Tuesday, September 30, 2014

In Church and Library Basements, Old Illuminates New

We focus so much on the new, new, new: the latest books and curriculum materials. But we forgot the joys that the old can bring. For example, a good church or library book sale allows for the serendipitous find - the book you never knew existed, yet another version of a favorite book. We always say that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I have enjoyed over the years sharing with classes my different copies of Little Women and Pride and Prejudice, virtually all plucked out of dusty cardboard boxes in library and church basements. 

Just look at the these covers, from 1961 to 1985. Consider the following: 
  • What was the publisher thinking?
  • What does the cover "say" about the story ?
  • How might this cover compare to other book covers of the time? 
  • From this collection of covers, what might we infer about the story and how it has been "spun" over time to the public via cover art? 
How many different copies of the same book can you gather at tag sales and books sales this fall? Perhaps it's a book that is considered required reading at your school. How can you use the varying cover art as way to get students curious about the actual book? What can they infer from the various representations of cover art? 

Now, look at what I found recently at a used book sale! A first edition biography of Thomas Jefferson, written by the winner of the first Newbery Medal, Hendrik Willem Van Loon. When reading through pieces of this book, few of the criteria that Myra articulated yesterday comes to mind : word choice, text features, page design, author's note, and illustrations. However, there is much to discuss with young people using this book. 

Myra has written often about the "visible author," about the author as a guide who takes the student reader on a journey through the content of a text, how that content is constructed, and the author makes sense of it. While this book is written in 1943, Van Loon is, in many cases, a "visible author." Now Van Loon is not "visible" the way that Myra talk about authors making themselves visible. Overall, there is a very engaging and conversational tone to the book. This is not stiff, work-for-hire series biography. It's interesting and funny, except when it borders on offensive. He does not comment on the process of doing history, but throughout his writing on Jefferson, he reveals a great deal of his own thinking about social class, religion, immigration, etc. Is this simply a biography of Thomas Jefferson, for young people? No..it is also a window into the author's worldview as an immigrant turned citizen in 1943, in the midst of World War II. While he presents no author's note, there is a "Afterthought," which provides select primary source material from Jefferson's own writing, curated by the author. In addition, the author biography takes up the entire back cover, and is also somewhat intimate and conversational in tone. He reveals a great deal about himself. So how do we harness this out-of-date biography?

If I were still teaching middle school, I would have students divide up the chapters, each group reading a single chapter, but not to acquire a full understanding of the chronology of Jefferson's life. Rather, I would have each group comb through the chapter to locate each and every time they see Van Loon's worldview seeping into the text. How often does it happen? In what contexts? Next, I would have students compare and contrast this writing style (and the related content) with newer works on Jefferson, such as the following three titles. What does this tell them about the art of writing biography? 

1 comment:

  1. This is such an interesting approach. I think it's fascinating to consider the author's world view and how it is revealed in his or her writing.