Monday, June 25, 2012

Evaluating realistic fiction

Children’s literature arouses their imagination, emotions and sympathies. It awakens their desire to read, enlarges their lives, and provides a sense of purpose and identity for children.

Jim Trelease
The Read Aloud Handbook

Realistic fiction
Realism for children involves reflection, both as a mirror showing real life and as a mode of thought in which the meaning of that life is contemplated.

Joan I. Glazer
Introduction to children’s literature

This module examines realistic fiction. It also discusses three types of closely-related fiction: historical fiction, realistic animal stories and survival stories.

Defining realistic fiction
Realistic fiction is the term used to describe fiction that tells a story that is possible, but the story is told in a creative and artistic way. All the literary elements – setting, characters, plot, theme – must be plausible. The story itself doesn’t have to be true, but it could be.

Realistic fiction (or realism) has a number of distinguishing characteristics. First, the setting must be one that is possible in today’s world. It does not have to be a setting that the reader has experienced first hand, but it must be one that the reader could experience. Second, the characters must act like real people. They must be depicted accurately and realistically and not have any supernatural or magic powers. Third, the plot and the conflict that arise out of the plot must seem real to the reader. Also, conflicts must be solved in realistic ways. Finally, the theme developed in the story must be one that is relevant to today’s young readers.

A very popular genre, realistic fiction offers its readers to read about “my life.” Jacobs and Tunnel describe the appeal this way:
This is my world. This is how I live. This story is about a girl like me. And the people in it are vaguely recognizable from the outset ... The main character becomes a kindred spirit. She experiences the same disappointments and hopes, rejections and joys as the readers, who is amazed and thrilled to find someone who sees the world through similar glasses. (90)

Themes in realistic fiction
Prior to the 1960’s many topics were considered taboo in books written for children and teens. But as society moved through this turbulent decade the social unrest seen in the society as a whole began to be reflected in the books being written for the juvenile market. Much discussion ensued about what was appropriate reading matter and many previously taboo subjects began to appear in novels aimed at intermediate and young adult readers. Books that dealt with such themes as sexuality, alcoholism, and death, among other topics, began to appear. This development peaked with the emergence of the problem novel in the 1960’s.

Today, authors of realistic fiction develop many diverse themes. Most contemporary themes fit into one of the following broad categories: family situations, peer relationships, growth and maturity and cultural differences. Within these larger categories, you will find many issues that represent the common experiences shared by today’s children.

For example, some of the themes developed in stories about family situations include – child abuse, single-parent families, foster homes, desertion, and divorce. Growth and maturity themes are very common – young readers are interested in books that address their own physical and emotional changes.

A recent change in realistic fiction is the development of stories told from a minority viewpoint leading to the development of multicultural literature.

Evaluating realistic fiction
Hillman suggests the criteria applied to all literature may also be applied to realistic fiction:
A good story, well told, that enlightens as well as entertains is key to our enjoyment. We want to be cognitively and emotionally engaged. We care about characters and are curious about what will happen to them. (Sometimes we’re sad when the story is over.) 165

