The Role of Literature in Language Arts Teaching and Learning: Developing Literary Understanding

A child reading in Brookline Booksmith, an independent bookstore in Boston, Massachusetts.

A child reading in Brookline Booksmith, an independent bookstore in Boston, Massachusetts.

Notes from my ED-LTCY 346 class this semester, Fall 2014 at Boise State University.

Children’s literature is the foundation for a rich and effective language arts program. Children’s literature motivates readers, provides them with invaluable language experience and offers them opportunities to learn about themselves and the world. Effective teachers create classroom libraries that support their whole curriculum.

With a firm  understanding of  a child’s abilities, needs, and interests, future teachers are better prepared to engage individual children and help them develop literary skills. This is the best way for  teachers to foster a lifelong love of reading.

This discussion describes the benefits of a literature-based language arts program, how to build a literature collection, structuring the language arts program by reading aloud, guided reading, independent reading, shared reading and literacy study. As children explore literature through studying the author’s craft, studying a particular author or exploring themes, they continue to have powerful language experiences that help them develop as readers, writers and critical thinkers.

Reading, talking, writing, and drawing about books are the ways in which students learn about literature. Earlier, we presented ideas about looking closely at an author’s works, exploring themes found in literature, and studying the art of writing as examples of ways in which teachers help students learn about literature. Here we add to those ideas by introducing genre study, to which we will return to when we discuss writing across the genres.

 Why is it important to help students understand how literature works? Learning about literature is like learning about mathematics, or any other curriculum area. Literature is an art form worthy of study. Understanding how literature works allows readers full access to the “family of stories” (Family of Stories Anthology of Children’s Literature; Moss and Stott, 1986). This, in turn, makes them more effective readers and writers, able to recognize and appreciate techniques, structures, and artistic representations they encounter in print. At the same time,learning how literature works helps students become more skilled readers and writers. Knowing how a text works enhances both fluency and comprehension, and knowing options for expressing oneself  in print increases one’s options as a writer.
Understanding genre distinctions and conventions, for example, helps student to realize the breadth of reading material available to them, to learn to recognize the hallmarks of excellence,and to understand how genre conventions both support and constrain writers.

The major content-based genres of children’s literature are: poetry, folklore, fantasy, science fiction, contemporary realistic fiction, historical fiction, biography, and nonfiction. Wthin these eight genres, many other distinctions can be made. Mysteries, for example, are a “subgenre” that contain the conventions of a mystery story, but they may be fantasy, science fiction, contemporary, or historical fiction as well. The same is true for other subgenres such as animal stories, romances, sports stories,and adventure stories. Picture books, a genre based on format in which illustrations have an equal or greater importance in the conveying of meaning as does the text, also appear within all of the eight major genres. Thus, you can approach genre in many different ways, depending on the decisions you make about what you students are interested in, what they already know, and what they need to know.

According to Barbara E. Travers and John F. Travers in Childrens Literature: A Developmental Perspective:

From preschool through high school, young people read whatever genre excites them, and it’s not unusual to find a middle school student devouring the information embedded in Steve Jenkins’ Hottest Coldest Highest Deepest. Even though it’s a picture book, it’s filled with curious facts that children of this age are anxious to explore. An intermediate school child may be fascinated listening to the traditional tale Sundiata as retold by David Wisniewski. Initially, he may be attracted to the book because it is about a lion king, but then he is motivated to continue listening because of the dramatic manner in which Wisniewski presents Sundiata’s strength in overcoming adversity and his courage in facing the enemy. Introducing children to all genres widens their interests and increases their knowledge.


“The secret of selecting the appropriate book for a child is not only the knowledge that teachers, librarians, and parents have about children’s literature, but also what they know about the developmental level of each child they are serving,” Travers and Travers say.

