – see Julie O’Brien’s longstanding 1994 Australian study of kindergarten students interrogating Mother’s Day advertisements. These ideas are taken up in the Australian Curriculum: English as the first horizontal ‘context’ sub-strand across the three Language, Literature and Literacy domains. The focus on ‘Language variation and change’, ‘Literature and context’, and ‘Texts in context’ guides teachers and students to examine how historical, cultural and social contexts play on texts and foregrounds this critical literacy position. Initially factual and media texts were the resources for this kind of consideration but gradually literary texts became part of the focus. My own doctoral research looked at how children were apprenticed as critical readers of a quality literary text.

One of the ways a critical ideology has influenced children’s literature is through the considerable body of feminist research around the 1990s that linked gender, children and adolescent literature and literacy (for example, Davies 1989, 1993; Gilbert 1993a, 1993b, 1997; Lee 1991; Mellor and Patterson 1991; Minns 1991). These studies argued, in different ways, for a significant relationship between fiction, gender and identity construction. For example, one Australian study stated that narrative texts contribute significantly to the way girls see themselves as females, and as feminine (Gilbert and Taylor 1991). Other Australian studies pointed to a male gender bias in reading materials used in Australian primary schools, wherein girls are consistently offered role models of passivity, home duties and marriage (Gilbert with Rowe 1989; Baker and Freebody 1989). Research from the USA (Christian-Smith 1993) and Britain (for example, Stones, 1983; Walkerdine 1990) provided evidence of a preoccupation with male characters and their activities in the reading texts of the classroom. Even when feminist-oriented picture books were read, Carolyn Baker and Bronwyn Davies’s (1993) Australian research indicated that young readers ‘may accept the story world’ to be ‘true’ in the fictional world, but not true in the cultural world in which they lived.

Sadly, the increased awareness of gendered portrayals from twenty years ago has not eliminated gender bias from children’s literature. More recent research shows disparate patterns in characterisation (McNabe et al., 2011) and suggests that, ‘even books praised as non-sexist portrayed at best a narrow vision of gender equality, in which female characters adopted the characteristics and roles identified with the masculine gender role, but they did not portray male characters as adopting aspects of the feminine gender role’ (Diekman and Murnen, 2004), aspects which could include such characteristics as gentleness, co-operation, and accepting female leadership, for example.

The importance of the selection of children’s books

These studies point to the need for teachers to pay attention to the ways of thinking the literary text presents. Teachers can consider not only how gender is characterised but also how race is portrayed. Literature re-imagines the world for young people and as Bradford (2007) notes, many stories around race and immigration reproduce Anglocentric and colonial beliefs and attitudes, which become naturalised and normal ways of seeing in contemporary children’s literature. Therefore, what teachers select as literature and as appropriate reading material must be regarded as highly influential.

Two decades ago, teachers’ most common criteria for text selection were shown to be ‘children’s preference’ and ‘literary quality’ (Luke et al. 1990). Recent studies (Cremin et al., 2008) suggest that the children’s literature canon in use in primary schools is often a dog-eared sample of tried and tested authors from the teachers’ past. PETAA’s recent publications around the Australian Children’s Book awards are an attempt to change this — they offer strong support for working with very recent quality literary texts — texts that we assume (rightly or wrongly) to have differentiated social, cultural and gender portrayals. Freebody’s video introduction to the Australian Curriculum: English challenges teachers to know about such books — current literary texts that can engage and sustain teachers and their students.

Yet there are dangers here. For example, the new NSW syllabus for the Australian curriculum K-6 (2012) has a list of prescribed literature, which may mean these texts are the only ones teachers utilise. Recently school librarians have commented to me that many titles from such ‘official’ lists of children’s literature are out of print – though of course their place on a syllabus list may mean that some well-written older works will gain a reprint. Further, publishers may use the Australian Curriculum: English to encourage their authors to write with its frameworks in mind … resulting in a version of basal readers with a literature flavour! Supporting teachers in a re-consideration of the literature they select is the responsibility that PETAA takes up in several ways, both digitally and in print form.

How does the focus on language fit into the teaching of children’s literature?

