Race, Culture, and Power in Children's Stories

Once again, my Jan Term course at Saint Mary's College of California called "Race, Culture, and Power in Children's Stories" is underway. Here's the first part of my syllabus:

Why are children’s stories so powerful? Who has the right to tell stories about marginalized communities? This course will explore the question of authenticity in storytelling and unmask explicit and implicit messages about race, power, and culture communicated through books for young readers. A secondary course goal is to help students improve their analytical writing.
  • Part One: The Subversive Power of Children’s Stories
  • Part Two: Race in Children’s Stories
  • Part Three: Culture in Children’s Stories
  • Part Four: Power in Children’s Books
Alison Lurie, author of Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature makes this argument about how children’s books can affect the common good:
The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten. 
On the flip side, children’s literature has also been a key part of state propaganda used by totalitarian and oppressive governments to impose certain social and moral codes on child readers. As Bruno Bettelheim argued in The Uses of Enchantment, stories told to children powerfully shape their moral world. Children with a well-developed sense of justice and compassionate hearts widened by stories can significantly serve the common good. Storytelling is a powerful act, especially when it involves young hearts and minds. From Uncle Tom's Cabin to Harry Potter, books can either repudiate or encourage stereotypes and injustice.

Students will explore and debate five questions:

(1) BOOK COVERS: Should young adult and middle grade novels depict faces on covers?

(2) BOOK AWARDS: Should ethnic book awards be based on the race/ethnicity of the author/illustrator?

(3) BANNING: Should certain children’s books be banned in homes and classrooms because of racism or cultural stereotyping?

(4) BOWDLERIZATION: Should we “bowdlerize” children’s classics that—seen with today’s eyes—are racist, or let them stand and be read as is?

(5) AUTHENTICITY: Should a story be told only by a cultural “insider” to guarantee authenticity?

This year I'm privileged to introduce my 23 students via Skype to Gene Yuen Yang, award-winning author of BOXERS AND SAINTS, Stacy L. Whitman, editor at TU Books, and Yolanda Leroy, editorial director of Charlesbridge.  Since the theme of Jan Term 2014 is "metamorphoses," students will be comparing the "hero's journeys" in two novels for middle grade or young adult readers, and analyze themes of race, culture, and power in each story.

Students debated the question of book covers yesterday, and here are the presentations for your consideration.



A.C.E. Bauer said…
This sounds like such a great class. I wish I were the right age to take it, too. Your students sound wonderful.
Sangeeta said…
This does sound like a great class. The questions you've posed are excellent and I also wish I could participate! What books are on the syllabus? New releases? A mix of classic and contemporary novels?