sábado, 19 de diciembre de 2015

Reading political reality through images of the supernatural

Image from Justicia Divina by Francisco Haghenbeck, Universidad Iberoamericana, 2013
This blog entry is a contribution from Carolina González, a doctoral student at the Universidad Iberoamericana (Mexico City) who is working on graphic novels and who worked as a research assistant on the Reading Changes project. At the moment, she is a visiting doctoral student at the University of Glasgow and has recently presented a paper on the politics and historical memory in the Comics Forum at the Leeds' Comic Art Festival 2015 in England.
The students who participated in the project Reading Changes had the opportunity to read the graphic novel Justicia divina by Francisco Haghenbeck (Universidad Iberoamericana, 2013) which tells the story of a young man who investigates and resolves -like John Constantine, the hero of the comic book Hellblazer-  the problems caused by supernatural characters, such as ghosts and vampires, around Mexico (see blog entry from 13th October 2014). In this entry, we refer to the way in which the reading of this text resulted in readers responses both about the reading of images but also about the political reality of Mexico.
From the moment we introduced the book, it engaged the students through its images. “It catches my attention because of its illustrations, it’s like we were attracted to reading it. Like it says to us: come, read me, try to figure me out or something like that" -one of the participants remarked. Their first impressions of Justicia divina focused on the enigmatic and mysterious qualities of the images, and because of their increasing curiosity, young readers began to speculate about the possible meaning of the images and to launch hypotheses about their relationship with the story:
Josué: It’s like about a mystery and that stuff […] because it shows a detective, you know, his look shows he is like searching for something, no?
Raul: It could be justice…
Luisa: It looks like it’s about ghosts, no?
Ricardo: Maybe it’s about people who don’t rest in peace, no? Something like that.
As we went through the book, we noted some of the ways in which they changed their approach to the text. Although some of them read comics, none of them had had access to graphic novels like this one, where the image takes on a central role. Accustomed to books where the written word prevails, the students had to develop a different reading strategy in which they had to examine the meaning of both words and images.
Reading Justicia divina also transformed their previous ideas about comics, as another participant mentioned:
I didn’t usually read comics, but I think this book changed my whole idea about them, the way I think about comics, and well, yes, I really really liked it. More than anything, I was attracted by the language in which he spoke and all they explained, because in a funny way it makes the reader understand many things.
The students performed a special kind of reading where they were not limited to examining the words apart from the images; they understood the particular use of language in the graphic novel. They saw the synergy between the visual image and the written word and succeeded in establishing the connections of meaning generated by this relationship. As they entered the graphic novel they were enveloped in the mysterious but agile atmosphere of the detective fiction. As one of participants said: “It was very interesting and I was completely captured”.
It is important to emphasize that from the beginning, the young readers focused on the connotative qualities of the images and they tried to figure their possible meanings. Even in the first approach, the students went beyond the literal and the descriptive and established connections and create allusions to films, books and other cultural references, for example: “It really reminds a movie I saw, Angels and Demons, I think it's called. And he is looking for ghosts at old houses; he is looking for the Chupacabras and so, as Mexico used to be and all of that”. Or: “It reminds me a film called, I think, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice [ ... ] A book called Circle of Blood.
The referential links established by the readers allowed them to place Justicia divina in a cultural context but even more revealing was the interpretation process through the association of the book with their lives and the Mexican political reality. One of the comments of the participants was particularly illuminating in this sense: “It is more fantasy than reality. Reality gets into fantasy. In Justicia divina fantasy gets into reality”. Although, this graphic novel could be described, on one level, as a story of horror; through irony, the author critiques the current political reality of Mexico. It should be noted that the students arrived at these notions by themselves. They were able to pick up on the subtleties of language and understand the satirical meaning of the complex political situation, charged with black humour, which is described in the book.
When they realized that the characters, such as the ghosts, that are conventionally used to cause fear, were used to provoke humour, the readers reacted to that fear in a different way and connected it to their social reality:
Andrea: “At the beginning, you think that the monsters like La Llorona [the Banshee or Wailing Woman] and those are going to be frightening but instead of being frightening, they make you laugh”.
Fernanda: “The things that worry us now are different, and we are not worried any longer if we come across La Llorona, ah, we would just say hello, wouldn’t we?  But if we find bad people, that’s something awful”.
Through reading Justicia divina, the students also established a link between the types of fear and their everyday life, as Ernesto said:
Because nowadays people have new fears, now they have new fears. They are no longer afraid of ghosts, El Coco [the Bogeyman], La Llorona. They are more scared of assaults, drug trafficking, the police […] because of the corruption in the country. That’s why they are so afraid; they have their own fears apart from those they once had. Now is different, ghost stories no longer attract them.
While the author uses elements from the horror and detective genres, such as the presence of the mysterious and the supernatural, these are redefined by being placed in a plausible and contemporary context through a fictional mechanism in which new nightmares are combined with the past fears but provided with a realism that makes them even more terrifying. This narrative strategy was recognized by the readers who revealed their political conscience and their level of knowledge about the social conditions of their country and reacted with humor: “In this book, the part that made ​​me laugh was when the Coco attacks the mafia’s guy”.
When we delved deeper into notions about fear and asked them what a ghost has to do today to be scary, the students answered:
Claudia: Many things ... I can’t say what, because, well, the things that are happening in the country are more frightening than…
Sandra: They should become ghosts drug traffickers.
Louise: That would be good, to see La Llorona as a drug trafficker!
Although Haghenbeck uses descriptions of the life, the geography and the people of Mexico, especially of Mexico City, to insert all sorts of apparitions in the graphic novel, the author creates a clear image of the present that the young readers were able to notice and even to satirize.
The supernatural events narrated in Justicia divina introduced the readers to a game in which the boundaries between reality and fiction are disrupted but in which they found a space to change their expectations about reading a graphic novel and to express themselves as conscious subjects of their political and social reality. Despite the disturbing reality that is represented in this graphic novel, they agreed: “It’s cool because it’s the context we live in”.
[This blog will return in 2016. Best wishes for the holiday season to all our readers!]

