Deconstructing Penguins: What the book’s Really about
Deconstructing Penguins: Parents, Kids, and the Bond of Reading by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone is a well-intentioned book about how to read fiction with children that rubbed me the wrong way from beginning to end because, as much as there is that it gets right about how to talk about literature with kids, it gets one thing fundamentally wrong, and that might be the most important thing of all.
Take this sentence from the first chapter: “Books are like puzzles. . . the author’s ideas are hidden and it is up to all of us to figure them out. Whenever you read a book you want to know what the book is really about, not what it’s about on the surface, not the story, but what’s underneath the story…”
I hate and detest this approach to reading fiction with kids, (with adults too, with readers of any age, really, but especially I hate foisting this idea upon kids who are too young to question it). It is fundamentally untrue that a book is a puzzle and that ideas are hidden and have to be ferreted out. Ideas might not be obvious, but that’s not the same thing as hidden. It’s an oversimplified explanation meant to introduce children to the ideas of themes and symbolism, but which fails to understand what these themes and symbols really are: not a secret meaning hidden by the author for enterprising detectives to pry out of a book, but the way in which a well-written story speaks to us about universal human experiences and meanings and helps us to discover that we are immortal because we have, as William Faulkner says in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
William Faulkner called these universal experiences “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.” And that strikes me as one of the best and truest formulations. They aren’t “hidden meanings” but embodiments of truth that make a story live and breathe and take root in our hearts.
Every Book is a Mystery
Every book is a mystery, the Gladstones declare “It’s your job to figure out what the author is really trying to say. When you do, you’ll know what the book is about.” That’s an absolutely terrible way to go about reading fiction. There is no “what the author is really trying to say,” there is merely story. What the author is really trying to do is tell a story. And if he or she tells an especially good one and excels at the craft of writing, then the story will be deep and rich and meaningful to the reader. But we discover that meaning by living the story and, yes, talking about the story with others can be a part of the journey of discovery, but we aren’t in search of a some hidden McGuffin, we are exploring and admiring and sharing our discoveries. Coleridge says a symbol is an inexhaustible well of meaning. If that’s true of a single symbol, how much more true is it of the meaning of a complex work like a novel? To imply that there is one and only one meaning hidden in a novel is to impoverish the reading experience and to turn what should be the beginning of a great love affair into a silly parlor game.
I kept waiting for them to say, “Just kidding,” or to explain that this was their first fumbling attempt, but they soon learned better, but no, this is really how they think books should be read.
It’s not all terrible; the authors explain that “there can sometimes be more than one theory of a crime. Book interpretations are subjective. After all, no one was actually sitting in the room with the author. The only rule is that an explanation must be consistent with facts. A group may come up with two perfectly logical but utterly incompatible theories of what the book is really about.”
Here again the mystery analogy fails them. The idea of a mystery implies there is one true answer and one false. There is a real solution to a mystery, even if the detective never finds it. Both theories cannot be true. But that’s not true with reading fiction. The reason two people can come up with different incompatible readings of a work isn’t because neither of them has access to the author’s brain. Even if the author were there with your book club to tell you what she thinks her book means, that’s only one reader’s reading. Because once the book is published, the author is only one more reader. A privileged reader who has more insights into the process of writing. But the meaning of a book is not purely the creation of the author. It’s not a finite thing that can be defined and grasped. Meaning is not merely subjective, either. Meaning is the interaction of the reader with the text.
I do think that a good novel is a mystery, but a mystery in the same way that a sunset is a mystery or a rose or a painting. No one asks what a sunset means or a rose. The proper response to a sunset is wonder and awe.
It is true that, as they say, it is a good lesson “to learn that other people may see things differently and still make sense.” But their dominant metaphor for reading: being a detective, fails to account for why people have different readings of a text. It is a shallow and flimsy way of thinking about reading and thinking about literature.
How Authors Construct Meaning
At several points Deconstructing Penguins briefly examines the process of writing from the writer’s point of view. Getting children to think about how and why the author writes is generally an admirable goal. But from how the authors discuss the role of the novelist, it seems to me they fundamentally do not understand either the how or the why of the composition of fiction.
“The first thing an author usually does is to decide what he or she wants to write about. This will create the underlying theme of the book. For example, an author may decide to examine the concept of loyalty, or discuss the nature of real courage. Others may choose an underlying theme with political connotations or simply how to deal with personal challenges such as peer pressure.”
No, no, no, no, no.
A good writer starts with a story, a character, a plot, an image. Theme develops organically from the story, not the story from the theme. A story which begins with a theme or message is usually a terrible story and not worth reading.
