The What-If World

Nancy Marie Brown
September 01, 1993

One chilly day in the fall, when the tops of the waves rolled in white to the shore, Danina strolled on the beach. She pulled her cape around her for warmth. And the three maidservants before her and the three manservants behind shivered in the cold. Her father in his covered chair pulled his blanket to his chin and stared out to sea. He was cold and unhappy, but he was more afraid to leave Danina alone.

Suddenly the wind blew across the caps of the waves, tossing foam into the air.

Danina turned to welcome him, stretching out her arms. The cape billowed behind her like the wings of a giant bird.

"Who are you?" thundered Danina's father, jumping out of his chair.

The wind spun around Danina and sang:

Who am I? I call myself the wind. I am not always happy. I am not always kind.

"Nonsense," roared Danina's father. "Everyone here is always happy and kind. I shall arrest you for trespassing." And he shouted, "GUARDS!"

man being carried by walking throne

From The Girl Who Loved the Wind, © 1972 Jane Yolen

Daniel Hade, who brought Jane Yolen to campus last spring, teaches children's literature to aspiring schoolteachers in Penn State's College of Education. "My students are acutely aware they are reading children's literature," he once wrote, "so when they read, they seem to read not just for themselves, but also for the children they imply as readers."

Their responses at first irritated him. They said of a folktale, for example: This is a good lesson for kids to learn.

Of a different story: What an awful example to set!

Or, When I was little, I loved Dr. Seuss books; now I am not sure I agree with the children letting a complete stranger in the house while mother is away.

And, I do believe this affects a child's attitudes in the long run, if they hear it often enough, and is potentially dangerous. No fairy godmothers exist; the prince is not going to come.

His students, noted Hade, when he had collected and analyzed some 494 responses, seemed "to view stories as possible carriers of disease."

But he also had "to admit that what my students were doing was really not much different from what all critics and scholars do, it is just that they lacked experience in the accepted ways of talking ethically, ways which do not close off other possible meanings."

At that point, Hade stopped teaching children's literature. "Rather I am teaching the ethics of reading children's literature," he explained.

Teachers "do have a responsibility to children but it is not primarily to keep 'bad' books away from them. Rather it is to initiate and sustain a conversation with children about stories." Only in that safe, gray, "what-if" world, between our "inner stories" (the ones we tell about ourselves to ourselves alone) and the real world of actions, can we "attend to our differing sense of morality . . . and grow as readers and as human beings."

quoteMy father did gun-running for the Irgun and he looked like a leprechaun," Jane Yolen told a radio interviewer before she spoke at Hade's spring conference, Children's Literature Matters. "As far as he was concerned," she continued, "he was born when he was 18 and ran away from home and became a newspaperman. My father's side are the storytellers."

As a child, Yolen sat in a window overlooking Central Park and "devoured whole cultures while, four floors below, real life went on. I grew up," she said in her lecture, "because of and inside of books." As an adult, she was surprised to learn that "all grown-ups don't write. That was my surprise. I write for discovery as I read for discovery."

Yolen is the author of Owl Moon, Greyling, The Girl Who Loved the Wind, and some 125 more, including The Seeing Stick, written when a friend's child was born blind. Keeping "the dragon behind the wall . . .," she explained, keeping the forces of darkness "at bay by the power of story—that is what I do."

To her audience at Children's Literature Matters, Yolen told the story of a child with multiple sclerosis who used the fable "Beauty and the Beast" to win her classmates' understanding, and that of Anne-Marie, a dying child whose nurse read her The Girl Who Loved the Wind, about a girl who disobeys her father: "She hardly moved but to turn her eyes toward me as I came in," the nurse wrote. But as the story took hold, "the fear and pain stepped back into the corners of the room." Soon after, the child died. And, the nurse wrote, "I knew that that story had truly served to comfort the passing of that child." Yolen paused, allowing her audience to ponder whom indeed it had comforted.

"What do we turn to when we have nothing left?" she asked. "We turn to metaphor. We turn to story."

