Back-to-School Special, Part II: Pimp My Syllabus

Norton Critical Edition of Alice in WonderlandYes, it might have made more sense to post this query prior to the new semester, rather than just after the term has begun.  But my tendency to work close to deadlines means that the syllabus is never finished until just before the term starts.  In any case, I’ll be teaching Literature for Children again, and – as always – would like to make the course better.

I’ve taught the class over two dozen times in the last decade, and have revised the syllabus along the way – omitting some texts, adding others.  Last spring, I revamped the paper assignments.  I now gear them towards (a) getting students to think beyond their likes and dislikes, and (b) keeping up with the field, finding new books.  For the first assignment, they write about a childhood favorite: what attracted them to the book then, and how is their response to the book now similar and different to what it was then?  For the second, they look at the same book, answering instead how the book works.  What genre is the book?  Is it a successful example of the genre?  And Tango Makes ThreeFor the third, they need to find a new book (published in the last ten years) of a different type – different genre, and different intended audience.  And it cannot be a book from the syllabus.  Then they need to answer the same questions posed for the second paper.  I really like this assignment because it pushes students towards appreciating the value of books that may not be to their individual tastes.

But I invoke the popular MTV program (2004-2007) in my blog post’s title because I’d like to shake up the syllabus a bit.  What I have works, but it could work better.  I’d like to improve in three areas, the first of which is “diversity” in two senses of the term: first as an identity category, and second as a genre category.  Ideally, I’d find works that expand diversity in both ways.  It’s very important to me that anything on the syllabus be a good representative of any category: nothing can be included solely as a “diversity” candidate.  The third area I’d like to improve is newness. I always bring in books (some old, some new) not on the syllabus: for example, this past Wednesday, when I taught The Giving Tree (chosen because it can be read many ways, and because it’s a book that provokes discussion), I also brought in the recent parody, The Taking Tree.  When I teach In the Night Kitchen, I always show them some Little Nemo in Slumberland strips. Etc. But I’d like to give some of the newbies a more permanent place.  Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd, Goodnight MoonI’ll of course retain some historical focus, and certain classic texts will remain: fairy tales, Maurice Sendak, Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown, Langston Hughes (I’ve not listed specific titles of poems on the syllabus, but some of his are in the class pack).  But, as I say, I want to add more recent books.

So, children’s-literature-readers, with the above objectives in mind, which texts should go?  And which texts should be added?  (The age cut-off, by the way, is adolescence – at Kansas State University, Literature for Adolescents is a separate course.)  Clicking on this sentence will take you to my current Literature for Children syllabus – click on the link or scroll down to the Schedule of Assignments.  Thanks in advance for any thoughts you might have.


  1. Reply

    Reading about your criteria for evaluating/analyzing the books makes me think of my own current experience as a father of two little girls, 2 and 5 years old. Both girls are firmly in the “if I like it I want it to be read to me 100s of times” camp, and so the ability to read the book out loud is really key. Selecting a book for a different intended audience got me pondering about the transition from read-aloud to sit in the corner and read it yourself, and how the need for poetry and stage directions changes when the reading-parent is less in the picture.

    What brought me to your blog is my love of Dr. Seuss. I’m a printmaker, and I’ve always been a fan of his artwork and the design of his page, but it wasn’t until I started reading his books out loud over and over and over again that I really started to appreciate his genius. I like them as much now after reading them who-knows-how-many times, because they are a pleasure to perform. Not only the rhyme, but the use of line breaks and capitalization give clear stage directions for the reader – it’s like a script for a one-reader play. When I read a lesser book, I’m stumbling around the text, having a hard time coming up for air, or just looking forward to getting to the end.

    Anyway, thanks a bunch for the blog!

  2. Reply

    Phil, I love these assignments. I do something like your 1&2 combined, with some historical research as well, at the end of my course–but I like breaking it down and doing it the way you do. I also have a question: does your class really meet 3xweek for almost two hours at a time? That’s way longer than our classes, and I’m wondering what level your students are.

    As for suggestions, I’m not sure i have any off-hand. Though, Becoming Naomi Leon works kind of nicely along with A Single Shard. I also notice that other than poetry and Alice, there’s not much historical children’s lit here–would you consider, say, excerpts from The Jungle Book alongside The Graveyard Book, maybe substituting for Coraline? (Though Coraline does teach so beautifully alongside Alice…)

    I teach mine again next fall and I may steal/adapt your assignments–I really like the way you lay them out!

