Review: Children’s Literature in a Multiliterate World

by | Sep 7, 2020 | IBBYLink Autumn 2019

Dr Maureen A. Farrell, University of Glasgow

This fascinating book brings together some of the papers that were first presented as part of the 35th IBBY International Congress in New Zealand with the theme of ‘Literature in a Multiliterate World’.

With such a rich theme it is not surprising that the editors of the book had to be very discriminating in their selection of material to be included and they are to be commended in their decision to further subdivide the papers into two sections.

The first section contains papers that focus on the ways in which children’s literature can enhance intercultural understanding. The first papers from Australia and Samoa explore the importance of place, especially with regard to the establishment of identity. The first looks at depictions of home and how young readers understand the concept, while the Samoan chapter tackles the complex issue of children’s literature in Samoan society and its place within what is largely an oral culture. The importance for young readers encountering material in their own language and recognising realistic representations of their own lives opens up this complex area and can be used almost as a mini case study for cultures in many post-colonial contexts. Another chapter curates and examines the work of Allen Say, the son of a Japanese mother and Korean father who lives and works in America. His personal experience of a complex cultural identity is played out in many of the protagonists in his picture books and the chapter is well named in part of its title of ‘Complicated Identities’. The two books covered in the close reading deal with issues of finding or forming an identity that is individual and hybrid and which requires negotiation. Later chapters in this section examine the role of children’s literature in seeking to generate empathy, particularly using Theory of Mind approaches. The chapter by Trish Brooking explores Theory of Mind through a thematic approach using picture books that focus on children’s rights, while Joanne Purcell adopts a developmental approach examining three picture books with different target audiences. The focus in this chapter is very much on the illustrations and how these can be interpreted by readers to provide insight into the mindset of the characters in the stories and thus how empathy can be encouraged and developed in young readers.

The chapters in the second section of the book focus more on the practical embodiment of some of the theoretical approaches discussed in the first section and consider how children’s literature is being used to enhance intercultural understanding. The chapters in this section are a fascinating mix of focused and direct approaches such as the chapter exploring emotional literacy through metafictive picture books, specifically the work of the author and illustrator Emily Gravett in a bilingual reading context, to the much broader perspectives of an examination of Maori literacies in contemporary society, or examining intercultural understanding through talk and play using children’s engagement with global children’s literature as a catalyst. The final two chapters focus on developing reading in very different cultural and linguistic contexts: a multilingual reading programme in Flanders and a multilingual reading and writing programme in South Africa inspired by a storytelling approach. The common elements in these chapters include careful examination and reflection on the key issue of language and home and additional languages in a diverse world. There are differences and commonalities that can be traced through all these chapters.

As someone who spends a good deal of time involved with the education of beginning teachers and tackling the thorny issue of developing literacy skills as well as working with scholars of children’s literature, this book was a strange mixture of very familiar territory with Rudine Sims Bishop’s metaphor of ‘mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors’ being used a number of times to illustrate how children’s books can and should be used especially in classroom settings. Similarly the use of Theory of Mind also felt quite comfortable because it is used quite frequently within our teaching context. However, where it was used it was effectively contextualised and summarised and used carefully to consider the development of empathy in young bilingual learners, in general readers encountering the experiences of refugee children and developmentally across an age range.

Far more interesting, engaging and at times shocking were the chapters where I learned something new. The stand out chapter was Elisa Duder’s chapter about Maori literacies. Not only was this reader well outside her comfort zone but I was left in complete awe of the complex literacy environment of Duder’s partner and son and the wealth of understanding of story and tradition, of song and painting that is required of the literate person in their own spiritual community centre and others. The use and understanding of landscapes to help understand the background and history and all at the same time as encountering the New Zealand English language environment. As a teacher the depiction of the sharing of this tradition and understanding through personal and family intervention was an education and the cumulative nature of the process was an example I wish some of my students could better understand.

Another standout chapter, for very different reasons, was the chapter on multilingual reading and writing in South Africa. Some of the debates described here around the skills-driven approaches to the teaching of reading are depressingly familiar, but the range of languages and the lack of resources to celebrate and represent them was very sad. The reach and grip of apartheid is still evident but what seems more worrying to me is the pace of change – or rather little change – to address the situation. The description of the multi-generational storying approach advocated by PRAESA (Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa) was uplifting and has such potential. I can envision this making a significant difference to children’s desire to read when the stories they encounter are so much more relevant to their lives and experiences. Building on already strong oral storytelling traditions can only be a move for the better.

Also worthy of mention in reviewing this book is the extraordinary range of backgrounds and experiences of the writers of the chapters. From well-established international academic names such as Kathy Short to emerging academics such as Soumi Dey from Glasgow by way of India, from teacher educators to librarians, the common element is an interest in and enthusiasm for children’s literature in all modalities and for multiple purposes. At the centre of all the chapters in this book and in Cao Wenxuan’s acceptance speech for the IBBY Hans Christian Anderson Award is the recognition of the importance of and potential for children’s literature to make an impact on the lives of young readers. Whether this is in the form of opening the door to literacy practices or whether it is in developing children’s affective domain or whether it is simply in celebration of the sheer pleasure of reading, the level of commitment and scholarship from these writers is glaringly obvious. Scholars in the area of children’s literature will find this a useful addition to the academy.

Works cited

Daly, Nicola and Libby Limbrick (eds) (Advisory Editor Pam Dix) (2018) Children’s Literature in a Multiliterate World. London: UCL IOE Press, illustrated, pb/sb 978 1 8585 6878 2, £24.99, 204pp. [Age range 18+. Keywords: academic; student; general reader; global reach; identity; belonging; empathy.]