The functional model of language and children’s literature

Another feature of children’s literature in the primary classroom is the text-based approach, where the focus is on the language of the text. In the late 1980s, various educational researchers and linguists advocated that a theory of language should be incorporated into the teaching of literacy. The functional model of language showed how the interdependent relationship between the contexts embedded in texts were realised in their social purposes, text structures and grammatical language features. The distinct significance of the patterning of language in literary texts — their ‘verbal art’ (Hasan, 1985; Williams, 1986) — offers special opportunities for a focus on the language of literature and the importance of teachers’ scaffolding is a strength here (see Rossbridge and Rushton, 2010). In the text-based approach, presenting models of written texts with guided attention to how they are composed is seen as essential to teaching literacy. Again, literature can find its place as exemplars of quality writing — but the huge variation in how literary texts are created, which is essential to the craft of literary writing, makes this a more challenging task for teachers.

Whatever is said about the importance of children’s literature, it is the teacher who is the crucial mediator and the interpretative authority on the text for students. Important Australian research has argued that any text being read with students is filtered through the teacher’s talk, in what has been called a ‘running metatextual commentary’ — where teachers emphasise, select, and ignore aspects of the text (Luke et al., 1983, p.118). Teachers take up an interpretative position between the story and their students, and the nature of their questions shapes the text in particular ways (Baker and Freebody, 1989). Both reader response and critical reading (Lewis, 2000) offer stances from which questions can evolve to mentor and challenge students towards a deeper consideration of the literature they are reading.

You’ve helped us understand the importance of critical reading, now how does the Australian Curriculum present that to us?

Critical literacy in the Australian Curriculum and beyond

The Australian Curriculum: English places literature as the central strand of the curriculum with the Literature, Language and Literacy strands presented as interdependent. Foregrounded is knowledge of how language constructs meaning in literary texts, along the lines of Geoff Williams’s ideas around attention to the patterned language of the text. Also foregrounded is how uses of literacy — talking, reading, writing and viewing — can support understanding and appreciation of literary texts. As noted above, the importance of a critical reading through identifying the historical, social and cultural contexts in the literature is clear, as it is the first of the sub-strands across the three domains. Responding to texts has its place, too, as readers are asked to infer and make analogies with the literature they read.

The inclusion of viewing as one of the literacy components reflects the changing perspectives on what counts as literacy in the multimodal world of the 21st century. Picture books were our first multimodal texts and much academic work has been done on how the production of images and the combination of words and images construct different kinds of meaning (Arizpe and Styles, 2003; Bull and Anstey, 2010).

Reading images is now an accepted part of literacy learning, whether the images are in literary or factual texts, or on our screens.

Children’s literature authors

In this brief and selective overview of the different influences on children’s literature use in classrooms over the past 40 years I need to include the increased acclaim of children’s literature authors over the years. Nowadays authors are an established resource for schools that wish to gain insights into one author’s work, in an author study, or who wish to understand how authors write, in writing workshops – just two of many ways that authors interact personally with their young readers. Starting with Ivan Southall as a presenter at a PETAA conference in 1974, PETAA has been involved with different authors and poets over the years.

One who has published with PETAA, and is a particular favourite of mine for the craft of her writing, her ability to create non-stereotypical characters and to portray their inner thoughts in nuanced ways, is multi-award winning author Libby Gleeson. Libby notes how she enjoys visiting schools, as it is an antidote to the isolation of being a writer.

To hear from Libby herself ...

I first published in 1984 and my publisher, Jenny Rowe/Emily Rodda arranged a school visit. I was a trained teacher so I had no fear of the classroom but I asked her what I should expect. ‘They’ll ask you three questions’, she said. ‘How old are you? Where do you get your ideas from? And how much money do you make?’

She was right. Nearly thirty years later, some still ask those questions, but the world of school visits is different. An agency fields the requests from schools that most often want a visit in Children’s Book Week. Some of these lack a specific focus: they just want an author to come out and talk about the books they’ve written.

Most interesting are those schools where a particular book has been studied and the visit is to expand the conversation about the book and its writing. Students, and often their teachers, are shocked by the labour of writing, the changes to a text, the number of times drafts are rewritten. Surprising too is the way a writer hands over a picture book text, not telling the illustrator what to draw but acknowledging that she is an artist and her role is to create the visual  component of the story. And each creator has their own way of working – there is not any one true way.

Researching my book Writing Like a Writer I discovered how little creative narrative writing was covered in the curriculum. Now I often spend school visits running workshops in this area and I know many writers do the same. Some of us are engaged in schools for longer periods as writer in residence.

Professional development workshops for groups of teachers are a newer development. Most teachers have not written creatively since school and find such activity challenging and I hope satisfying. Certainly it sensitises you to the demands you make of your students.