What is the child like? Is she in the middle years, active, curious, and com-petitive? Is he just learning to walk and talk, and is fascinated by sounds and colors? Is the child a dreamer who likes to create her own stories or spend hours building with blocks? What is the child’s cultural background? Has the child had any major traumatic experiences? The secret to leading a child to the right book is not only knowing the books but also knowing the child. Only then can goodness-of- fit be achieved.  In our work, goodness-of-fit refers to the match between a child’s developmental level and appropriate literature and is based on the concept originally developed by the child psychiatrists Stella Chess and Alexander Thomas ( 1987, 1999). It’s a term we use throughout this text. Consequently, the traditional genres ( categories) of children’s literature become more meaningful when viewed through a developmental lens. We believe that understanding development provides teachers, librarians, and parents with a necessary depth of knowledge for selecting appropriate books for children. We also believe that grasping the range and application of develop-mental data provides insights into the problems and triumphs of the children depicted in the literature. In this way, teachers can assist young readers, as well as those in middle and high school, in understanding experiences that they have had or may later encounter in their own lives.

 The authors believe:
that combining developmental knowledge with genres is the key to organizing children’s literature as we enter the twenty- first century. By recog-nizing the characteristics of a specific genre ( biography or historical fiction, for ex-ample), we detect the major elements that make one book different from another. Often teachers and librarians urge children to select different genres to develop a specific theme. While studying Boston and its role in the American Revolution in social studies, children might read Jean Fritz’s biography And Then What Hap-pened, Paul Revere?; and historical fiction such as Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, about Paul Revere’s apprentice; or Ann Rinaldi’s The Fifth of March, an exciting story of the Boston Massacre. Poetry, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, could be read aloud, while the picture book Boston Then and Now, about fifty- nine historic sites photographed by Peter Vanderwarker, and the informational book Boston: The Way It Was, by Lorie Conway, are avail-able for students to complete their research.

As I mentioned, I have done extensive research with my mother, who adds:

In a truly balanced literacy program, how you teach is as important as what you teach. That’s one of the conclusions my network of teachers, administrators, and curriculum supervisors has reached.Like most educators today, we’ve been changing our practices to reflect new knowledge about learning and teaching. Our students are reading more, writing more, and learning through themes. Yet we share a mixed bag of excitement and uneasiness — excitement about the learning taking place in our classrooms every day, and uneasiness about the public perception that schools are not as good as they used to be, especially when it comes to teaching reading. We wonder: How can we maintain the good practices of the past without ignoring current evidence about how children learn? Have we gone too far in one direction? What we’re searching for, then, is balance, and in that search, concerns common to all teachers have surfaced. In this article, I focus on some of them — and how we have found middle ground.

Teaching Basic Skills

“Teaching phonics with literature seems so hit or miss. What about a correct sequence of skills?”

Apply the thinking behind good textbooks to trade books. It’s true that some sound-letter patterns are more consistent than others and, therefore, are better to teach early. For example, we know consonants are more consistent than vowels. We also know that certain consonants (such as j, m, r, and v) are more consistent than others. Most teachers and developers of core programs start with those more reliable sound-letter patterns, and you can do the same using literature. As a result, you move students from easy to hard, from the known to the unknown.

“I’d like to teach phonics using trade books, but I worry about abusing the literature.”

Include some literature that naturally lends itself to language study — specifically, stories that contain repetitious language or language patterns, such as Bill Martin Jr.’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Start by sharing the literature for its content and overall language qualities, with the intention of going back to look at some aspect of the words more carefully. You might ask, “Have you noticed that there are a number of words in this story that begin the same way? Let’s take a look.” After a while the children will initiate the process independently. Consider other types of whole texts as well, such as brief notes, shopping lists, and even traffic signs. These offer opportunites to anchor phonics in something real.

“Many parents want grammar taught ‘the old-fashioned way.’ What can I tell them?”

Use a whole-part-whole approach. Studies indicate that teaching grammar in isolation has little effect on students’ oral and written language. Start by immersing students in real examples of whatever it is you want to teach. Talk about those passages, guiding students toward recognizing the aspects of language under study. Notice, for example, how the poet uses adjectival phrases to create pictures, or how the novelist conveys action through verbs. Introduce grammar terms and rules during the discussion. Also, encourage students to relate terms and rules to their own writing.

