Monday, February 23, 2015

Susan Stan Speaks About International Children's Books

by Frank Boles

On February 19, retired CMU Professor Susan Stan opened the Clarke Historical Library’s newest exhibit, International Children’s Books: Celebrating Recent Gifts with a presentation on the value and importance of international children’s literature. Professor Stan, a noted scholar in the field, began her presentation with a provocative question – why should the Clarke Historical Library devote funds, space, and energy to collecting international children’s books? Why does it matter?

Over the course of the next 45 minutes, Professor Stan made a persuasive case for the importance of studying international children’s literature because of the cultural insights it gives us. International children’s books show us both what we share in common, but also how different cultures see the world very differently.

For example, Professor Stan compared Japanese author Taro Gomi’s, My Friends with Americans Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell’s, I’m Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem. Reflecting a culture that places a high value on interdependence, Gomi’s unnamed young protagonist says “I learn to study from my friends the teachers.” In contrast, Curtis and Cornell’s protagonist, when thinking about school, proudly announces, “I’m gonna like me when I’m called on to stand. I know all my letters like the back of my hand.” In a nod to American culture’s love of personal independence, this young lady seems to have learned her letters like the back of her hand without the help of anyone else. One author stresses interdependence. The other co-authors highlight self-accomplishment. Both reflect cultural priorities and beliefs.

In a second example, Professor Stan compared the American book Knuffle Bunny to the French book, Loopy. The story told in both books is essentially the same. A young child forgets a favorite stuffed animal somewhere away from their home and the parents respond. It is the parental response that notes the cultural differences. In America, the entire family goes running down the block and through the park to the laundromat where Knuffle Bunny has been left. In France, “Mommy said I should sleep with another toy tonight.”

French adults would likely find Knuffle Bunny an amusing read -- American parents overreacting to a minor problem in their child’s life. American adults would likely find Loopy a bit offputting. How could parents make their daughter suffer through the night when a quick trip could solve the problem? The answer is that each culture has a different sense of how a child’s needs should be evaluated and met. Loopy will come home in due time, and a child needs to learn patience and consideration for others’ time and needs. Knuffle Bunny has to be retrieved immediately, lest a child suffer anxiety. The stories share two ways of raising a child, and neither viewpoint necessarily right or wrong.

Comparisons like these point to the importance of children’s literature in a broader context. As Professor Stan noted, children’s books are not just for children, but for anyone interested in finding basic cultural similarities and differences across the globe, by reflecting upon to stories, morals, and values that children’s literature shares with the very young.

The exhibit, International Children’s Books: Celebrating Recent Gifts will be on display in the Clarke through the summer.