Visiting schools is an antidote to the isolation of being a writer. I love engaging with readers, both students and teachers and I hope the result is inspiration to pick up a book or a tablet and read or write.   

Libby Gleeson April 2013

What would you say are some of the continuities and discontinuities from PETAA’s inception until today?

Continuities since 1972

The significance of literature in Primary English has been one continuous thread since PETAA’s inception. In one of the first Primary English Notes (PENs), in 1973, Barry Smith writes of the ‘centrality of literature’ and notes the characteristics of literature as ‘the expression of emotional response … communication through imagery, and the use of the language of the “spectator”’ (p.7), which links the young reader and the author/illustrator/artist. Forty years later, literature is at the heart of the English curriculum, centre stage. And if we look through the Australian Curriculum: English content descriptions for the Literature strand (and these are directly linked to the new NSW Syllabus, English K-6) we see the ‘expression of emotional response …’  and ‘communication through imagery’ featured, as well as attention to the role of literary language as the link between child and the author as literary ‘artist’.

As a second continuity I would suggest that there have been a series of moments in PETAA’s history that have developed the way literature has been approached in the primary classroom. Forty years ago, as I have noted, the emphasis was to bring literature to the centre of the reading curriculum. The start of what has become known as ‘the reading wars’ (Ewing, 2006) occurred then as teaching reading using ‘whole texts’ — frequently literary texts — began to gain precedence as a teaching method over a phonics-based approach, which featured isolated words and sounds and limited language resources. Reading for meaning was the priority over decoding. Children’s literature was a natural source of texts for reading for meaning and many picture books became ‘big books’ as the whole language movement gained momentum in the 1980s. In Australia, in my experience, phonics was always a component of teaching reading with ‘real’ texts using strong rhythm and rhyme acted as the ‘basal readers’ in many classrooms — and this was a major stimulus for Australia’s now flourishing and highly regarded picture book industry.

A third continuity lies in the notion of intertextuality. The whole language movement highlighted the intertextual relationships between reading and writing and studies were conducted to observe how the reading of literary texts impacted on the creative writing of primary-age students (Cairney, 1992, 2010) amongst others. The more recent attention to critical literacy and knowledge about language have added impetus to ways of considering intertextual relationships in literature (Sipe, 2000), and when writing narratives (Pantaleo, 2010), with the unique intertextual qualities of postmodern picture books receiving special consideration (Sipe & Panteleo, 2008).

A fourth continuity is evident in Luke and Freebody’s cohesive model of the four reading resources (for example, Freebody, 1992, 1997, 2004; Luke & Freebody, 1999). Here the traces of the past are present in the present, as they always are. The resource model is a recognition that students need to develop a range of reading resources and that teachers need to teach explicitly a comprehensive range of reading strategies. The practices of breaking the code develops reading fluency and accuracy; participating in the text develops reading comprehension and insight into the ideas and nuances of a constructed literary world; using the text develops awareness of the meaningful relationships between context, the text and its grammar; while analysing the text develops critical reading through awareness of alternative viewpoints and the possibilities of social action.

Discontinuities since 1972

On the other hand, the resources model could be seen as the first discontinuity: while the four reading resources are a clear rejection of the notion that there is one clear and single path to follow when teaching reading, not everyone in the field accepts this — as we see from media reports almost daily. There is much attention directed at persuading teachers there is only one way to teach reading, often from those attached to one of the phonics-based ‘coding’ approaches.

A second discontinuity is our current testing regime. Given the new curriculum, it is conceivable that literature-based programming could again become a feature of classroom planning, but the current emphasis on system-level assessment through NAPLAN would change the way teachers engage their students with literary texts — the ‘reading wars’ have now become ‘assessment wars’ as thoughtful teachers consider how the repercussions of high-stakes testing and reporting, such as the My School website, can influence learning language and literacy through literature.

While I have not talked about what children’s literature is concerned about — another topic in itself — a third discontinuity could be the changing forms and styles of children’s literature, which have moved in very different directions to what students were reading in the 1970s. Postmodern picture books, graphic novels, manga and multimodal digital narratives are part of the literary landscape at primary level, while nudity and scatological terms are now presented in picture books and popular novels, virtually unremarked. The shift to a digital world is the most extreme discontinuity here, and Wyatt-Smith’s (2012) argument that ‘[i]n a real sense, technologies and human kind are both shapers of culture and makers of the future: just as users shape technologies through their realms and practices, so, in turn, technologies are shaping and reshaping those practices and identities …’ pertains to literary texts as much as to learning to be literate. PETAA has stepped into this new moment with many publications available online, as well as presenting particular resources, such as those in Global Words (World Vision Australia, 2012) as only accessible in digital form, putting instantly downloadable materials and links at teachers’ fingertips, and more recently PETAA joined forces with other English teaching associations to create English for the Australian Curriculum (ESA, 2013) .