“My administrators want me to return to traditional spelling lists.”

Develop lists inspired by other components of your language arts program. For example, you might select a particular aspect of language to study, such as vowel generalization, inflectional endings, root words, or word families, and choose examples for spelling lists. Words connected to a thematic unit are another option, but choose ones that are appropriate and useful. You can also use misspelled words from the children’s writing. After all, teachers who look for patterns in errors across the work of individuals and groups, and respond with beneficial instruction, are more likely to make an impact on children’s spelling development.

Read the full article: Balanced Literacy Practical strategies to help you build a truly balanced classroom literacy program, by Dorothy Strickland.



1. How can you help a child become an avid reader?

2. Give three reasons why literature is the best material for learning to read.

3. Where can teachers get help in choosing books for use in their classrooms?

 4. What determines the books teachers select for their classrooms?

5. Explain why it is important for students to have the opportunity to share what they have read.

6. Include the importance to both the person who is sharing and the one(s) who is listening.



The benefits of literature-based language arts curriculum Building a literature collection
  1. Selecting children’s books
  2. Evaluating children’s books
  3. Evaluating stories
  4. Evaluating picture books
  5. Evaluating nonfiction
  6. Organizing the classroom library

Structuring the language arts program

  1. Reading aloud
  2. Selecting books for reading aloud
  3. Scheduling and conducting read-aloud sessions
  4. Guided reading
  5. Independent reading
  6. Shared reading
  7. Whole class shared reading
  8. Small group shared reading
  9. Literary study
  10. Studying the art of writing
  11. Studying an author
  12. Exploring themes


Whodunit “Space Case” By Stuart Gibbs is “Smartly Paced and intricately Plotted”

Also posted on

The whodunit space-case-9781442494862_lgis smartly paced and intricately plotted. Best of all, the reveal is actually worth all the buildup. Thrillers too often fly off the rails in their final moments, but the author’s steady hand keeps everything here on track. Fully absorbing.
– Kirkus Reviews

It’s a murder mystery on the moon in Space Case,  the humorous and suspenseful space adventure from the author of Belly Up and Spy School.

Like his fellow lunarnauts—otherwise known as Moonies—living on Moon Base Alpha, twelve-year-old Dashiell Gibson is famous the world over for being one of the first humans to live on the moon.

And he’s bored out of his mind. Kids aren’t allowed on the lunar surface, meaning they’re trapped inside the tiny moon base with next to nothing to occupy their time—and the only other kid Dash’s age spends all his time hooked into virtual reality games.

Then Moon Base Alpha’s top scientist turns up dead. Dash senses there’s foul play afoot, but no one believes him. Everyone agrees Dr. Holtz went onto the lunar surface without his helmet properly affixed, simple as that. But Dr. Holtz was on the verge of an important new discovery, Dash finds out, and it’s a secret that could change everything for the Moonies—a secret someone just might kill to keep…


Space Case

Excerpt from The Official Residents’ Guide to Moon Base Alpha, © 2040 by National Aeronautics and Space Administration:


Congratulations on your selection as a resident of the first permanent extraterrestrial human habitat! To ease your transition from earth, Moon Base Alpha (referred to from here on as “MBA”) has been designed to feel as comfortable and familiar as any residence on our home planet. Our engineers and designers have spared no expense to provide all MBA residents—or “lunarnauts”—with everything they need for a relaxing, pleasurable existence.

However, life on the moon will not be without challenges. There are obviously many differences between this residence and one on earth—many of which you may be pleasantly surprised by! To that end, please take the necessary time to read this helpful, informative manual in its entirety, as it will likely answer any questions you have about your new home (and perhaps a few questions you hadn’t even thought to ask yet)!

Once again, congratulations on your selection. Welcome to the moon. Enjoy your new home!

According to School Library Journal, the books is “recommended as a breezy read, especially for the budding space scientist.”