Whether authors tell a “good story” is largely dependent on how they handle four literary elements: characters, plot, conflict and theme.
  • Characters
    In order for a realistic fiction to be successful, the reader must identify with the characters in the story. Well developed characters pull the reader into the story and make them care. Virtually all protagonists in the realistic fiction written for young people are young themselves. According to Egoff, these young protagonists are endowed with “naive honesty, courage, determination and sensitivity.” (22) It’s worth noting that most children prefer to read about characters their own age or slightly older, and may balk at reading about younger children. Sometimes, however, the age of the characters may not be as important as the depiction of the struggle the characters are undergoing.
  • Plot
    Plots are also an important element in realistic fiction. They need to move briskly, keeping the reader engaged and interested. In addition, the events in the story must seem plausible to the reader.
  • Conflict
    This literary element is the heart of realistic fiction. It grows out of the characters’ action (plot) and attitudes. Characters are frequently shown facing tough questions that often don’t have easy solutions. A recent trend in realistic fiction shows parents who are unable to assist the child protagonist and depict the character seeking help from outside the family unit such as a teacher or a friend.
  • Theme
    As noted above, many different themes are presented in realistic fiction. Whatever the theme, it should arise naturally out of the story being told. The book should provide some insight into the problem being explored and how it might be resolved. Readers should be encouraged to draw their own conclusions about what happens in the book. Watch for books that seem didactic or preachy: “a book becomes didactic when the teaching function over powers the telling of a good story.” (Glazer, 418)
Other literary elements to be considered include setting and the author’s writing style.
  • Setting
    Look for settings that are authentic. Skilful authors use realistic details to make their settings seem real to the reader. Because setting includes when the story takes place, it may be the one element that dates a story. Realistic fiction is based on contemporary life and authors tend to set their stories within the period of their existence; therefore, these books can become dated rather quickly. However, a well crafted plot, and interesting characters who face a still contemporary problem may help to overcome any deficiencies in the setting.
  • Style
    The author’s style must suit the story that is being told. The dialogue must seem real for the characters and the situation being depicted. A simple, straightforward style is often best for realistic fiction. While authors may incorporate figurative language in their description of characters or setting, realistic fiction is not the place for too much complicated prose.
Poorly written realistic fiction will display one or more of the following characteristics: poorly developed, stereotypical characters; problems that seem overwhelming, but can be solved too easily; and improbably settings.
For more information about evaluating realistic fiction see Appendix A.
The Value of realistic fiction
Glazer states the following as the key values of realistic fiction:
Through realism readers gain the experience of living somewhere else, living with strangers, smelling exotic foods cooking, or seeing flashes of colour in dress and personality. They see that societies are not all alike and they are values in each. They can explore different systems of child rearing, and variations in customs, and by extension learn more about what forces affect people. (420)
And while showing differences between people, realistic fiction also shows the similarities that we all share – the problems, hopes and dreams which are common to all people.
Realistic fiction allows readers to learn about themselves, and others in a nonthreatening and entertaining way. Sometimes the problems presented are within the reader’s own experience, sometimes they are not. In either case, the reader is carried into new territory. The reading of realistic fiction is a safe way for children to extend their own experiences – all within their own imaginations.
Furthermore, the reading of realistic fiction may help to build the emotional and intellectual maturity that comes with the understanding that there are many different viewpoints in this world.
Issues in realistic fiction
Realistic fiction is the most attacked and censored of all the genres. The reasons are obvious – the issues discussed in much of realistic fiction make some adults uncomfortable. Some parents feel that they would rather discuss these issues within the home setting than have their children read about them in books. Library staff need to be aware of realistic fiction that has sparked controversy in the past and books that may spark controversy in the future.
More information about controversial books can be found in the Censorship module.
Works cited
Egoff, Shelia and Judith Saltman, The New Republic of Childhood. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Glazer, Joan I. Introduction to Children’s Literature. Upper Saddle River: Merrill, 1997.
Hillman, Judith. Discovering Children’s Literature. Englewood Cliffs: Merrill, 1995.
Jacobs, James S. and Michael O. Tunnell, Children’s Literature Briefly. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1996.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Young Adult issues: Censorship

“Where they have burned books, they will end up in burning human beings.”
Almansor by Heinrich Henne, 1821
Thousands of books smoulder in a huge bonfire as onlookers give the Nazi salute during the wave of book burnings that spread throughout German prior to World War II. International News Photo

Part One:
This exercise assumes you are employed in the library of Whyville School. Whyville is a small community and all the children attend the school from Grade 1 to Senior 4. Recently you faced several challenges about materials in your library from a parent. You received no support from any other staff, and in fact, the principal asked you to remove the offending material. Now the principal has been visited by the same parent and wants you to develop a list of other materials in your library which could receive challenges in the future. The principal has also indicated that you should be prepared to remove those materials from circulation.