“Once an author has decided what to write about, he or she must them choose a plot, characters, and setting to best convey that message to the reader.”
The primary purpose for a story is to be a story. Stories are not vehicles for messages like ad-boards on buses or commercials on television. And I think children who already love to read already understand this and children who don’t yet love to read need to come to understand this. We read not primarily for the message but for the pleasure of the story. When you imply that they are mistaken about the nature of story, when you tell them that their pleasure is missing the point, you discount their experience needlessly and risk making the reading group or classroom into an adversarial experience. Digging for meaning is a great pleasure for readers as long as it’s not seen as a goal that’s in conflict with reading for pleasure. The two go hand in hand, it’s not either this or that.
“The highlight of almost any discussion is the discovery of what the author has implanted at the core of the book. Peeling away each layer—character, setting, conflict— and finally seeing the truth is probably the most satisfying aspect of reading. It helps, of course, if the author, has been clever in concealment.”
Meaning isn’t implanted, it’s organic. It’s not a buried treasure you uncover, hidden in a text like a chest hidden underground or like the heart of an onion revealed by peeling away layer after layer. Rather, meaning subsists in the structure of the novel, in who the characters are and in the challenges they face, in what they say and do and choose or fail to choose. Meaning isn’t “concealed” by the author, meaning is embodied in a text. And yes, discovering that meaning is incredibly satisfying; but, again, let’s be clear about what is being discovered and how we are discovering it. The author isn’t playing a game of hide and seek or cat and mouse. When a story speaks to us and we suddenly understand why it is that it does so, it’s a moment of meeting of minds, the reader suddenly seeing eye to eye with the author. It’s a process of self-discovery as we understand that the book embodies an understanding of the world that we can apprehend and enjoy.
Torture a Confession out of It
This brings me to one of my favorite poems by Billy Collins:
Introduction to Poetry
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
See, there’s that phrase, “what it really means.” That’s why I flared up in such rage as soon as I saw it on page 9 of Deconstructing Penguins. Years ago Collins had already primed me to hate that phrase and to associate it with a certain kind of torturing of literature that I hated when I encountered it in English classrooms in school. And when I say that I hated torturing poems, you must not understand that as an antipathy either for poetry or for English classes. I went on to major in English in college and to get a Master’s degree in literature. I love poetry and I adore reciting poetry, memorizing poetry, talking about poetry, sharing poetry with friends, and, yes, analyzing poetry. But I do not love torturing poetry, which is what happens all too often in English classes.
Here’s the thing Collins doesn’t mention in his poem. The students are tying the poem to a chair and beating it not because that’s how kids naturally respond to poetry but because they have been taught by well-meaning instructors of English literature and well-meaning leaders of children’s book clubs that this is how one reads poetry. They think this is what they are supposed to do to poems. Likewise with novels and plays and all works of literature. This is the normative way literature is taught in schools, or at least that’s how it seems to me in my more cynical moments. Optimist me knows there must truly be legions of teachers out there who do not teach the torturing of literature but who instead lead children in gentle ways of exploration and delight.
And yes, Deconstructing Penguins does have a chapter on reading poetry. And yes it fundamentally misreads “The Road Not Taken.” Sigh. And pretty much misses the boat on Shel Silverstein’s “How Many, How Much.” And yes, as expected, from the very beginning the authors are leading us to take a poem apart “to use as an example of the manner in which poetry is constructed,” as if the poem were an engineering project that could be deconstructed and then put back together.
A Last Few Irritants
I. First, I found it dispiriting how many dystopian novels were being read by second and fourth graders: “By the time we read The Giver, our kids know that a made-up totalitarian society is a very popular vehicle in children’s books…” To each his own, of course, and I see how dystopian fiction has a lot to discuss and is good fodder for highly interactive discussion between parents and children, but I’m really not comfortable with it as a genre for early elementary school kids. And for that matter I think it’s far too prevalent on reading lists for middle and high school as well.
I like dystopian fiction. I’d love to teach a college-level class on it. But I think kids can easily become dispirited at how negative children’s literature is. We get enough depressing material in our history studies, at this point in our homeschooling adventure I prefer our literature to be heavier on the lighter adventure stories and not so much emphasis on the problem story. We did read Charlotte’s Web and A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, and of course The Lord of the Rings is hardly light fare, but the selection of novels discussed in this book felt a little darker than I prefer and that trend rather worries me. I think part of the problem might be in the way the authors frame their discussions, adventure stories don’t seem to them to be as conducive to critical discussion. I disagree.