A fourth discontinuity is the appreciation for the role of explicit attention to how verbal meaning is constructed. In 1972, the intention was to move away from the narrow rule-based teaching of ‘correct’ grammar in isolated units — which was viewed as limiting students’ creativity. As noted above, a functional model of language offers a meaning-based grammar that supports students in creating purposeful, coherent and cohesive texts. Various writings for PETAA have been crucial in disseminating this knowledge with regard to reading and writing (for example, see Derewianka, 1990, 2011; Humphrey, Droga and Feez, 2012).

A fifth discontinuity is the current focus on how visual and multimodal/digital texts are constructed. With the surge in multimodal texts, in the 1990s principles of how visual images are constructed became available (for example, in A Literature Companion, I have demonstrated one model of a visual ‘grammar’, based on Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2006) work). Paying attention to how meaning in visual images is constructed, and the verbal-visual relationship, have now become an accepted ways of thinking about both literary and factual texts in primary classrooms. Having said that, reading images and multimodal texts is a comparatively new area of pedagogy and many teachers struggle with the subtleties of how the construction of meaning can be explored with their students (see Callow, 2011).

How would you summarise PETAA’s contribution?

PETAA’s contribution

PETAA’s contribution has been huge. And looking through the PETAA archives was a very instructive experience, because I could see how PETAA has constantly been publishing books on children’s literature to support teachers in the classroom. Even books that are not devoted to children’s literature have children’s literature in them; they are always part of the way that PETAA’s authors have thought. If it is a book on talk you’re still thinking of talking with narrative texts. If the book explains classroom talk, then talking about narrative texts is included. If book is examines programming, then the role of narratives in the program is a focus. And there was one particular early text which has a quote from the then Director of Education in NSW, Doug Swan:

‘The first of the 3 Rs has always maintained its priority. Over the years, the emphasis has shifted from one method of teaching reading to another, and yet another, or to the combinations of all that went before plus something new. But there has always been a constant aim above the utilitarian one of communication – the aim of the enjoyment of literature’. 

The promotion of literature is evident throughout the book, with many succinct and powerful sections and statements on children’s literature such as this one, from Stuart Lee, a foundation member of PETAA: ‘The writer … engages and holds the attention of the child by finding the right words and using them well and lovingly. Literature constantly freshens the language as it refurbishes the imagination’ (Lee, 1975, p.126). Again, I suggest these writers from PETAA’s early days can speak to teachers today.

My focus on these early days is to indicate the longevity of PETAA’s contribution to children’s literature in the Australian primary education context. And here I want to mention Maurice Saxby, one of Australia’s foremost authorities on children’s literature who was given a Member of the Order of Australia award for his work in the field. In 1978 Maurice authored the first of PETAA’s publications devoted to reading and literature, titled When Johnny and Judy don’t read. This monograph argued soundly for the crucial role of literary texts when teaching reading and encouraging young people to become readers by choice. Maurice Saxby inspired my own learning about children’s literature in his many scholarly works on children’s literature.

In Maurice’s own words:

Thankfully John and Judy were soon to go the way of Dick and Dora and other infamous basal readers. The publication of Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks’s picture book John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat in 1977 with its inbuilt metaphor seemed to convince teachers and librarians — and child readers — that real literature can be deeply satisfying as well as enjoyable.

Publishers of integrity have continued to produce quality picture books that appeal to a wide age range of readers. The happy collaboration of Margaret Wild with illustrator Ron Brooks has gifted us archetypal stories like Fox (2000) and The Dream of the Thylacine (2011).  Libby Gleeson and Armin Greder’s thought-provoking The Great Bear (1999) and I Am Thomas (2011) are among the ‘greats’ of literature. Now Julie Hunt’s partnership with Ron Brooks has produced a glorious, free-wheeling metaphor in picture book form The Coat (2012). Thanks to innovative publishers, teachers and librarians — and parents — now have a wide range of picture and story books with which to entice young readers into the joys of nourishing literature.