Develop criteria that could be used to determine which library materials are likely to be challenged in the future:
  • Gay characters
  • Explicit language
  • Profanity
  • Racism names
  • Sexual matters
  • Drugs
  • Alcohol
  • Religion
  • Terrorism
Develop a list of reasons why it is very difficult to protect libraries, both public and school, from challenges:
  • Not everyone supports a challenge
  • Do you take a book off because it offends one person?
  • Libraries have to be neutral
  • There is a wide range of views, not everyone finds the same view
  • People interpret materials differently
Part two:
Working on your own, write definitions for the following terms as they are used in a library setting:
  • Censorship
    Suppression of ideas and expressions
  • State censorship
    State/customs/police for governments/churches/individuals
  • Self-censorship
    Writer who changes word or scene to filter out inappropriateness
  • Publication ban
    courts hide evidence from the public
  • Selection
    choosing books of good quality for patrons
  • Challenges
    action taken by individual/group saying why a book should be removed from circulation
  • Public attack
    takes challenge to media for support
  • Written complaint
    letter condemning library’s contents
  • Oral complaint
    speaking out regarding disdain for library
  • Expression of concern
    Query for judgement of book
  • Pressure of inclusion
    Censorship calls from left and right, e.g. male nurses, female doctors
Part three:
Working on your own, answer the following questions:
What personality traits do censors generally share?
Censors have one view which they believe to be correct. They believe there is a relationship between reading and committing an act, that reading encourages the act. They assume children believe what their teachers tell them.
What techniques are used by censors?
Censors can try to prevent print materials reaching their desired audience. They can severely alter texts to omit material they do not want the wider audience to read.

Part four
List steps that a library should take to prepare for potential challenges to materials:
  • Have a form available to fill out
  • Have a fair policy to follow
  • Research
  • Keep ear to the ground
  • Keep current
  • Have library/establishment support
  • Clear selection process
  • Committee/everyone/reconsideration
Describe how staff should deal with challenges:
  • Have witnesses present
  • Make notes soon after
  • Don’t panic
  • Tell the Book & Periodical Council
Explain what actions should be taken after a challenge has been received:
  • Record challenge properly
  • Be prepared for more challenges
  • Reconsider policies
Remember any work can be censored at any time. Anyone can challenge a book. Removing a book from circulation can make it popular; the work will be deemed forbidden fruit and everyone will want to read it.
...if one book is removed from a classroom or library, no book is safe any longer. If a censor succeeds in getting one book out, every other person in the community who objects to another book should, in courtesy, be granted the same privilege. When everyone has walked out of the library carrying all these objectionable books, nothing of any consequence will be left no matter how many books remain.
Donelson and Nielsen

The Winnipeg Public Library’s Request for Reconsideration of Library Material form is available online at The library asks for identification of the book, whether the whole or portion of the book is a concern, what do you think the material’s purpose is, and a request to state the concern as specifically as possible citing identifying pages, passages, etc.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Quiz: How much do you know about censorship?

1. Why was The Diary of Anne Frank challenged by parents in Wise County, Virginia, in 1982?

The diary contains sexually offensive passages.

2. Who was Anthony Cornstock?

He was the secretary of the New York Suppression for Society. He determined what was meant to happen on wedding nights in the early twentieth century.

3. What twentieth-century literary classic was burned in the United States (in 1918), Ireland (in 1922), Canada (in 1922) and England (in 1923)?

Ulysses by James Joyce.

4. Why was George Orwell’s 1984 challenged in Jackson County, Florida, in 1984?

1984 was said to be pro-communism and contain sexual passages.

5. What award-winning local Winnipeg young adult author had a school reading in Winnipeg cancelled soon after a school reading in Orleans, Ontario was cancelled? What reason was given for cancelling the reading in Ontario?

Margaret Buffie, who was Frances Rain, wrote profanity in her books. She wouldn’t deal with many students.

6. Which of the following Canadian authors have had their books banned in certain Canadian schools: Brian Doyle, Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, W.O. Mitchell, W.D. Valgerson, Robert Munsch?

All six authors have had books banned in Canadian schools.

7. What do these authors have in common: Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud, Bertolt Brecht, Erich Maria Remarque, Jack London, Helen Keller, H.G. Wells, Ernest Hemmingway, Leon Trotsky?

Their works were all burned by Jews.

8. What world-famous book did Canada Customs ban from Canada for 48 hours during Freedom to Read week in 1989?

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.

9. What books were threatened with being burned in the town of Manning, Alberta, in September 1991?

The Impression Series, which contained one poem about witches.

