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Regular version of the site

How to Engage Children in Literature

Attention to detail and deep involvement in a literary text can help children fall in love with Russian literature, according to educator Evgenya Abelyuk's new book.
Evgenya Abelyuk , Associate Professor, HSE Institute of Education, Programme Head, Philological Hermeneutics of School Literary Education Programme.

Slow, involved reading can help develop a taste for literature. Similar to investigation or a quest, this process can be as interesting as it is thorough. Children can be taught to enjoy literature in multiple ways, argues Abelyuk in her book 'The Practice of Reading'. Literature can stir emotions, bring intellectual joy and aesthetic pleasure, yet really deep involvement in the text is necessary for the reader to appreciate and enjoy every detail. According to Abelyuk, "close attention to small things is key to the mystery called passion for literature."

We at IQ.hse.ru have identified at least ten approaches in her book 'The Practice of Reading' which can help parents and educators teach children the skills of thoughtful and enjoyable reading.

Four Simple Recipes for Family Reading Fun

When parents seek advice on how to engage their children in reading, they are often given four common recommendations:

  • Read aloud to young children and discuss books with them.
  • Read to an intriguing place in the book and then stop until next time.
  • Choose books together with the child in a bookstore, online or at a library (e.g. a book can be a prize for good grades; choosing books to read can be a regular family practice).
  • Lead by example: in families where mum and dad read a lot of books, children are more likely to develop a taste for reading.

In addition to this, there are other ways both parents and teachers can engage youngsters in literature. These approaches require more effort, but it pays off, because they promote a culture of reading, according to Abelyuk.

Meeting with Oneself

  • It is helpful to draw parallels between a book character and oneself to find similarities and differences.

Reading involves self-exploration. It would seem intuitively obvious, yet the power of literature to deepen our self-awareness is often underestimated. By comparing oneself to certain characters, readers can find the comparison to be in their favour ("Perhaps I am better than Natasha Rostova who 'does not care to be intelligent'") or not  ("I wish I were as brave as Bulgakov's Margarita") – the latter can serve as a personal development incentive. Pechorin is, in some way or another, reflected in every other character in Lermontov's ‘A Hero of Our Time’, from Grushnitsky to Ondine, and the author tempts the reader to try on this hypnotic, fascinating persona.

Examining a book's characters may be a fairly straightforward, even superficial level of reading, but it can be a lot of fun as well as instructive. "Isn't it for the sake of finding ourselves in the characters of a book that [people] read," reflected Georges Simenon, creator of the famous fictional detective Maigret.

Being Magellan or Sherlock Holmes

  • It helps to think of a literary work as a quest, in which the reader needs to find the hidden meaning amidst intrigue and suspense.

Once we are able to notice the puzzles laid down by the author, we can enjoy solving them, Abelyuk explains. "I would be La Perouse, Magellan, Vasco da Gama; I would discover strange natives," said Jean-Paul Sartre, recalling his early reading experience.

Here are just a few puzzles from the Russian literature. Why is the action of Dostoyevsky's ‘Crime and Punishment’ set in the stifling heat of summer in St. Petersburg? Why does Pierre in Tolstoy's ‘War and Peace’ hear a different word instead of 'harness' when he talks to a peasant? Trying to find answers to these questions can greatly enhance the reader’s interest, according to the researcher.

Magic of Footnotes and Comments

  • Interesting comments, sometimes released as a separate book, can draw additional attention to a literary work.

For example, Yuri Lotman's commentary on Pushkin's ‘Eugene Onegin’ is more than just a 'satellite' of the famous novel in verse, but draws readers in like a magnet by explaining the cultural context, the "divine details" as Nabokov lovingly called them, such as fancy balls, duels, pastimes, and the everyday lives of men and women.

Insightful comments help the reader to see a work of literature in a broader historical and cultural context. "For a naive reader, Eugene Onegin is a story about love, but for a more sophisticated person who is aware of the historical context, it is primarily a story about that era and the 'Russian soul'.

