The American Experience in Children’s Literature

Sample Syllabus Three for teaching with Crosscurrents of Children's Literature, Oxford University Press, 2006

This class is designed as an overview course, possibly as an option for required credits in American Literature. Because American and English literature are so closely related, the fact that stories such as The Secret Garden and “Little Red Riding Hood” did not originate in the US is surprising to some students . In focusing on strictly American children’s literature, the class focuses on the distinct qualities that flavor an American text. This includes not only ideological approaches, but also themes, attitudes, location, and character development.


Clark, Beverly Lyon. Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children's Literature in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2003.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Companion to American Children's Picture Books. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Lystad, Mary. At Home in America: As Seen Through its Books for Children. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1984.

MacCann, Donnarae. White Supremacy in Children's Literature: Characterizations of African Americans, 1830-1900.  New York: Garland Pub, 1998.

Martin, Michelle H. Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Children's Picture Books, 1845-2002. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Murray, Gail Schmunk. American Children's Literature and the Construction of Childhood. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Norton, Donna E. Multicultural Children's Literature: Through the Eyes of Many Children. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall, 2005.

Seale, Doris and Beverly Slapin. A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Berkeley, CA: Oyate, 2005.


Comparison Paper. The purpose of this paper is to make the student more consciously aware that there are differences in English-speaking cultures, and that therefore, America has a distinct culture of its own that can be explored and studied. For this paper, students will need to read two books. The first will be any American children’s text that they choose; the second will be an English, Canadian or Australian book of the same genre, with the same basic themes, published at roughly the same time. An example would be Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. The student will then choose one main point of comparison between the two, such as gender, or the way both books deal with death.  The student will then write a paper exploring the differences and similarities in the way that an American writer and a non-American, English-speaking writer present the same issues.

Author Paper. Choose one American author and read at least two of his or her works; students who choose picture books should choose at least five texts. Find one or more theme, image or motif that runs through all of this writers’ work.  Write a paper doing a close reading that explores how this same theme works through multiple texts. 

Historical Novel. Have each student read a different historical novel dealing with a specific aspect of American history. Each student will then give a presentation of that novel, first giving an outline that lasts no more than one minute, followed by an evaluation of that novel in light of  the article “Is that Book Politically Correct? Truth and Trends in Historical Literature for Young People” by Hazel Rochman, Masha Kabakow, and Diane Stanley. 

Book to Movie. For this paper, the students will read one book and watch one movie based on that book. The students can choose an American film based on an American book, An American film based on a non-American book, or a non-American film based on an American book. For the first part of the project, the students will compare changes: what is different between the two? For the second part, they will look at the cultural implications of these adaptations: what does it mean that these things have been changed? Changes across cultures and over time are both important. Film theory could be helpful here as well as cultural theory.

The American Folktale Presentation. Each student will choose a different American folktale to work with. That student will research the background of the tale, and then find as many different versions of the story in as many different media as available. Obviously, some stories, such as Paul Bunyan, are going to be available in more forms than others, such as the African American folktales about John the Conqueror. The student will then give a presentation, first telling the story to the class, then giving the background, followed by an explanation of what retellings have been found, audio, visual, and textual. The presentations could be enhanced by multimedia materials, if available on that particular story.


Week 1: Introduction


Introduction to Part 1

“Precepts, Pleasures and Portents: Changing Emphases in Children’s Literature” Sheila Egoff

From The Year of the Gopher Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

From Charlotte’s Web E. B. White

Week 2: Didacticism

“Didacticism in Modern Dress” John Towe Townsend

“The Purple Jar” Maria Edgeworth

From The Saturdays Elizabeth Enright

From Ramona the Pest Beverly Cleary

“Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out,” “Zebra Question” Shel Silverstein

Week 3: Subversion

Introduction to Part 2

“A Child’s Garden of Subversion” Alison Lurie

From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Chapter 12 “Tom Shows His Generosity”

From Be Careful What You Wish For… R. L. Stine

Week 4: Oral Tradition in America

“Oral Narration in Contemporary North America” Kay Stone

From An Appalachian Mother Goose James Still

From Navajo Visions and Voices Across the Mesa Shonto Begay

“The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale” Joseph Bruchac and Gayle Ross

