While I have team-taught a children's literature course to high school students in the past, I have never focused on any particular theme. The seminar "Race and Ethnicity in Contemporary Art and Literature" is an invitation for me to write my unit around the stories of exclusion and being different such as:
Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back
by Shel Silverstein,
The Story of Ferdinand
by Munro Leaf,
by Dr. Seuss,
by Leo Lionni, Bill Cosby's story about the new kid on the block,
The Meanest Thing to Say, Yo! Yes!
by Chris Raschka, and
by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch.
There is a poignant poem "Deaf Donald" by Shel Silverstein about a little boy, Deaf Donald, who signs, "I love you," to Talkie Sue. But because she can't read his language, she leaves "forever" and never knows that he is trying to tell her that he loves her. Because they don't understand a common language, they both lose out. Without a doubt there are excellent children's stories dealing directly with issues of exclusion. In real life there are countless ways to feel excluded and to be excluded because one is perceived by the status quo as different. This common theme that runs throughout children's literature gives children a much needed opportunity to explore what it feels like to be on the receiving end of exclusion and at the same time to heighten their awareness of the motives of those who perpetrate this exclusion on others. Sometimes the act of exclusion is as simple as the absence of understanding; it is not mean-spirited. Other times it is vindictive and perpetrated precisely for the purpose of making someone suffer. Studying these phenomena in children's stories will give the teens I teach a forum for looking at these issues themselves while they are studying them to read them to children.
One approach to this theme of exclusion and being different is to begin with this brief, one-page, illustrated poem by Shel Silverstein titled "Deaf Donald" from Silverstein's book
The Light in The Attic
. This poem is an example of the "absence of understanding" on the part of the characters. There are only two characters: Deaf Donald and Talkie Sue, whose names are immediately revealing. They meet and try to communicate with one another. Sue, of course, uses the means of communication that is familiar to her, talking, never realizing that Donald can't hear her. Deaf Donald uses the means of communication that is familiar to him, signing, not knowing that Talkie Sue can't "hear" him, and therefore can't understand him. Talkie Sue says to Deaf Donald, "I sure do like you. Do you like me too?" And each time he sees her move her lips, Deaf Donald grins a big grin and signs, "I love you." Finally she gets frustrated because he isn't saying anything, and she says, "I'm leaving you!" And she walks away forever, never knowing that he is signing that he loves her. He never knows either that she really likes him. I will ask my students to consider whether both Deaf Donald and Talkie Sue are deaf. Sue is so talkie that she is limited to receiving communication in only one way, by someone talking. So, because she doesn't realize that there are more means of communication besides "talking," she misses, "forever," an important message that is being communicated in another way. This simple little poem makes a strong argument for exposing students to ways of listening to others, other than the one way to which most of them are accustomed.
Even though this is only a simple little poem, the story it tells contains some of the basic elements of effective literature: a conflict, a character who changes, and a universal theme or lesson. It is feasible to use this little, non-threatening, ten line poem for a CAPT practice around the question, "Is this an effective piece of literature, based perhaps on the three elements I mentioned: conflict, character change, and universal theme?" I have developed a CAPT practice lesson plan around this poem later in the unit.
Judgment and exclusion of a character also occurs when that character's behavior is contrary to the stereotype, such as occurs in
The Story of Ferdinand
by Munro Leaf and in the story
by Leo Lionni. In both stories, those who are judgmental and exclusionary are not conscious of their intolerance, they simply don't understand the atypical behavior of the character and they want the character to behave according to their stereotypical expectation. These stories open a door, limited only by our own creativity and access to resources, for lessons around how one's view of his/her own immediate world and the world at large determines his/her tolerance and empathy.
The Story of Ferdinand
, for those who may not be familiar with this children's classic, set in Spain, there lives a young, strong bull who has no desire to fight in the bull ring. Ferdinand's disinterest in bullfighting is contrary to all expectations; there has never been a bull that has not dreamed of being chosen to fight in the bullring in Madrid. But, not Ferdinand. He likes most to sit under his favorite shade tree and smell the flowers. Even his mother is concerned that his interests are different from the other bulls. Well one day, he sits on a bumblebee that is sipping nectar from one of those flowers, and it sets him off bucking and snorting around the field. It happens that on that very day men have come from Madrid, selecting bulls to go to the bullring. Of course, they spot Ferdinand and immediately, seeing him performing exactly as they would expect an ambitious, fierce bull to perform, they select him. They cart him off to Madrid only to find that when they turn him loose in the bullring, he just sits down and smells the flowers in all of the ladies' hair. He has absolutely no interest in fighting. The matador and his retinue are furious and frustrated, but there is nothing they can do but cart him back home so he can sit under his favorite shade tree and smell the flowers. The bull Ferdinand simply is independent, and while the community may be frustrated by it, they are forced to tolerate it. Ferdinand has no interest, nor need, to be like the other bulls.