jueves, 26 de noviembre de 2015

Towards a hermeneutic reading

The text, whatever it may be, presents itself before us as an enigma to decipher: as a dynamic, unfinished process in which the participation of the decoder is essential. The texts is fulfilled in the amorous act with its receiver, however, in order for this to occur, the receiver has to work towards comprehending the text. (Prado 26)

On Memorias de Idhún by Laura Gallego:

Researcher: When you were reading, where did you feel you were?

Xóchitl (13 years old): With the characters; I felt I was Victoria, something like that. And then, well, I did feel I was inside the story, I did, watching all that happened.

When we started our research work we asked ourselves what kind of reading we would like to foster throughout the workshops with the two secondary schools. Clearly, the idea was to detect and study the changes in the practices and reader responses of young people in Mexico during the last 25 years, but it was also evident that we did not want to promote the memorization of content nor repeat the canon or schooled teaching which has its own place and is obligatory. We wanted to offer a space of freedom, a site for “jouissance”, a pleasurable, co-creative reading and to encourage a group of commentators who, within a climate of respect and interest, sought to look at the texts critically and in depth, something that meant reading beyond the explicit and also to share possible interpretations which were supported by the text itself. This is an activity that implies an act of appropriation that includes the resonance of readings in their personal world as well as the linking of what is found within fiction with the world that surrounds them. It is because of this that we approached hermeneutics as an interpretative art and exercise that in its process enriches the interpreter.

With the aim of favouring the process of analysis, comprehension, interpretation, auto-reflection and the linking of the text with the world (Prado 34), we worked with questions that were generative, following the idea that “each question we raise in respect to the text that we are going to interpret is a question about its meaning. The meaning of a text will derive from an enquiry about its composition, that is, the form, the history, the experience of reading and the auto-reflection of the interpreter.” (Valdés 64)[i] We therefore selected those questions which would help in looking towards a hermeneutical reading and reflection, questions that, in the case of the selected graphic novel and the picturebook, included pictographic or iconotextual reading. These generating questions were graduated in order to go step by step.

It is important to remember that it all begins with that “jouissance”: the first contact with the text that engages or enamours into an experience full of surprising events and affectivity. The text takes on a new life in the exercise of reconfiguration, as Ricouer signals, “the text is a set of instructions that the individual reader or the public fulfills in a passive or creative manner. The text only becomes a literary work through the interaction between the text and the receiver” (148). Accordingly, it is valid to start with what is called an impressionistic criticism, with the reader’s likes and dislikes, and then move on to the analytical level, following the methodology proposed by Gloria Prado, renowned Mexican specialist in literary hermeneutics. At this stage, questions about the construction of the text are pertinent, what is said and how it is said, the indissoluble binary that is distinguished only with the aim of going further into the artistic weave. These are followed by the questions about the comprehension and interpretation of what was read, what underlies the explicit, what is implicitly alluded to, the meanings that are not evident. The literary work is polysemic and open to a variety of possible approaches, none exhausts the text, none has the last word or the definitive interpretation; in a community of interpreters one listens and shares for mutual enrichment. At one level, the approach involves entering the text, as the example from Xóchitl above shows, later, distancing allows a more critical view. Others emerge from this process: self-monitoring (‘Did I do it correctly or did I make a mistake?’); anchoring in the text (‘Where does the text say what I interpret?’) and self-reflection (‘Why did I interpret in this way?’) in order to enter the world we live in (‘How can I link this to my world?). This last question is very important because it allows us to convey to life that which art has shown us in its metaphoric play.

Of course it is difficult to follow all these steps in order, one could say it is almost impossible, because the members of a community of interpreters have the freedom to express their ideas and these questions are only a motor or starting point, but if we keep in mind what we are looking for, new enquiries will lead to the path of deepening comprehension. It is an exercise that renews and reinvents itself every day.

We remind our readers that after the reading of The Girl in Red by Aaron Frisch and Roberto Innocenti we gave the students a camera so that each of them could imagine the history of “The Girl in Red” or Little Red Riding Hood in their city or neighbourhood and show us through photographs what she would see along her way (see blog entry for 12th April 2015).

                    Mural painting photographed by Yasmín for her photo-narrative

In this exercise that invited participants to take the act of reading one step further into the act of creating, Yasmín (13) shows us the route through her town and the way in which she links the text and the image not only to her world but with other possible worlds. Most importantly, through the reading and re-creation, through the vicarious experience, Yasmín realizes that she can participate in an active and positive manner in her own story:

Well I did my story in my own way, I changed it, I modified it in several accounts, I did not make a protagonist as it were, the protagonist is me and I am the narrator of the story, the story starts then, the same as in the story, she leaves her house and well, it’s normal, isn’t it, she goes through the streets, then she finds a [mural] painting that really catches her attention, then it’s like she imagines different worlds and she realizes that it is not only being in her house and with her mother that makes her feel confident, she starts to discover her own self-confidence. (Yasmín, 14 years)


PRADO, Gloria, Creación, recepción y efecto. Una aproximación hermenéutica a la Obra Literaria. México: Diana, 1992.