The students in Hade's children's literature classes are often not born readers. Many have never read the books on his syllabus. "I get a lot of anger," he says. "They look at the copyright dates. 'This was around when I was in school!' they say. 'Where were my teachers!'"

The father of two girls, ages 8 and 14, Hade studied history and religion in college, went to seminary, taught fifth grade, and worked as a school librarian (I want the book I had last week, you know, the green one . . .). He then returned for a Ph.D. at Ohio State; for his dissertation he studied a literature-based second-and-third-grade classroom, examining "how the culture of the classroom suggested how children ought to read literature."

In a paper about this research project, he cited a definition of children's literature by a scholar named F.J. Harvey Darton: "printed works produced ostensibly to give children spontaneous pleasure, and not primarily to teach them, nor solely to make them good, nor to keep them profitably quiet." Yet the crucial word, Hade warns, when asked to discuss the genre, is that passive "produced."

"Any time you're getting to kids and their books you're going through several filters of adults.

"This is an adult show. Adults are the writers, editors, reviewers, teachers, people like me, bookstore owners . . . It's something that's very political, and bound into it is a complex web of ethical relationships. It is those relationships I study."

In his elementary education classes, Hade narrows in on "the ethics of readers toward other readers, especially when one group of readers is adults and the other is children." Adult control here comes in two guises: One is the "heresy" of "reading a piece of fine literature as one would a moral tract." As he wrote of his students, "They seem to believe that stories have one meaning or one best meaning. . . . It does not seem to occur to my students that a child's experience in reading a book could be different from their own. Nor does it occur to them that there may be other ways of dealing with immoral elements in books than by telling children what to make of the book or by suppressing the book."

This heresy he blames on his students' "histories as readers." "What my students know about reading when they begin my class," he says, "is what they have been taught since elementary school: Reading is sounding out letters and words. Reading is filling out worksheets. Reading is producing what the teacher wants you to produce. Reading a text is something you do quickly and only once. The meaning of a work is what someone else— either the teacher or the teacher's manual—has decided that work means."

It is a good description of Hade's second hobgoblin: what he terms "the basalization of literature," or "the use of literature to teach skills in a controlled way."

"I see reading as a community experience," he explains, "especially with children. Reading is about experiencing different worlds. It is about playing with language and with possible meanings. No one dismisses the letter-sound relationship in reading," he continues, "but I don't want that to dominate. If a teacher spends all or most of the time on issues of proficiency, children will think of books as letters and sounds. Issues such as, 'What I think about the book,' become so secondary as to be almost not there. Reading becomes just a question of figuring out what the teacher already knows."

Hade starts his course on the ethics of reading children's literature with "a real page-turner": Charlotte's Web. A Stranger Came Ashore. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Number of the Stars. "I read aloud to them. Provocative things. 'Is this a children's book, or not?' I'll ask. 'Does it have things in it I don't want children to see?'

"Most of my students are female and white, so I hit gender issues hard. 'Is it a stereotype, or a caricature? Do you think kids can't tell the difference? Is the message from books so powerful that it's going to override TV? If they see worse on TV, does that make it right?'

"I don't want to dismiss the importance of learning how to read," he explains, "but learning to read is not an end in itself. We want to read because it's something we think is important to our way of life."

quoteIspent my life reading everything," Patricia MacLachlan, the award-winning writer of Sarah, Plain and Tall, told her "meet- the-author" group at Children's Literature Matters.

"I think you develop taste by reading a vast array of things until you find something that stands the test of time. What better thing than a book like Charlotte's Web that you can read to five-year-olds, that they can read themselves at 10, that you can read—or reread —at 25 or 50?" But she also read, avidly, Nancy Drew mysteries and the stories about Sue Barton, Student Nurse.

"One of the reasons I'm a writer," she continued, "is that we didn't have a TV in my house when I was a child. I gained access to the adult world through books."

