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But it gets kids reading! Some thoughts on critical literacy

Goosebumps: Scary House; RL Stine


I’ve used this phrase myself, but what does it actually mean? Or, more importantly, what do we mean when we say it?

It’s a phrase used to excuse what we perceive to be poor quality literature; to imply value in books that would otherwise be dismissed as pulpy, badly written or simply non-canon. It indicates snobbery; it is an apology to the self – a platitude to excuse fiction that doesn’t fit the value system we want to impart. It may not be morally improving, but at least it constitutes practice. But practice at what? Functional literacy – the level of reading comprehension and writing ability necessary to get by day-to-day – might be the go-to excuse. But is that really what we mean?

We want our children to be functionally literate because we want our adults to be functionally literate; because functional literacy is, well, useful. It’s difficult to operate in the world without being able to decipher the intricate squiggles on road signs, on food packaging, in instruction manuals. It’s useful to be able to write a shopping list, to sign our names. Functional literacy helps us apply for jobs and mortgages. It helps us navigate from A to B. The intricate cognitive processes by which we decipher the random marks on a page and assign them meaning are second nature to most of us; we read all the time, and we read without thinking about it.

The National Literacy Trust’s report Literacy: The State of the Nation notes that one in six adults in the UK have literacy skills below the level expected of an eleven year old. Illiteracy is linked to crime and poverty. In the USA, 85%  of juveniles in the prison system and 90% of adults receiving welfare are functionally illiterate (The Health Literacy of America’s Adults, 2003). According to UNICEF, nearly a billion people worldwide at the beginning of the 21st century were unable to read or write. Two thirds of them are women. Literacy is a social issue, an economic issue, a feminist issue.

But is functional literacy what we’re really talking about when we sigh and concede that Harry Potter, Morganville Vampires orGoosebumps are, at least, getting children reading? Usually when we (dis)honour a book with the epithet at least it gets them reading, we’re not talking about children who are functionally illiterate. We’re talking about chapter books, books for middle and young adult readers, books aimed at proficient readers. We’re talking about critical literacy.

Critical literacy is, in simple terms, the ability to analyse a text in terms of social constructs: power, race, gender, inequality. It is, in short, political.

Shor (1992) defines critical literacy as the,

analytic habits of thinking, reading, writing, speaking, or discussing which go beneath surface impressions, traditional myths, mere opinions, and routine clichés; understanding the social contexts and consequences of any subject matter; discovering the deep meaning of any event, text, technique, process, object, statement, image, or situation; applying that meaning to your own context.

When we apply the ‘at least they’re reading’ tag to ‘popular’ literature, do we really mean that it doesn’t engage the critical thinking muscles? And if it truly doesn’t, is that really such a bad thing?

There are myriad young adult and middle reader books, especially in series fiction, that fall squarely into the trope of a very special episode. Heavy handed messages about everything from teen pregnancy to global warming, adoption to eating disorders, race to recycling are a dime a dozen. The 300+ books of The Babysitters Club (BSC) oeuvre (updated and re-released in 2010) are simply riddled with lessons about tolerance. One can pick a book from the pile at random and encounter gauche, inelegant didacticism of the sort common to beloved TV show of my youth Blossom, as well as every other teen drama ever. Ann M. Martin’s favourite books in the series illustrate the point:

Q: More than 200 BSC books were published in the eighties and nineties. Are there any that you are particularly fond of and why?

Martin: My favorite Baby-sitters Club book is “Kristy’s Great Idea,” which is the first book and sets the series in motion. I also like the more serious books such as “Claudia and the Sad Good-bye,” which deals with the death of Claudia’s grandmother. This book was written shortly after my own grandmother died. My other favorite BSC books include “Kristy and the Secret of Susan,” in which the members of the BSC baby-sit for a child with autism, and “Jessi’s Secret Language” in which the girls learn American Sign Language in order to communicate with a sitting charge with profound hearing impairment.

These messages are both overt and equality driven, tending towards the liberal and relevant to the lives of the books’ pre-teen and early teen readers. Martin and her team of ghost writers do not employ a great degree of subtlety when informing their readers that some people are divorced or picking on deaf kids isn’t very nice; readers do not have to pick apart character actions and reactions to discover the intended message and the political affiliation of the writers. It’s all there in black and white. Granted, it’s fairly difficult to disagree with most of the messages that the text offers, they are after all generally matters of human decency, but they are nevertheless open for discussion.

Morganville Vampires; Rachel Caine

The Dark Romance genre, as my local book shop calls it, is often trashed, but it is replete with dire warnings of the consequences of boys and girls being within 50ft of each other. Coded references to teenage sexuality abound. The books are infinitely political, and as such they are an ideal place to practice critical literacy. They’re not all as rightist as we may believe, but the majority are. They’re sneaky, too, covertly pushing a pro-marriage, anti-choice, chauvinist agenda because in vamp lore it’s really difficult not to do that (we are after all talking about a race of humanoid predators), and frankly because trends like this are finite*, and the aim of the game is to get as many publications out as possible, not to challenge the markers of the genre.

Do we, then, dismiss them because they don’t provide the messages we want our children to hear? They’re often conservative (big C and small c), traditionalist, heteronormative, for sure, but do we really think our children can’t cope with that?

We don’t want our children to parrot our opinions. We want them to form their own. So while many us would infinitely prefer they embrace liberal values, wouldn’t those values be more meaningful were they gleaned from a critique of both liberal- and conservative-leaning reading? There can be no better argument for providing material for contrapuntal readings.

“I can’t tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit.”
“Perhaps it hasn’t one,” Alice ventured to remark.
“Tut, tut, child!” said the Duchess. “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”

Alices Advenures in Wonderland

 Of course, not every narrative is politically charged. That does not mean we cannot read critically. Goosebumps, inaugurated in 1992 with Welcome to the Dead House and still going strong, have been the subject of controversy over their lack of educational value, with one teacher commenting that ”The books turn diabolical so quickly, it’s hard to have conversations about them.” (New York Times, Apr.1997) This points to a failure on the part of the teacher, rather than the author. There is no such thing as a narrative you cannot have a conversation about, even if that conversation is limited to ‘what do you think will happen next?’ or ‘if you were x, what would you do?’

by woodleywonderworks, via Flickr

The Goosebumps books are, by author RL Stine’s own admission, not great literature. They’re pure escapism. The other books I’ve mentioned here are escapism to; escapism is (or should be) the primary function of literature. Goosebumps, unlike The Babysitters Club, Morganville Vampires and their ilk is neither trying to push a message or hide an agenda. It’s not demanding reading and it’s not designed to be. If novels like those in the Goosebumps series are being consumed for pleasure there can be nothing wrong with that. Adults do not only read edifying materials; nor should our children.

I’m not convinced that, once we have even basic skills of criticism, we ever stop practicing it. I think it becomes as engrained as the functional literacy skills that I briefly mentioned. This suggests that even Goosebumps is ripe for analysis – there might not be much subtext, but the narrative itself can be contextualized and processed. The key concepts for critical literacies are introduced toward the end of KS2, but many children are capable of reading critically, and do so without thinking about it, earlier than that. If they are doing so, they are doing so with everything they read, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin as much as Shiver; with War Horse as much as Moshi Monsters: Disco Mystery.

If they’re not? Literature is to be enjoyed, and if they’re doing that, well, that’s all that matters.

*The next one is going to be dystopias. Mark my words and get pen to paper now.


One response »

  1. Pingback: The seven blog posts that never happened | TreasuryIslands

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