An acquaintance with and an understanding of literary characters is one of the first ways a young child has of making sense of what it is to be human. We all come to know more clearly who and what we are while reaching out, imaginatively, for what we might become. As the child dwells in and wonders at the lives lived in story, she comes to know both herself and the world and begins to see that world as something over which she, as a character in life, might exercise some control. The events of story are a means of exploration of the world, helping her to confirm, to illuminate, and to extend her own life experiences, in ways that give her power over them. Story gives public form to private meanings and thus helps those who receive its messages to reach out to other human beings in the world, knowing that they share some of the same concerns and feelings. Informational narratives are also important forms of children's literature and ways for young people to understand and appreciate their world and those who share it with them. We all need to learn about life both literally and literarily, efferently and aesthetically.
Those who care about children and their literature have an obligation to inform themselves of the best and the latest thinking about the constellation of topics that will enable them to bring the two together most successfully. The reading bibliography is basic to gaining a rich background in the field.
Literature in the Lives of Today's Children
At a time when many of our children are over-scheduled and over-stressed; we must ask ourselves what role(s) literature can play in their lives. Cookbooks, for example, drawn from children's stories offer a different and exciting approach for child readers.
How important are books and reading in a media-saturated environment? Encountering a small piece of the children's publishing world through their presentations in web sites may be quite useful.
How much influence can parents, teachers, and librarians expect to have on the reading and viewing habits of young people?
How can adults learn to make connections between the current interests of young people and potential future reading?
Have the nature and concerns of childhood and adolescence changed so radically that materials produced prior to the 1980s no longer have any "relevance" for young people?
Are feminist and multicultural concerns represented in contemporary youth literature? If so, are they naturally integrated into the literary compositions?
What do we know about Mother Goose and the changes in both texts and images?
Illustrated Materials for Young Children
Today's children are bombarded by a constant stream of visual images from their earliest consciousness. In this environment, picture books are often a child's first introduction to fine art as well as to popular culture.
Are there distinctions between "picture books" and "picture story books" for young children?
What are the distinctions among story, mood, concept, reasoning, and everyday experience books for young children?
How do we evaluate illustrations as a means of portraying positive multicultural images of childhood, for instance, African-American, Part One A -M. African-American, Part Two M - Z. Asian-American, Hispanic-American, Native-American?
How do concept books differ from informational books?
How do illustrations create story? How do they add to or interact with verbal texts?
How have children's book illustrations changed in the last quarter century?
Can illustrations "date" otherwise timely content?
What relationships can be identified between illustrative media and techniques and the mood and tone of a literary work?
Does the transformation from picture story book to film change the nature of that story? Does this differ depending upon the filming technique, i.e., iconographic as contrasted with animation or realistic footage?
What new techniques based on contemporary media are evident in today's picture books?
Does the visual content of computer programs alter young people's expectation for book illustration?
Compositional Elements and Genres
An understanding of how authors and illustrators use compositional elements in their creation of children's books not only increases readers' appreciation; it assists them in their own work as composers.
What is a genre? Does the use of the term "genre" in children's literature differ from its use in relationship to works for adults?
What are literary motifs and archetypes? Do such traditional elements perpetuate male paradigms and contribute to the silencing of females?
Are there particular elements within a genre which, by nature of that genre, tend to have special significance in that composition?
Is it possible to examine the same elements and genre in film, television and computer media as in print?
Modern Realistic Fiction
For many years, modern realistic fiction has been considered the most popular genre among young readers, perhaps because it was closer to the lives they know and, therefore, easier to read. If horror is overtaking realism in popularity, we certainly need to consider the causes for this change.
Is "realistic" fiction really representative of young peoples' lives today? What is the nature and extent of didacticism in modern realistic fiction for young people?
Does modern realistic fiction for children and young people present alternative life styles and views of society?
How well does children's literature deal with sensitive issues in the lives of young people?
What is the basic distinction between a series and a chronicle as a literary form for children?
Where do I find help in understanding these issues?