Meet Danitra Brown, “the most splendiferous girl in town”

 “Choose whatever box you like, Mike. Just don’t put me in one, son. Believe me, I won’t fit.”  ― Nikki Grimes, Bronx Masquerade 

Nindexamed a Coretta Scott King Honor Book as well as an ALA Notable Book, this touching collection of 13 poems about two African American girls named Zuri Jackson and Danitra Brown, is a refreshing and illuminating way to convey a portrait of friendship.

From the point of view of Zuri, readers are introduced to Danitra Brown, “the most splendiferous girl in town,” who wears purple, from her head down to her toes, every single day. There are reasons why this is so, Zuri tells readers: Danitra might be a princess, she can take bullies on with no sweat, she’s the fastest bike rider on the whole block, she helps Zuri with her chores, and she’s going to win the Nobel Prize someday. Through Zuri’s proud, but unsentimental voice, Danitra is portrayed as a spirited, spunky kid who can deal with whatever life has to give her. In turn, Danitra is also very considerate of emotional Zuri’s vulnerability. The two make a wonderful pair: they both have qualities that bring out the best in each another.

Not everything is perfect, however: Danitra is taunted for wearing thick glasses; Zuri feels bad that her dad is never around to care for her, and some neighborhood kids tease Danitra about her dark skin. But although these girls live in a world filled with problems and prejudices, Danitra and Zuri deal well with each as they happen. The lovely and lush oil-wash illustrations by Floyd Cooper capture and complement energy of the poems, and capture the characters’ emotions. Although these characters are African-American, the theme of friendship through struggle that Grimes conveys is universal, and, in this book, is brought to vibrant life.

Nikki Grimes was well received this evening in my children’s literature class at Boise State University. Since many people here in Idaho are from small towns, they especially liked the part in the video below, where she spoke about the fact that there is no better, or safer place to learn about another culture than in the pages of a book. The students asked me to share Meet Danitra Brown.

A lesson plan for this book is found here:

Below is an excerpt:

Discuss friendship by charting qualities that are needed to build friendships and by charting qualities that tear down friendships.  Introduce Danitra Brown as the main character and read the story.  Discuss poetry and what makes this writing poetry.  Allow time for the students to share what is special about their friends.  Talk with students about the characteristics and structural elements of poetry in the book (e.g., imagery, rhyme, verse, rhythm, meter) With these elements in mind have students write a short poem about a friend.  The poem could be given as a gift or shared in the classroom.  Make sure everyone gets a poem.  Refer to qualities chart for ideas.  Have the class do one or more Venn diagrams.   Follow up with a discussion. The Venn diagram activity gives students a chance to find out more about each other.  The closure to this lesson is to create a Circle of Friends poster, including every member of the class.

Nikki Grimes conveyed the fire-in-the-belly fervor of a Harlem girl who knows she was born to write in Jazmin’s Notebook, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. In My Man Blue, a Booklist Editor’s Choice and Newsweek Children’s Books of the Year selection, her artful words expressed a boy’s journey from skepticism to trust. In Bronx Masquerade she presents a rich chorus of eighteen voices, singing openly about ideas, feelings, and questions–things that open minds, invite debate, provide release. A recent Booklist review proclaims: “As always, Grimes gives young people exactly what they’re looking for–real characters who show them they are not alone.”An accomplished poet, novelist, journalist, and educator, Ms. Grimes was born and raised in New York City and now lives in the Los Angeles area.

“Readers will enjoy the lively, smart voices that talk bravely, about real issues and secret fears. A fantastic choice.”


Standards for Reading Professionals From My Children’s Literature Syllabus

College of Education

Department of Literacy

Boise State University

ED-LTCY 346- 1154 Children’s Literature

CLICK HERE to see the full syllabus.

Instructor: Michael Strickland, M.A.

Here are the International Reading Association Standards for Reading Professionals as they apply to classroom teachers.

