Reading Street

If you’re curious about what happened with that textbook series I was working on last year, for which I wrote the reading-text narratives for a series of English textbooks for Korean elementary schoolkids, focused on English reading and writing skills, this post is for you.

I’m actually pretty happy with how Reading Street, the textbook series I coauthored with Dr. Haeyoung Kim, turned out. I received my copies of the book a while back, but didn’t really have time to look at them too closely.

Well, the first thing that strikes me is the artwork. Some of it is downright gorgeous. Look at this:

From "The Fairy Rule Book"

That’s artwork from the chapter titled “The Fairy Rule Book,” which is about a fairy named Bluebell who turns sixteen and, on the cusp of adulthood — and over a breakfast of blueberry pancakes and crunchy fried flowers — is given a book by her parents, a book titled The Fairy Rule Book.

The book has moving pictures on each page, and each picture walks her something she needs to know to survive in the wider world — how to make a magic wand, how to hide from those monstrous, scary creatures called humans, and so on. But the last page is a riddle, because as long as she stares at it, no moving picture appears to instruct her.

ReadingStreet1Finally, she returns to tell her mother she’s solved the riddle of the back page. Her mom finds Bluebell’s handprint in bright blueberry ink, and of course, the solution to the riddle is that Bluebell sometimes needs to look beyond the rules and make decisions for herself, using her wisdom and intelligence.

An uplifting little story? You could see it that way, but I see it as a Trojan horse, really. These books are full of positive messages. When there’s a cooking class, it’s the father-and-son who take it, not the mother-and-daughter you’d normally see in textbooks.And when I say “see in textbooks” I mean in the English textbooks being written in Korea. Maybe I’ve just had bad luck, but pretty much every English textbook I’ve encountered — and I’ve proofread a lot of them — contained all kinds of discomfiting messages: from Mom effusively and gratefully thanking her husband and sons for doing a few chores around the house (and dad explaining to the boys that it’s necessary because Mom is busy with her job these days — not because, say, people living together ought to share in the housework in this day and age), to images that seem to normalize neglectful parenting, to all kinds of weird subtexts about race (blacks are good at sports and dancing; whites are handsome or pretty; Asians are bad at English but good at math) and gender (girls can be stewardesses, boys can be politicians and doctors). While I’m sure there are forward-thinking, liberal textbooks out there, it’s quite alarming how often I’ve seen books that seemed to represent an ultraconservative value-set/worldview.1

In a sense, I set out to co-write a book not just because of the money (though money always is a motivator for someone writing a textbook), but also because I wondered whether it would be possible to present a different vision in a textbook, one that countered all that stuff, and still sold well on the market. Yes, I have problems with the TEFL industry and its influence on Korean society, but it’s not going anywhere for the immediate future, so there might as well be books out on the market that are saying something different, empowering and enlightening kids, and making their inescapable English study a little more interesting and varied.

ReadingStreet2So in these books, when a kid goes and hangs out with some bushmen living in a traditional village in the Kalahari, she marvels at their brilliance and at how well they survive in a landscape that she could not survive in alone. A kid adventures across Russia, discovering how diverse her society is and what a wonderful thing cultural diversity can be. Another kid learns, at a chess tournament, that winning ain’t everything and that pressuring oneself to be the best is just less interesting than trying to do one’s best while having fun and being engaged with the task. A young boy who is mixed-race (Korean and Vietnamese) and living a difficult life in Korea is sent to a summer camp where he learns Vo Thuat, a Vietnamese martial art, from a Vietnamese emigrant to Korea, and learns some confidence as well as pride in both halves of his heritage. An American girl is kicked off the school’s only basketball team, not because she’s the only female player, but because she’s taller and better at the game than the boys on the other teams in the city.2

There are a few fantastical narratives, too, like Bluebell. A talking dog (designed to spy China’s head of state) is made obsolete (the head of China’s govenrment is allergic to dogs) so he runs away and joins a circus to avoid his unknown, looming fate as an obsolete, useless lab experiment. A girl finds a doorway in the back of her closet, and travels, Narnia-style, to an alternate world populated by bureaucratic lizards whose local bureaucratic official soon becomes hellbent on enslaving all the children of the Earth — don’t worry, she defeats him quickly.

But what I see when I look at these fiction chapters is that they all, all of them, involve someone taking the situation into his or her own hands and doing something when it’s clear that the status quo isn’t going to work: no just resigning himself or herself to whatever happens, not petitioning authorities, not shrugging and saying, “Well, that’s how the world is, you know.” There’s a huge message of empowerment, of active engagement, and even of social responsibility and the power of the people encoded in these narratives, and that’s very definitely on purpose.

Those are the fiction chapters, but there’s also nonfiction, on a bunch of topics you normally don’t see in English books: stuff like The Year Without a Summer; the history and science of astronomy; the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; why kids living in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Korea need glasses so much more than kids in places like Australia and the USA; Global Warming and Global Dimming; the history of the development of computers; Twitter and other social networking software and how they’re being used out in the wild these days; the history of our numerical system and how it became the global standard; a debate between a fictional young astronaut, freshly returned to Earth in 2036, about why space exploration is so important (his earthbound classmates need some convincing, but they mostly come around in the end). This, I think, is mainly where the effect of there being an SF author on the writing team is felt. If I could have, I would have dramatized a lot of this stuff in the form of fiction, but since the publishers wanted in as nonfiction, that’s what they got. Exposing kids to these issues of global concern is important, but it’s also important to explain some of the science behind it in an interesting, easy-to-understand way.

