Politics, literature and green shoes

Current Realities In Whole Language

This article was first presented as a keynote speech at the August, 1992 Whole Language Umbrella Conference. Because of the proximity of the conference to the Niagara Falls, the falls themselves became an essential element in my speech. For this reason I decided to retain the immediacy of my talk rather than pretend I had originally conceived it as a formal written paper.

I have two aims in this presenting this paper. The first is to look at the texts children read, in a political context, and to reflect on the way those texts shape our sense of self; and the second is to focus on explicit teaching through our own specific learning in the whole language classroom.

I’ll start with the politics. I grew up in Africa in a racist country which was at that time called Rhodesia. In 1980, after its liberation, it was re-named Zimbabwe. I’m reminded of Zimbabwe by our close proximity this evening to the magnificent Niagara Falls. Zimbabwe is the home of the even more majestic Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the world.

When I was at school my white racist history books informed me that David Livingstone had discovered the Victoria Falls. They also informed me that a man named Stanley had found Livingstone (who was thought to have been lost) and had said the famous line: “Doctor Livingstone, I presume.” I also learnt that Livingstone had been sent out from England to Africa as a medical missionary to convert the heathens and to bring civilisation to the savages for their greater good and the good of the British Empire.

I wasn’t encouraged to remember that thousands of generations of Africans had known about the Victoria Falls long before Livingstone had so-called ‘discovered’ them. I wasn’t told that for thousands of generations Africans had called Victoria Falls ‘The Smoke that Thunders’.

The history texts I read did not encourage white children to see Africans as human beings worthy of too much attention. We were made to see them as somehow sub-human, less than absolutely real, and therefore not in need of as much care, housing, or education as we whites. This dismissive attitude underpinned the politics of Zimbabwe’s white racist governments for over a century. The texts we read reflected the racist policies of those governments and re-inforced in us the political propaganda so essential to our feeling of superiority.

About a hundred years after Livingstone was sent to Zimbabwe as a missionary the same London Missionary Society sent from Australia to the same countyry, Zimbabwe, a teaching missionary whose name was Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. His wife, Miss Nancy, was with him, as was his six-month old daughter: me. One of my books is called Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge. Truth, as always, is stranger than fiction.

My parents, Wilfrid and Nancy, still live in Africa and their values still live in me. They succeeded in overturning in us the racist attitudes my sisters and I acquired at school. They taught us that humans were humans whatever their race or colour: that everyone in the world had their own histories, needs, fears and hopes. We learnt never to use the derogatory terms for Africans such as ‘nigger’, ‘munt’ or ‘kaffir’. And we knew that ’savages’ was an inappropriate name for the proud race of Matabele among whom we lived.

My Zimbabwean childhood seems so long ago and so far away that I had begun to believe that by now, surely by now, no one would any longer be calling indigenous people ’savages.’ But in some of the books written for children and published in the United States in 1991 and 1992 to celebrate the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America in 1492 the word ’savages’ appears. The word ‘discovery’ also appears.

It must make white Anglo-Saxon American children feel extremely superior to belong to a race that ‘discovered’ the New World and conquered ’savages’. I wonder how American Indian children feel when they read the same texts, texts that fit in with the prevailing view of American politics that Indians in this country are an irritation in the background of policy-making, a blot on the landscape, a nuisance-barrier to the American way of life. And I also wonder how American Indian children feel when they learn that a white male Spaniard ‘discovered’ a country their ancestors had lived in with dignity for thousands of generations.

I have railed against racism in the texts children read in Africa and America but Australians are not without sin in this regard. We have an abysmal political record in caring for our own minority population. In 90% of our recent children’s literature and in our all-too-recent history books we Aussies don’t even give ourselves the opportunity of being racist: it’s much easier for us to ignore the Aborigines altogether. Unlike Ross Perot we don’t even talk about ‘you people’ in our literature. We pretend they’re not there at all.

If I were an Aboriginal child, the task of learning to read, even in a warm and wonderful whole language classroom, would be a strange and devastating experience. I’d be looking for me in the books I was reading. I’d be asking, “Where am I?” I’d be searching for some acknowledgement of my existence, let alone my worth, but I wouldn’t be able to find myself. I’d be puzzled. I’d be angry. I’d be thinking that no one cared about me. I’d go to pieces.

