Reviews 2015

Children’s Literature and Learner Empowerment: Children and Teenagers in English Language Education

Children’s Literature and Learner Empowerment: Children and Teenagers in English Language Education. Janice Bland. London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013. 331 pages. £75.00 (hardback).

Children’s Literature and Learner Empowerment: Children and Teenagers in English Language Education is part of a Bloomsbury series on second language education. As the book is structured in three main parts – Visual Literacies, Literary Literacies and Critical Cultural Literacy – the introduction sets the scene by alerting the reader to the limits of separating language from literature as functional and narrow, as well as carefully unpicking multimodal, visual, cultural and multiple literacies. The international reality of ever-younger EFL classrooms (even UK Primary age children learn a modern foreign language these days!), plus the fact that pupils may already be experts across various genres in their mother tongue, argues for the importance of using texts that take children further.

With confident writing on children’s literature as a ‘highly expressive carrier of cultural meaning’ (Bland 60), the book contains excellent close readings of many picturebooks and graphic novels, from Eileen Brown’s Handa’s Surprise (1994) to the graphic version of The Wizard of Oz adapted by Michael Cavallano (2005), pointing to strengths they possess for EFL and ESL settings. Reference to reader response studies appears to be those of native English readers, so their application to the EFL classroom runs along the lines of ‘this would in most contexts be read with slightly older students’ (Bland 125). Without specific research evidence, such claims are destined to remain well-informed advice. Bland makes strong use of Lawrence Sipe’s invaluable work with educators of young children’s literacy understandings using postmodern, playful texts, and adds two interesting categories to Sipe’s original teacher reading roles (2008): that of modeling language use and scaffolding meaning through non-verbal means (gesture, mime, etc.). In what different ways do EFL and ESL/EAL students read literature? Perhaps citing specific moments of (the title’s) ‘learner empowerment’ could function as models for the reader.

Understandably, given my bias towards studies directly involving child readers, the chapter on co-constructing meaning sprang to life with a page depicting child readers’ pictorial response to Bland and Lottermoser’s Three Billy Goats Gruff (2008). By the next page it was over, but I wanted much more: is this the author’s version of the tale, specially adapted? How does it work? A footnote mentions an action research project in a Primary school in Essen, Germany, with 14 children from 6-8, conducted in 2007. I wondered what were the research questions, the findings or the analysis. Did it feature examples of empowering learning from children? I was also disappointed (if not surprised) to read that EFL publishers ‘actively discourage the use of speech balloons’ (179) as I agree this text feature would seem ideal for opening up possibilities in creative writing for L2 learners. Such a publishing decision seems hopelessly behind the times given that comics and graphic novels have been continuing in strength since the 1960s, and, in more recent decades, the rise of social media is expanding our experiences of image-text juxtapositions. Could the book also have addressed whether children’s literature in digital form have entered the EFL debate? Notwithstanding these questions, this section and ‘The Poetry of Children’s Literature and Creative Writing’ are well-argued reminders of the pleasures of language play.

Bland’s book is actually packed with good ideas for using selected books as positive resources for literary language learning. A word of warning: as it happens, I also teach Philip Pullman’s novel Clockwork (1996) and whilst I agree it is a wonder of ‘interlocking stories and themes’ (190) and lends itself admirably to further investigation in the form of story maps, sound effects and all sorts of in-role drama activities, I have my doubts when it comes to things like Wanted Posters or Tabloid Spreadsheets as writing tasks for any context. What of the deliberately historical context of the book? Surely, writing responses should be for meaningful, genuinely text-embedded reasons. Pullman sets Clockwork in a small German town in the Age of Enlightenment, when a science pamphlet, a flyer for an Automaton fair or a philosophical rant would be far more in keeping and link critical literacy with interdisciplinary pedagogy. Authentic response to the historical probabilities of the text is surely an important part of a teacher’s moral obligation to carefully piece together constructions of truth with readers and learners.

Part three of Bland’s book agrees with this in principle, embedding critical cultural literacy in the EFL classroom. This includes reading between the lines on issues such as race, class, gender or eco-criticism as part of an argument – strongly made – that good EFL teaching and learning could and should make full use of high quality contemporary fiction dealing with pressing current perspectives such as those of migrants (Tan’s The Arrival, 2006) or ecologists (Weisner’s Flotsam, 2006). The chapter using Harry Potter includes interesting examples of student teacher work (yet unfortunately poorly reproduced).

Doctoral theses turned books carry several risks, and one is perhaps the focus on book research in favour of its practical application. That children’s voices are not a bigger part of this publication is a real loss, particularly as the ‘empowerment’ claim of the title could arguably only be appreciated in teachers’ and children’s reader responses. Moreover, although the index is lamentably short, the more substantial bibliography would be useful to scholars of this field and education libraries. Nevertheless, I was surprised not to see references to international children’s literature, such as Penni Cotton’s important study Picturebooks Sans Frontieres (2000), with its strengths in teacher consultation.

Finally, though, there is no question that reading offers more than just gains in language education. Bland is absolutely right to push for more literary literacy and cite writers such as Pullman (1996) who take their craft so seriously and who have championed literature’s ability to ‘teach the world we create’ (qtd. in Bland 296).

Victoria de Rijke
Middlesex University, UK

Works Cited

Sipe, Lawrence R., and Sylvia Pantaleo. Postmodern Picturebooks, Play, Parody and Self-Referentiality. New York: Routledge, 2008.