- Children's Literature and Learner Empowerment: Children and Teenagers in English Language Education by Janice Bland, and: Reading for Learning: Cognitive Approaches to Children's Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
We live in times of academic capitalism. For the past thirty years or so, this viral ebolaic breed of capitalism has been colonizing education, a public good fundamental to a democratic society, and transforming it into a throat-cutting, profit-maximizing enterprise. Education is the only business where prices have been increasing irrespective of market fluctuations, averaging an approximate 800 percent rise since the 1980s—about twice as much as the price increase for any other commodity including health care, gas, real estate, what have you. Run by administrators, who are victims and hostages of management theory with its flagship terms of “excellence,” “process management,” “strategic plans,” and “assessment,” the whole idea of education is beleaguered as never before. Within education, the field that has taken the most pummeling is one in which expertise cannot be distilled down to something that can be measured by a standardized test and where there is seldom one correct answer.1 It is against this grim background that Janice Bland's and Maria Nikolajeva's latest books appear as expert defenses of the humanities in general, and of children's literature in particular.
Put tersely, Bland's Children's Literature and Learner Empowerment is a spirited argument for using original, unabridged children's and YA literature in the EFL classroom in place of truncated, artificial texts. Nikolajeva's [End Page 121] Reading for Learning, in turn, is both an overview of cognitive approaches to children's literature and a vindication of that literature—in fact, of all narrative fiction—as the best tool we have for honing young people's cognitive-affective skills. Although Bland does not employ the cognitive critical apparatus, her entire book is grounded in recognition that literary narratives provide the young audience with actable models, scripts, and schemata for complex ideas, ethical/cultural knowledge, and critical thinking skills that inevitably entail cognitive and affective responses. Thus, there's a significant overlap between the two studies. Perhaps the greatest similarity is both authors' insistence on the importance of reading and discussing books. Like Bland, who sharply distinguishes between general literacy—basic decoding and comprehension skills in any language—and “literary literacy” (5) that emerges only from extensive reading and includes “visual literacy” (16) as well as “critical cultural literacy” (24), so too Nikolajeva speaks of the importance of “deep reading, or reading for meaning” (14) that is not the same as general literacy, and allows a cognitive-affective engagement with literature and thus “the possibility of learning and understanding of other people in a way unattainable in real life” (75).
The other, structural, similarity is that each book employs one central distinction as a lynchpin of its argument. Bland's study hinges on the difference between well-crafted versus poorly crafted texts for children, and Bland argues that the high-quality literature of the first category is sadly missing from most L2 (second-language) textbooks. For Nikolajeva, the fundamental distinction is that between the categories of novice and expert readers—with most children seen as novice readers on one or more levels. As always, each distinction is helpful in some ways but problematic in others. Bland's characterization of well-crafted and poorly crafted texts is persuasive (8), especially when Bland stresses that gaps, indeterminacies, lexical density, and other complexities of language are beneficial—in fact, necessary—for genuine learning (9–13); nevertheless, Bland's work cannot escape the question of who sets the standard for “good” children's literature or the fact that competing criteria may be applied. Some books or formats are better for honing visual literacy—as explored in chapter 2, “Developing the Mind's Eye with Picturebooks,” and chapter 3, “Bridging a Curricular Gap with Graphic Novels.” Others, like the postmodern fairy tales examined...