“Dancing Drum: A Cherokee Legend” Terri Cohlene

“Munsmeg” Richard Chase and “Mutsmag” R. Rex. Stephenson

(Further Recommended Reading: The People Could Fly Virginia Hamilton

Week 5: Native America in Fiction

From Little House on the Prairie Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Trusting the Words” Michael Dorris

“Discovery and Recovery in Children’s Novels by Native Writers” Jon Stott

From The Birchbark House Louise Erdrich

“The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale” Joseph Bruchac and Gayle Ross 

Week 6: Gender

Introduction to Part 5: Boys’ Books and Girls’ Books

“‘As the Twig is Bent:’ Gender and Childhood Reading” Elizabeth Segel

From Little Women Chapter 8: “Jo Meets Apollyon,” “Amy’s Valley of Humiliation,” “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair,” “Friend”  Louisa May Alcott

“Toy-Based Videos for Girls: My Little Pony” Ellen Seiter

Week 7: Gender

“Boys Will be Boys: The Making of the Male” Marina Warner

From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer “Self-Examination—Dentistry—The Midnight Charm—Witches and Devils—Cautious Approaches—Happy Hours,” “Becky in a Dilemma—Tom’s Nobility Asserts Itself” Mark Twain

From The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 Christopher Paul Curtis

Week  8: Mystery

“A Little Ghostly History” Leslie McFarlane

“Keeping Nancy Drew Alive” Sara Paretsky

From The Tower Treasure Franklin W. Dixon

From The Secret of the Old Clock Carolyn Keene

From Be Careful What You Wish For… R. L. Stine

Week  9: African American Literature

“Insiders, Outsiders and the Question of Authenticity: Who Shall Write for African American Children?” Nina Mikkelsen

From New Boy in School May Justus

From Nobody’s Family is Going to Change Louise Fitzhugh

(Further Recommended Reading: The Slave Dancer Paula Fox)

Week 10: African American Literature, continued

“John Henry” African American Ballad

Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes Floyd Cooper

“Aunt Sue’s Stories,” “Mother to Son” Langston Hughes

“knoxville, tennessee” Nikki Giovanni

“I Love the Look of Words” Maya Angelou

“Elevator,” “Under the Rainbow,” Lucille Clifton

From Jambo Means Hello Tom Feelings

(Further Recommended Reading: Zeely Virginia Hamilton
or Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry Mildred Taylor
or The Road to Memphis Mildred Taylor)

Week 11: Fantasy

“Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” Ursula K. LeGuin

From The Wizard of Oz L. Frank Baum

From Father Goose, His Book L. Frank Baum

From A Wrinkle in Time Madeline L’Engle

Week 12: Adaptation

From A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls Nathaniel Hawthorne

“American Film Adaptations of The Secret Garden: Reflections of Historical and Sociological Change” Juluiane Gillispie

“Cinderella: Saturday Afternoon at the Movies” Louise Bernikow

“Moral Simplification in Disney’s The Little Mermaid” A. Waller Hastings

“Am I Blue?” Bruce Coville

Snow White in New York Fiona French

Week 13: Values and Censorship

Introduction to Part 8: Values and Censorship

“Teaching Banned Children’s Books” Mark I. West

From Forever… A Novel Judy Blume

From Weetzie Bat Francesca Lia Block

Week 14: Mark Twain

From Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain

“Huck, Continued” E. L. Doctorow and David Bradley

“Review of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” William Dean Howells

From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Chapter 12, “Tom Shows His Generosity” Mark Twain

Week 15: Katherine Paterson

“Hope and Happy Endings” Katherine Paterson

From The Great Gilly Hopkins Katherine Paterson

From Jacob Have I Loved Katherine Paterson

Return to list of sample syllabi

Sample syllabus prepared by Melody Green

Contact Tina L. Hanlon with questions or comments on this site.

Updated: August 16, 2010   |   Return to Home Page: Crosscurrents of Children's Literature