A discussion of “Reading Appalachia” and the importance of children’s books

By Grayson Ruhl

Executive Staff

On Wednesday, April 15, Ellen Handler Spitz visited Sewanee to present an enlightening and endearing public discussion in the Torian Room of Jessie Ball duPont library about the Reading Appalachia: Voices from Children’s Literature exhibit. Spitz has not only written reviews for children’s books, but she has also published three books herself. During her discussion, she explained the role of children’s books in helping young minds mature and how they help children appreciate their own culture and locality. Spitz discussed the ways in which various children’s books accomplish these objectives and help provide nourishment for children.

Spitz began by analyzing Sounder by William H. Armstrong, a novel about an African-American boy in a family of sharecroppers. As Spitz explains, the only character who is named in the book is the boy’s dog, Sounder, and the setting of the book is not specified, which allows young readers to relate more easily to the protagonist. The boy in Sounder longs for education and the ability to read, as he believes it would release him from his poor situation. This story goes on to detail the boy’s struggles in becoming literate and dealing with the many traumas of his life. This book is not only a cultural representation, but it is a masterful piece that teaches children the importance of reading and the sanctuary that literature can provide.

Another touching children’s book, a picture book called Now One Foot, Now the Other by Tomie dePaola, portrays the relationship between a young boy and his grandfather. As Spitz explains, throughout the boy’s childhood, the grandfather nurtures the boy by teaching him how to walk—now one foot, now the other—building blocks with him, and being a loving friend. As the story progresses, the boy’s grandfather suffers a stroke and has trouble remembering his past. He becomes unresponsive, which deeply hurts the boy. Eventually, however, the boy learns that he can invoke some responses in his grandfather by building blocks in front of him. Soon, the boy is teaching his own grandfather to walk—now one foot, now the other. This book demonstrates that a child who is nurtured and loved can in turn grow to be a nurturing figure. Also, it demonstrates that a young male character can be the hero of a story by caring for others and providing loving support rather than performing bold physical feats of strength such as conquering monsters.

Spitz also explained how Angry Arthur by Hiawyn Oram, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura, teaches children how to manage their feelings of frustration and anger. In this book, Arthur’s mom tells him that he had to go to sleep instead of staying up late to watch TV, to which Arthur threatens, “I’ll get angry.” Arthur does indeed get angry, and ends up throwing a colossal temper tantrum. After he calms down, Arthur cannot remember why he was even upset in the first place, demonstrating how easily one’s anger and strong emotions can undermine our functions of reasoning. Arthur’s mother is portrayed as a shadow, so children can project their own mothers into the book. Also, the illustrations of Arthur tearing up his room, his town, and even the solar system, portray anger in a tangible, visual sense. This story teaches children, through its content and abstract images, to make sound judgments.

During her discussion, Spitz presented many other fantastic children’s books such as Shiloh, The Biggest Bear, Lassie Come Home, A Pocketful of Cricket, and many others. As she introduced these books, the room filled with “Oohs” and “Ahs,” as people recognized them from their own childhoods. Not only do such books help young readers develop, but they also expand their experience and lead them from the real world to the literal world—that of imagination rather than perceptivity.

Savanna Roaldsand (C’18) commented on the discussion, “With everyone trying to study abroad, I think it’s also important to appreciate where we are now—I really got what she was saying about connecting to our locality.” The illustrations in children’s books are crucial in creating these environments, and the relatable characters in books such as Angry Arthur and Sounder also immerse children into the stories. They teach children the nurturing powers of reading, the importance of relationships, and how one can enter an exciting new universe when delving into a wonderful book.