Note on Classroom Use

As we note at the end of our introduction, this book aspires to provoke questions, create dialogue, and invite collaboration. In that spirit, here are some suggestions for using the book in the classroom.

While editing this second, more international edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature, we applied the lessons we were learning to our classroom practice. With the parameters outlined for the book’s contributors so clearly in our minds, both Lissa Paul and Phil Nel set “keywords assignments” for their students in their respective master’s level classes. Lissa’s assignment was for students in the winter 2017 session of “Introduction to Social and Cultural Contexts of Education: Developing a Critical Language”; Phil’s for the course “Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature” in spring 2017. In pedagogical terms, we both decided to give our students “problem-based learning assignments”—that is, the tasks we assigned to our students closely resembled the ones we gave to established scholars. Phil and Lissa gave similar assignments to their students, though Lissa designated hers as keywords “for education” and Phil “for children’s literature.” To avoid repetition, we have reproduced an edited version of Phil’s assignment here and are granting permission to use with appropriate credit.


Write an essay for Keywords for Children’s Literature. Your essay cannot be about a word that is already in the book. It needs to be about a keyword that the book has failed to include.

Choosing a Word

Choose a word that is not only crucial to the discussion of children’s literature but also contested or conflicted. As Raymond Williams wrote in his Keywords (1976, 1983b), keywords “involve ideas and values” and get used in “interesting or difficult ways”—and in different ways by different people. If you find that in critical conversations, a particular word is getting used in different ways by different people, then that is a candidate for your keyword. If you are stuck, take a second look at the introduction to Keywords for Children’s Literature.

Writing the Essay

Adopting, modifying, and expanding criteria from Bennett, Grossberg and Morris’s New Keywords and Burgett and Hendler’s Keywords for American Cultural Studies, we have developed the following guidelines:

  • Your definition should offer a scholarly account of the word’s origins in your mother tongue and in any other language you are familiar with. You should focus on a particular interpretation of the word’s significance for the study of children’s literature, media, and culture. Please look at the relevant entry or entries from the Oxford English Dictionary, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, or other relevant reference works that you might be able to access online via the databases at the library.
  • In your very first paragraph, begin with a history of the keyword itself. From there, move on to the critical controversies in which this keyword is enmeshed.
  • To quote the New Keywords editors, your essay “should offer concrete examples of usage.” Those examples should come from children’s literature (primarily) but can certainly include children’s culture and media. You are encouraged to include examples from at least two countries in order to add an international dimension to your essay. These might be from English-speaking countries across the world or other transnational contexts.
  • Include a bibliography of works cited at the end of your essay.

Though the instructions resemble those given to contributors to the first edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature, we did of course recognize that the students were at the beginnings of their academic careers, and we judged their work accordingly. In addition, we want to note that since Lissa’s students were encouraged to “think locally,” her students made specific references to school boards in the Niagara region, to provincial (Ontario) guidelines, and to Canadian contexts.

Because Lissa asked her students to identify keywords associated with pedagogical discourse and the “social and cultural” contexts of the course, students addressed issues related to class, gender, age, ability, religion, and race. Words under discussion in class included innocence, multicultural, race, and liminality, among others from Keywords for Children’s Literature, though the conversations expanded to include other critical terms such as hegemony and ideology. All the theoretical discussions were set in conversation with works of children’s literature in order to demonstrate the relationships between theory and practice. Throughout the term, Lissa was very pleased to find that the students used the experience of working with the essays they were reading to inform the essays they were writing.

Neither Phil nor Lissa was strict about essay length, but we aimed for around 1,500 words because that was the word count we set for contributors to the second edition. Lissa’s students initially thought that they would be able to manage the relatively short format with ease. That was before Lissa kept turning the drafts back for revision and insisting that the students bring the same professionalism to their essays that we expect from the authors writing for the book. As students began critiquing one another’s work, they also began to develop higher expectations for one another than they would typically have been accustomed to in a classroom context.

Throughout their courses, Phil and Lissa invited students to be receptive to potential keywords. When class discussions began to circulate around a particular idea, we (in our respective classes) would ask if that idea qualified as a keyword. In what different ways was the word being used? What ideas or values were at stake? Which literary texts might we discuss in such an essay? In Phil’s course, all eighteen students were required to choose their keywords in the seventh week (Lissa’s students had to choose sooner, by about the third week of their twelve-week course). In the twelfth week, Phil devoted one class day to workshopping the keywords papers: each student brought in multiple copies of a draft, and using a rubric, their fellow students evaluated the draft. (Having written a draft, several students also met with Phil to discuss the challenges they were facing.) Students then turned in and discussed their essays in class during the final week. As there were only six students in Lissa’s graduate class, some class time was given most weeks to discussions on the progress of the essays. Lissa also met with each student for individual tutorials.

Lissa and Phil used the first edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature as a core text in our respective classes and made donations to charity to offset the royalties (about a dollar) we receive for each book, Lissa to the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and Phil to Reading Is Fundamental.

Nina has used single essays from the first edition in optional courses on children’s literature and media at the graduate and undergraduate levels. For instance, Debra Dudek’s essay “Multicultural” proved very useful and thought provoking when informing Danish students (and teachers) on the history and use of the concept in an Anglo-Saxon context and in discussions of Scandinavian examples and national discussions of the term. It is a challenge to transfer the uses of contested terms to new geographical and cultural settings, since terms naturally have very different histories, meanings, values, and uses, and knowledge of fictional and scholarly examples differs across the globe.

For instance, Danish students were surprised to learn that in Sweden, the picture book Mustafas kiosk (1999) by Jakob Martin Strid, a well-known and award-winning Danish children’s poet and illustrator, was criticized for its depictions of the character named Mustafa. Danish readers would recognize Strid’s style of drawing and be familiar with his critical and satirical attitude toward most aspects of life and society. However, in 2013, some Swedish readers called out Strid’s illustrations for being offensive to minority groups. Such differences in the reception of specific words and images show us how cultural literacies emerge in dialogue among local, national, and international readers. Among the Danish students were teachers who had used Strid’s book with a diverse group of children, and their arguments for and against using the book put discussions of Keywords essays into perspective. Using the second edition, conversations about similar examples could be informed by essays such as “Authenticity,” “Identity,” “Taboo,” “Irony,” and “Nonsense” and thereby help students move beyond their own national knowledges.

During the editing process, we have been aware of the challenge of speaking across linguistic and cultural differences. As we have done while assembling this second edition, we encourage readers to pursue discussions of the interaction among local, national, and international aspects of children’s literature. In adapting the keyword assignments to a particular national context, additional questions for students’ production of their own keywords might include the following: How do your own linguistic or national contexts complicate or encourage a rethinking of a particular keyword essay? What would this information add to discussions of the term? Which local, cultural, or national parts of the etymology of the word, the history of use, and the discussions around the term are most relevant to include? How would examples of critical work and fiction from your local or national context enrich the discussions of the term?

Whether a person is an established scholar or a student, writing a keywords essay is one of the most challenging and intellectually rewarding assignments she or he can undertake. By compelling us to look closely at a single term’s many and conflicting permutations, writing one of these essays shows us how words can obscure what they purport to reveal. In teaching us how language can conceal complexity, the keywords essay can create a richer, more nuanced relationship not just with education and children’s literature but with discourse more generally. The process gives us what Williams calls “that extra edge of consciousness” (1983b, 24), enabling us to better examine our own acculturation and to develop our and our students’ critical literacies.