Thursday, December 1, 2011

What Makes a Book "Challenging Enough"?

This week I've been speaking with 7th and 8th graders about this year's Student Diversity Leadership Retreat which I am excited to be helping to plan and chaperone. This year's theme is media and becoming a more savvy, aware consumer of all forms of media. To spark the students' interest, I showed them a couple of television commercials and asked them to dissect the stereotypes they contained. I was impressed with their ability to look beyond the surface joke or message and recognize the common cultural assumptions or stereotypes that the ads were building on.

This got me thinking about a common request I have, which is to provide children with books that are "challenging enough." The question is, how do you define "challenging"? Just as you can relax on the sofa and mindlessly watch television, you can also take even the most vapid programming and analyze it in a complex way. Books are very similar!

Recently I had a wonderful conversation with a parent who said that her daughter didn't need to be challenged just by reading books with vocabulary levels at the upper limits of her comprehension because she recognized that challenge can come from complex ideas expressed in relatively simple language. This is especially true with realistic fiction, which usually portrays people speaking in naturalistic ways.

Three books I shared with students this week highlight this idea: Wild Wings by Gill Lewis, a chapter book I've been reading to 4th graders in connection with our information literacy exercises, and Traction Man Is Here! and Traction Man Meets Turbodog by Mini Grey, which are part of our kindergarten and 1st grade author unit on this very creative woman.

Wild Wings is not very difficult in terms of reading level, however it raises a number of challenging topics. There is a child in the book who is living in poverty. This is not stated outright, but is indicated through various contextual clues. In one scene she comes to school with no lunch, claiming she forgot it. In every 4th grade class we discussed this scenario: what appeared to be happening vs. the actual situation. Most students initially accepted at face value the idea that she forgot her lunch. However, every class had one child who suggested that this was her way of avoiding the embarrassment of admitting they didn't have enough food at home for her to bring any lunch. This insight led to some interesting conversations between the students about how people behave when they feel different, how peers can react in a kind and supportive way, and so on. This book, which might seem "easy" going just by reading level or vocabulary, is actually quite rich in meaning.

With the Mini Grey picture books, there were interesting contrasts in the developmental levels of most 1st graders as compared to most kindergartners. They are about a small boy engaging in imaginary play with his action figure. Many kindergartners initially interpreted the stories as being about a real, animated little person, rather than about a child playing the way they do with their own stuffed animals, dolls, action figures, etc., setting up scenarios using household objects and giving voice to an inanimate object. There is one scene in the second book in which Turbodog, an electronic toy, wakes up a sleeping cat. Traction Man comments, "Well, thanks for that, Turbodog." This simple statement is actually fairly complex, since the reader must understand that it was used sarcastically to actually mean the opposite. Both books contain many layers of meaning in pictures and text, as well as implied value statements about creativity and imagination - all conveyed through very little text, most of which is quite simple.

When you see your child reading an apparently too easy book, it can be a great opportunity to challenge him or her to think more deeply about the material! Wondering where to start with this discussion? Try this list of Universal Questions that work well for chapter books. With picture books, I also like to ask some of the following:

What kind of techniques or materials do you recognize in the art work? Why do you think the illustrator chose to use these materials?

Why do you think the illustrator drew [point to example] in this way? How else might he/she have drawn this? Why choose this part of a scene to illustrate, rather than something else? Do the pictures communicate the same meaning as the words? Or do they contradict each other? Why do you think that is?

Why do you think the words were printed on the page in this way? Would it have made a difference in how you feel about the book if the font were different?

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