Critical Literature for the Social Studies:
Challenges and Opportunities for the Elementary Classroom


Neil O. Houser

A primary goal of the social studies is to promote the good of the whole community. This involves helping our children to develop greater sociocultural understanding, an attitude of care and concern, a willingness to participate in social criticism and critical self-reflection, and a commitment to engage in personal action that serves an increasingly broad number of “others.”1 This growth in children may be summarized using the term social development.

Because human experience consists not only of thoughts and actions—but also of feelings, emotions, and relationships—one effective way to promote children’s social development is through the arts. As Eisner has observed:

Different forms of representation provide different kinds of meaning. What one is able to convey about sociology through a literal or quantitative form of sociology is not the same as what is sayable through a nove#133;.What all of the arts have in common is their capacity to generate emotion, to stimulate and to express the “fee#148; of a situation, individual, or object….Feeling is a part of all human encounters and all situations and objects. When the feeling tone is incongruous with the content described, understanding is diminished.2

This article explores the use of critical literature in the social studies. Critical literature is here defined as literature that has been designed, or can readily be used, to explore difficult social and cultural issues within our society. Such literature can encourage children at all levels to think and feel beyond their existing understandings, to become more critical of self and society, and to develop greater empathy for others.3 But in order for this to take take place, children must not only read good literature; they must also discuss and reflect upon the meaning of what they have read.

In using critical literature, it is essential to help children focus on those aspects of a literary work that contain social significance, have relevance to their own lives, and suggest a course for personal action. Moreover, within a democratic and pluralistic society, it is not enough for only those children who are directly affected by a problem to read and reflect upon it. It is essential for all children, and especially those in the cultural mainstream, to be exposed to literature that helps them reflect critically about our nation’s past and present.4 This can be accomplished with very young children, although the ability of students to grasp more complicated issues presented in critical literature will increase as they progress through the elementary grades.

Critical Literature at the Primary Level

One story that can be used very effectively to promote social understanding among primary age children is Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches. This story involves two groups of creatures who appear identical in almost every way. However, a single physical characteristic that distinguishes one group from the other is cultivated by members of the dominant group as a symbol of superiority. The desire of the subjected group to gain equal status is so great that its members are ultimately willing to alter their very appearance. Once this is accomplished, the dominant group simply changes the rules of the game to maintain its advantage. Throughout the story, the conflict between the two groups is fueled by an unscrupulous businessman who profits greatly from the affair and then skips town when there is no more money to be made.

Although The Sneetches oversimplifies a number of important issues, it provides a vivid experience that can help young children begin to understand the social conditions and relationships that surround them—from peer groups on the school playground to influences that come from the larger society. Teachers might use this story, for example, to help children examine how some television ads promote social norms (e.g., what cool kids drink, wear, play with, etc.) and gender stereotypes (thin is in, boys are tough, girls are feminine) in order to sell their products.

Another book suitable for the primary grades is Little Nino’s Pizzeria by Karen Barbour. In this book, Tony’s father owns a restaurant named Little Nino’s Pizzeria. Tony helps in the kitchen, waits on customers, and shares the pizzas left over each day with homeless people in the alley. Although Little Nino’s is a small restaurant, the pizza is very good, and people come from all around to enjoy it.

One day, Tony learns that his family will be moving to a new location where they will “be making lots more money.” In the new restaurant, called Big Nino’s, Tony’s efforts to help in the dining room cause the waiters to trip and spill the food. When he tries to help in the kitchen, the chef pushes him away. Even Tony’s father is now too busy to notice him. Finally, one evening when Tony’s father comes home over-tired from the restaurant, he concludes, “I miss cutting tomatoes, and chopping onions, and kneading dough…. I’m tired of so much paperwork and money talk. I want—I want to make pizza!” Soon the old restaurant re-opens under a new name: Little Tony’s.

This book can help children reflect on the relationship between economic wants and other human values. Before reading the story, the teacher might ask students to think about whether the things people want always make them happy. After reading, children could discuss the problem in this story. What does Tony’s father want at the beginning of the story? How does his wish for greater financial success affect other values important to the family? What did the family gain by opening the new restaurant? What did it lose? What was most important in making Tony’s father change his mind about the restaurant?

The teacher could enlarge the discussion by asking children to think about other situations—in stories or in real life—that involve a similar conflict. For example, many folk or fairy tales tell of someone who wishes either for too much or for something that does not bring happiness. The teacher might ask:

> What is the difference between a want and a need?

> What do you think people need in order to be happy?

> What are some things people want in order to be happy?

> Can you think of someone who wanted more only to realize it was better to have less?

> Can you think of a time when you wanted something that did not turn out to make you happy?

> What can be done when one person’s wants cause harm to someone else?

> What are the most important things to have in life in order to be happy?