Another example of cultural commentary turned into a fascinating book is Mikhail Gasparov's ‘Entertaining Ancient Greece’, in which the author does not just explain the adventures of ancient gods and heroes, but recreates their world in 3D, vividly painting the Delphic oracle, Diogenes in his barrel, Alexander the Great's exploits and the history of Olympic Games, theatre, and architecture. More than just entertaining reading, his book is a virtual portal into this cultural space.

Visualising Book Characters

  • Visual art can enhance the reader’s engagement and understanding.

Using the power of visual art, from drawing and painting to sculpture and architecture, a teacher can provide a context – such as showing students who are reading Alekander Blok's ‘Gamayun, the Profetic Bird’, the painting by Vasnetsov which had inspired the poem.

In his ‘Memoirs in Tsarskoye Selo’, Pushkin calls Catherine the Great ‘the Russian Minerva’. Many paintings and poems of the time help explain the reason why: in the 17th and 18th centuries, the image of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, was often used to represent royal ladies, particularly those who patronised the arts or scored military victories, as one can easily see in the portraits of Marie de Medicis, Anne of Austria, and Russian Empresses Elizabeth Petrovna and Catherine the Great.

Broader Context for Advanced Readers

  • The history behind certain words, concepts, themes and the artistic language of the epoch where the book is set can also attract readers: learning about the broader context can encourage them to re-read the book for a better insight into its content.

In fact, the ‘Practice of Reading’ itself serves as a rich source of contextual detail allowing a better understanding of the Soviet-era literature. Young readers can be encouraged to compile 'context dictionaries' serving as beacons in the world of concepts and artefacts mentioned in specific literary works. For example, students can discover that a certain image is used consistently in various artistic media of an historical period and acquire a fresh interest in literature, as well as visual art, theatre, cinema, etc.

As an illustration, ‘Practice of Reading’ tells the exciting story of the word 'krasny' (red) and its evolution over time reflected in the Russian literature.

The meaning of 'krasny' has evolved from the ancient Russian 'beautiful' ('krasna devitsa’, a fair maiden) to a denotation of the colour red (circa 14th-16th centuries) to a symbol of the Communist ideology (a red Commissar, Red Petrograd). "Bolshevism has repainted all things red, just like a savage, a child or a crazy monkey would do if they got hold of a bucket of red paint and a brush," the writer Kuprin noted sarcastically in 1920.

However, the actual association of the colour red with 'rebellion' had occurred way earlier, at the end of the 18th century, when the red flag became a symbol of the French Revolution opposing the royal white flag. Knowing this helps the reader better understand Nikolai Kirsanov in Turgenev's 'Fathers and Sons', saying, "I thought I was doing everything to keep up with the times; I made arrangements for the peasants, started a model farm, so that I'm even described as 'Red' all over the province..."

In Soviet times, the concept of 'red' as a symbol of the official Soviet ideology was so heavily overused that authors of varied persuasions, from Bulgakov to Mayakovsky, were ironic or sarcastic about it. In Bulgakov's 'The White Guard', Talberg, who is a traitor, counter-intuitively wears a red armband. In Mayakovsky's comedy 'The Bedbug', characters discuss the arrangements for a Red Wedding, such as the Red bride (all steamed up), the Red father of the bride (fat and apoplectic), Red ham on the table, etc. Awareness of context details makes literary texts both entertaining and instructive.

Discovering Associations and Similarities

  • Writers conversing across centuries can intrigue curious young readers.

In her 'Requiem', Akhmatova refers to "convict burrows" (katorzhnye nory), placing the phrase in quotation marks to emphasise the reference to Pushkin's poem dedicated to the Decembrists, their revolt and subsequent exile to Siberia. Despite using the same phrase, Abelyuk explains, the key messages of Akhmatova and Pushkin's poems are in fact opposite in meaning. While Pushkin sounds confident that justice will prevail and bridge the distance between him and the Decembrists, Akhmatova feels alienated and disillusioned, knowing that her appeal will remain unanswered.

February 06, 2017