How Children’s Literature Can Benefit All Ages
Think you have outgrown your days of reading picture books and young adult series? You may want to reconsider what is on your bookshelf! As far as genres go, children’s literature may be one of the most versatile and fascinating to delve into.
Clemson English faculty members Dr. Hannah Godwin and Professor Megan MacAlystre are currently teaching courses in adolescent literature and children’s literature, respectively, and both research the subject extensively.
“Children’s literature is unique because it is one of the only genres that is defined by its audience,” Godwin said.
Part of what drives Godwin’s research is to explore what that really means and the implications it holds for readers. She gave the example of young adult fiction as a sort of subgenre that often pushes the boundaries or crosses over to other genres and audience bases. The “Harry Potter” series, Godwin explained, is one instance where the popularity of the books and movies seemed to reach more than just one generation. MacAlystre noted that children’s literature is distinctive in that it is not bound by a specific time. Unlike her other main research interest in Victorian-era literature, children’s literature exists across different periods and is still continuously being produced.
Godwin’s class has been inspired by her current research project, which examines children’s literature with an environmental gothic theme. She explained that works in this category may explore cultural anxieties, power relationships between humans and the wild, and transgressions of boundaries between humans and animals or rural and urban spaces, while also containing supernatural elements or gothic monstrosities. The course is being taught asynchronously, and Godwin has made the format work for her students by allowing them to shape it based on what they are interested in learning more about. She also balances the course material by pairing its primary texts with theoretical readings of interdisciplinary and children’s literature studies.
“I’m very interested in what the students want to explore,” Godwin said.
Her students’ projects have ranged anywhere from close-reading essays to feminist revisions of fairytales. They additionally come up with their own discussion board questions. Godwin said she is “focused on letting the reins go” and responding to what her students come up with in their writing.
“The process of creative writing can really open students up. It makes you vulnerable, so I want to listen with care to what they have to say,” Godwin said.
Students will also get to choose their own learning experience for the final project of the course. They can write a traditional paper, make a survival guide for one of the dystopian worlds they have read about, create a collection of stories or poems and then record a video of themselves reading it aloud, or pitch any other idea to Godwin.
MacAlystre also noted that her class has taken on a new structure due to it being fully online. She said she has reduced some of the traditional workload while still keeping its rigor and allowed students a lot of flexibility in their learning experience. They can choose between completing a weekly discussion board post or a weekly short quiz with a longer essay to be written at the end of the semester. Her students will also complete a final creative project, which will be paired with a one to two page meta analysis of what they created. MacAylstre offered a few examples of what the final projects might look like. One area students could explore might be representations of disability in children’s literature. For example, in the “Harry Potter” series, the inside of Hogwarts is filled with staircases, and thus a project may look at how a character with a disability would navigate the castle and other spaces. Another project topic could be fan fiction and adaptations of children’s literature, which MacAlystre herself completed her master’s thesis on.
Both Godwin and MacAylstre noted the powerful influence children’s literature can have on its readers.
“Youth are much more astute than we give them credit for,” Godwin said.
MacAlystre echoed that sentiment, saying that “children are smarter than we think they are. They internalize what is shown to them.”
Godwin praised the increasingly popular dystopian and indie graphic novels which can help children respond to current events in society and identify with many different characters. For her class, she did her best to choose texts with strong, diverse characters that held messages of love and inclusivity. MacAlystre also pointed out the existence of “a strong pocket of progressive potential” for children’s literature in dealing with subjects such as social justice and representation. She said the best children’s books are thoughtful, self-aware and open up possibilities — they often also have elements of nonsense or are plain fun to read aloud! As someone who grew up with “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” MacAlystre felt like the great works of children’s literature often use dark humor or address topics like death too. Though these topics can seem strange to write about for children, MacAlystre stressed that it was just as important for authors not to be afraid to confront trauma in their works. With a relatively short publishing cycle, children’s literature can respond to current events such as the COVID-19 pandemic in which children are likely experiencing fear and uncertainty.
Adults who go back and reread their favorite books from childhood of course may be affected by a sense of nostalgia. MacAlystre advised using caution for works that one may hold especially dear, as the experience of reading them when you have matured will likely be very different from when you were young. Nevertheless she encouraged people to open themselves to a new range of possibilities, saying that “children’s literature is something I think everyone should return to with a critical eye.”
Written by: Kelly Waters