(This is something we discussed at the Launch Pad workshop, actually — and I will admit it’s because I attended there that I ended up writing chapters on Why Korea Has Four Seasons, as well as . Now, some of the scientific explanation of why there are four seasons got a little iffy — this is, after all, an English book for elementary schoolers in Korea – but “more sunlight” versus “more intense sunlight” or “higher density of rays of sunlight” is something I can live with.)

ReadingStreet3And I’ll admit: there’s a “Why Korea Has Four Seasons” because as much as schoolteachers seem to like regaling students with the significance and importance of the fact Korea has four seasons — to the point that this is something every TEFL teacher new to Korea seems to wonder about: Why do Koreans seem to think it’s such a point of pride and specialness to have four seasons? — those teachers seem to leave out two things:

  1. the fact that most of the countries in the temperate zones have four seasons too, and
  2. the reasons why these seasons occur.

I asked a couple of roomfuls of university undergrads, and, yeah, got no good explanation of the phenomenon. (Which isn’t special to Korea — it puts them about on a par with North American college students, but hey, that’s nothing to be proud of!) So I’m happy to have started a chapter with the following:

Just like in Korea, in many countries like Canada, England, and Australia there are four seasons. But do you know why there are only four seasons? And is it always summer all over the world at the same time, or is it summer at different times in different parts of the world?

And while I could have thrown in a few other places — say, Japan, Germany, Chile, South Africa — it’s a start. Also, while had no say in the art for this chapter — or any chapter, actually — I have to say I think the art is beautiful and eye-catching… even if I am also a little concerned by the way the orbit is flattened out in one image, below —

From "Why Are There Four Seasons?"

— suggesting an elliptical orbit for the Earth (closer in spring and fall?), some pretty bizarre light effects (light does NOT work like that!). But hey, like I said, I had no input into the art, and it is at least pretty. Can’t win ’em all, I guess.

There’s also stuff I consider overtly political, in a social-activism sense, like the story about the mixed-race kid who learns Vo Thuat: the case of Kadijah Williams is discussed in terms of the power of hard work and study, but also networking, community, and asking for help when you need it — which is interesting in Korea because it’s a clear depiction of an African-American girl succeeding as a scholar despite overwhelmingly difficult conditions; there are chapters which present different people — Korean, Korean-American, and Canadian — as people who aren’t just slotted into categories like “foreigner” or “Korean” but who represent cultural differences and complexity. There’s a chapter that demonstrates who treating a peer who has been an outcast can be good for the outcast, as well as for the kids deigning to treat the kid like a human being.

Anyway, it’s out there in the wild, and apparently getting good feedback. We’ll see how that translates into bottom line response. If it does well, they want another three books, probably in 2011 or 2012.

If you’d like to check out a few chapters, there are previews visible on for Book 1, Book 2, and Book 3. The first two are pretty representative of the fantasy narratives that crop up here and there, especially the sample from Book 2.

(And I should note, while most of the characters in these stories were originally Korean, I was told to mix it up a little, so… well, yeah. That’s not a bad thing either, though I think next time, if there is one, I’ll be throwing in protagonists in/from “other places” like, say, Argentina or Norway or Mozambique.)

A note about process: most of the “exercises” were written by by collaborator, Dr. Haeyoung Kim. The narratives (and for a lot of chapters, the exercises in the back pages of each chapter) were my contribution. And if you couldn’t guess from the topics covered, I suggested a fair number, but so did Dr. Kim and the book editors suggested a few as well. (I was more involved in specific topic selection with Dr. Kim; she and the editor formulated the list of styles and pedagogical approaches and so on.)

The best part was, we wrote this thing without any of the dreaded, inefficient “textbook meetings” that seem unavoidable in the English textbook industry in Korea. (Not having such meetings was one of my conditions for agreeing to sign on the project.) There were some hitches along the way — especially in the form of things that the published decided needed to be changed at the last minute, and some miscommunication about chapter lengths that necessitated some pretty intense revision — but all in all, I’m happy with how these books have turned out. And yeah, if there is an offer for a next time, and, well, assuming the royalties make the project worth it, I’ll be pretty open to the idea.

1. Indeed, at some points when I have pinch-hitted on others’ textbook projects, I’ve been asked to change things back to what was, for me, a more sexist, racist, or otherwise problematic original form so they could be a little more, er, “normal” for Korean society. Apparently some people think that sexual and racial equality are relatively confusing messages to present to children!

2. Actually, this was based on a news report I some time ago. However, oddly, because I didn’t specify the race of the characters, it was assumed that the kid playing basketball was a tall white girl, not an African-American girl like in the news story. However, that’s okay for a few reasons: one is that I was happy the artist didn’t just assume by default that anyone playing basketball was black; but also because, to be flatly honest, the books have a lot of racial diversity in them. There are positive images of Africans, Indonesians, Koreans, (white and black) Americans and Canadians, Russians, Mongols, Indians, and more. This is a lot of diversity compared to some books I’ve seen, and I’m proud of it. But next time, I might mention some notes for the artist… again, if there is a next time.

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