- Reading Otherways
Being a critical reader is a skill or craft that results from aptitude and inclination combined with hard work and practice. Those who teach this skill have the responsibility of introducing students to the overall practice of being a critical reader and the challenge of doing so in a manner that encourages rather than discourages. In teaching children’s literature at a college or university, this challenge is complicated by the fact that many of the students in children’s literature courses have very little experience with literary analysis. Asking them to analyze children’s texts for literary or cultural qualities, rather than for pedagogical usefulness or age appropriateness, is analogous to placing them in a foreign country where they know neither the language nor the culture. Thus, we must introduce literary analysis and discussion in ways that are not threatening but that do encourage close looking and rigorous thinking.
Reading Otherways by Lissa Paul offers an example of how to present literary theory and analysis in a nonthreatening and practical way. It is an examination of Paul’s own process of arriving at understandings of texts, and her self-examination is a part of what makes the act of analyzing and [End Page 446] the use of theory nonthreatening. By making the process personal and by demonstrating the dead ends, revisions, and help received from others, Paul shows that interpretations do not spring from the mind fully grown and clothed, but rather that analysis is a roundabout exploration in which there is not necessarily an end—it is an ongoing process.
The inspiration for Reading Otherways came from a question put to her by her students, asking how she learned to “think like that” (7). She says that the question “made me consciously remember how my ways of looking and thinking had changed, and how feminist criticism had contributed to that change. I reconstructed a remembered story, and offered it as a kind of answer” (7–8). The chapters that follow are, in effect, that reconstruction.
The book begins with an introduction to the process and theoretical underpinnings of Paul’s approach. Discussing Walter Crane’s nineteenth-century interpretation of “Sleeping Beauty,” Paul demonstrates how she has rethought her approaches to analysis, first demonstrating how New Criticism would interpret the texts, written and visual, and then challenging that reading, using a feminist perspective. As she says:
The account of Crane’s version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and my rethinking of it hints at how my approaches to texts and interpretations have been influenced by feminist thinking as well as by recent critical developments in cultural studies and post-colonial discourse. It explains (albeit obliquely) how I’ve learned to think differently, helped by questions about subject, reader and context.(10)
In plain language, she then explains the shifting literary theories of the mid- and late-twentieth centuries. She contends throughout the book that no one of these theories can or should predominate. The usefulness of theoretical approaches comes from the multiple possibilities, the lack of “totalizing discourses” (16) and the “network of questions rather than resolutions to them” (17).
In keeping with the pedagogical approach of the book, Paul offers a series of questions that readers can ask as part of the process of analysis. The questions include: Whose story is this? Who is the reader? When and where was the reading produced? Who is named? and who is not? Who is on top? Who gets punished? and who gets praised? Who speaks? and who is silenced? (16). They encourage readers both to look within any given text at who the characters are and what they do as well as to look outside of the text at the conditions in which it was produced, the author’s life and commentary, the implied readers, and the analyzer’s own position and context.
The chapters that follow provide discussions of different types of children’s literature and demonstrate the different approaches that may be [End Page 447] necessary in order to come to an understanding of a text. Chapter 2, “What...