The construction of Australian society has re-constructed Aborigines into people who don’t count. Italians don’t count either, and even Greeks don’t count although Melbourne has the second biggest population of Greeks after Athens. All Australians, are to blame for this jerry-built society, including the authors of children’s books. I’ve written over twenty books for children: there isn’t a Greek in one one them, let alone an Aborigine. I’ll tell you about the one Italian later.

When we read we tend to think of meaning-making as a one way transaction between us and the words on the page. We assume that the text just sits there passively as we actively drag our own meaning from it. But texts aren’t passive at all: they’re highly active. They ‘construct’ us by presenting to us an image of ourselves. They mould us into who we think we are, like plasticine shaped this way and that.

The cruel texts I mentioned earlier which diminish Africans, demoralise American Indians, and disregard Aborigines actually cause an alteration in who those people thought they were. Texts shape us by reflecting the politics and values of our society.

There are those who would say that the content of children’s literature, in particular the content of picture books, has nothing to do with politics. They’d probably be the sort of people who say that politics and sport don’t mix in South Africa; or that politics and religion don’t mix in the United States. They’d be the sort of people who think that picture books, being for dear, sweet, innocent little children are, in themselves, innocent. How wrong they are. There’s no such thing as a politically innocent picture book.

Let’s interrogate the apparently innocent text of Wilfrid Gordon MacDonald Partridge, a book much loved in Australia and America but regarded with some distaste in Singapore.

First of all, in accordance with the great majority of books written for children, the active, interesting, admirable hero is a white Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking male. Readers of Wilfrid who are themselves white Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking males will have their sense of worth reinforced. Their feeling of importance will rise a notch or two – as if that were desirable or necessary! Their vision of themselves as being at the centre of the universe will remain unchallenged, and almost undisturbed.

But for those for whom English is not the first language, and for boys who are not white, and for girls who are black, white or brown, different messages will come through Wilfrid: messages they’re so wearily accustomed to they’ll hardly notice their repetition:

“You’re not the centre of the universe.”

“You’re not that competent, you know.”

And: “You’d better know your place and stick to it.”

Secondly, there is a cultural acceptance in Wilfrid that old people should be separated from their families and placed in homes where they can all die together in the care of paid personnel. This concept is not challenged. A reading of this book will reinforce the rightness of a practice that might instead benefit from some political questioning. In Singapore Wilfrid contributes to an understanding of our peculiar custom of abandoning the elderly in our society. Singaporeans find it shocking: “What? You mean you don’t care for your old people? You send them away?”

Thirdly, Wilfrid reinforces the Dan Quayle/George Bush notion that real families have two parents, not one parent, three parents or four parents all of which are becoming increasingly common. The political message is a conservative one, unchallenged by the text or the illustrations. It affects in particular the equilibrium of children who do not belong to so-called ‘normal’ families. It tells them they’re odd and different.

Wilfrid does however hint that the world, as it is, need not be so, at least in one respect. It rattles the macho world view of white Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking males by allowing a man to cry, a man who is himself a masculine, sports-loving cricketer:

He called on Mr. Tippet who was crazy about cricket.

“What’s a memory?” he asked.

“Something that makes you cry, my boy.Something that makes you cry.”

Although I’ve metaphorically ripped Wilfrid to pieces I don’t mean to undermine its effect as a piece of literature. It is, I acknowledge, the best book I’ve written. Of all the books in the Mem Fox canon it’s the one about which people most frequently say: “Oh my God, I just love that book. It’s my all-time favourite.”

I picked it apart to illustrate that all the books we read, even our favourite books, are politically loaded. Those of us who teach need to be aware of this so we remember to provide affirming literature for all the children in our care, not just for those who belong to the prevailing, dominant ruling classes or sexes.

And those of us who write for children need to be sure we are opening the doors to full human potential, not closing them. We have the power to change children’s self concepts, yet many of us seem blind to the opportunity. Even I, who consider myself to be politically correct about girl’s being able to fulfill their potential, have made glaring mistakes.

Take With Love, At Christmas, (Abingdon, 1988) for instance. I was pleased to have written an Australian book with an old woman as the main protagonist. I was even more smugly pleased to have called the old woman Mrs. Cavallaro, especially as it wasn’t an overtly Italian story. It showed I was acknowledging the huge Italian population in Australia, an unusual observation in a national literature whose focus tends to be exclusively and embarrassingly Anglo-Saxon.

