Book: Writing Superheroes

Writing SuperheroesWriting Superheroes: Contemporary Childhood, Popular Culture, and Classroom Literacy
Anne Haas Dyson
1997 (Teachers College)

If you watch kids playing games of pretend on a playground, chances are you’ll see them pretending to be characters from a story they know. Often those stories are from the popular media around them – the television shows they watch, the movies they’ve seen, the video or card games they play every day. They write stories on the same subject and Dyson spent two years observing one particular group of students as they wrote and acted stories in second and third grade, under the same teacher each year. She studied not only the sources of their stories, but also how they interpreted and changed those stories individually and as a group. She saw X-Men stories carry over week after week getting reinterpreted as they passed through different hands and negotiated over for various reasons (kids wanting their character to get to do more, kids wanting certain characters to get to do cooler things, kids wanting more or less relationship/emotional content, etc.). There are many facets to the study and Dyson looks particularly at gender and racial aspects of the stories and how they are negotiated by the kids (it was a very racially mixed classroom with a fairly even gender split).

This is an absolutely fascinating study. The idea of it is incredibly intriguing and it really seemed like Dyson had the perfect classroom in which to observe. I had some major concerns about her methods and approach, though. First of all, she went into this clearly not knowing anything about the shows and movies the kids were basing their stories on. That’s fine, if she had seemed willing to find out about them, but it really felt like she left that all up to her research assistants because she didn’t think very highly of the media the kids were drawing from. I’m not saying “Power Rangers” is high quality TV, but if you are doing a study about kids writing “Power Ranger” stories, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that you watch a lot of it yourself to get a feel for the flavor, language, world and characters of the show. The same goes for “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “X-Men”. If you can’t bring yourself to watch the shows, maybe this isn’t a study you should be conducting. I also wondered about the strange amounts of time she spent watching the kids. She observed them only during the second semesters of their second and third grade years, which means she had a large gap in her observation when they were working together on stories and storytelling techniques. There may have been a good reason why she didn’t observe them first semester of their third grade year, but she never addresses the issue at all, and that seems like a pretty big issue for me.

The gender issues were fascinating and I found it really interesting that Dyson pointed out that she realized the bias she was likely to have as a white, female adult to focus more on the stories she found interesting or appropriate. She says this is possibly one of the issues that should be addressed in teaching, but at the same time, she spends a good portion of the book fixated on what seemed to be one minor group’s temporary focus on Roman myths. She even devotes an entire appendix to brief description of mythological characters the kids used in their play and stories! She describes their playground games around these myths, but she doesn’t ever seem to have spent much time actually paying any attention to the playground games about the X-Men than she does mention knowing happened. Why was this mythology game more worthy of observation, even though it only involved a small group, than the X-Men game, which supposedly usually involved most of the class?

I did find the kids’ stories and they way they developed over time to be really interesting. I was surprised that after the girls started presenting superhero stories with strong heroes of both genders, so did the boys (even though girls had been relegated to damsels in distress or extras in their previous stories). It showed that the kids were engaging in a complicated dialogue that I have seen regularly in play, but never imagined carried over into their academic world. I think this same type of study would be fascinating to see done by someone else. Perhaps someone more aware of and respectful of the media the kids were using as well as more able to devote the time required to really observe the dialogue taking place. This seems like a perfect study for a teaching or perhaps sociology professor (or a really dedicated grad student).

This was an incredibly intriguing book. I’m very glad that I read it and it raised a lot of interesting questions for me as well as reinforcing a lot of the things I already knew. That said, I’m not sure I could really recommend it without serious reservations. Given that I think it’s actually a very poorly done study, I think it’s very interesting. If anyone else has read this book or reads it sometime, I’d love to hear their thoughts on it!

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