II. Another quibble: the authors define allegory as “pretending to talk about one thing but really talking about something else.” There’s that word “really” again. Enough with the “really” already. I know allegory can be hard to talk about, but if you’re going to discuss allegory, do it right. It’s ok to talk about levels of meaning and types of exegesis, not so much to insist that one kind of meaning, the allegorical, is more real than another type, the literal. And that word “pretending” really, really bothers me. The literal meaning of the allegory isn’t a mere pretense. It is an integral part of the story’s meaning, not just a screen for the Great and Wonderful Oz to hide behind.
Let’s go back to the medieval fourfold method of exegesis and look at how one text can be read through multiple lenses. The authors almost approach this kind of reading in their chapter on point of view, which I thought was perhaps the strongest chapter in the book, weighing different points of view, looking at the text on its own terms and none of this nonsense about what it “really” means. I wish that their methodology had followed that approach throughout the book and not just in that one instance.
III. Finally: “Children’s literature is by definition less subtle and more approachable than adult fiction. The author wants the child to get the message.”
I’m disturbed by the notion that authors write and readers read literature for the sake of “the message.” Novels are not and should not be secret messages or propaganda vehicles. Yes, children’s book authors explore themes which are often simpler and more approachable to children. But while all authors want readers who engage with the material and think deeply about it, that’s not the same thing as saying they have a message to impart hidden in the text.
What to do instead of Detecting and Deconstructing literature?
Perhaps my insistence on this point seems a little too vehement. What’s so wrong about getting kids more involved in reading critically by engaging their love for mysteries and detection? It seems innocuous enough. What’s at stake here? Why does it matter so much to get this right? They’re only kids, after all. The authors’ aims are good and their methods seem to be successful: they get kids to talk about books and to engage with them more deeply and to understand how to read and to think critically. So what if there’s some oversimplification and misrepresentation? So what if the authors don’t quite understand how to go about it? They mean well and for the most part they clearly do a good job of getting children involved.
First, a wrong emphasis might not harm all children, but for some children this kind of approach risks alienating them and making literature seem like a puzzle misleads them on the real, deep reasons we read literature. But more important, this framework perpetuates a false model for reading and understanding literature. If it’s all just a puzzle, or if it’s all messages, then ultimately it’s an intellectual game, not an earnest search for a deeper truth about human experience. The author becomes something of a trickster, an antagonist, instead of a storyteller and a friend and a mentor.
If there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, which is implied when you talk about what a text “really” means, then that shifts the goal posts and ultimately trivializes the discussion. And while the authors repeatedly insist on the importance of enjoyment and understanding and seeking truth, their methods as described here, whether it’s an accurate reflection of what they are actually doing in their discussion groups, is at odds with what they claim their goals are.
Also, I think it underestimates what children are capable of understanding. If they can have complex discussions about protagonists and antagonists and the conflict of the story, if they can understand terms like “climax” and “allegory” and “symbolism”, then they can also understand that work of literature can have multiple themes and that the way we understand the various kinds of meaning in a text is very different from the simplistic way a detective finds out who committed a crime. Because in a crime there is just one possible correct solution, but in a novel or poem there isn’t just one correct meaning. When we jump past the literal to the allegorical or moral meanings we are missing something important about how stories and poems work and why they delight us and why we read them. And that misunderstanding impoverishes the whole enterprise.
Finally, and most importantly, when you begin with a false premise, you lay a foundation that is weak, one which will not support the subsequent construction. You build a structure which is fundamentally unsound and which will not stand the test of time; a strong wind or tide or the course of mere seasons will erode it. The literal meaning of a text is the foundation for all other meanings. If students learn to dismiss the literal meaning, their arguments will be weak, their understanding of theme and symbol flawed. While the book tries to teach students how to base their readings on textual evidence, the starting point, the question, “What does the book really mean?” undermines that work because it implicitly dismisses the literal meaning as less important and the enjoyment of the story as story becomes secondary to the pursuit of moral and allegorical meanings.
Instead of seeing the moral and allegorical meanings as being at odds with the literal meaning of the text, students should be shown how they spring forth from it as leaves and stem and flowers spring forth from a seed that is well tended. Then, instead of hacking at the roots, they will be tending the literary garden in truth, cultivating a deeper and richer understanding of how and why we read literature.
If I were to lead a book club, I’d begin the very first session with a reading of Billy Collins’ poem and talk about holding a poem up to the light, or dropping a mouse into it, or feeling for the light switch and how those are all very different from trying to take the poem apart to tell what it “really means.”