Where Literary Analysis Meets Creative Writing.
No matter what school I work at, few things tend to make students’ shoulders tense-up more than an assignment to write a thesis statement. For a long time, I thought that difficulty in understanding the mechanics of thesis statements caused the students the most anxiety. However, as I talked to them and reflected on my own writing process, I discovered most writers’ fears about thesis writing are rooted in the fact that it involves argument forming. As one tenth-grader told me, “you’re not just asking me to write a sentence, you’re asking me to come up with an idea about a book that I am still trying to figure out.”
I have seen so many students become paralyzed when trying to determine what to write about in their papers. Typically, I try to respond with brainstorming exercises that ask students a question, such as, “in one sentence, tell me what you want me to know about the book.” However, I realize that brainstorming exercises that ask students to consider the teacher can shift students’ mindsets to the unproductive question, “what does my teacher want to hear?” Instead, asking students to ask a question like, “how would you tell this story to a child,” encourages them to consider the main themes of the text and the most-basic textual elements which build these themes.
This children’s book project allows students to explore the themes and motifs of a text through different lenses and then practice summarizing them into a simple story. I created the children’s book below for a Technology for Teaching and Learning class and found that it challenged me to concisely and specifically describe what the text is doing and how it is doing it. I use children’s book projects in the classroom as a way to introduce students to argument forming and help them brainstorm before thesis writing.
Example Children’s Book Project
Ana Castillo’s (1993) So Far from God is a magical realist, Chicanx novel that re-imagines the Mexican-American legend of La Llorona through post-colonial and feminist lenses. Just like the principal character in the La Llorona legend is “abandoned by the man she loved [for another woman] and left alone to raise their children,” Castillo’s character Sofi must raise her four daughters alone due to her husband Domingo’s drinking and gambling problem (Renee Perez 2008, p. 2). While Domingo’s injustice towards Sofi does not lead her to “murder her children and throw their bodies into a river” as La Llorona does, Sofi’s daughters all die before the end of the novel due “traumas and injustices they were dealt by society” (Renee Perez 2008, p.2; Castillo 1993, p. 27).
In changing the cause of Sofi’s abandonment and her daughter’s deaths, Castillo challenges “European motifs” that colonists “assimilated into or grafted onto Native stories” during the conquest, which suggested Native culture was inherently savage and that women who do not adhere to the Catholicised “mother” role would live in unhappiness (Castillo 2008). Rather, Castillo makes a society structured on white ideals the cause of her abandonment and her daughter’s deaths. Torres (2003) states that addictions like Domingo suffers from are manifestations of “suppressed pain, grief unspoken, [and] trauma unacknowledged,” which are consequences of the “devastating [Native cultural] losses” that whiteness encourages (p. 29, 26). Sofi’s daughter Esperanza dies in a war zone that ethnocentrism and imperialism fostered, Fe dies in a dangerous work environment that capitalism and racism built, Caridad commits suicide knowing that society will not accept her same-sex relationship, and La Loca dies of AIDS because she is too afraid to seek out medical care in a discriminatory system. Castillo’s La Llorona tale does not end with a woman crying by a creek, but a community of Chicanx mothers crying out against the white, patriarchal society that marginalized them.
Castillo is not the first or only author to have reimagined the La Llorona tale in modern work. Renee Perez notes that legend is “used now around the world to sell or promote everything” to consumers of a variety of ages (p. 2). Similarly, popular authors like Joe Hayes and Rudolfo Anaya have written the La Llorona tale into children’s books. Of course, each interpreter of the legend determines what values the tale will promote. They decide if their narrative will feature a “selfish, vain, vengeful, whorish, and worst of all, a bad mother, while
excusing or ignoring the behavior of the man,” or mothers and daughters “who have become lost as a result of economic, political, racial, or societal violence” (Renee Perez 2008, p. 23). And, importantly for the authors of the children’s book adaptions, they determine the ideologies and values that children will learn.
Inspired by Castillo’s use of La Llorona to critique the patriarchy, capitalism, ethnocentrism, and whiteness, and intrigued by how authors have turned the tale into children’s’
stories, I created a version of the La Llorona tale meant to critique the government’s lack of response to the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Like Sofia’s daughters, the residents of Flint are becoming ill and dying due to societal injustices. Many residents still do not have ready access to safe drinking water. The Flint Water Crisis works as a La Llorona tale because it features abandonment (that the Flint residents are experiencing from white, middle-class society and the government), infant sickness and death (caused by led in the unsafe water), and women wailing by the water (the female mothers of Flint who are leading the fight for safe water). I created my children’s book using the graphic design application Canva.
The Woman Waiting by the Water by AshleyMattei on Scribd
Castillo, Ana (1993). So far from God. United States: W. W. Norton & Company.
Perez, D. R. (2008). There was a woman: La Llorona from folklore to popular culture. Austin, TX: U Texas.
Torres, E. E. (2003). Chicana Without Apology: The New Chicana Cultural Studies. New York. NY: Routledge.