MacLachlan and Jane Yolen are much of a kind: comfortable figures (both lectured in loose black pantsuits), with short gray hair, not taken to much makeup or glitz. The two live in the same Massachusetts valley ("it stinks with writers," MacLachlan said) and belong to the same writers' group. Yet their eyes give them away: Yolen's are earnest, dark, capable of a wide, affronted startle; MacLachlan's are darting, light, narrowed with a haughty mischief.

She leaned across the autograph table at Children's Literature Matters, her line of fans finished, Yolen's still backed up thirty deep, and caught the eye of Hade's eight-year- old daughter. "You should braid it," she whispered.

The girl looked puzzled. "My hair?" she asked. It was easily as short as MacLachlan's own. MacLachlan smiled a winking smile. "No, his." She nodded toward Hade, her fingers combing the air. "Two braids. Fat. Pigtails."

Hade's daughter grinned, eyed her father's longish hair.

It was a good illustration of how children's writers earn readers. According to Hade, "The number-one problem for a children's writer is how to get rid of the adults. You can only have so many orphans before it becomes a cliche."

And the adults have got to go, explained Hade in a review of two scholarly compendiums, because children's literature "is the descendant of trickster stories." "Instead of Jack tricking the giant or Anasi tricking powerful animals, it is children tricking the adults." ("Being subversive," he noted, "is one of the few means for the less powerful to achieve control over their lives.")

"Children's literature, then, is about repression and overcoming repression through deceit." Writers of children's books are the child's most faithful allies: Like MacLachlan, they've declared on the side of mischief. Noted Hade, "Very very few child characters (in the books children truly love) ever really give in. . . .

"But repression isn't just a condition of childhood," he pointed out. "Everyone has experienced repression and oppression in some form and at some time." Everyone needs an ally, though it be conjured out of paper and ink.

Mary Houck was one of the 330 teachers, librarians, students, and scholars who came to meet Jane Yolen, Patricia MacLachlan, and the third speaker, Deborah Nourse Lattimore, at Children's Literature Matters. She came (and paid her own way), Houck said, "Because it reinforces what I believe in."

In Houck's first-grade classroom at the elementary school in the one-stoplight town of Port Matilda, PA, there are four bookcases as tall as she is: These she bought to put her books in, the school's shelves being already full.

"I hated reading," Houck said softly of her childhood. "I became a teacher because of my first-grade teacher. We sat in rows. The first person read and then the next, down the row. If you missed a word, you went to the back of the class. It was very traumatic.

"I became a teacher because I never wanted another child to go through that again."

Yet when Houck began teaching in 1969, she used the same Dick and Jane she had learned to read from. It's only been in the last two or three years, she said, that her school district has allowed her to dispense with such basal readers and teach directly from such books as Yolen's Owl Moon or Mouse's Birthday. "Since I've been doing this, there's more excitement every day. So many stories are out!

"This one—" (she holds up her autographed copy of Mouse's Birthday) "—this one has enough repetition in it that most of the kids will be able to read it, that is, they will memorize it and think they can read it, and pretty soon they can.

"You can still teach all your skills.You can teach them right from the story: phonics, parts of speech, punctuation, certain letters, rhyming words. Just look for these things in the story.

"And the kids—" she added, smiling. "There's a new light in their eyes. Since I've started using literature, I can't keep the kids out of the books. They like to read."

But before the guards could come, Danina had spread her cape on the water. Then she stepped onto it, raised one corner, and waved good-bye to her father. The blowing wind filled the cape's corner like the sail of a ship.

And before Danina's father had time to call out, before he had time for one word of repentance, she was gone. And the last thing he saw was the billowing cape as Danina and the wind sailed far to the west into the ever-changing world.

— from The Girl Who Loved the Wind, © 1972 Jane Yolen

Daniel D. Hade, Ph.D., is assistant professor in the department of curriculum and instruction, College of Education, 255 Chambers Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2161. The Girl Who Loved the Wind by Jane Yolen was published in 1972 by the Thomas Y. Crowell Company of New York; used by permission.

Last Updated September 01, 1993