Through participating in this course, you should be able to:

  1. Understand major theories and empirical research that describe the cognitive, linguistic, motivational, and sociocultural foundations of reading and writing development, processes, and components, including word recognition, language comprehension, strategic knowledge, and reading–writing connections (Standard 1.1); in particular, we will address central theories that inform our understandings of how readers engage with a text, including but not limited to reader response theory and critical literacy and, more generally, a constructivist view of learning.

    2. Understand the historically shared knowledge of the profession and changes over time in the perceptions of reading and writing development, processes, and components (Standard 1.2); in particular, we will address the constantly changing landscape of children’s literature and the role that such literature has played and continues to play in effective literacy instruction for diverse learners.

    3. Understand the role of professional judgment and practical knowledge for improving all students’ reading development and achievement (Standard 1.3), use foundational knowledge to design or implement an integrated, comprehensive, and balanced curriculum (Standard 2.1) and use appropriate and varied instructional approaches (Standard 2.2). In particular, we will address the role of the teacher (grounded in knowledge about literature, learning, and learners) in selecting quality literature and effective engagements with such literature for diverse learners. We will engage in a variety of learning experiences that will serve as models for your own best practice (learning through doing) and you will develop and implement a literature-based lesson with learners in your placement classroom.

    4. Use a wide range of texts (e.g., narrative, expository, and poetry) from traditional print, digital, and online resources (Standard 2.3); you will become familiar with a wide range of texts across genres and with resources for selecting high quality texts for elementary and middle school readers.

    5. Recognize, understand, and value the forms of diversity that exist in society and their importance in learning to read and write (Standard 4.1); use a literacy curriculum and engage in instructional practices that positively impact students’ knowledge, beliefs, and engagement with the features of diversity (Standard 4.2) and; develop and implement strategies to advocate for equity (Standard 4.3). In particular, we will focus on multicultural literature that illuminates multiple perspectives with the goal of expanding your understandings and strengthening your ability to select literature that both reflects and expands learners’ experiences. Using a critical literacy perspective, we will explore how engagement with literature can bring about social change.

    6. Understand a social environment that is low risk and includes choice, motivation, and scaffolded support to optimize students’ opportunities for learning to read and write (Standard 5.2); in particular, we will address pedagogical approaches that fully engage learners in engaging thoughtfully with texts in ways that are meaningful to them and that allow them to grow as readers, writers, and thinkers.

    7. Display positive dispositions related to their own reading and writing and the teaching of reading and writing, and pursue the development of individual professional knowledge and behaviors (Standard 6.2). Effective literacy teachers must be enthusiastic, thoughtful readers and writers themselves. By reading and responding to a variety of high quality literature, engaging thoughtfully with other readers, and developing scholarly insights about literature and literacy, you will have the opportunity to grow your own literacy while you grow your knowledge of how to teach children’s literature. You are expected to demonstrate awareness of and mastery of skills you will teach (NCTE/IRA Standards for English Language Arts,; Idaho Common Core Standards for English and Literacy,, and these competencies, both your ability to do and teach, will be developed through class engagements.

Beliefs about learning for my children’s literature class

Experiences in ED-LTCY 346 class at Boise State University are based on the following beliefs about learning: (adapted from Dr. Kathy Short)

Learning is an active process.

o We will immerse ourselves in reading and responding in a variety of ways.

Learning is a social process of collaboration with others.

o We will explore our thinking about our reading through dialogue in small groups. Opportunities for informal interaction and sharing about literature will also occur in both small and whole group experiences.

Learning occurs when we make connections to our own experiences.

o We will respond to literature by making personal connections to our reading and then by exploring and critically examining those responses in literature circles with other readers.

Choices allow learners to connect to their experiences and feel ownership in the curriculum.

o We will have choices in what we read, how we respond, and the specific focus of projects and small group activities.

Learning occurs in a multicultural world that honors many ways of knowing.

o We will explore literature from a multicultural perspective, expanding our understanding of the cultural pluralism in children’s lives and in literature.

Learning is reflective as well as active.

o We will have many opportunities to reflect on what we are learning through writing, art, talking, reflections and self-evaluations.