For some years With Love, At Christmas was published only in the USA: Australian publishers had deemed it too religious. Finally an Australian publisher (The Lutheran Press, God be praised!) accepted it but pointed out that it would need re-illustrating since the Christmas scenes were wintry and our Australian Christmas occurs at the height of summer. I had the exciting opportunity of being able to change the published text also, if I wanted to. I went over the story carefully. Imagine my embarrassment as I read this paragraph:

Just before Christmas the husband of one of her neighbours was hurt at work.

“He may never work again,” cried the neighbour.

“How shall we live?”

The sexist assumption in this excerpt, the message that girls and boys will receive to their mutual detriment, is that women are helpless, that they are unable to support a family, that for them, holding down a paying job outside the home is a great and unusual difficulty, that men are the important breadwinners, and that that women are weak. Had I really allowed myself to write such drivel? I, whose husband earns so much less than she does? I, who have held down a paying job outside the home: teaching for twenty three years; and inside the home at the same time : writing for nine years? I was appalled. The paragraph now reads:

Just before Christmas, one of her neighbours was hurt at work.

“She may never work again,” cried the husband.

“Our life will be very hard.”

I hope that more often than not I do succeed in writing the literature of liberation: liberation from the tyranny of the attitudes and expectations that the world thrusts upon each one of us. One of my strongest messages is that old age is to be celebrated, not pitied or dreaded; that like boys and girls and blacks and whites, old people too can do anything, can be what they want to be. It’s a message that comes through in Possum Magic, in Night Noises and in the outrageous Guess What?

Throughout my books I thread messages about my own values and ideals but I hope no one has quite realised what I’m doing. I believe that subtlety has conditioned us thus far and that to undo its negative effect writers have to be equally subtle in their approach. I have observed children to be the wisest and most perceptive of critics. They reject quickly as “boring” all the teaching-preaching, stories written by well-meaning, misguided, untalented, politically correct adults whose propogandist passions far outweigh their artistic ability to tell a good story and tell it well. Labouring the point kills the point of the labouring.

In case there’s any doubt about the thoroughness of children’s social indoctrination in white, male-dominated America let me quote three letters from first graders in Texas in April this year (1992). They had had Koala Lou read to them by a visiting researcher who had taken into the classroom a toy koala which they had all held. It should be noted here that the three main characters in Koala Lou are very obviously female and that a refrain from a mother to a child: “Koala Lou, I DO love you!” is repeated many times throughout the story. The word ‘he’ never appears in my text. Here are the first graders’ reactions:

1. Dear Ms. Fox, I liked your book. It is good. It is the best one I’ve ever seen, It is about a koala that is in a race. He is fast and he got second place. Sincerely Hamilton

2. Dear Mr. [sic] Fox, I liket the book that Dr. Braune read the books name was Koala Lou I Do Love You. The little Koala I liket the best he was funny I liket whan he climde the tree I liket the mom she was funny to we got to hug the koala he had soft fere I liket the book thinck you for sharing it Your Friend Ashley

3. Dear Ms. Fox I enjoy books I liked Koala Lou I Do Love You! I like the koala bear he did every thing he could but his mrother stil love him! You are interesting I thingk I will bey one of my own. Do you like to wright? I like the the [sic] way he sayd “Koala Lou I Do Love You” Happy Easter Your friend, Kathryn

It’s alarming to see that in the the lives of these children this sexist assumption has already been established: anyone who is dominant or interesting in a story must be male. In Kathryn’s life, by the age of six, even mothers are seen to be male as soon as they achieve any role of importance in a story.

Why do I bother to write for children, with all the hazards of political correctness that confront me. Where’s the pleasure in it? The ultimate joy?

I write for children because my first book, Possum Magic, was such a surprising success (850,000 copies sold) that I was encouraged to write another one. And then another, and so on. I don’t find it easy. Koala Lou has only 410 words but it was re-drafted 49 times over two years. I continue to write because positive reactions still greet my efforts. On the Trumpet Club video about me and my books there’s a child who squeals with laughter over the ending of Night Noises. He laughs and laughs and laughs. It’s adorable and very encouraging. And of course there are letters like this that keep me going and send me back to my desk to write again:

To Mem Fox

I like your books because they are interesting. Without your books we would be reading real boring books. So that’s why I like your books.


