Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Enchanted Spaces

Today was the first day of the winter term study abroad class I'm co-teaching for DePauw with my brilliant librarian friend Tiffany Hebb, who just might be the world's most organized person (and also a person who maximizes joy at every opportunity). She's the one who masterminded the whole scheme a year ago and emailed to ask if I'd like to join her in teaching a course that would involve taking university students to Europe to explore the origins of and inspirations for classic children's book texts. Why, yes, I would! And so together we put together the course: "Enchanted Spaces and Protected Places: Children's Literature Sites in London, Oxford, and Paris."

Today we opened the course with general readings on place in literature: Eudora Welty's classic piece "Place in Fiction" and another essay called "Geography Lessons" by Leonard Kriegel. Welty writes, "Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else." She goes on to say that "place can focus the gigantic, voracious eye of genius and bring its gaze to point." Kriegel notes that literary geography "has less to do with the actual shape place assumes in the mind than it does with how the idea of place feeds the imagination." 

After discussing Welty and Kriegel's insights, we had an outing to the Putnam County Public Library, a mere block away from our campus building, and pored over a score or more of picture books set in London and Paris (many more in the latter than in the former, itself fodder for discussion). We looked at the ways in which these books create a landscape of the imagination for young readers.

Our focal texts for the course are Alice in Wonderland, the two Pooh books of A. A. Milne, Harry Potter (clearly the students' favorite), Roald Dahl's Matilda (chosen as our representative Dahl text as we'll be seeing the musical of Matilda in London), Brian Selznick's dazzlingly innovative The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the iconic film The Red Balloon, and of course Madeline, with its twelve little girls roaming around Paris in two straight lines. We'll discuss these together over the next two full days, drawing on some of the extensive scholarly literature on each, especially literature examining the role of place.

Then, on Friday, we fly to London. A week later we'll take the train to Paris. A week after that we'll fly back to Indiana to process what we've seen. The students will will write a final analytic paper for the course, or perhaps take the option of creating their own children's story set in these fabled places. They'll also give a presentation on their adventures to Greencastle children and their families at the public library.

And I'll be able to say, well, THERE was a lifelong dream now come true.


  1. Ooooh, I want to take that class! I found this cool article about your Paris destinations; did you happen to read it while deciding which stories to study?

    Interesting that you found more books set in Paris than in London. I remember reading many more books set in England in my childhood, but I guess a lot were rural, like The Secret Garden or The Railway Children, and the Narnia books in which the children were evacuated from London. Too bad you can't get up to Yorkshire though... :-)
    Have FUN!

  2. Julie, that was exactly the article that inspired us to add a Paris component to the course. And you are completely right thT there are many more classic children's books read by American children set in England than in France. It was to address that imbalance that we looked at picture books and there saw the balance tippng the other way. Wish you were here with us!