10. Who objected to a Canadian picture book being included in the public libraries of Sechelt, B.C., in February 1992? What was the reason for the objection and what was the title of the book?

Maxine’s tree, which was a book about logging, because “logging’s bad”.

11. What novel, by a Manitoba author, was challenged in the Fort Garry School Division in 1991?

Gentle sinners by W. D. Valgerson.

12. What is the significance of the temperature 451 degrees F?

It is the temperature at which books burn.

Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government.
Vladimir Ilyrich Lenin (1870-1924)
The truth is, that when a library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn’t anger me.
Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Freedom is not worth having if it does not connote to freedom to err.
Mohandas K. Ghandi (1869-1948)
A democracy smugly disdainful of new ideas would be a sick democracy. A democracy chronically fearful of new ideas would be a dying democracy.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
We knew that the imagination, like certain wild animals will not breed in captivity.
George Orwell (1903-1950)
Give me six lines written by the most honourable of men and I will find an excuse in them to hang him.
Cardinal Richelieu (1858-1642)
A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.
John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)
Every burned book enlightens the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
To choose a good book, look into an inquisitor’s prohibited list.
John Aiken (1747-1822)
The most beautiful thing in the world is freedom of speech.
Diogenes (c. 320 BC)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Transitional books, easy readers and chapter books

Easy readers: definition
  • Designed to be read by beginning readers
  • Serve as a transition between picture books and chapter books
Evaluation: text
  • Simple vocabulary
    o Not dumbed down
  • Shorter sentences
  • Sounds like natural language
    o Line breaks follow natural breaks in sentences
    * Not good for read aloud
    o Readability formulas
    * Fry formula
  • Some repeated phrases, repetitive refrains
  • Appropriate tone
    • May be slightly didactic
  • o Humour very appealing
  • Characters
    o Children (family life) and animals
  • Plot
    o Simple, direct storyline
    o No flashbacks or side stories* Starts quickly* Continues with action* Concludes satisfactory
    o Must be comprehensible to young child
  • Setting
    o Mostly familiar
    o May include some fantasy
Evaluation: illustrations
  • Interpret story literally
    o Not overwhelm
  • Colour
    o Adds interest
    o Not distract
  • White space
    o Used effectively
  • Type
    o Size
    o Legible
Evaluation: other considerations
  • Size of book
    o small
  • Colour
    o Appeals to child
  • Several stories
    o Look like a chapter book
  • Series
    o Familiar characters and settings (see below)
  • May not meet all literary standards
    o But meet needs of beginning readers
    o Provide a positive reading experience
  • Help children develop confidence in their reading skills
  • Provide opportunity for child to read to an adult
Chapter books: definition
  • Look like adult books
    o Introduce concept of reading a longer book
    o From 40 – 60 pages
  • Serve as a bridge to more complicated fiction
  • Each chapter tells a self-contained story
    o Very few illustrations
    o Not integral to text
  • Focus has moved almost completely to words
Evaluation of text
  • Characters
    o Many memorable
    o May change and develop
    o Children (family life) and animals
  • Plot
    o Important element
    o Quick start
    o Lots of action
    o Satisfactory ending
  • Writing style
    o Longer sentences
    o Expanded vocabulary
  • Setting
    o Usually realistic
    o May be hint of fantasy
When choosing Easy Readers and Chapter Books keep these points in mind:
  • How difficult is the theme/concept that is presented in the books?
  • Does the child have an interest in the subject area?
  • Is there any difficult figurative language in the book?
  • Look for a wide variety of themes/content:
    o E.g. mysteries, sports stories, family life
    o May help develop a reading interest for child
    • *  Can then be pursued in more complicated books
    • Look for series books:
      o Provide continuity of character, setting and writing style
      o Allow readers to anticipate what will happen next
      o Can make successful predictions as they read
    • Check the shelves carefully:
      o Some easy readers get shelved as picture books
      o Look for repetitive language patterns
    • Many authors/illustrators produce both picture books and easy readers.
    • Don’t use easy readers for read aloud.
    • Chapter books are usually suitable for read aloud.
      o But do review first!
    • Importance of covers cannot be overstated.