Which brings me to the reading and writing children do in school: “Without your books we would be reading real boring books.” Don’t tell me Emma: you’re in a basal-and-worksheet classroom struggling to come to terms with literacy. You read texts that make you and your poor teacher – did you ever think of that? – die of boredom. You can’t see the point of learning to read as you plough through carefully graded materials published by people who think your teacher’s too dumb to think for herself – too dumb to help you to learn to read by using real books like Koala Lou. And I bet you never get a chance to write so that, like me, positive reactions greet your efforts; so that, like me, kids laugh and laugh over your endings. Poor Emma. Perhaps you’ll be lucky next year and have a whole language teacher instead.

“A whole language teacher?” you ask. “What’s that?”

I’m a whole language teacher, Emma, so I’ll explain what I mean by telling you about my beliefs and about why I read and write, and how I teach, and why I continue to learn.

What is ‘whole language’? It’s real language, nothing more, Nothing less. It’s not a new and magic thing: we’ve used it in our everyday lives from the moment we were born. The problem is that in school we have used, and still use, incredibly stupid ways of teaching language. By using basal readers and worksheets we have messed about with its separated parts, its bits and pieces instead of its wholeness. It’s a method that hasn’t given us much help in learning how to use language for real purposes. Real language has never been, is not and will never be developed to anywhere near its full potential by the use of the worksheet/basal reader approach.

Speaking of which, any of the many publishers of worksheets or basals who have the gall to claim that they have now published a whole language program deserve to be hung, drawn and quartered right here, right now, in public. There is no possibility at all of there ever being such a thing as a published ‘whole language’ program. It’s a straight out contradiction in terms; it enrages me, particularly when they include in their misguided zeal any kind of work-sheet, teacher-guide or graded activity. Whole language simply means reading real books and writing real texts for real reasons. What we need from publishers – if only they were bright enough to follow our lead, we ‘dumb’ teachers – is divine, real books for children to enjoy; what we need is books, books and more gorgeous books, not more programs, for heaven’s sake.

I’ve heard some crazy misconceptions about whole language over the last couple of months. One person thought it was teaching language around a theme, like ‘dinosaurs’, for example; the kids would read about dinosaurs, listen and speak about dinosaurs, and write a variety of texts about dinosaurs. But if the language used in exploring this theme were at any time not real, that is, not the language that you and I would normally read, write and speak every day then it wouldn’t be whole language. ‘Theme’ teaching is admirable but all it means is teaching language across the curriculum which is hardly a new idea, when all’s said and done. Anyway, themes can also be done to death by using worksheets and other pointless language activities. Themes are not safe havens for whole language. Not at all.

I’ve also heard that whole language simply means using Big Books which is quite ridiculous. In real homes we don’t read Big Books: we read books of a normal size. What Big Books do in the whole language classroom is to make it easier to have fun by reading along together, and easier to point out interesting things in the text about the content, the illustrations, the spelling, the mechanics. They are brilliant tools – I have many of them and use them constantly even with undergraduates, for sheer enjoyment and to teach mechanics – but of themselves Big Books do not constitute whole language.

Most alarming of all was the statement I heard from the teacher who claimed that because she was now doing whole language she was no longer teaching phonics. For a start no one ‘does’ whole language – it’s not a program. All we can ‘do’ with it is to live it, to use it. We live it all the time anyway, there’s no escape from it – especially at a conference. No one who’s around me for any length of time can escape the constant stream of my whole language!

Furthermore, in real life it is permissable and essential to teach people the things they need to know. Imagine trying to learn to drive without any instruction. Could we just pick it up? Not without agreat deal of danger and difficulty. Of course we can still overtly teach in the whole language classroom so long as the things we teach relate directly and immediately to an important task at hand. In my own classes I constantly rant and rave over mechanics, over things like the spelling of ‘children’s, (apostrophe,’s’); over the difference between the spelling of ‘its’ and ‘it’s’; and over the punctuation of direct speech. Some things have to be told as well as shown otherwise we’re abdicating our responsibility.

There are things I regret never having been shown or taught about writing and I’m a forty six year old writer and teacher. Wouldn’t you think that by now I’d know everything there is to know about mechanics? I don’t. Fortunately I’ve just attended (July 1992) one of the five week courses in the University of New Hampshire summer studies program. It was called ‘Fiction writing for teachers.’ I reiterate that I was a student, not the teacher. One can always learn.

