Identifying with Contemporary Realistic Fiction (page 3)
Of all the genres in children’s literature, contemporary realistic fiction is the most popular. People are interested in their own lives, and this genre is about “my life.” This is my world. This is how I live. This story is about a girl like me. Because the characters in contemporary realistic fiction are similar to people in my town, I get to know them quickly and feel as if I’ve known them a long time. The main character in particular becomes a kindred spirit. She experiences the same disappointments and hopes, rejections and joys as the reader, who is amazed and thrilled to find someone who sees the world through similar glasses. Certainly, the reader can connect with the lives of those from the past and also with fantasy characters, but something about the immediacy of here and now seems to pack an additional emotional punch.
Almost all readers want to find at least an occasional title that reflects and confirms their lives. The lack of books dealing with specific cultures can draw protest from members of a group who desire to read about something close to home. Because realistic fiction helps confirm our own membership in the human race, children’s publishers and authors continue to represent the spectrum of minorities present in the United States—racial groups, religions, stories from specific regions of the country—but not all bases have yet been covered. For instance, the half-million people in the United States who are Deaf (capitalized to indicate they belong to the Deaf culture, not just that they do not hear) are represented at the time of this writing in seven picture storybooks currently in print in the United States. A scattering of informational picture books is available, detailing facts about sign language and what life is like for the nonhearing, but being represented by so few picture storybooks leaves the Deaf without the confirmation of their lives in stories about “someone like me.”
The lack of such books also means that others have less opportunity to get to know and understand the Deaf. While my life is being supported and confirmed by titles dealing with “my world,” these same books can be enlightening to others. “My world” is a limited concept for all of us. No matter where I live or what my life is like, my peers across the aisle, across town, and across the country are going through experiences I do not have. If I live with both my parents, I do not understand what my classmate Paul is going through now that his father has moved out and he is alone with his mother. But Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw (1983) shows me a divorced home and gives me some understanding of a boy who lives in my world but is experiencing it differently. If I live in rural Maine, I benefit by reading about kids in inner-city Chicago, and vice versa. In this genre are the experiences in my world that I do not yet have—books dealing with specific regions, cultures, nationalities, minorities, and subgroups that provide an expanded understanding of “my world.”
The importance of identifying with one’s own life is a reason children’s books have children as the protagonists. The age of the main character is approximately the age of the reader. For this reason, The Endless Steppe (1968), Esther Hautzig’s memoir about her childhood in World War II Poland and Russia, eventually was published as a children’s book even though she did not have a child audience in mind when she wrote it. Because the main character is a young girl, its market and audience are the same—young readers. The rule of thumb is that children will read about characters who are slightly older than they are, but are hesitant about reading books with characters who are younger.
A small but important type of contemporary realistic fiction does not fit the pattern of having children as the main characters, but these books still offer enough humor, adventure, or entertainment to draw young readers. Examples are Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia stories about the maid who takes too literally her employer’s instructions (told to “ice the cake,” she puts ice cubes on its top and sticks the cake in the freezer); Cynthia Rylant’s books presenting the day-to-day adventures of an old man and his cat, Mr. Putter and Tabby; and Carol Otis Hurst’s picture book about her rock-collecting father, called Rocks in His Head (2001). Sometimes the main character isn’t even human, as in Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey (1961), the story of two dogs and a cat as they travel 250 miles through the Canadian wilderness to reach their home.
Familiarity helps explain why many children who have not yet discovered the pleasure of books often find their first successful reading experiences with contemporary realistic fiction. Trying out a new book is a risk for the reader, and those not steeped in personal reading are less likely to take big chances. Contemporary realistic fiction offers less of a gamble because the book contains elements familiar to the reader. Much of the groundwork already exists for a relationship, or even a friendship, to develop between child and character.
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