RICOEUR, Paul. Tiempo y narración I. Configuración del tiempo en el relato histórico.México: S XXI, 1995.

Valdés, Mario J. La interpretación abierta: Introducción a la hermenéutica literaria contemporánea. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.

[i] Valdés notes that this term, “appropriation” was used for the first time by Ricouer in 1972 and “means to make that which was, at first, strange and foreign, one’s own […] it is the process of actualization of meaning in a text that is directed at a reader.” 66

sábado, 7 de noviembre de 2015

Canadian Young Adult Readers’ responses to place, identity, and texts

Erin Spring’s guest entry for this blog emerged from her research on reading and young people in Canada. The influence of space and place has increasing been revealed as a significant factor in the way readers respond to texts but also in how reading fits into their lives and experiences. We believe Erin’s work will be of interest the readers of this blog given it has implications for understanding the relationship between identity and literacy practices of not only of adolescents and young adults who grow up in, and stay attached to, their community but also for those who have moved within their countries or migrated from one country to another.

Erin Spring is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Child and Youth Studies at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta. She is currently working with First Nations readers who live on a reserve in southern Alberta. This blog post draws on her doctoral work, which she completed in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. Her most recent article can be found in the journal Children's Geographies (see References). 

As a Master’s student, studying Children’s Literature, I was asked to write a critical reading autobiography that considered the texts that had shaped my early reading identity. Through this process I realized that, as a young reader, the most influential texts in my experience were ones where the pages of the book could be made meaningful on a personal level, usually through identification with a character’s sense of place, or by perceiving the place as somewhere I had been, or as a reflection of the rural world that I lived and breathed in.

 As an interdisciplinary researcher, interested in the intersections between children’s geographies, children’s literature, and reader response, I wanted to understand the ways in which other young adult readers navigated transitions between places, and how (if at all) they perceived the role of place(s) — social and physical — within their lives.

For my doctoral project, I decided to work with sixteen— and seventeen-year old adolescent readers living in two geographically diverse regions of Canada: a rural town (renamed Lakeside) in Northern Ontario, and in a neighbourhood of Toronto (renamed Kirkville). I worked with the two cases separately; due to the geographical distance between the sites, the two groups never met. Prior to meeting as a group, I gave each participant two texts: Tim Wynne-Jones’ Blink and Caution (2011) and Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest (2010).


I chose these texts because they are intrinsically place-based. Blink and Caution gives an almost-accurate depiction of the streetscape of Toronto. I wondered what it would be like for my urban participants, living in Toronto, to read about a place that exists within their everyday world. Although Moon Over Manifest is set in rural Kansas, it is less specific in terms of detail; it could easily be read as small-town Ontario.  

While participants read the texts individually, in their spare time, they engaged in participant-led group discussions revolving around the chosen texts. Alongside these discussions, participants created a place-journal, containing visual and written responses, both to the text, and also to the ways in which they consider place to be influential within their own lives. Lastly, participants engaged in semi-structured interviews with myself where their place-journals prompted a discussion of their conceptualizations and experiences of place, inside and outside of the texts. Most importantly, I wanted to understand how and if the act of reading these place-based texts incited these participants to deliberate on the role of place within their own lives.

 My first significant finding was that my participants construed place in very different ways. Their reflections were ultimately shaped by previous life experiences. Liam, from Lakeside, was my only male participant. When asked, ‘where are you from?’, he explained, straight-faced, that he is ‘from his mother’s uterus’. Rather than focusing on a precise physical location, Liam continually reflected on the social ties that he has with his mother. People were more important than physical places. Sophie, also from Lakeside, had never moved in her life; she had only visited ‘the city’ once. Sophie construed home as the precise physical geography of her community: the streets, the main dock, the beach. When I met Sophie, she was seventeen, and was preparing to leave home to go to university. Sophie explained that leaving home would feel like she was being ‘ripped away’ from everything that she knew (Spring, 2015). Liam, on the other hand, had no desire to plant roots in geographical places, as long as he could maintain relationships with his family.

In Kirkville, two of my participants were migrants. Irina moved from Russia to Kirkville at age ten; she was still trying to navigate what being ‘Canadian’ meant. In our discussions, Irina aligned Russia with her idyllic childhood, where she played in the woods and explored with her grandfather. Her journal included a reflective piece about her life in the woods, and a map of her house in Russia in intricate detail.


Chloe had been living in Toronto for three years, having previously lived in Seoul. Toronto came to represent the freedom of adolescence, as she distanced herself from the Korean community, including her mother. Chloe considered herself to be a ‘Canadian’ and interestingly reflected on the ways in which she would be an outsider if she returned to Seoul, even though she spent the first thirteen years of her life there. Although Irina and Chloe shared the migrant experience, the process of moving from one place to another was drastically different for these individuals. In different ways, the act of reading these texts encouraged Irina and Chloe to reflect on their journeys between places. Talking about their experiences as migrants was facilitated by their readings of these texts.