In a writing conference it was pointed out to me by Rebecca Rule, one of my favourite teachers of all time, that when a character thinks, he or she thinks in italics. I’ve never known that. I’ve always had a problem with it and was grateful for the information. And, amazing though this must seem, I didn’t know until Becky told me, that direct speech is always indented. I knew to write it on a new line each time, but I didn’t know it had to be indented in the same way as a new paragraph. No one had ever done me the favour of teaching me that. I hadn’t picked it up, as might have been expected, by having been a reader for a million years. So please, feel free to teach! We students won’t mind. We’ll thank you for it.

Taking Becky’s course reminded me once again of how it feels to be a student writer. I knew that on the last night of our course we would be reading aloud to the class the short story we considered to be our best. I spent all day, every day, struggling to write a passable piece each time a new assignment was set. I was aware that my skills were improving because I was writing for an audience whose reaction I valued. I found myself working hard because it mattered. Something hung on the outcome, unlike the stupid worksheets I’d filled in as a schoolgirl. I wanted so much to impress my teacher. I wanted so badly to impress my twelve wonderful fellow-students. The pressure increased when they discovered I’d published twenty books. They didn’t know I’d never written anything half-decent in fewer than five drafts. They didn’t know I’d once spent two years trying to perfect 410 words.

As I hunched over the computer I over-used the delete button in frustration and fright. The printer ran out of paper. The waste paper basket overflowed. Why couldn’t I get down the thoughts that were in my head? Heavens! Wasn’t I the author of Hattie and the Fox and Shoes from Grandpa, let alone Possum Magic? I wrestled hour by hour with a spiteful monster who seemed to live between my brain and the computer screen, a monster who scrambled my ideas and spoiled my sentences. I began to believe that everything else I’d written in my life must have been a happy accident created in random circumstances with miraculous talent. In my hopelessness I forgot that every time I sit down to write the first thing I do is to write garbage; then I throw it around till some of it it lands in the right place. It’s a messy, time-consuming, tiring business.

On the night of our last class as we sat in the balmy evening air in the gardens of the university listening to each other’s astoundingly good fiction, my hands were clammy with trepidation. Would my classmates realise I was sending up Moby Dick? Would they laugh at the in-jokes? Would they believe in my main character? Would they be amazed and wildly impressed at the point of view I had chosen? Would they enjoy my storytelling?

They laughed at the first line of my short story. I hugged myself (metaphorically speaking, of course: I had papers in my hand!). And they continued to laugh whenever I hoped they would laugh. And they were deathly quiet when I hoped they would be deathly quiet. It took sixteen minutes to read the story I had re-drafted ten times. When I finally sat down my face was bright red with excitement and extreme love for my group. My head felt as if it were a helium balloon so filled with gas that it would lift me up into the darkening sky where I would float in ecsatsy among the stars.

The final reading wasn’t the only time I felt pleased with myself as writer during those heady five weeks. Sarah Smith, one of our classmates, invited us all to her place on the final Sunday of our course. By that time I had fallen in love with my entire class so I spent a whole day of precious time when I should have been working on ‘real’ assignments writing a ballad in their honour, with the correct A/B/C/B rhyme scheme and the correct 8/6/8/6 syllable count: six verses for Becky Rule and one each for my twelve new friends. It was a sort of parting gift. I was so excited about it I have to admit I made copies and signed them! I couldn’t wait to read it to them. I knew they’d be pleased to be the centre of attention. I watched them beaming like mad during my performance and couldn’t help beaming like mad myself.

And then there was the time when Don Graves asked me to read my new book, Time for Bed (HBJ, in press) to his wife, Betty. I could hardly keep my eyes on the text so keen was I to gauge her reaction. She sat on a couch, hands in her lap, an audience of one, and seemed rapt with an attention that went way beyond politeness. Once again I felt the helium balloon in my head.

I’m sure we’ve all heard those lectures about teaching writing: about how we shouldn’t teach writing unless we are writers ourselves. It makes sense, I suppose, to have a competent practioner teach you what you need to know: someone who understands the difficulties, knows the ropes. It would be alarming, for instance, to be taught how to drive by someone who couldn’t drive herself. No one would dare to do that. But there are teachers everywhere who dare to teach writing even though they haven’t written anything they cared about or worked at for years, even though they expect, oddly, that their young students should work on, and care about their writing every day. Their confidence in their own ability to write is often not high and more often than not writing is an activity they fear and dislike.