Discussions that help even very young children to reflect on their personal values can help build the framework for more complex social understandings as their knowledge about the larger society grows.5


Critical Literature in the Upper Elementary Grades

There is a large body of critical literature suitable for use with children in the upper elementary grades. One good example is Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. This novel, written from the perspective of a fourth grade girl named Cassie Logan, tells of the challenges faced by an African American family seeking to maintain its Mississippi farm during the Great Depression.

The Logan’s land means many things to the family. As Pa confides to Cassie, “You ain’t never had to live on nobody’s place but your own and long as I live and the family survives, you’ll never have to. That’s important.” In order to pay the mortgage and taxes on the farm, Mama has to teach school as well as doing farm work, Big Ma (who is in her sixties) has to work like a woman of twenty, and Pa has to leave the farm to earn money laying railroad tracks in a neighboring state during the long summer months.

However, as difficult as it is for the Logan family to pay the mortgage, still greater challenges are presented by the social and cultural conditions of the time. Through Cassie’s eyes, children share in the public humiliation she experiences at the hands of Lillian Jean Simms and her white schoolmates. They witness the frustrations of Uncle Hammer who, because he refuses to tolerate a life of blatant racial discrimination, moves away from the family to a city in the north. They observe how Cassie’s father must check his outrage at the family’s mistreatment against the harsh consequences of acting on the basis of his frustrations.

Roll of Thunder provides a meaningful human context for the study of historical events and economic conditions. Through the eyes of the Logans, the author offers perspectives on slavery, the Civil War, the failed efforts of Reconstruction to create genuine equality for African Americans, and the causes of the Great Black Migration from South to North early in this century. Critical literature such as this, which helps students gain the “fee#148; of a situation, can play a vital role in promoting meaningful growth for social change.

Another book that can help children think about critical social issues is Jane Yolen’s Encounter. It provides an alternative perspective on the typical representation of Columbus as an unblemished explorer and hero. The story tells of a Taino boy’s dream forewarning him of the dangers posed by three strange birdlike ships and the men aboard them, who are dressed like parrots. The boy’s fears turn to frustration and despair when his warnings to reject the newcomers go unheeded.

This story neither mentions Columbus by name nor describes the kind of vivid abuses documented in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.6 However, it provides an excellent opportunity for students to discuss a variety of important issues in the social studies. These issues include the existence of opposing values, the fact that success or happiness for some may be gained at great cost to others, the idea that a single event can be interpreted from more than one perspective, and the reasons why some viewpoints on events—past and present—are affirmed while others are silenced.

Journey Home by Yoshiko Uchida offers another opportunity for children to consider historical events from a nontraditional perspective. It tells the compelling story of a 12-year-old girl who is forced to move from her home in California to a United States internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II. When Yuki and her family are finally released, they have their freedom but little else. Although Yuki’s family is able to rebuild itself through faith and courage, Yuki’s relationship with her brother is strained to the breaking point, and the scars left on a family friend are virtually beyond healing.

By exploring the human repercussions of the treatment of Japanese Americans during the years surrounding World War II, Journey Home promotes greater understanding of the struggles and accomplishments of this particular group of American citizens. Novels like this can help young Americans experience the empathy and engage in the kinds of critical analysis needed to disrupt continuing forms of discrimination in our society. To the extent that critical literature can help humanize unnamed people, challenge unexamined assumptions, and explore the emotional and relational aspects of human experience, it offers a valuable alternative to traditional social studies teaching.


Using Critical Literature Critically

As valuable as critical literature can be for social education, it must itself be used critically. Dewey pointed to the mis-education that can result from unmediated experience when it “has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience.”7 To understand the importance of using critical literature critically, consider the possibilities and pitfalls of teaching with Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver.

This novel set in colonial times has as its protagonist a twelve-year-old boy named Matt, who must survive alone in the Maine wilderness, guarding the cabin and a small patch of corn until his father can return with the rest of the family from Quincy, Massachusetts. Although Matt is courageous and willing to accept his role, he does not know the woods that surround him or the dangers that await him. Among other problems, an attack by a swarm of bees gives him a dangerous fever, and he is confronted by a rugged frontiersman who is willing to take by force the belongings that Matt needs for survival.

As the story proceeds, Matt is rescued by a chief of the Beaver people and his grandson, Attean. In exchange for their assistance, he agrees to help Attean learn to read, so that he can interpret the words on the treaties that the white men want his grandfather to sign. Although Matt tries to be friendly, he cannot understand the hostility he constantly perceives in Attean’s words and actions. It is only as he gains insight into his own unexamined prejudices and actions that the relationship between Matt and Attean begins to improve.

In spite of the praise this Newbery Honor Book has received, it has also been criticized for a number of reasons, including its failure to permit the Native American characters to speak in their own voices, and a tendency to objectify the Indians while humanizing Matt. These criticisms are legitimate and must not be ignored, no matter how well-intentioned the author’s purpose. The continued objectification of “others” can be mis-educative insofar as it arrests or distorts further understanding of relationships between European colonists and Native Americans.