These multiple constructions of place, outside of the texts, undoubtedly informed my participants’ readings of the research texts. Liam, for example, perceived Caution (Wynne-Jones’ protagonist) to be ‘from her mother’ rather than from a geographical place. He focused on the relationship between Blink and Caution, and their trajectories as friends, rather than on the physical journey these characters took across and between spaces. Irina, who resisted being an insider to Canada, reflected on Abilene’s arrival in Manifest, and her experience of being the ‘new girl’ at school. Calla, from Kirkville, had a very superficial understanding of the streetscape of the city, as a result of having been driven between places (school, ballet, etc.) by her parents. Her lack of independence in the city came up against Blink and Caution’s freedom in space. She found it difficult to follow their movements between and within places, as they had ‘more information’ than she did as a reader.

My research opened up multiple place distinctions that were not rooted in these geographies. In each case setting, my participants attended the same school, and lived in the same community, but they all saw these places differently. Their constructions depended on, for example, where they had previously lived or travelled; who they lived with; and where (and what) they imagined themselves leaving or staying for. My young adult participants were capable of extremely sophisticated, complex judgments on their own and fictional characters’ experiences of place. They articulated recognition of these connections within their own lives, and were open to and interested in the place experiences of others.

My research contributes to our knowledge of young adult readers and their constructions of place and identity, within and beyond the text.

Mackey, M., Nahachewsky, J., & Banser, J. (2008). Home page: translating scholarly discourses for young people. In M. Reimer (Ed.), Home words: discourses on children’s literature in Canada (pp. 195-225). Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

 Spring, E. (2015). “Where are you from?: locating the young adult self within and beyond the text”. Journal of Children’s Geographies, 1-16.

 Wynne-Jones, T. (2011). Blink and caution. Boston, Massachusetts: Candlewick Press.

 Vanderpool, C. (2010). Moon over manifest. New York City, New York: Random House.



lunes, 19 de octubre de 2015

“A book about Facebook would be cool”: Conflicting opinions about reading on screen

One of the most obvious transformations in the literacy practices of adolescents between the original investigation in the 1990s and the new one in 2014 resulted from their increasing use of digital devices with screens. Even when statistics tell us that there are computers only in 35.8% of Mexican homes and Internet access in only 3 in 10 homes, more than 90% of the population between the ages of 10 and 18 habitually connect to the Web (1). As in other countries, this connectivity has contributed to the emergence of new youth cultures where hybrid and multimodal literacy practices converge. Addressing the theme of reading on screen is therefore essential for those of us who observe and attempt to understand where the new generations are heading in terms of education and culture.

Almost from the beginning of the mass use of devices and digital media, researchers realized that it was impossible to isolate digital literacies from other literacy practices, not only those related to literature but also to culture and consumerism. The “links” have continued to extend further, in a rhizomatic manner, together with other forms of communication, social networks and websites, as well as new models of marketing cultural products such as books or film. The opportunities these forms offer for searching, participating and creating have allowed many young people to express themselves and relate to others through multiple platforms and in modes that are intimately connect to the formation of their identities, values and beliefs. For researchers of reading and children’s and young adult literature, an immense field of study opened on the ways in which these themes fit in and become transformed within a digital world. It is a field that we are only just beginning to explore, spurred on by questions which, given the vertiginous pace of change, must be continually reformulated.

The task therefore goes much further than simply keeping in touch with the technological novelties, platforms or applications, given that it implies a preoccupation with the questions that are, and will continue to be, significant. Already some of the research from the beginning of the century seems out of date (for example, studies on the first educational CD-Roms), however, there are many studies that continue to provide pertinent reflections, as well as new ones that consider more specialized themes (2).

In the survey and the reading workshops that took place in 2014 in two Mexican secondary schools, it was evident that we had to address the theme of reading on screen, however, it was not our intention to cover the theme of digital practices but simply to probe to see, first, what kind of practices they mentioned, and second, what relationship there was between reading on screen and reading on the printed page. Very little is known yet about what happens in Mexico in this area and we wanted to learn directly from the young people. For this blog entry, we will only mention what we found in terms of some of the ‘myths’ about the theme of reading on screen based on the opinions of these “digital natives” which seem to reflect the same conflicting opinions offered by the “digital migrant” generation.

The ‘Rivers of Reading’ (seen entry for the 9th of December 2014), allowed us to make a list of the digital media they used in their daily lives, among them, WhatsApp, Facebook, Messenger. As was to be expected, the students in the urban school used digital media more extensively and with more frequency than those in the school situated in the more rural zone, mainly because of access both to devices and the Internet. In both schools, however, opinions coincided and they revealed a polarized perception of the “benefits” and “harms” on the part of students and teachers.

The participants expressed commonplaces about the “dangers” of the use of digital media and reading on screen, for example, they noted there are “improper” sites and viruses, that social interaction on line can be isolating and that reading on screen “affects concentration”. Curiously, “damage to eyesight” was one of the most frequently mentioned problems.

On the other hand, they were also aware of the “benefits” that the digital world offers reading, for example, they mentioned they could look up information about authors, obtain reviews and recommendations, locate and download texts (many of them free). Jorge, who said he only ever read on iPad, told us how he reads scientific texts and also classic and contemporary literature, from Hamlet to Divergent. Even those who read “only a little” in terms of printed books were aware that it is still necessary to read to understand, for example, how certain videogames work.