There are also teachers of writing who do write; writers like me, who are trapped in a self-righteous Puritan work-ethic. Our Puritan forbears told us that life was meant to be hard, that the rewards would be few. So we wonder with pursed lips how non-writing teachers of writing can ever understand the hardships of writing, the pain, the sack-cloth-and-ashes of writing. We know they can never begin to understand the excessive fragility of writers. We know, with our superior eyebrows arched, that non-writing teachers of writing will often say silly ignorant things, like: “Never start a sentence with and, but, or so.” We laugh at them cruelly behind their backs. And we smile with grim satisfaction because we know the Way, the Truth and the Light, and my, how we have suffered!

What we miserable Puritans have forgotten to mention is the unutterable joy and sense of personal power we feel when we find we’re in control of language as writers – and as readers. It’s like the exhilaration we feel when we drive a car at high speed on an empty freeway on a summer’s morning with the windows wide open, the radio blasting and the wind wild in our hair.

We have forgotten to say how being a writer makes it more interesting to be alive. Those of us in Becky Rule’s class this summer had a heightened experience of life because we knew we might have to write about it. We took more notice of the things we touched and how they felt, we listened more intently, smelled more carefully, saw more sharply, and tasted with new mouths. During the course my two favourite lines from other people’s writing were unforgettable precisely due to the originality of their close sensual observation.

1. “He jabbed his fork into the spaghetti and ate his father’s rage.”

2. “Her mother’s voice sound different, as if it had been newly laundered.”

As a sort of end of term celebration, Becky, my teacher, and Sarah, my classmate, took me to L.L. Bean’s in Freeport, Maine, a week ago tonight. (Friday, July 31st, 1992). I had come to know about L.L. Bean during our course. It had surfaced frequently in the published and upublished stories we read in class.

“What’s this L.L.Bean I keep reading about about?” I’d asked, ignorant foreigner that I was.

By way of explanation, one Monday night everyone came one to class wearing or carrying their L.L.Bean gear and paraded across the room like mannequins, even the men. It became one of our in-jokes. It was therefore a treat to find myself at L.L.Bean’s, still shopping at ten past midnight in the huge, tasteful, tempting store that’s open twenty four hours a day. Becky, Sarah and I each bought ourselves an identical, scrumptious pair of green shoes.

“Feel the suede!” said Sarah.

“Smell the newness!” said Becky.

“Watch me while I walk in them,” I said, and walked like a duck to make the other two laugh. I noticed how sensuously we’d been observing the scene: feeling, smelling, and looking; and I wondered which one of us would be the first to write a story called: “A foreigner buys green shoes.”

Had I not been a reader I never would have found myself at L.L.Bean’s. Books and stories that we love ease themselves into our lives seamlessly, enriching us with information, delighting us with their characters, surprising us with their style.

That’s another thing that the bleak Puritans forget to say: reading is not intrisically A Good Thing, a difficult and necessary thing to grasp, it’s a fantastically pleasurable way of passing the time – not that anyone would ever know it if basals had been their staple ‘literary’ diet at school. Who ever curled up with a basal on a rainy summer’s night? Who ever bought a basal to read on a long plane journey? Who ever recommended a basal to a friend as a riveting must-read?

Although I love reading and read a lot I very rarely choose my own reading material. I find it difficult. I don’t belong to a library – I’m terrified of libararies for some reason, even my own university library – and in bookshops I’m overwhelmed to the point of stupidity by the number of choices. Most of the books I read are recommended to me by friends, acquaintances and booksellers. As as soon as someone of my age, especially if it’s a woman, raves about a book I have to read it myself.

It doesn’t always work. The Prince of Tides (1990) has been recommended to me often but I find nothing in the writing style to surprise or delight me and can’t get beyond the first hundred pages. The best book I’ve read recently: The things they carried (1990) by Tim O’Brien, might appear on the surface to be a man’s book since its focus is the Vietnam war, yet I am passionate about it. Half my class had read it and raved about it with good reason. O’Brien is a superb craftsman, whose beautiful, unsentimental, mesmerising style and shocking content I would have missed but for the informed enthusiasm of those around me.