Educational publishers also began to realise that works of literary merit, introduced with some flair may develop perceptive, judicious and perceptive readers. So Methuen in 1986 began producing ‘Dimensions’: well illustrated graded literary ‘readers’ in the form of anthologies of poetry, short stories, traditional folklore and extracts from published full length literary texts. Nelson followed in 1994 with ‘Connections’ but included informational material as well as fiction.

In this same era of the 1980–90s Scholastic and Penguin set up direct selling to schools through their Book Clubs and Standing Orders, thus making worthwhile books available with the cooperation of the schools themselves. Author visits were often included — and this is still a highly valuable literary asset — and parents were kept in touch through ‘Newsletters’.

Possibly a side effect is that the same publishers found that joke books, scary tales or a dash of scatological fun boosted sales. Tim Winton’s hilarious The Bugalugs Bum Thief (1991) raised a few eyebrows but initiated perhaps the plethora of ‘bum’ books, still popular.

Undoubtedly the professionalism of PETAA; the dedication of the CBCA; journals like Reading Time and Magpies; along with undergraduate and postgraduate courses in children’s literature in Colleges and Universities have helped banish the ‘kiddies lit’ syndrome. Children’s literature is no longer seen as a ‘soft option’ in literature courses, but as an enjoyable means of developing reading skills leading to true and lasting literacy in our young.

Maurice Saxby April 2013

In conclusion

In conclusion, when literature is placed as central in our first national curriculum, it highlights that it is again literature’s ‘turn’ in English education. It is the moment in time when all that has gone before offers teachers a variety of solid and researched ways to engage their students with literature. As this decade’s ‘turn’ is also to reading on screen, rather than reading on paper, this engagement is especially important. If we value the literary imagination and how it can help readers and viewers understand what it is to be human, if we know that literary texts say ‘things that matter to young people’ (Rosen, 2005, cited in Simpson, 2008, p.1), if we know that reading literature gives young people the opportunity to participate in an alternative world and ‘the chance to become aware of the richness of possibility’ (Simpson, 2008, p.8), we know that we need to ensure our ‘digital natives’ are enthusiastic about quality stories which ‘give them wings … and allow the story to carry them as far as it reaches and they are prepared to go’ (Saxby, 1978, p.18).

It is incumbent upon the wider educational community and the creative writing industry to ensure that children’s literature does not go the way of the dinosaur. PETAA’s refusal to let children’s literary wings stop soaring has been a constant and crucial imperative throughout its history.

Lorraine McDonald
April 2013

References and bibilogrpahy

  • Arizpe, E. & Styles, M. (2003). Children reading pictures: Interpreting visual text. London: Routledge.
  • Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Australian Curriculum: English. Retrieved March 30, 2013
  • Baker, C. and Davies, B. (1993). Literacy and gender in early childhood. In A. Luke and P. Gilbert (Eds), Literacy in contexts: Australian perspectives and issues. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, pp.55-67.
  • Baker, C. and Freebody, P. (1989). Talk around text: constructions of textual and teacher authority in classroom discourse. In S. de Castell, A. Luke and C. Luke (Eds), Language, authority and criticism: Readings on the school textbook. London: The Falmer Press, pp.263-283.
  • Bakhtin, M. (1981/1992). The dialogic imagination. M. Holquist (Ed.), Trans. C. Emerson & M. Holquist. Austin & London: University of Texas Press.
  • Board of Studies NSW (2012). NSW syllabus for the Australian curriculum English K-6. Sydney: Board of Studies NSW.
  • Bradford, C. (2007). Unsettling narratives: Postcolonial readings of children's literature. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfred Laurier University Press.
  • Britton, J. (1970). Language and learning. London: Allen Lane. [2nd ed., 1992, Portsmouth NH: Boynton/Cook, Heinemann.]
  • Bull, G. & Anstey, M. (2010). Evolving pedagogies. Reading and writing in a multimodal world. Carlton South, Vic.: Education Services Australia Ltd.
  • Butler, A. & Turbill, J. (1984). Towards a reading-writing classroom. Rozelle: PETAA.
  • Cairney, T.H. (1992). Stirring the cauldron: Fostering the development of children’s intertextual histories. Language Arts, Vol.69, No. 6.
  • Cairney, T.H. (2010). Developing comprehension: Learning to make meaning. e:update 013, PETAA.
  • Callow, J. (1999). Image matters. Newtown: PETAA.
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