During the project, without us directing them to do it, the students began to search the Web to find information about the authors and books we were reading for the workshops, about Francisco Haghenbeck (author of Justicia Divina) (see blog entry for 13th October 2014), for example, but also about Laura Gallegos, given that her site includes a variety of options that complement and extend the series Memorias de Idhún and permit the interaction with other ‘fans’ and with the author herself. In the course of the project, the participants also discovered “booktubers”, the young people who make videos of themselves recommending books in YouTube, some of whom have thousands of followers. (3)

During the sessions, disagreements arose about some aspects, for example, if it was easier to find the meaning of a word online or in a dictionary, if it was easier or harder to concentrate, become distracted, reflect or lose oneself in the reading.

We also found conflicting opinions when we spoke to some of the teachers about this topic. On one hand, they referred to the fact that digital technology “has beaten us” – as if they were participants in a battle between the printed book and the screen. They said reading on screen was distracting, that it was harder to do a “precise reading” and that the information on the internet was not always “correct” or “adequate”. On the other hand, they recognized that there are ways of using of the digital world for teaching: “We teachers have not known how to make the most of using Facebook or films or YouYube videos, all the technology that young people have.”

They noted that it was possible to create strategies to approach reading through the screen, as one teacher suggested: “We could say to them: look here, everyone [bring] your mobile phones here, everyone with your YouTube, come on, in 10 minutes, look for a book and we can share it”.

They also recognized that teachers are not always aware of the new skills of young people and what they can do with them: “Actually, if you notice, when they have and activity and they present their videos, their presentations are so well edited that they even look professional”.

We close this entry with a comment from one of the students who, when asked what sort of themes he’d like to read about in his Spanish class, said:

“A book about Facebook would be cool”.

We think that Jorge’s reply is revealing in terms of the implied convergence between the digital world and the printed word, as it shows the desire to read about topics that are close to adolescent lives - such as a digital social network-  but at the same time this topic is situated within the more traditional form of a printed book. Jorge reminds us that, in terms of the ‘new’ reading practices, the divisions are never as clear cut as we imagine, nor is the ‘new’ generation of readers that different from our own.

(1)  See, for example, Bringué Sala y Sádaba 2008 http://www.razonypalabra.org.mx/Bringue.pdf

(2)  For example, the work of Jackie Marsh and Guy Merchant in the UK; Margaret Mackey and  Jennifer Rowsell in Canada; or James Paul Gee in the US. In Spain, Gemma Lluch has worked on this theme and a new book on the topic will appear soon from the research team at the Autonmous University of Barcelona, GRETEL.


In 2014, a “booktubers” encounter in the Biblioteca Vasconcelos (Vasconcelos Library in Mexico City) led by Daniel Goldin, revealed how successful this new way of recommending and talking about books has become. According to Marco Antonio López M., the Mexican “booktuber” community is the largest one in Latin America (La palabra y el hombre, Universidad Veracruzana, julio-agosto 2015).

jueves, 24 de septiembre de 2015

The need to tell life stories: A brief account of the reading responses of secondary school students to Migrar (Migrate) by José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro

For this entry we have invited Alejandro Aguilar Mayorga to share an experience of reading with his secondary school students. His contribution is timely and important for two reasons: first because it is increasingly urgent to understand the issue of migration in order to try to find solutions (as is clearly evidenced by the situation in Europe over the past few months);  the second reason is that Aguilar Mayorga’s text follows from the previous entry in this blog because it describes a reading experience that shows the potential for using a text with words and images, together with a creative strategy, in the Spanish classroom. Not only does it cover the programme requirements but it also motivated the students to use their reading and writing skills in a way that resulted in a creative and significant experience for them and allowed them to reflect in a humane way on this historial and global phenomenon that is migration and which affects us all.
Migrar, the book by José Manuel Mateo y Javier Martínez Pedro, was published in 2011 by Ediciones Tecolote and received the New Horizons award in the Bologna Book Festival in 2012. It has been published in English with the title Migrant: The Journey of a Mexican Worker in 2014 by Harry N. Abrams.
Alejandro Aguilar Mayorga studied Hispanic and Portuguese at the UNAM (National University of Mexico). In the last few years, he has specialized in the field of reading promotion, school libraries and children’s and young adult literature. The activities he carries out for the promotion of reading with adolescents can be found in his blog "Librertades" (librertades.wordpress.com).
*Note: All the student's words and photographs have been included with their and their parents' permission.
 (My thanks to Nicole Stump for the English translation of this entry).
“We arrived in the famous “Beast”** and found ourselves with people from everywhere Mexicans, Peruvians, Chileans Guatemalans, Bolivians, men, children, teenagers, women, all with the same intention, looking for new opportunities and to move forward.”                – Mauricio

“We all started running, when suddenly we could hear lots of gunshots, screaming and crying. I could only shout to my family: “Stay together!” Little by little there were less people, leaving us at the end with the bunch of people that had been left. We all knew what would happen after, first they killed my son, the youngest, they also got to my wife and killed her, I managed to carry my son and I tried to hide among all the people and we managed to get out.” – Paola
Paola and Mauricio are two 2nd year secondary school students at the Jesuit Latin Secondary School School, in Cuautitlán Izcalli, Mexico State.  They have both shared a tale with their group on the theme of the migration of Mexicans and Latin Americans to the United States. One is suprised by the reflexivity, the drama but, even more so, the narrative in the form of a chronicle, that emerges from their texts as a product of the observation and analysis of the visual narrative that is offered by Migrar.