I’m confessing this frailty of not being able to choose my own reading material because when we read or write ourselves we gain valuable insights as teachers of whole language, insights that would elude us were we not actively engaged in its use. Not being competent at choosing what to read next has made me realise that when I teach I need to create small communities of like-minded characters in my classroom so they can recommend to each other great stuff to read. The pressure of peer enjoyment and enthusiasm will far outweigh anything I might say about a book. I need to feed suggestions to certain key readers and hope that through them word will spread around the class.

So let’s pretend this is a class. What have I been reading and raving about this summer? I’ll give a few quick examples, each from a different genre.

For everyone in this audience, but particulary the women, and even more particularly the African-American women, I recommend a hilarious and touching new novel, just published. It’s called Waiting to Exhale, (1992) by Terry McMillan. This is the first hilarious paragraph:

“Right now I’m supposed to be all geeked up because I’m getting ready for a New Year’s Eve Party that some guy named Lionel invited me to. Sheila, my baby sister, insisted on giving me his number becasue he lives here in Denver and her simple-ass husband played basketball with him eleven years ago at the University of Washington, and since I’m still single (which is downright pitiful to her, considering I’m the oldest of four kids and the only one who has yet to say “I do”), she’d worried about me. She and Mama both think I’m out here dying of loneliness, which is not true. I mean, I have my days and I have my nights, but I haven’t gotten to the point where I’ll take what ever I can get. There’s big difference between being thirsty and being dehydrated.”

It’s a riot of a book about successful African-American yuppie women who have a heap of trouble with the no-good men in their lives.

I’ve only just discovered a super and apparently well-known children’s picture book called: “More, more, more,” said the Baby, (1990) by Vera B. Williams. It’s politically correct, divinely written, beautifully illustrated, and rhythmically appealing to little kids and adults.

In non-fiction, I’ve just read and found very useful and encouraging: Portfolio Portraits (1992), the latest book by Don Graves, co-authored by Bonnie Sunstein. In a marvellous first chapter Graves is lucid and reassuring as he sets out the seven points we need to bear in mind when we use portfolios in our classrooms. For university teachers I recommend in particular Chapter Five, by Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater.

My next rave is for those who like poetry, but in particular for those who have loved Barbara Kingsolver’s two recent super novels: The Bean Trees (1988) and Animal Kingdoms (1990). She has now written a book of wondeful poetry: Another America (1992) which is so politically correct each poem appears in Spanish on the right hand page and in English on the left. I particularly loved a short poem called: “The loss of my arms and legs,” because I have a paraplegic sister who is married to a quadraplegic. It ends like this:

“. . . Is this how it is?
When everything you have
is boxed inside a skull,
beacuse you can watch the wind
outside and see
that even trees can move
but you
have to ask someone
to wash and turn your body
while you wait out all the rest
of all the time
you will ever have.”

Finally, for those who love wicked humour, I recommend the intentionally funny, all-too-real Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook (1992) in which we learn how not to be offensive. I’m sure my paraplegic sister will be pleased to know she’s no longer ‘disabled’; she is instead ‘inconvenienced.’ I am no longer ‘white’, I’m ‘melanin-deprived’. The seven dwarfs are no longer dwarfs, they’re ‘vertically challenged’. And the ugly sisters are no longer ‘ugly’, they’re ‘cosmetically different.’

In concluding this paper may I reiterate that I wanted to illustrate two points: firstly, that the texts we read have a more powerful influence in our lives than we might hitherto have realised; and secondly, that we can’t ‘do’ whole language we simply have to live it; the more we live it, the more we’ll understand, control and love its many uses; and the more we understand, control and love its many uses the better we’ll be able to teach it.


  1. Beard, H.& Cerf, C. (1992) The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook. New York: Villard Books.
  2. Graves, D. & Sunstein, B. (1992). Portfolio Portraits. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
  3. Kingsolver, B. (1990. Animal Dreams. New York: Harper Collins.
  4. Kingsolver, B. (1992). Another America. Seattle: The Seal Press.
  5. Kingsolver, B. (1988). The Bean Trees New York: Harper Collins.
  6. McMillan, T. (1992). Waiting to Exhale. New York: Viking.
  7. O’Brien, T. (1991). The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin.
  8. Williams, Vera B., (1990). More, More, More, Said the Baby. New York: Greenwillow Books.