Where will I be able to find some of the latest information on censorship and the newer electronic technologies?
To what do you attribute the continual appeal of such series as Nancy Drew, Dana Girls, and The Hardy Boys? What of newer series such as the Babysitters or the Goosebumps or the Animorphs books? How realistic are any of these series?
Many of the "classic" stories for children exist in the realm of fancy because of the timeless quality of such tales.
How do you respond to the statement: "Those things that are most 'real' in life can best be conveyed through fancy."
Is it true that most fanciful literature appeals only to the talented or "special" reader?
How much blurring of the lines between traditional fantasy and science fiction exists today? What factors contribute to this overlap?
How does the creator of fanciful fiction make that fiction believable to readers and viewers?
What is the appeal of traditional tales as well as modern versions of or new twists on traditional folk and fairy tales?
Do the mass media manipulate traditional folk and fairy tales? If so, how?
Might we consider television commercials the folklore of contemporary society?
How does contemporary horror
fit into the pattern of traditional fanciful literature? How close is it
to roots in folk literature?
An opportunity to explore a large collection of resources on the fairy tale "Snow White" and to study aspects of the tale.
Regional and Historical Fiction
Regional and historical fiction provides opportunities for young people to live vicariously in times and places they cannot experience any other way. Well-crafted stories can provide lived-in experiences that encourage the development of attitudes that lead to caring for and appreciation of others unlike themselves in the actual world.
What is the difference between regionalism and sectionalism in literature?
How is a sense of place given authenticity in story?
Is history really HIS story or are female stories adequately represented?
Is it true that most historical fiction is highly romanticized?
How accurate must minor background details be in the settings of historical fiction?
Is historical fiction an appropriate means of explaining history to youngsters? What role does it play in the school curriculum?
Is it true that historical fiction reveals as much of the time in which it is written as of the time written about?
Modern media bring real life characters into our homes and our lives "close-up" but very fragmented. Literary biographies may also present only a fragment of a life; but, even then, they often give a sense of wholeness or continuity within a context in their presentations of a life.
What degree of fictionalization, if any, is acceptable in biography for children and young people?
Do the kinds of fictionalization change with the age of the intended audience?
Is it necessary for the characters of children's biography to be inspiring to or role models for readers?
Is it true that children are not interested in most aspects of the adult lives of famous individuals?
Does biography for young people adequately represent the faces of our society: race, gender, class, religion, etc.?
Do young people read biography as an opportunity to "try on" various occupations or life styles?
Does biography introduce young people to those from other social or national groups? Does biography of authors interest children?
Are author videos helpful to children trying to find out about an author?
How would you characterize youth biographies of "media stars"? What role do these biographies play in the lives of children?
How do contemporary societal concerns influence the selection of subjects for biographies?
In this "information age," we must be especially mindful of the kinds of information available to children and of the means by which it is presented. Since, as literature, such works are primarily for enjoyment.; narrative forms are as important as the accuracy of the information in informational narratives.
Should informational materials for children begin at the most basic level in the presentation of that information?
Do adults involved in the production of children's materials make too many assumptions about the age or grade level at which young people will be interested and able to deal with specific informational topics?
Do the majority of informational materials for children really reveal a respect for the child's ability to inquire and to know?
What kinds of illustration are used in informational books for children and how does each convey content?
Can such content trigger a research focus for a child?
If a child is trying to find out information about an author is there a place to go?
Can books compete with CD-Roms as sources of information for children?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of various media as sources of information?
All children have a right to poetry in their lives. In the best of all possible worlds, they would have rich experiences with nursery rhymes, interactive dialogue, and other forms of language play as infants and toddlers; and the enjoyment and power of poetic language would continue to flourish throughout their school years.
Is poetry the natural language of childhood?
What do adults do to turn children away from poetry?
Is there a distinction between verse and poetry?
Is popular or folk music a form of poetry?
What kinds of poetry have the greatest appeal to youngsters?
Is there such a thing as "visual poetry"?
SCILS, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey