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Desert Post Weekly (28 November 2002)

"Kids Lit: Teaching the teachers how to choose kids books"

By Judith Salkin

Goodnight Moon. The Cat in the Hat. Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Choosing the appropriate book to read to a kid or for them to read for their own enjoyment isn’t as easy as it might seem. Do you just look at the pretty pictures or the written words in making your decision on what book to take home from the library or purchase for your home library? And, if you’re a conscientious book buyer, are these the right titles to lead a child to a lifetime love of literature?

Let’s face it, if kids don’t learn to love books and reading at an early age, if they aren’t encouraged to delve into the adventures embarked upon by the likes of Harry Potter, the Hardy Boys, to visit Narnia and exercise their fertile young minds, many will not find a visit to the library or book store nearly as exciting as stopping at the video game counter at your local discount department store.

It’s true, sitting still and reading a book may not seem nearly as exciting or adrenaline inducing as a couple of laps of Road Rash III. And books for older kids or young adults are printed in dreary black-and-white as opposed to the intense color graphics of games and the sounds of karate kicks and slaps as they land on graphically enhanced opponents.

Learning what kids like to read, and sometimes reading the “hidden” meanings or underlying psychology of children’s literature, is something that teachers -- and parents -- need to know. Randy Fischer, and instructor at Chapman University in Palm Desert, teaches teachers how to read and interpret children’s literature. The class is part of the curriculum of [the] credential program at the private university.

“My students fall into one of three categories; those who are working on their credential, or who want to add to their credentials and some are students working on their master’s degree,” Fischer says. “And there are a few parents, but for the most part they’re teachers.”

In all cases the fall semester these students spend in Fischer’s classroom is intense. Over the course of four months, they read, talk and analyze nearly 500 books, from the slim tomes of authors like Jan Wahl to heavyweights of J.K. Rowling and classics such as Alice in Wonderland and The Velveteen Rabbit.

To break up the course, Fischer throws in a class with a guest speaker -- an actor who has appeared in films based on the works being studied by the class. This semester’s guest speaker was James MacArthur.

Although best known at Det. Dan Williams on TV’s Hawaii Five-O, MacArthur brought several characters from children’s books to life in the 1950s while under contract to Disney Studios. MacArthur was recommended to Fischer by Tom Kirk, who appeared in Babes in Toyland and Swiss Family Robinson (with MacArthur) in the 1960s and was last year’s guest speaker.

“I like to bring a speaker in to break up the semester,” Fischer says. “It’s such an intense class and we do so much work that I like to give the students one session where they can talk to someone other than me about the subject.”

Randy Fischer’s children’s lit class covers a very broad range of books, from fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, in all their original gory glory, to the modern stories of Wahl (who has published more than 90 books on a number of subjects) and Rowling. Looking at the whiteboard, Fischer has filled it with titles of children’s books translated into family films and subjects to be covered that night. If it is an indication of the semester, each class is jam packed with information and enough discussion material for an entire semester.

Over the course of the semester, Fischer leads his students through the history of children’s books and stories, how they have changed over the course of the past several centuries and how today’s books and characters relate and reflect what has gone before. “We talk about classic children’s stories and take them apart,” he says. “We isolate parts of the stories, talk about the archetypes used by different authors and how they relate to what was going on in history at the time the books were written and today’s books. I want them to realize how potentially serious each book is.”

For Indio kindergarten teacher Angela Fajardo and returning student Kristen Howell, Fischer’s class is eye opening in the sense that it makes both women look at children’s literature in a new way. “I look at them differently when I choose which books to read to my class,” says Fajardo, who taught pre school for seven years before returning to college for her credential. “I’m not just looking for pictures, but what the book teaches the kids. Pictures can draw a child into a book, but there has to be a point to the story and teach them a lesson.”

After 13 years as a court reporter, Howell has returned to school to finish her bachelor’s degree with an eye on possibly becoming a teacher. The La Quinta mom says, “We worked so hard in that class, and I learned so much. Some of the earliest books were folk tales that were meant to scare children into good behavior. Times have changed so much and the stories have had to change with them. If we read Grimm’s fairy tales the way they were collected (by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm), it would scare kids today half to death.”

What are the criteria for a good children’s book? “It depends on the age of the child,” says Gladys Hirsh. Hirsh has more than 30 years experience as a kindergarten teacher at Germantown Elementary School in Philadelphia, and since retiring two years ago, she works three mornings a week with children who need additional help learning to read.

The author’s use of language, subtlety of the lesson -- such as teaching counting, colors or morality lessons -- and illustrations needs to be age appropriate. She is a fan of authors such as Dr. Seuss and Eric Carle for younger children and Patricia Polacco and Rowling for older children. “For younger kids, illustrations are often as important as the words, but if you catch the ear, you catch the mind,” she says.

And what about reading books like Harry Potter to younger kids? “It’s fine as long as you do it in small chunks,” Hirsh says. “You can do a lot like talking about what the kids think will happen in the next chapter and summarizing the previous chapter so that they remember what happened. Reading that way starts to teach them critical thinking skills. But with something like the Harry Potter films, I really think that kids should read the book first and let them ‘see’ the story in their mind before they see it on the screen.”

After the class, Fischer and his speaker and other classroom guests retire for a stylishly late supper at a local restaurant to talk about the subject of children’s literature classics and the films that have been made from them. Both MacArthur and Kirk are aware of “Hollywoodization” of the films made from classic books that both men have starred in, especially the Walt Disney versions which don’t always follow the original stories (think Hunchback of Notre Dame).

“You can’t always keep everything in a movie when you only have 90 minutes to tell the story,” MacArthur says. “And you can often do in just a minute on screen what would take a whole chapter in the book,” he adds, citing a coach ride in Kidnapped which in the Robert Louis Stevenson original took more than 10 pages of the book. Because of a tradition handed down by his parents, actress Helen Hayes and author/screenwriter Charles MacArthur, he did feel the need to read the stories based on books before filming. Did he feel compelled to stay true to the written characters? “Yes, to some extent, but ultimately you have to portray the character as it’s written in the script.”

Kirk, on the other hand, admits to never having read Johann Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson before making the Disney version of the film. “I’d seen the 1930s version with Thomas Mitchell and it was wonderful, but I’d never read the book,” he says. “I know this, Walt Disney made the movie he wanted to make and sometimes it was just the title and the characters’ names that made it to the screen as long as it told the story the way he wanted it told,” he says from his home in Redding, Calif.

As the round-table discussion on children’s books, their lessons and teaching kids to love the written word winds down, MacArthur laments that his own 17-year-old son doesn’t read. “He reads his text books, but he doesn’t read for pleasure,” he says. “Coming from the house I was raised in, I just don’t understand it. And at his age, I don’t know how to convince him of what he’s missing.”

Hopefully, the students in Fischer’s class will learn how to pass that love of the written word on to a new generation of student readers.

James MacArthur

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