In class, the students remain expectant when I enter and give each a set of photocopies with the mixed up images of Migrar. They had all expected a chronicle, since it was one of the topics to review that bimester. However, when they receive the images, the first thing I do is ask them what type of text they think could be produced from these visual elements. As their first ideas emerge, they answer that these “drawings”, because of their “design”, are similar to the Aztec or maybe Mayan images. Then, someone at the back, indicates that it’s a kind of codex and explains to us what that is, pointing out that it´s an ancient kind of text through which various events were narrated.

At that moment, I confirm the information about the codices and lead the students to focus their attention on the fact that this is a narrative, reminding them that this type of discourse is composed of sequences which, as we had identified while sharing some chronicles, possess a chronological order. Thus I ask the students to try to order the series of images they have received. The exercise of assembling the codex demands, on one hand, the observation of the readers and, on the other, a preliminary analysis of the images, because in order to find the correct order, they have to define a beginning, a first clue that will be modified in the subsequent images; a clue which, for most of them, was defined as the sun on the upper part of one of the squares.

Soon, having assembled the codex, the students ask me to check their work. They ask me if they’re right and I ask them about their choices: “What lead you to order it in that way?” The students explain and, almost naturally, begin to narrate facts, describe things, situate character and talk about the different scenarios that allowed them to work out the chronological evolution and several possible stories.  I ask them to share their work and we paste the sheets on the board or the walls and compare them; we compare the different readings of the images, the different narratives that have emerged. Most match.  Some go back to the board and change their previous order, asking their classmates why some image goes before or after another.

Just before finishing the day’s session, I ask the students to give a name to the story told by the codex, in order to justify their answer. Some of the following titles are offered: “Migrating”, “Emigration”, “The Migration”, “Migrants”, “The Road to the American Dream”. Once again the students explain their choice, which corresponds with the process of assembling the codex. I ask them, finally, to write down the story they’ve imagined, following the models of the chronicle we have covered in class, to share it the next day, in which I have promised to show them the original order and read them the story that goes with the images with which they’ve worked.

The next day, the students, excited by the idea of reading their stories, approach me at the classroom entrance, something which, I must confess, doesn´t surprise me much, since this is a group of teenagers that love to tell stories and love, above all, to be listened to.
I listen, we all listen to the stories, and just like in the fragments I´ve shared in the opening lines of this introduction, the characters and the places begin to appear, as well as the journeys, the lives, the problems, the obstacles, the cruelties, the nostalgia, the work, the dream, the sadness, the joy, the hardships, the extremes, the loss, the towns, the traditions, the food, the needs, the friendships, all, all that is human, all that they are, that we are. For me, that is exactly what reading and writing are all about: processes through which the students have observed and analyzed a series of images that finds an echo within their references (experiences, results of other readings from different media; movies, TV news, newspapers, magazines or other books), without which it would have been impossible to build a story or even infer that the story is about migration; processes through which emerge the need to indicate, to describe and to narrate that which the visual text of Migrar has caused them to imagine.


Esteban, one of the more restless students in the class, surprises me with his willingness to come to the front of the class and point out each of the details he found when he continued analyzing the text at home. His presentation is formidable; made up of organized ideas that are grounded in his own experiences and readings about the subject. He makes a great effort to find the relationships between the sequences, symbols and cues that lead us to discover the story. He discusses and shares his text with us.
Afterwards, I decide to share the original text with them and they observe that their stories do have common elements: scenarios, characters, chronological sequences, and, in the end, the very story of the thousands and thousands of lives that walk endless miles to reach a better life; the lives of those that arrive and those who remain, of those who overcome the obstacles and those who are defeated. I should also have mentioned that, when sharing the narrative that goes along with the visual text, I’ve asked the students to try and find the characters and narrated situations, marking them on the codex with a coloured pencil. In this way, each student shows the outcome to the group, making reference to the history told in the book. In this sense, the students have managed to find the key moments in the text as well as in the codex and, finally, established connections between them.

During the last session of the reading of Migrar, I ask the students to formulate a series of questions directed at the author and/or illustrator of the book, in a way that one by one, they put themselves in the role of one of the creators. This way, we manage to open a question-and-answer session in which the students share their concerns and are able, finally, to have a dialogue and discuss their readings.
Without a doubt, sharing the book by José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro with my students on one hand facilitated the development of their interpretative skills based on the construction, deconstruction and reconstruction, observation and analysis of the images and, on the other hand, made the reading of such a peculiar book go beyond the text, because, as we´ve been saying, it allowed the setting up of dialogues, of explorations and, above all, encouraged the need to narrate and share more than simple stories, our own experiences through, in the first instance, oral channels and later, though writing.

**The “Beast” is the nickname of the train on which hundreds of thousands of Latin American migrants travel to the US border. They make this dangerous journey on the roof the train over 5000 kilometres.


viernes, 4 de septiembre de 2015

Back to school and back to the same old issues with reading?

With the start of September and the start of the school year, we return to our blog which aims to disseminate some of the initial results of the project, “Reading Changes”, and to present themes that are relevant to research on reading and young people, not only in Mexico but in other parts of the world.

