Field Notes: Books Everlasting: Teaching Children's Literature to Older Adults

Retired children’s librarians don’t fade away. They become consultants, and teach. When I’m not taking classes myself, I am teaching two courses about children’s books to older adults who participate in Osher, the Lifelong Learning Institute, based at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. My students are mostly grandparents. Some are retired teachers and librarians, but more of them worked in other fields. What we all have in common is a desire to keep learning. The classes are a pleasure to teach because the participants want to be there, and I get to talk about my favorite subject.

I teach older adults because they learn how exciting, beautiful, funny, and moving books for children and teens can be. We talk about picture books; fantasy and fairy tales, fractured and otherwise; nonfiction; graphic ­novels/memoirs; and books for teens. Each genre has a history and has changed as technology and tastes have changed.

For the class on fairy tales and fantasy, I ask students to find three different picture-book versions of their favorite fairy tale. It is an ideal way to show the different styles and approaches that characterize books for children. Fantasy has ways and worlds that make it hard to choose just one book. We have read Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, both of which, of course, make for good discussion.

I’ve tried a variety of graphic novels, including American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, Jerry Craft’s New Kid, and Raina Telgemeier’s Drama. The number of really strong graphic novels published in the last decade makes it hard to choose. I want my students to read them all.

I ask them to read Russell Freedman’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt and then contrast it with Barbara Cooney’s picture-book biography, Eleanor. Both books show how good nonfiction brings people and issues to life.

I also ask them to read four novels over the four weeks we meet. I choose novels that are easily available from the library and have paperback editions. The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake is usually one of them. Sharon lives in Pittsburgh and comes to class to talk about her work. Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia or The Great Gilly Hopkins also makes the reading list.

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But Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh is always the first novel I teach. I chose the book because it is groundbreaking. Contemporary realistic fiction is possible because Harriet broke the mold of what was acceptable in a book for middle-graders. I teach Harriet because she made realistic fiction for children grow up.

I was a young librarian in 1964 when the book was published. It was the topic of heated discussion whenever two or more librarians were together. At the time, librarians and teachers either loved Harriet or hated her. Whatever anyone thinks about the book, Fitzhugh created a memorable title character and surrounded her with unforgettable people, especially her nurse/mentor Ole Golly.

Young people are drawn to Harriet because she is so real. Her jaundiced view of the world is laced with questions about what she observes on her spy route, at school, and at home. When her classmates read Harriet’s candid and mostly negative observations about themselves in her private notebook, the resulting campaign rings especially true to anyone in middle school. The shock of Ole Golly’s sudden departure and the anger of her classmates upend Harriet’s life.

I admit I was surprised, the first time the class discussed Harriet, that many older adults still didn’t approve of it. Later classes reacted the same way. Some of them conceded that their grandchildren liked the book. But my students were much more judgmental than younger readers. They felt Harriet didn’t change enough over the course of the story, or mend her ways. It seems that more than fifty years later, Harriet is still capable of arousing strong feelings.

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Each session starts with a cartoon that shows how children’s books have made their way into popular culture (it’s surprising how many there are). We share recently published titles of interest, and I watch the students copy down publisher and price — an added bonus is creating business for local bookstores. But the best part is sharing the amazing variety of illustration and writing created by authors and artists who put children and teens first.

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Amy Kellman

Amy Kellman is the former coordinator of children’s and youth services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. She has served on many book award committees, including Newbery and Caldecott, and is past president of ALSC and USBBY.

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