In the story
, a community of mice accuses one of its members, Frederick, of not doing his share of work when it is laying in a cache of food for the winter months. Frederick insists that he is working, telling them that he is gathering the warmth of the sun's rays and the colors of flowers. The mice reproach him and accuse him of "dreaming." Winter comes and the mice gradually eat all their store of food. Disgruntled, they then turn to Frederick and ask him about his supplies. Frederick then recites a beautiful poem in which he invokes all the colors and warmth of summer, and of course he warms their hearts in a way that no amount food could. They are overjoyed and pronounce him a poet. Frederick who does not cave in under the judgment of his peers, who knows what his gifts are, is able to broaden the expectation of the community as to the possible role of its members, and to enrich the community.
by Dr. Seuss is a story about a community of Seuss creatures that look somewhat like homely cousins of Sesame Street's Big Bird. The community is split down the middle by those who have stars on their tummies and those who don't. Those who don't have a star on their tummies, are judged by those who do and excluded from all of their "star"activities. Sneetches with stars make star-less Sneetches feel miserable and inferior, until another creature, the Fix-it-Up Chappie, comes to town with a contraption for putting stars on tummies, ____ for a price. The bulk of the story is a mad race of putting stars on the tummies of star-less Sneetches and removing the stars from the tummies of the resentful star-tummy Sneetches. Eventually the Chappie with the contraption has all of everybody's money and leaves town having capitalized on everyone's stupidity. The Sneetches all wise up that day and decide it doesn't matter who has the stars and who doesn't. Besides, by now they have all "offed" and "onned" their stars so many times, nobody knows, in true Seuss fashion, which was which. Seuss reinforces that while differences exist, there is a shared "humanity" among these creatures.
The very short story Yo! Yes! by Chris Raschka has only two characters, two young boys, one African American and one Euro-American who meet out on the street. The entire "hip" story is a one or two word dialogue between the boys. One boy asks the other boy questions, and we learn that the boy answering the questions is sad and lonely because he thinks he has no friends. Brief as this story is, it introduces a kind of exclusion that is self-imposed. We don't learn why the one boy feels so lonely, except he says that he has no friends. We see that the other boy reach out to him in friendship. When the boy asking the questions offers to be the other boy's friend, the story ends on an upbeat note, almost as quickly as it began. This is a superb story for two students to act out when the class goes out to read to elementary school students. This story, brief as it is, has three elements of an effective story: a conflict, a character who grows in understanding, and a universal theme or lesson. Using this story, it is easy to practice the CAPT language arts activity: "Is this an effective story? Explain why or why not, including evidence."
Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein is probably the least hopeful and most profound of the stories I have included in my unit. It appears to be a somewhat silly story about a lion that defends himself from hunters on safari in the jungle by eating them up. He then learns to be a crack shot with one of their rifles. Shel Silverstein's illustrations of Lafcadio are charming. Mr. Finchfinger, searching through the jungle, recruiting new acts for his circus, finds Lafcadio and his rifle, and promises Lafcadio everything from fame to marshmallows if he will bring his rifle and be in his Finchfinger Circus. Of course, Lafcadio goes with him and does become Lafcadio the Great, shooting his rifle with his tail and even shooting it while standing on his head. Lafcadio gradually begins to do everything that humans do: wears suits, sleeps in hotel rooms, gets his beard and mane trimmed, paints, and even reads the National Geographic magazine while smoking his favorite pipe tobacco. But, in spite of Lafcadio the Great's fame and fortune, he is not happy. He is bored. There is one thing left in the world that he has not done; he has not gone hunting on safari in the jungle. And so, of course he goes. As he stands there in his little red cap, who should recognize him but his lion cousins. They insist that he cannot shoot them, for he is a lion. The hunters insist that he must shoot them for he is a hunter. And there stands Lafcadio the Great, struggling with one of the most profound dilemmas of our time: "In the midst of racial and cultural diversity, where do I belong?" Or, more to the point, "Do I belong anywhere?" Lafcadio the Great lays down his rifle and picks up his hat and walks away over the hill, away from the lions and away from the hunters. "And he really didn't know where he was going, but he knew he was going somewhere, because you really have to go somewhere, don't you?" This too is a poignant story for the CAPT language arts activity that asks students to evaluate whether it is an effective story.
The following stories,
The Meanest Thing to Say
, are about children whose parents and/or grandparents intervene when their peers mistreat or disrespect them.
The Meanest Thing to Say
by Bill Cosby is a "new kid on the block" story in which the new kid at school introduces a game called "the meanest thing to say" to somebody else to make him or her feel bad. The game turns students against each other and makes Andrew, the narrator, really mad and frustrated with Michael Reilly, the new kid. Andrew's dad helps him figure out how to defuse Michael's game, and everybody gets back to playing regular games and feeling good, including Michael. The kids in the illustrations are multicultural.
by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch is a story about an African American girl, Grace, who wants to play the part of Peter Pan in the school production. Some of her classmates, due to their preconceived ideas about the part, tell her that she can't, first because she is a girl and second because she is black. Discouraged by these prejudicial attitudes, Grace shares her disappointment with her mother and grandmother who give her the support and self-confidence she needs to try out and get the part. It becomes obvious to the students at try-outs that Grace, by far, is the best choice for the part. There are obvious issues of race and gender in this story and a lesson about the importance of moral support.