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  • Expectations:Titles, Stories, Pictures
  • Perry Nodelman (bio)

In The Act of Reading, Wolfgang Iser says that "throughout the reading process there is a continual interplay between modified expectations and transformed memories"(p. 83)—between what we expect and what we actually get, between what we actually get and what preceded it. Louise Rosenblatt describes how, as one begins a story, "one evolves certain expectations about the diction, the subject, the ideas, the themes, the kind of text that will be forthcoming. . . . As the reading proceeds, attention will be fixed on the reverberations or implications that result from fulfillment or frustration of those expectations" (p. 54). Since literary critics who concern themselves with readers' responses make much of the expectations we bring to literature, I decided to explore the expectations of some of my students. My doing so told me much about responses to literature; and it showed my students both how they themselves could learn to respond to literature with more consciousness and appreciation of subtlety, and how they could better teach those skills to children.

At various times during the children's literature course I taught last fall, I asked students to record their responses to parts of the same story: first the title, then the first sentence, then the story as a whole. I used Chris Van Allsburg's The Garden of Abdul Gasazi for a number of reasons. First, the book is new enough that I thought few students would be familiar with it; in fact, only one was. Second, the story follows some of the basic story patterns of children's literature that I intended to discuss in the course, in particular, the "home-away-home" pattern, in which a character, a child or animal, leaves a home he is dissatisfied with, and has adventures that teach him to appreciate the home he returns to better. I wanted to see if knowledge of its conventional aspects would change my students' responses to this book. Third, I wanted to point out to them how pictures can control our response to a text, and I thought the pictures in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi were unusual enough to make that point for me.

At the beginning of the course, I asked the students to describe the expectations aroused in them first by the title, then by the title and the first sentence. Some weeks later, after we had discussed a number of the qualities and patterns of children's literature, I asked them if their expectations had [End Page 9] changed. I then read them the whole story, and asked them to compare their actual experience of it with their expectations. On a later occasion, I asked them what sort of pictures they expected; then I read them the text while I showed them the pictures, and asked for comments on the relationship between what they expected and what they actually saw.

I was also teaching another section of the same course; for the sake of comparison, I followed the same procedures with these students, but I didn't begin until after our discussion of basic story patterns; that way, I could see if previous experience engendered different sorts of first responses.

My student's original responses to the title of the story reveal their expectations both of stories in general, and of children's stories in particular. The mere fact that I told them The Garden of Abdul Gasazi was a story led them to expect a certain sort of experience: a set of events that would be interesting, rather than, say, a list of types of vegetables or a description of a tourist attraction:

"I expect from the title that I will like the story because many things happen in gardens." "The story is probably full of incidents that occur in connection with Mr. Gasazi's precious garden." "I expect there to be some sort of conflict with the garden which will be resolved by the end of the story." "I expect that some problem will arise concerning the garden or an event will take place there." "It may be a good story where a problem is solved and they live happily ever after."

These students...


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