As with any other tool of education, the value of critical literature depends upon the goals, knowledge, skills, and sensitivity of the teacher using it. It also depends on what is done with the literature beyond merely the reading. While The Sign of the Beaver fails to accurately represent the members of the Beaver tribe, one of its real strengths is that Matt continues to reflect on his own assumptions and prejudices, thereby gaining insight into the views and concerns of Attean. That is, he provides a model of critical self-reflection and the acquisition of social understanding for students who identify with him. If the teacher’s primary goal in using this novel is to educate students about Native American culture, this tool is clearly not appropriate. But if the goal is to help students who belong to the mainstream culture look more critically at the history of European expansion on this continent, it can serve a valuable purpose.


In Conclusion

One of the most important goals of the social studies is to promote the self-reflection and social understanding needed for the improvement of society at large. Critical literature can help accomplish this goal. If we can help students identify the relevant aspects of a particular literary experience, apply this information to other situations, and contemplate the implications for their own lives as citizens within a democratic and pluralistic society, the fundamental goals of social education will be well served.

Critical literature represents an alternative to more traditional social studies approaches. It can be used across grade levels and sociocultural settings to humanize the study of vital issues and events in the past and the present. While some materials are best suited for secondary classrooms, other resources can address alternative perspectives and controversial issues even with the youngest of children.

Although the act of reading critical literature is essential, it is equally important to discuss and reflect upon the issues raised in the text. Since language is used to interpret experience, and since people often avoid thinking about personally threatening issues, teachers need to help their students focus on the aspects of literature most closely related to social equity and personal responsibility. Meaningful literary experience, accompanied by thoughtful discussion and critical reflection, can provide such a focus.

Finally, it is possible for any experience to be mis-educative, and this includes the literary experience. However, it is also true that the riskiest experiences sometimes prove the most rewarding. Therefore, rather than avoiding the challenge of providing a truly meaningful social education, we must strive to identify effective ways to address the issues that matter most to the well-being of our society. There may be no group of individuals more uniquely qualified to accomplish this task than teachers—who have a clear understanding of the challenges that face our society, a set of educational goals designed to meet those challenges, and the ability to identify, create, and use the tools necessary to accomplish these goals. If the aim is to promote social understanding for the common good of society, thoughtful selection, discussion, and reflection upon critical literature can provide a powerful tool.



1. James A. Banks, “The Social Studies, Ethnic Diversity, and Social Change,” The Elementary School Journal 87, No.5 (1987): 531-543; James Barth, Secondary Social Studies Curriculum: Activities and Materials (New York: University Press of America, 1984); Henry A. Giroux, “Teachers as Transformative Intellectuals,” Social Education (May 1985): 376-379; Maxine Greene, The Dialectic of Freedom (New York: Teachers College Press, 1988); Fred. M. Newmann, Education for Citizen Action: Challenge for Secondary Curriculum (Berkeley: McCutchan, 1975); Nel Noddings, The Challenge to Care in Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992).

2. E.W. Eisner, “Art, Music, and Literature Within the Social Studies,” in J. P. Shaver, ed., Handbook of Research on Teaching and Learning: A Project of the National Council for the Social Studies (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 552, 554.

3. Nancie Atwell, “A Special Writer at Work,” in Thomas Newkirk and Nancie Atwell, eds., Understanding Writing (Portsmouth, N.H: Heinemann, 1988); Neil O. Houser, “Multicultural Literature, Equity Education, and the Social Studies,” Multicultural Education 4, No.4: 9-12; Vivian Gussen Paley, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).

4. Although critical self-reflection must be shared by all citizens, I argue that it is easier for members of dominant cultures to deflect responsibility for such reflection than for others to do so. This is because dominant members of the American mainstream establish the unspoken rules by which all are judged. The rules themselves can preclude critical self-reflection by members of the dominant culture. For this reason, I believe, along with James Baldwin, James Banks, Peggy McIntosh, Sonia Nieto, and numerous others, that we, as members of the American mainstream, must first and foremost turn our critical analysis upon our own beliefs, attitudes, and actions.

5. Of course, the particular focus of the lesson and direction of the discussion depend on who the students happen to be and the nature of the teacher’s relationship with them. In this discussion, for example, it would be less appropriate for teachers (especially middle or upper middle class teachers) to encourage their low income students to contemplate making do with less than it would be for teachers (especially middle or upper middle class teachers, but this time for different reasons) to encourage their middle and upper income students to consider this option.

6. Howard Zinn, “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress,” in A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: Harper Collins, 1995).

7. John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1938).



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Children’s Books

Barbour, Karen. Little Nino’s Pizzeria. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1987.

Seuss, Dr. [Theodore S. Geisel]. The Sneetches and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1961.

Speare, Elizabeth George. The Sign of the Beaver. New York: Dell, 1983.

Taylor, Mildred. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Uchida, Yoshiko. Journey Home. New York: Macmillan, 1978.

Yolen, Jane. Encounter. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1992.


Neil O. Houser is an associate professor in the College of Education, University of Oklahoma, Norman.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.