On Literature for Children and Co-creating Meaning

AKA: For Sophie with Love…

I read Kate DiCamillo’s Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane to H a couple of years ago. We both loved it! It is a raw but touching tale about being yourself and love and acceptance – and it has parts that made both of us cry. We need to be giving children literature like this: powerful books with so many layers, and so rich in meaning and depth.

Despereaux Sketch.jpgI also read Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux  to both H and my primary class. Hard not to cry for that one too. Thus, my son and students got to see an adult in their lives cry. I think that is a gift to them – an authentic response to good literature… and a glimpse into our inner workings. When we share our appraisal, we gift them with our sensitivity. There is power in the message: “This really touches my heart… It is safe and okay to feel things deeply and be so moved.”

When H was noticeably struggling with loss and grief, and I was reading books with him to support and assist him with his processing of this, he would look to me,  as we were reading and measure his response against mine. He would study my face… and then ask, “This is a sad part, isn’t it Mom? Are you feeling sad too?”

When I had a grade 2 or 3 class, prior to becoming a special ed teacher, I always read aloud to my students. I believe with conviction that reading aloud to children gives them access to the literature they cannot yet access themselves. This scaffolding stretches the edges of the world for our children – and we are right there with them to answer questions or reflect – or support them in understanding relationships or connections in the bigger world.

When we read aloud to children (and even young adults), we build the stage for a shared experience of new worlds and ideas and the opportunity to safely explore perspectives and co-create meaning.

I loved to read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. This is a crusty old story written in 1910, which is horridly rich with prejudice, classism, ableism, and imperialism. However,  paired with these values that we’d love to see remain lost in the last century, are huge opportunities to discuss and explore these very relevant topics with young people. There are issues and examples of trust, betrayal, loss, questionable integrity, and resiliency. Encountering these concepts within a work of fiction provides a safe forum to examine complex relationships, and responses to trauma, attitudes about disability, and what we value at our core. This is also a wonderful book for teaching about inside voice and self-talk, as there are examples of the characters’ inner dialogue and cognition throughout the entire tale. We are able to observe the outside action of the characters and their interactions with each other – but additionally – we are able to see the inner workings of the characters as they are revealed with their shared thoughts.

Uncle Jed’s Barbershop (Margaree King Mitchell) My lovely daughter, Nika, now 21, used to occasionally check this book out of her school’s library when she was in Kindergarten and Grade 1.  It always came as a relief – a tiny island of fiction in the endless sea of non-fiction dinosaur books she would tote home. This story always made me cry… and she used to tease me about that tirelessly. It is a story about goals and generosity and love and sacrifice… and I haven’t read it for years and years (and perhaps my response would be different now) but the memory of this resonates with me still.

I also read picture books aloud. I love the layering of message and multiple meanings that is added with the visual text of illustration. And – yes, of course many of my students could access these independently, but modeling the phrasing and the tone, and the energy I can bring to reading is another kind of scaffolding that brings a book alive and lights a fire for the love of literature.

I love to read aloud using voices, and have always been good at voicing characters and even at adding accents. This brings the story alive, and pulls the listener into the tale.

And… I can reread a sentence that is beautifully constructed… teach how my voice rises with a question, teach the power of the explanation mark – or quotations – and expand vocabulary with rich new language – clearly placed in a well-defined context – rather than in isolation. I can let the words roll off my tongue and be massaged with appreciation for their sound and feel, and then adjust the volume – or the speed – ever so slightly – to draw the children in… and have them begging for more.

Young people need us to help them fall in love with words and story and literature. And good stories… the best of them… give us little glimpses of ourselves… and our possibilities… and the best in all of us.

Here are a few more of my favourites:

Robert Munsch: I’ll Love you Forever

Robert Munsch: The Paperbag Princess

Robert Munsch: A Promise is a Promise

John Bianchi: Swine Snafu

David Small: Eulalie and the Hopping Head

Yorinks:  Louis the Fish   (There is a Reading Rainbow video of this story here)

Mordecai Richler: Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang

Annette LeBox: Miss. Rafferty’s Rainbow Socks

Roald Dahl: James and the Giant Peach

Kevin Henkes: Chrysanthemum

Kevin Henkes: Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse

Simon Puttock: Big Bad Wolf is Good

EB White: Charlotte’s Web

Kate DiCamillo: Because of Winn Dixie

Ahhhh… powerful stories… subversive stories… inside stories… stories about identity and being your true self, stories that resonate and make you fall in love with words and worlds.

I invite you to add your favourites here as well ♥

Related Article – Nancie Atwell explores creating passion and love for reading and writing in the middle school years: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/16/the-most-powerful-classroom-innovation-by-the-1-million-teaching-prize-winner/?postshare=2411444575942747


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

©Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism (2014)   

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
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7 Responses to On Literature for Children and Co-creating Meaning

  1. Liz says:

    Wonderful! Thank you…


  2. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This YA novel affirmed my difference, even before I knew I was autistic — took care of me emotionally when my parents couldn’t.


    • Leah Kelley says:

      You know – I am embarrassed to say I have never read A Wrinkle In Time… I do appreciate YA fiction and I love the lovely mind-twist of possibility provided by stories that play with time…

      I will check it out and perhaps encourage H to join me.
      Thank you ❤


  3. amandasmills says:

    Reblogged this on Nature Study in the City and commented:
    One of my fav. is Stellaluna -about accepting differences

    “Trumpet of the Swan” -Louis couldnt “talk” like a Swan,, so he found another way.

    “Wind in the Willows” – numerous reasons on this one. I often felt like Mole as a child- exploring a sometimes confusing world.

    The Hobbit- the heroes journey and a child’s story.


  4. Tierce says:

    I always enjoy sharing Anthony Browne’s books with children. They are the sort of books that not only provide a good platform for lots of conversations but you discover something new everytime you return to them. They are also beautiful to look at (he loves gorillas) so can be enjoyed on many different levels by many different ages.


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