Learning is a process of inquiry.

o As learners, we search out questions we care about and we develop strategies for exploring those questions and for sharing our learning and understanding with others.

Learners bring a variety of linguistic and cognitive strengths from their families, communities and nations into the classroom; these strengths are resources to be appreciated as such by educators.

Education must expand on the linguistic and cognitive strengths that learners already possess and bring with them to the classroom, rather than ignore or try to replace them with others.

Respect and appreciation for cultural and community knowledge means that universities serve the interest of education when they allow for an exchange of views, rather than rely exclusively on a transmission model of instruction.

Middle schoolers a mystery? An educational seminar with Cynthia Tobias

Click on image to read this book.

Click on image to read more about this book.

The Northwest Nazarene University Wesley Center in partnership with Focus on the Family is pleased to offer an educational seminar for youth pastors, teachers, parents and anyone interested in better understanding the mysterious world of middle school.  The event is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 6 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in the Brandt Center on the campus of NNU. Attend in person or participate via online simulcast.

The seminar will feature wit, wisdom and practical advice from Cynthia Tobias, NNU alumna, best-selling author and learning-styles expert. Tobias is co-author of a new book “Middle School: The Inside Story” and a regular guest on the topic for Focus on the Family.
In their book Tobias and co-author Sue Acuña reveal the inside story on puberty, the Internet, romance, faith, grades and homework, and more, while offering practical tips on how to:
• Phrase things so your middle schooler can hear you
• Allow the flexing of wings while applying appropriate discipline
• Know and empathize with your middle schooler’s greatest fears
• Start conversations instead of confrontations
• Understand the “unwritten rules” middle schoolers try to follow
• Detect warning signs of more serious issues
• Build the kind of parent/child relationship your middle schooler needs and wants—even when he or she doesn’t act like it
On September 6, you can look forward to hearing from these two experts, getting questions answered and interacting with other attendees on the above topics and others facing students in this critical transitional period of life.
Early registration closes August 26 and costs $25 with lunch or $15 without lunch. The first 50 registrations receive a free copy of the book. Registration after August 25 is available for $20 without lunch. Register online at For those unable to attend in person, the free simulcast is planned and will be available to join at the same link.
Ever wonder what goes on in the mind of a middle schooler? Come get the inside story.unnamed (1)
Northwest Nazarene University, a comprehensive Christian university, offers over 60 areas of study, 19 master’s degrees in seven different disciplines and two doctoral degrees. In addition to its 85-acre campus located in Nampa, Idaho, the University also offers programs online as well as in Boise, Idaho Falls, Twin Falls and in cooperation with programs in 10 countries. Founded in 1913, the university now serves over 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students, more than 6,000 continuing education students, and 2,300 high school students through the concurrent credit program.

What is children’s literature?

A mother reads to her children, depicted by Jessie Willcox Smith in a cover illustration of a volume of fairy tales written in the mid to late 19th century. Source: Wikipedia

A mother reads to her children, depicted by Jessie Willcox Smith in a cover illustration of a volume of fairy tales written in the mid to late 19th century. Source: Wikipedia

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. . . . Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and . . . bores the reader. . . . Children love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. – E. B. White

It might be said that a child’s book is a book a child is reading, and an adult book is a book occupying the attention of an adult, writes  Barbara Kiefer is the Charlotte S. Huck Professor of Children’s Literature at The Ohio State University. Before the nineteenth century only a few books were written specifically for the enjoyment of children. Children read books written for adults, taking from them what they could understand, she said.

Today, children continue to read some books intended for adults, such as the works of Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark. And yet some books first written for children—such as Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit, A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories—have been claimed as their own by adults.

Defining children’s literature is unexpectedly tricky. “To begin with, what is a children’s book?” asks F. Gordon Roe. It is not, it seems, simply a book written for children. Talking of childhood reading in Victorian times, Roe continues:

Some of the works I shall mention were not primarily written for children at all. So far from the works of Scott and Dickens being looked upon as impositions, they were read eagerly by many juveniles, though some of their elders were doubtful about Mr Dickens, who wrote about quite vulgar folk — even pickpockets!

