Professor studies literature

17 years ago

For as long as there has been more than one generation, parents have been teaching their children right from wrong and a major player in that dynamic has always been stories – oral and written.
    A University of Maine at Presque Isle professor has made the study of a specific type of children’s literature a focal point in her research and recently published a book on her findings.
In “Struwwelpeter: Humor or Horror? 160 Years Later,” (2007, Lexington Books) Dr. Barbara Smith Chalou, associate professor of teacher education, examines the place of children’s literature meant to frighten youngsters into behaving within its historical context and current literary education trends.
“I was always interested in the Germanic folklore tradition like the Grimms’ Fairytales,” Chalou said. “Many of those stories are cautionary tales and I cover those in my children’s’ literature course.”
In a cautionary tale, like the ones found in Heinrich Hoffman’s “Der Struwwelpeter,” there are quick and often graphically violent repercussions to children who do not listen or wantonly defy their elders’ instructions.
In Hoffman’s work – which translates to “Slovenly Peter,” a little boy who would not stop sucking his thumbs has them hacked off by a scissors-wielding tailor. A little girl burns to death after playing with matches and another dies of starvation after refusing to eat his soup.
“Our initial reaction to this level of violence in a child’s story is probably shock and disbelief,” Chalou writes. “But we must carefully consider the long legacy of violence in children’s entertainment.”
Written in Germany in 1844, Hoffman’s stories were intended for his own son and to fill what the writer saw was a void in the existing literature. Today, Chalou said Hoffman’s work is the perfect example of didactic children’s’ literature – that which preaches right from wrong in clear, graphic detail and leaves no room for independent interpretation.     That is something missing from modern children’s books, Chalou said.
Contrast that, Chalou said, with the Hoffman-style stories in which, “they were sermons to be suffered.”
In her own book, Chalou looks beyond Hoffman’s stories and examines historical and modern child-rearing practices and children’s development concepts.
Close to 200 years later, Chalou said, there is a renewed interest in Hoffman’s work.
“These stories are as popular as ever,” she said. “People love them or they hate them.”
Chalou hopes her own book, which she wrote with graduate students in mind, will propel the reader to think more deeply about the genre.
“People tend to trivialize children’s literature,” Chalou said. “But a child’s book should and does have all the passion to impact the reader like a good novel.”
Despite the lack of gratuitous violence in newer children’s tales, Chalou sees no danger in youngsters running amok for lack of cautionary stories.
“Children learn from their parents and in the home,” she said. “Literature is a way to disseminate social norms but it is probably less powerful than the home influence.”
Chalou also noted the violent stories like Hoffman’s are actually less powerful as a teaching tool.
“The ones with a real impact are those that let the reader think and draw their own conclusions,” she said.
Youth Summit
Four Healthy Maine Partnership Coalitions – STOP (Southern Aroostook Tobacco-Free Outreach Project), Partnership for a Healthy Community, St. John Valley Partnership and Power of Prevention joined together with the help of a $20,000 grant from the Partnership for A Tobacco-Free Maine to host the fifth annual Aroostook Partnership Extravaganza (APE) Youth Summit at the University of Maine at Presque Isle on Tuesday, April 3. Over 400 students in grades 6-8 from Fort Kent to Katahdin were in attendance.
The purpose of the summit was to train students to be youth advocates in their school and communities regarding the issues of tobacco prevention, nutrition and physical activity which are all goals of the Healthy Maine Partnerships across the state of Maine.
The event featured keynote speaker David Goerlitz. Goerlitz is a professional actor, producer, model, public speaker and educator. His career includes work in film, stage, commercial advertising and tobacco-free activism. Although he has been featured in highly successful commercials for a number of vendors, he is perhaps best known as the lead Winston Man in RJ Reynolds’ lucrative “Search and Rescue” advertisement series, which helped move Winston cigarettes from number four to number two in worldwide sales. Goerlitz was featured in 42 of these ads – more than any other tobacco model, including the Marlboro Men. In November, 1988, he took an historic stand against the tobacco industry by publicly participating in The Great American Smokeout and condemning the industry’s advertising that targets kids and their sale of tobacco products to the young people of the world.
The APE Youth Summit also featured over 29 different workshops for students to attend including the All Pro Soccer Workshop that featured former professional soccer player Gary Walker of Manchester, England; media advocacy; Maine Winter Sports; Winter Kids; Fun with Nutrition and more.
Organizers of the event felt that it was extremely successful and hope to offer the day to students again next year.