Children's Books Explore Real-World Issues

Jan Term Class Learns About Literature and Life Through Young People's Eyes

Mitali Perkins in library"If life is a story," Professor Mitali Perkins quipped, "seventh grade is when the plot thickens." And what better way to explore this moment than through children's books? Perkins' Jan Term course, "Race, Culture, and Power in Children's Books," is a celebration of this genre.

Seventh grade is when the cogs in Perkins' own story began to turn. Born in India, Perkins had seen Ghana, Cameroon, London, New York and Mexico by the time she was 11. But the "plot thickened" when her family moved to Pleasant Hill, Calif. As one of the few foreign children in a predominantly white neighborhood, Perkins grew up on the margins, an experience that informs how she approaches stories today, as a reader and as a writer herself.

"My eyes will look for people who have the least power, the least voice," she says. Her experience inspired her interest in issues of race and power.

But are children's books the best way to approach such issues? Freshman Kalani Sanders missed the phrase "children's books" in the course title when she signed up for the class. She was somewhat surprised on the first day, to say the least. "I just didn't think [such themes] were prevalent" in children's books, she said.

In fact, they're ubiquitous, Perkins says. Messages of race, culture and power are ingrained in us by books, films and pop culture, but they exist "below the waterline," and often beyond our ability to detect. Children, always open to the power of storytelling, are the most vulnerable.

"Books can shape children's hearts," Perkins says, not just their minds. You only have to look at a list of banned books to know this is true: from Huckleberry Finn to The Story of Babar, children's books dominate such lists, because we recognize the power they have.

Becoming Aware of Implicit Messages

Perkins hopes that her students will recognize this as well and that the class will help them become more aware of the implicit messages in children's literature and media in general. By rising "above the waterline," by thinking critically, they will be able to free themselves from the influence of subconscious conditioning, she believes.

So how are the students faring? The topic on the day I visited the class was "bowdlerizing books" (which the class agreed was a funny word), that is, censoring inappropriate or offensive material from a text. The students were in uproar. One called it "lying." Another stated that "works are the product of their time and should not be changed." If they are, the books lose their value. Another argued that if a text is evidence of a past oppression, “to hide [those parts] is to hide that oppression".

But what about children? a student countered. We can't present a book with, say, swear words or sexual content to an age group that won't be able to process it.

To make the discussion even more complex, Perkins divided the class into groups, with each taking on a separate persona on the issue of bowdlerizing Huckleberry Finn. One group consisted of "screenplay writers for Steven Spielberg's production of Huck Finn." Others were composed of "English teachers in an all-black school in Oakland," "teachers of a middle school ESL class," "members of the Mark Twain society," and even our very own "Saint Mary's English  Department faculty." The groups were encouraged to look at the issue through the lens of their new personas, true to the spirit of "Crossing Borders," the theme of Jan Term 2012. "I'm not looking for your opinion right now," Perkins announced.

After about ten minutes of heated discussion, the students presented their arguments. Some groups were still divided, much like in real life. Reaching a consensus was, after all, not the point of the exercise. The point was to inspire communication, debate and empathy for another's perspective.

Trying to Get Students to Think on Their Own

As for Perkins' own perspectives? "I don't express them," she stated, "I don't have an agenda for the students. I just want them to think."

And if they come up with a novel thought or find an interesting article, video or song that relates to a class discussion, the students can link it to the class's Facebook page for participation credit. "This generation is constantly writing," Perkins explained, and she is tapping into that drive. Early in the course, the students were asked to write a "six-word story" and post it to the page, combining the average college student's love of status updating and twitter-esque brevity into a homework assignment.

There was suspense: "Slight fall. Long drop. No rope."

And drama, too. "Friend came home to say goodbye."

Perkins, however, does not think her use of Facebook is especially novel. She says the decision was initially for the sake of convenience, but it has helped some of the quieter students participate, and it has promoted a sense of community within the class. The conversations continue long after class is over.

And there is plenty to discuss. Are ethnic book awards helpful or harmful? Can an author write authentically about a culture other than his or her own? Should books have faces on the cover? Freshman Jeneille Perry, a student in the class, argued in favor of faces, whereas Sanders disagreed. But the students said that, although their perspectives don't match, they do understand the others' positions.

For their last essay, the students had the choice of reading any one of six books on the class's syllabus, including Perkins' own Bamboo People, and the popular book – soon to be a movie – The Hunger Games. The issues that these books explore, such as xenophobia, prostitution and violence, may seem like heavy themes for children and young adults, but Perkins insists that they are pertinent.

"People underestimate kids' hearts," she says, "Some really care. Sometimes they care more."

And the goal of children's stories is to widen their hearts.   

By Indrani Sengupta '12

Photo by Thomas Vo '12