In this entry, inspired by the “back to school” moment, we will touch on the theme of reading in school. In the State of Morelos where we carried out the project in 2014 and the original investigation in 1992, around 500,000 children are of school age and 150,000 of them are in secondary (ages 12-15) or preparatory (ages 15-18) school. [Note: for those readers who are not familiar with Mexico, the country is made up of 31 states plus one Federal District]. As we know, these middle years of schooling are key in the formation of readers given that it is a time when adolescents tend to ask questions and look for answers outside the home and when they have more opportunities to discover and choose their reading for themselves. These are also the years during which the deep pleasure of reading can be discovered and rooted or lost, usually for ever.

The secondary school therefore has the possibility and responsibility to provide a space for the enjoyment of reading to develop but this will depend on three fundamental aspects: the programmes that are required by the educational authorities (with their respective readings, pedagogic strategies and evaluations), the access to a wide variety of texts and the teacher’s attitude.

In Mexico, among the curricular standards for the subject of “Spanish”(which includes language and literature), it is stated that during the secondary school stage, the student will develop an “enjoyment of reading” as well as a “positive self-concept as a reader” and that “the intention is to help student approach reading through the knowledge and enjoyment of different types of texts, genres, literary styles and, at the same time, to obtain sufficient tools to form competent readers who obtain an accurate interpretation and a sense of what they read” (Programme of Study, Basic Secondary Education, Spanish, SEP 2011). To help reach this objective, government initiatives such as the National Programme of Reading, launched in 2002 (now, the National Plan for Reading and Writing) and the Classroom Libraries Programme, provided book collections for school and classroom libraries for all the schools in the country. Despite political change and problems with its use (which will be discussed in another entry), schools have a greater and more varied collection in 2014 compared to 1992, which include different genres, picturebooks, graphic novels and also contemporary YA novels, by both Mexican and foreign authors.

From what we could observe in 2014, however, there has been less change in the selection of texts for the class, the pedagogy and the teachers’ attitudes. This can be seen in the same unenthusiastic attitudes to reading in the Spanish classroom in 2014 and 20 years ago. In general, the young people interviewed in 1992 did not “dislike” their Spanish class and made an initial effort to read the prescribed texts, although the majority did not finish them unless they were “short, easy to understand and entertaining”. The participants in 2014 expressed something similar and this attitude is sustained by the fact that, among the texts which they did remember reading with enjoyment were the “myths and legends” from their first year of Secondary School. In this sense, the graphic novel Justicia Divina by Haghenbeck and the picturebook, The Girl in Red by Frisch and Innocenti (which we have discussed in previous blog entries) turned out to be ideal for continuing this theme in terms of, for example, the way traditional myths and legends survive and the existence of different versions or endings.

In 1992, the adolescents complained loudly about the obligatory readings in school because they found them “long”, “boring” and “confusing”, such as Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós (a 19thc Spanish author). In 2014, they complained mainly about their current text, the Poema de Mío Cid (an epic poem from around the 12thc): “it doesn’t grab my attention”; “it’s not interesting”; “it’s totally boring”. One student gave more details: “it’s like you don’t understand anything… because the poem comes in a different language which is the vulgar… the words puzzle me and also, the author who made the book, like he does not specify the development clearly and he confuses me, then, between the characters and the events.” These young people will probably never again try to read this text and they will lose the pleasure that this magnificent epic poem can offer. (It is no coincidence that this text figures in a blog from which the illustration for this entry was borrowed: “Diez libros obligatorios que te hicieron odiar la lectura” [Ten obligatory books that made you hate reading] http://blogs.publico.es/strambotic/2015/03/libros-conazo/).

In both 1992 and 2014 the students criticised the pedagogy related to the prescribed texts: taking dictation, copying from the blackboard, reading fragments in silence or aloud and answering comprehension questions. One difference was that, in 2014, one group of students was asked by the teacher to create illustrations for El Poema de Mío Cid. While this may seem a more creative approach, the students also complained because they said they could not illustrate a scene if they did not understand what was happening in it. As one of them rightly noted: “You have to read the page well to be able to specify it in the drawing.”

In an interview with one of the school authorities they recognized the fact that to carry out these more creative strategies, there should be a reflection and discussion to start with, about what the students understood; otherwise, this type of approach would not be successful: “We must take into account what the student has discovered, followed, visualized, brought to the text and imagined.”

It is certainly important to take into account the requirements of the curriculum which force teachers to cover the programme within a certain time and show results. There are also pragmatic students: “I don’t much like to read the book for Spanish, I’m just interested in the final mark.” However, the students themselves can suggest ideas for improving the situation. Near the end of the project in 2014, we asked the participants what they would do to make the Spanish class more interesting. Taking the question seriously, among the responses, they said it would be better if they all helped to choose a text and to discuss it and that the teachers should “explain better” what the text had to do with their lives as young people in the 21st century.

The great writer Philip Pullman (author of His Dark Materials trilogy, among many other books) attributes his success as an author to one of his secondary school teachers. She so enjoyed reading the “classics” –legends, The Odyssey, Paradise Lost- to her students that she passed on her deep pleasure in these texts. Of course there are also committed teachers in Mexico who know how to inspire their students to read the “classics” and who know how to make the best use of excellent contemporary texts and creative strategies (and we shall see an example of this in the next blog entry).