  3. Reply

    Libby: Nope, the class does not meet for 2 hours at a time. That would be a typo. I have two sections, first meeting from 1:30-2:20 and the second from 2:30-3:20. Oopsie. I’ll fix that. Thanks for the suggestions! I did think about substituting The Graveyard Book for Coraline. It’s now out in paperback, and a great book. But, as you say, Coraline works well with Alice. It also allows you to talk about Freud’s concept of the uncanny. So… I ended up keeping it. Thanks for the recommendation of Becoming Naomi Leon! That’s one I had not considered. You’re also right on the relative lack of historical children’s lit. I include some didactic tales (late 18th & early 19th centuries); the Little Red Riding Hood tales include Perrault, Grimm, “The Story of Grandmother”; I also teach Carroll’s Alice & “Jabberwocky” from Through the Looking-Glass. But much of the syllabus is post-WWII. Good point. Your comment makes me notice that another gap is early 20th-century. The Tale of Peter Rabbit is on there, and I bring in some Peter Newell when I teach the “postmodern” picture books. So, maybe what I need is less contemporary and more historical! Hmmm.

    Marc: Glad you’re enjoying the blog! Thanks for saying so! I do post some Seuss curiosities (follow the tags!) from time to time. And, in the class, I do a Seuss unit because (a) so much of the course is a survey, and I want to do at least one author in depth; and (b) I happen to know a lot about Seuss. Thanks, both, for posting!

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    I tend to think in “themes” and pairings, Phil–I’m thinking I may use The Graveyard Book the next time because I think a lot about what children’s lit tells us about education, and vice versa, and that would be a nice fit in there. Plus an interesting twist on Nodelman & Reimer’s Home-Away-Home pattern, which my students always get and feel very empowered by. (Have you noticed that?)

    Early 20thC is hard. I usually do A Little Princess or The Secret Garden, but it’s a big jump for me from Alice and a few other early things (usually poetry) to early 20thC, to the 60s and forward. So you’re not alone!

    Glad to hear you’re not teaching 6 hours per section per week. That did seem excessive!

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    Libby: Forgot to add in last post – of course, you’re welcome to borrow, adapt, etc. any assignment. Re: the above, I tend to have more themes than explicit pairings. Alice resonates forward into The Phantom Tollbooth and Coraline, for example. Yep, 6 hours per section per week would be… a tad much. Fortunately, that was simply a typographical error!

  6. Cecilia


    Had to laugh– I have my third graders write something very similar to your first assignment! They generally only write about a paragraph or two, but it’s nice to see their thoughts as they go back to the board books they listened to as babies.

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    I wish I’d taken your class while I was in college! It’s only as a mother that I’ve really begun to take children’s literature seriously again. (The first time, of course, was when I was a child myself.)

    Personally, I’m very interested in how nonhuman animals are depicted in children’s books. Of course there’s anthropomorphism, but I have also observed a real identification of children with some of the most powerless species in our society, particularly those kept as commodities on farms. It’s out there, but one interesting new book that really gets to the heart of the issue — asking “What does it feel like to be food?” — is Nathalie VanBalen’s Garlic- Onion- Beet- Spinach- Mango- Carrot- Grapefruit Juice. Parents may take umbrage at some of the truly subversive children’s books that are out there (like VanBalen’s), but I bet college students would be intrigued.

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  9. Susan


    Mystery is one of the most popular genres for both children and adults, (virtually from cradle to grave!) so perhaps adding one of the more critically acclaimed entries would make sense? The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin would make an excellent, multi-layered choice.

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    Thanks, Susan and Jessica, for your suggestions. Jessica: your book sounds like the sort of title that Julia Mickenberg and I should pursue for our talk at this summer’s Children’s Literature Association conference. Susan: Agreed. The Westing Game or other Ellen Raskin would be super to include. (Though it’s not mystery, I really like her Nothing Ever Happens on My Block.) At present, Harry Potter is doing double-duty as a mystery – actually, it’s doing quadruple duty as mystery, fantasy, popular, and banned/challenged book. That said, if I were to add The Westing Game, what would I remove?

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