Thursday, April 6, 2017

International Children’s Books Panel

by Frank Boles

On March 28, 2017 the Clarke Library, in cooperation with the Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures and Cultures, the Department of English Language and Literature, and English Language Institute, sponsored a day-long event celebrating the importance of international children’s books.  During the day over 90 students participated in an event where students who were learning English as a second language and English-speaking students read and explained story books printed in a language other than English.  In the evening a panel of five CMU faculty members discussed the importance of the activities that had gone on throughout the day.
The panel, moderated by Professor Amy Ransom (Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures), featured Professors Anne Hiebert Alton (English Language and Literature), Carolina Gutierrez-Rivas (FLLC), Gretchen Papazian (ELL), and Daniela Richter (FLLC).

Anne Hiebert Alton spoke of how children’s literature opens to students the cultural mores of a society, as well as differences minor and significant.  As a simple example she made note of the differences in words found in the British and American editions of the many Harry Potter books. In Britain Hogwart’s owls delivered the post daily – in America the same owls delivered the mail. Similarly in America Mrs. Weasley gave Harry a sweater for Christmas, while a British reader would learn of the lovely jumper Harry received as his Christmas present.
Gretchen Papazian spoke about children’s literature as a way to gain insight into American diversity issues, discussing books published in English and Spanish, as well as the use of African-American vernacular. She also pointed to the use of color as an important tool in children’s literature.

Islamic culture has vested the color green with great importance, and this cultural fact played an important role in a recent book discussing Islamic immigrants to America. In the book, a newly arrived Islamic elementary school student who goes on a class field trip to an apple orchard baffles the American students by picking a green apple, rather than a red one. After some confusion the class comes to understand the importance of the color green to their new classmate.
Daniela Richter discussed her personal use of children’s books to understand American culture. Born in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) children’s books that did not reflect the party line, while not completely unavailable, where hard to come by. The family’s German translation of Tom Sawyer was thus something of a treasure. She discussed how when she came to America as a high school exchange student, she read children’s books to help understand the United States. Her gateway book, she acknowledged was William Goldman’s The Princess Bride.

In teaching German at CMU, Professor Richter talked about her use of a children’s book explaining the experiences of a Romanian immigrant family in modern Germany. What she found interesting was the amount of “back story” she needed to share with her American students before they could understand the “simple” children’s book. Bundled into the volume were numerous assumptions about both Romanian and German culture which the author assumed any native German reader would understand, but which did not travel well across the Atlantic to a room full of second year German language students.
Professor Carolina Gutierrez-Rivas, who works in translating material from Spanish to English, discussed how figures of speech in one language can reveal important details of culture. She is particularly interested in speech acts. A speech act is a special unit in the language that allows us to do things with words. For example, when a speaker says “it’s cold in this room,” the probable implication is that the hearer should turn up the heat. Her latest research focuses on the degree of egocentrism (care for oneself) and altercentrism (care for others) in youth  literature. She uses these kinds of utterances to study politeness and issues of race, class, and gender. In her translation class, she also uses short poems and micro stories.

Panel moderator Amy Ransom spoke last, discussing a children’s book dealing with prejudice based on Canada’s national sport, hockey. Maurice “Rocket” Richard was a player for the Montreal Canadiens from 1942 until 1960 who became the iconic French-Canadian hockey player. According the story, as a boy he mistakenly received a blue and white jersey of the English speaking Toronto Maple Leaf. The Maple Leafs were the Canadiens bitter rival, and more broadly a focus of French speaking  Quebec’s angry sense of mistreatment at the hands of Canada’s English speaking majority. When the young Richard appeared at the local hockey rink wearing his Toronto jersey, he faces significant trouble, which he responds to both verbally and with a talented hockey stick. The story’s point, that those who feel the sting of prejudice can, in turn, be themselves prejudiced, is an important life lesson.

It was an evening of fascinating discussion, and included two pieces of trivia worth sharing: the “National” in National Hockey League (NHL) was originally Canada, and in the Old East Germany bananas were a rare delicacy, that usually appeared only around Christmas and for which people would stand in long lines to buy. Who knew?