Children’s literature or juvenile literature includes stories, books, and poems that are enjoyed by children. Modern children’s literature is classified in two different ways: genre or the intended age of the reader.

Children’s literature can be traced to stories and songs, part of a wider oral tradition, that adults shared with children before publishing existed. The development of early children’s literature, before printing was invented, is difficult to trace. Even after printing became widespread, many classic “children’s” tales were originally created for adults and later adapted for a younger audience. Since the 1400s, a large quantity of literature, often with a moral or religious message, has been aimed specifically at children. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became known as the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” as this period included the publication of many books acknowledged today as classics.

Books about children might not necessarily be for them. Richard Hughes’s adult classic A High Wind in Jamaica shows the “innocent” depravity of children in contrast to the group of pirates who had captured them. Yet in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, also written for adults, 8-year-old Scout Finch reveals a more finely developed conscience than is common in the small southern town in which she is raised. The presence of a child protagonist, then, does not ensure that the book is for children. Obviously, the line between children’s literature and adult literature is blurred.

Children today appear to be more sophisticated and knowledgeable about certain life experiences than children of any previous generation were. They spend a great deal of time within view of an operating television or other electronic media. According to studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation, children spend eight and a half hours per day consuming media content, often engaged with more than one type of media at a time. Although 73% of those from 8 to 18 years old continue to read for pleasure, the time they spend on reading is only about three quarters of an hour per day.4 Their exposure to broad media content is therefore significant. News broadcasts show them scenes of war or natural disasters while they eat their dinners. They have witnessed acts of terror, air strikes, assassinations, and starvation. Although many modern children are separated from firsthand knowledge of birth, death, and aging, the mass media bring vicarious and daily experiences of crime, poverty, war, and depravity into the living rooms of virtually all American homes. … In addition, today’s children are exposed to violence purely in the name of entertainment.

Such exposure has forced adults to reconsider what seems appropriate for children’s literature. It seems un believable that Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins was rejected by several publishers because it began with a death, or that some reviewers were shocked by a mild “damn” in Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Such publishing taboos have long since disappeared. Children’s books are generally less frank than adult books, but contemporary children’s literature does reflect the problems of today, the ones children read about in the newspapers, see on television and in the movies, and experience at home.

However, the content of children’s literature is limited by children’s experience and understanding.Kiefer talks about how certain emotional and psychological responses seem outside the realms of childhood. For example, nostalgia is an adult emotion that is foreign to most boys and girls.

Children seldom look back on their childhood, but always forward. Stories that portray children as “sweet” or that romanticize childhood, like the Holly Hobbie books that go with cards and gift products, have more appeal for adults than for children.

There is no single or widely used definition of children’s literature. It can be broadly defined as anything that children read or more specifically defined as fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or drama intended for and used by children and young people.  Nancy Anderson, of the College of Education at the University of South Florida, defines children’s literature as “all books written for children, excluding works such as comic books, joke books, cartoon books, and non-fiction works that are not intended to be read from front to back, such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other reference materials”.

The International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature notes that “the boundaries of genre… are not fixed but blurred”. Sometimes, no agreement can be reached about whether a given work is best categorized as literature for adults or children. Some works defy easy categorization. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was written and marketed for children, but it is also popular among adults. The series’ extreme popularity led The New York Times to create a separate best-seller list for children’s books.

Despite the widespread association of children’s literature with picture books, spoken narratives existed before printing, and the root of many children’s tales go back to ancient storytellers.  Seth Lerer, in the opening of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter, says, “This book presents a history of what children have heard and read… The history I write of is a history of reception.”

Editor William Zinsser says:
No kind of writing lodges itself so deeply in our memory, echoing there for the rest of our lives, as the books that we met in our childhood. . . . To enter and hold the mind of a child or a young person is one of the hardest of all writers’ tasks. The skilled author does not write differently or less carefully for children just because she thinks they will not be aware of style or language.


What is your definition of children’s literature?




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