Once Upon a Time

by Michael Purdy
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Cloud illustration

It’s no secret how important reading is in the development of young minds.

To help serve the needs of Tennessee’s children in this area, the Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, housed in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education and directed by Susan Groenke, has brought together experts from three colleges (CEHHS, Arts and Sciences, and Communication and Information) to offer a doctoral specialization focusing on the history and evolution of the genres as well as topics, including reading theory and pedagogy and literary criticism.

In celebration of this milestone, we asked three of the center’s experts to write about emerging trends in children’s literature and the increasingly popular genres of young adult lit and graphic novels.

Deborah Wooten, associate professor, CEHHS

A current trend in children’s literature is the steady rise in the quality of nonfiction books. Many of the texts have a narrative feel and, consequently, students find them more interesting and easier to comprehend. More and more, authors work directly with scientists and leading authorities while conducting research.

One book series that reflects this trend is Scientist in the Field, in which scientists, photographers, and authors work together on topics such aselephants, tarantulas, spiders, and snakes.

The Octopus Scientists book coverAlthough this series has been around for a few years, each issue continues to be increasingly compelling. The Octopus Scientists by Sy Montgomery (2015) is a prime example because the author not only works closely with scientists but is also a naturalist herself. One of the results of her meticulous work is that young readers feel like scientists while discovering the intricacies of amazingly intelligent octopuses as they solve problems and elude danger.

Splash of Red book coverThe quality of biographical picture books, a strand of nonfiction literature, also continues to gain notoriety. Many are deeply researched and use primary sources and other reliable references to confirm their authenticity. A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin won the coveted 2014 Orbis Pictus Medal and was named as a Sibert Honor book. The story is about an African American man whose passions are to draw and paint. Tragedy strikes when he is shot during World War I and loses the use of his right arm. With enormous determination and perseverance, he trains his left hand to move his right and learns to paint again. Soon after, the artist is discovered and becomes famous.

The author’s note details how she studied the actual artist’s life and artwork for several years before she was ready to write his biography. As Common Core State Standards require teachers to use more informational texts with their students, it is fortunate that the quality of nonfiction and biographical picture books is burgeoning.

Cindy Welch, assistant professor and co-director, CCI

One of my favorite things about the Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature is unpacking boxes of new books for our revolving examination collection. It’s exciting to add new titles to our shelves, especially in the young adult (YA) literature area.

Fan Girl book coverThere is a new market segment carved out of the YA literature genre called “New Adult” fiction, which recognizes the emotional growth space between graduating high school and turning thirty. New Adult lit features characters and situations from that space—the eighteen to twenty-five year old set that is experiencing college, first jobs, and the move into adulthood. One iconic example is FanGirl, by Rainbow Rowell, which looks at a girl in her first year of college, who is exploring her own identity and interests separate from her family and friends. Interested readers can find other titles at goodreads.com/genres/new-adult.

Popular book coverAnother interesting development is the increase in narrative nonfiction, in which the facts of a subject are no longer reported in a dry, straightforward style, but are wrapped in engaging, interesting narrative, so that the experience of reading nonfiction is a much richer and more memorable one. Biographies are a great example. Take for instance Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, written by teen Maya Van Wagen, who uses a vintage guide to 1950s behaviors to guide her own eighth-grade year. Also, Steve Sheinken’s The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights, which explores a 1944 incident wherein the military covered up the deaths of fifty African American sailors.

Stergios Botzakis, associate professor, CEHHS

If there is a trend in graphic novels, it is that they are becoming increasingly more popular from which to read and learn. One misconception about these texts is that they are easy or dumbed down somehow because they use comics to make meaning.

In actuality, researchers, authors, and publishers are finding they are very efficient at communicating vast amounts of information in a short space—for instance the recounting of the major events of World War I in about 200 pages in Nathan Hale’s Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood. Just as there are more complex and meaningful print texts, so it is with graphic novels. They range from simple entertainments to more complicated and dense works, and more than ever before, book publishers are putting out a wide range of books that can suit many different tastes and audiences.

Such a variety of texts matches up well with what has been found about people reading graphic novels. Their image and word mixture has been shown to create interest and stimulation for a variety of readers—from those who struggle to those who are very accomplished. Some graphic novels contain multiple story lines or unique visual symbolism that challenge skilled readers to make meaning in more complicated ways. Others provide multiple contexts that help assist comprehension for struggling readers, second-language learners, or deaf students, with the pictures providing guidance as to what the words mean. So, whether eager readers want to read a funny adventure story like Nimona or a heartfelt memoir about growing up deaf like El Deafo, there is likely a graphic novel to suit their tastes.

Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood book coverTreaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood
by Nathan Hale
World War I set the tone for the twentieth century and introduced a new type of warfare: global, mechanical, and brutal. Nathan Hale has gathered some of the most fascinating true-life tales from the war and given them his inimitable Hazardous Tales twist. Easy to understand, funny, informative, and lively, this series is the best way to be introduced to some of the most well-known battles (and little-known secrets) of the infamous war.

Nimona book coverNimona
by Noelle Stevenson
Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren’t the heroes everyone thinks they are. But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona’s powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.

El Deafo book cover

El Deafo
by Cece Bell
Going to school and making new friends can be tough. But going to school and making new friends while wearing a bulky hearing aid strapped to your chest? That requires superpowers! In this funny, poignant graphic novel memoir, author/illustrator Cece Bell chronicles her hearing loss at a young age and her subsequent experiences with the Phonic Ear, a very powerful—and very awkward—hearing aid. The Phonic Ear gives Bell the ability to hear—sometimes things she shouldn’t—but also isolates her from her classmates.

For more information about the Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, visit ccyal.cci.utk.edu.