With this type of approaches, the vicious cycle of boredom and the obligation can be broken and then, perhaps, “back to school” will not mean “back to the same old issues”.

sábado, 25 de julio de 2015

Letter to a young reader

                               (Books taught me how to think and thought made me free)
From Evelyn:
This entry is dedicated to the young people who participated in the reading workshops during the research project in Mexico – some of whom are also readers of this blog. The majority finish their Secondary education and will go on to ‘Preparatory’ or ‘High School’. Some of them told us they want to continue their studies at university and were already finding out about the different possibilities; in fact, one young woman was leaving her town to continue her studies in Mexico City in order to apply to the National University (UNAM). Via this blog entry, we want to thank them all for participating in the activities and for sharing some of their reading life with us. We were conscious at all times that, although reading is embedded in social practices, the act of reading is an intimate act and that our questions infringed this intimacy, but our intention was to do so always with respect and appreciation and we are moved that the readers wanted to share with us both tears and laughter (and the occasional rude joke!). We learnt a lot about what they look for in their reading, what they expect from a text; about how they relate to fictional characters, about the way they interpret images and words, about their perspective on the use of digital technologies and reading and also about their sadness, fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams.

We thus also want to wish them the best for their future.

We hope that these workshops were useful. We are encouraged by the some of the students’ words in the project evaluation:

Maribel: What I liked best about the workshop was, well, all those talks we had, it was really fun to come to talk about things that I can’t talk to all my other schoolmates about, well, because they say we are crazy…

Mario: It’s because it is not usual to talk about reading with schoolmates.

Natalia: … you felt like confident to speak to everyone and everyone shared what they felt and when you felt something different from the others, well you would start to reflect…

They also passed on their enthusiasm to others:

Edgardo: … we have a schoolmate called Carlos and he asked us to borrow the book because he was also interested. He doesn’t read at all, he doesn’t read at all and with that book he started reading. He started to read it and he really liked that book.


But these young people are not only readers, some of these students also shared their creative writing with us, they told us about the poems, stories and even novels. One young man spoke to us about the poetry he writes and how it had allowed him to understand others, and himself, better: 

One day I made a poem, I was very sad that day. One of my schoolmates took my notebook and began to read it. He said he felt almost the same thing that I had set down in that poem and at that moment I thought, ‘what I feel, other people also feel’, but sometimes it is hard for us to express what we feel.

This is an important motivation to keep writing, we hope that both he and the others will continue with these creative activities, perhaps one day we will find ourselves in another workshop with students, reading their published work! Thinking of these and other shared words, Laura and I were reminded of some of the letters written ‘to a young poet’ by the Rainer Maria Rilke and so we would like to leave them with some words inspired by this great poet.

From Laura:

When we are young, we hear many words of counsel and recommendation, it is the time in which the adults around us, especially family and teachers, want to share their experiences and for us to learn from their errors. This objective is not always fulfilled but the good wishes remain, the words are there to represent the interest or affection of others. Sometimes, when we confront a problem, we remember what our grandmother or mother or a good head teacher said to us. Sometimes, these words reach our hearts to change our way of seeing the world or they stop our footsteps and they make us think about ourselves and what we really want for ourselves. Sometimes, these words are kept with affection and we return to them to share with others.

Similarly, when we were young, we read a collection of letters that moved and enlightened us, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. They inspired us to talk to you, vital readers of stories, thoughts, news and poems; restless spirits that populate the world of effort and work, of dreams and parties, of friends and solitude. To you, who walk through the streets making sense of the signs that others transmit, young people who accompanied us through hot afternoons or warm mornings, who looked at the books with astonished eyes, curiosity and desire, whom we would have liked to get to know more and better, who we listened to, we talked to and who we shall remember with affection.

Reading, dear students, is not a simple habit or pleasure, you already know that. Reading demands complicity, we must immerse ourselves in the atmosphere, listen to the voices and attend to the narrator to live, within the shoes of others, the battles, the love, the doubts and the betrayals that adventure novels distil; the place of refuge from what goes on around us, where our hearts beat quickly, full of desire or anguish. There will be some who want to stop our reading, who do not understand the dangers we confront together with the protagonists. Distracted or angry, we will have to wait and the world of the story will be suspended until the next moment of solitude shared only with the text. At that moment, the memories of what we’ve read will return and we will continue those parallel lives which enrich our own.

The love of reading is something that can be transmitted but it is not something that can be imposed and it is a lot of fun to find another person who shares our delight or who has read the same books. Don’t be disheartened when you don’t have anyone with whom to talk about your texts, you can tell the story in your own words to others, revive it for them, let that spark lit by the joy of it move to another heart.

The books are there, there are many places for them, don’t come to a standstill, there are virtual libraries, second-hand books, libraries which are worth traveling to, there are books in your neighbours’’ or relative’s houses, in your new school, in the street, in libraries. There are books for every taste and there are books that are waiting to be written, poems that wish to be born to express their ideas, sentiments or desires and there are stories that project them or dreams that can write them.

In the same way that the young participants will continue on their paths, this blog will follow its own, at least until the end of 2015. We are motivated by the number of visits the blog has had, between the Spanish and English sites, almost 4000, with readers from Uruguay to Canada and from Ukraine to Australia. We will be writing further about the analysis and the results of the research and we have several invited ‘bloggers’ who have promised us entries about reading practices of young people in Canada, Lebanon and also about Mexican adolescents reading about migration, among other themes.

For the moment, we wish our readers a good summer and we will take some well-deserved holidays until the end of August when the blog will resume.

Evelyn and Laura