Note on Classroom Use

Each entry in Keywords for Children’s Literature maps a series of questions, rather than providing conclusive answers. In the spirit of Raymond Williams’ Keywords and of Bruce Burgett and Glen Hendler’s Keywords for American Cultural Studies, our book invites exploration, discussion, and challenge. When using the book in a classroom setting, teachers embrace these generative possibilities to get their students thinking more deeply about the contradictions, problems, and complexities that circulate within and around children’s literature.

Since the publication of Keywords for Children’s Literature in 2011, instructors have used the text in both graduate and undergraduate courses in Library and Information Studies, Education, Social and Cultural Studies, Comparative Literature, and English (notably, Young Adult Literature and other Children’s Literature courses). By structuring courses so that primary texts are read in conjunction with specific keywords essays, instructors encourage the interrogation and application of terms used in their particular disciplines. Instructors also have students trace histories and uses of individual keyword concepts across disciplines, and explore relationships between theoretical essays and their “real world” applications. Jon Wargo, for instance, asks the students in his Education class to consider the relevance of “critical interpretation” in specific Keywords for Children’s Literature essays “on larger questions of identity, agency, and textuality” and how those “themes inform instruction in English language arts.”

Instructors typically use Keywords for Children’s Literature in one of three ways. Some choose critical concepts on which to structure their courses and then select primary texts to illustrate: they might explore the politics of race in America by beginning with the essays on Race and African-American, and then reading Walter Dean Myers’ novel Monster. Other instructors start by choosing works of children’s literature first, then selecting critical concepts to illuminate interpretive possibilities. Reading Coraline, for instance, in the context of Aesthetics, Girlhood, Fantasy, Identity and Innocence demonstrates that texts reveal themselves differently depending on which critical lens you use. In the context of “Fantasy,” for instance, a reader learns to attend, as Deirdre Baker (the author of the essay) says, to the ways in which images in the text function as poetry “invented through the mingling and unmingling of the imagery of the ‘real world’” in order “to convey truths that cannot be encompassed by language” (84). Switch the critical lens to, say, “Innocence,” and Marah Gubar (the essay’s author) changes your focus: readers look, as Gubar says, quoting James Kincaid, at the dangers of “the hollowing out of children by way of purifying them of any stains” (121). Either of these first two strategies emphasize the ways in which critical concepts bring terms otherwise casually bandied about (“multicultural,” for example) into sharp focus by providing access to their specific cultural and disciplinary histories.

A third way is to invite students to write a “missing” entry for Keywords for Children’s Literature. Each entry must be a keyword that the book has failed to include. This is a challenging, tricky assignment. First, it’s important to reiterate the criteria for a keyword. Students must choose a word that is crucial to the discussion of children’s literature, but also that is contested or conflicted. So, if they find that, in critical conversations, a particular word or phrase is getting used in different ways, then there’s a candidate for their keyword. If they’re stuck, they should take a second look at our book’s introduction or at Williams’ introduction to Keywords. Next, borrowing, modifying, and expanding criteria from Bennett, Grossberg and Morris’ New Keywords and Burgett and Hendler’s Keywords for American Cultural Studies,offer guidelines modeled on those we (Lissa and Phil) gave to our contributors:

  • Your definition should offer a scholarly account of the word’s origins, but should focus on a particular interpretation of the word’s significance for the study of children’s literature and culture.  Please look at the relevant entry or entries from the Oxford English Dictionary, and (when possible) other relevant material — such as entries from Williams’ KeywordsNew KeywordsKeywords for American Cultural Studies, and/or other related critical works.
  • In your very first paragraph, begin with a history of the keyword itself.  From there, move into the critical controversies in which this keyword is enmeshed.
  • To quote New Keywords’ editors, your entry “should offer concrete examples of usage.”  Those examples should come from children’s literature (primarily) but can certainly include children’s culture. Your mandate is to focus on traditions in English, but we invite you to include non-English traditions if or when you can.
  • Following Burgett and Hendler’s Keywords for American Cultural Studies, we wish you to address the following questions as each relates to the study of children’s literature and culture:
    • What kind of critical projects does your keyword enable?
    • What are the critical genealogies of the term and how do these genealogies affect its use today?
    • Are there ways of thinking that are occluded or obstructed by the use of this term?
    • What other keywords constellate around it? With which other keywords is your keyword in conversation?

(We added a sentence to the last one, but otherwise all four of these are taken verbatim from Burgett and Hendler.)

  • To help these entries connect to one another, you might swap drafts with a classmate working on a related word (or words).  For example, during the production of Keywords for Children’s Literature, Mavis Reimer (Home) and Claudia Nelson (Domestic) were in conversation about their words, as was Philip Nel (Postmodernism) and Kimberley Reynolds (Modernism).
  • The best definitions will perform a mapping that explores the tensions within and around a given term.
  • Entries will range between 500 and 3000 words, though they can be longer if need be.  Word count does not include “Works Cited,” though your entry should include citations.

To help them plan this exercise, instructors should encourage students to choose a word by the middle of the semester and to talk to the instructor about it. A month after that, students are required to bring in a full draft of their paper to class, for a paper workshop. The final paper can be due a couple of weeks later. On the day they turn it in, assign no other reading assigned, but instead talk about what challenged them, how they met those challenges and what they learned. Some keywords students have proposed include orality, nostalgia, genre, moral, family, fairy tale, and violence — words which would, we think, be candidates for a future edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature. Students find this a difficult assignment, but they also report learning a great deal from it. Struggling with a keyword yields greater depth of knowledge and more nuanced understanding.

Keywords for Children’s Literature is intended to be generative, not definitive. In fact, as editors, on one of our earliest “test-drives” of the volume, we took it to Europe and Scandinavia where we became sharply conscious of our Anglo-American emphasis, and worked, with the help of colleagues to develop a more international set of keywords and examples for a future edition. We hope our book inspires you and your students to explore the complexities and contradictions concealed beneath common words, and to raise questions for which there may be no clear answers.