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Mediated Vs. Unmediated texts: Books in the Library and the Classroom

by E. Wendy Saul

Picture a debate, a librarian - teacher stand off. Cameras aimed at her podium, the librarian begins: "My job, as I see it, is to provide quality books for children. I order what is excellent, what will make young people into life-long readers. I believe that books should be beautiful, inspiring, imaginative and I work hard to ensure that children are given the best of the best." Here she turns to the teacher: "Then you come in with stacks and stacks of titles, books you have found at yard sales, on the discard shelves of libraries, in the supermarket check-out line. Why don't you understand the importance of quality?"

The teacher responds:" Whereas you see yourself as a queen, choosing among the silks and satins that best suit to your tastes, I am a quilter by trade. My job is to make sure that children learn something about the American Revolution, the life cycle of the butterfly, the importance of Benjamin Banneker. To cover these topics, I take what I have at hand, what I can find, and stitch it with my own words into the best and most colorful blanket I can create. Who are you to tell me that this particular skirt I have torn up for my quilt is inadequate, when I need every scrap I can get?"

Just Doing Our Jobs

Part of the pain anyone listening to this conversation hears has to do with the different demands of school teaching and school librarianship. Traditionally librarians are the people who put books on the shelves, certainly in a literal sense, but much more importantly, they are the ones who do the ordering for the institution in which they work. In the school library, a media specialist's impetus to purchase a given title generally originates from one of three sources: (1) curriculum-based teacher and student requests, (2) familiarity with children's independent reading preferences, or (3) a concern with making available what might be called "best books." The obvious, time-consuming, and somewhat technical work of school librarians involves tracking new titles and reviews and matching them with one of the fore-mentioned perceived needs.

Typically librarians do their ordering on the basis of published reviews in periodicals such as School Library Journal, Booklist, or Hornbook - all publications concerned with evaluation. Certainly if a book receives the American Library Association's prestigious Newbery or Caldecott Award, it is purchased in what I have called the "best books" category. Other methods for noting excellence are also employed by evaluators and recognized by media specialists, for instance, starred reviews are generally read. Many media specialists also order from yearly round-ups of "best books" such as those distributed by the Children's Book Council or the International Reading Association.

In other instances purchasing choices are made on the basis of experiences working with young people - "The kids have been waiting for the next Joanna Hurwitz title" or "I can't keep up with requests for the Joanna Cole's Magic Schoolbus books." In still other circumstances book ordering can best be understood as a kind of cultural assumption - e.g. "First graders love dinosaur books." Sometimes there is an obvious cross-over between student interest and curricular requirements; each year at science fair time countless children come in asking for books to help with their science fair projects. Book purchasers also must concern themselves with the physical properties of books: Are they bound well? Does a given volume include easily torn, movable parts?

Librarians certainly try to be responsive to the curriculum. Even a mediocre book on earth worms will be purchased if earth worms suddenly become the heroes of the new, national third grade curriculum. However, even in such cases, librarians struggle to find the best of what's available. Often they talk about a work being "serviceable," a term that suggests that the book's content is acceptable, but that its artistic qualities are lacking. Librarians are, by predilection, training, and position, concerned with evaluation; they seek books characterized by grace in both conceptualization and style.

In talking to librarians and in studying the reviews which serve as the basis for their judgments I am struck by the notion of the child reader that undergirds ordering decisions. For the librarian, the essential communication takes place between the book and the reader. The child encounters the book directly and any errors contained in its pages are generally viewed as having a troubling, negative affect on those who pick up the volume. Therefore, if librarians included problematic texts in the collection, they would see themselves as irresponsible, i.e. I have helped "lie to the child" about matters intellectual. In fiction, when this problem surfaces, it often has to do with sins of omission - "Whoops! I am about to purchase $300 worth of books, none of which contains a strong minority protagonist." Overtly didactic fiction also proves troubling to dedicated students of literature.

In non-fiction the issue of accuracy is more salient. There are, of course, the clear-cut concerns with safety in a science experiment book, and the gross misrepresentation of fact in a supposedly objective description, that make a book unacceptable. More subtle issues, for instance anthropomorphization or teleology, are the source of continuing consternation. In a recent issue of Science Books and Films, the book review publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Robert A. Hoage (1991) evidences some ambivalence when he discusses his scientists' concern with accuracy and his environmentalist's passion for saving the earth. On the one hand he is displeased by

excessive attribution of human-like feelings or thoughts to an animal by an author. For example, "He (the animal) felt great happiness and tossed leaves joyfully" or "He listened with curiosity." Sometimes an author might call an infant character "Little Badger" or "Little Mole," thereby giving it a personal name. Almost as excessive was the occurrence of authors writing that an animal "liked" or "disliked" something: water, a game, a place to build a nest, and so on. Excessive anthropomorphisms used regularly can compromise a reader's belief that a book presents scientific facts.

On the other hand, Hoage concludes his piece with this comment:

Nevertheless, if quasi-human creatures can help save species and habitats better than real animals -- the golden lion tamarin's growing role as a national symbol in Brazil a case in point - then maybe Randall Lockwood (contributor to Perceptions of Animals in American Culture) is right: anthropomorphism is not a four-letter word."

For aesthetically-oriented media specialists, splendid illustrations are often enough to justify appreciation of a text which supports political positions they might find otherwise problematic. For instance Lynne Cherry's unabashedly "green" The Great Kapok Tree has been hailed as a tremendous success, largely because it is so "beautifully done." It is worth noting that children's book reviewers and librarians often fault books for not being "balanced." Interestingly, in adult non-fiction mature readers often seek works with a one-sided or even a quirky take on a subject, believing that another volume is available to balance the one in hand. More often than not, when it comes to books for children we presume that this is the only work on the subject that will be read.

In short, librarians see themselves as reaching readers through books; it is as evaluators and selectors that they touch children's lives. Because of this orientation, media center specialists are lauded for their ability to differentiate, to choose wisely, to get what is best for the children whom they serve. If an "uninspired" book is simply not out on the shelves, then the librarian needn't worry about its effect on young readers. If a potentially controversial book is not purchased, who will notice? Even for those who choose not to "play it safe" in book purchasing decisions, arguments for or against a particular title are generally cast in terms of a book's "quality."

Teachers are clearly less concerned with the issue of selection. In fact, many believe that the titles which sit on their library's shelves ARE the books that are available. When pointed to other titles which appear on computerized library catalogs, teachers rarely request borrowing privileges. What might at first appear as laziness, springs, I believe from a different source. Teachers, by and large, assume that if they are competent they can make virtually any title that does not violate community standards work for a child. Whereas librarians see texts as stand-alone events, unmediated texts, teachers, by and large, see books as mediated.

The pre-service teachers in my University methods classes seem fairly confident about their goal vis a vis reading, that is, they want to go into schools and "motivate" children to read. Sometimes they see this motivation as a system of external rewards -what can we give children who "try hard" - grades? stickers? smiley faces? These teachers-in-training want learning to be fun and often contrive puzzles and games to sugar-coat ideas and information found in books. Many are oblivious to the hidden curriculum of their message, that the ideas and information are uninteresting and unpalatable unless they are sugar-coated.

Those more familiar with literary ideas seek activities in which motivation is more intrinsic - "What can we do with this book?" is a question frequently asked. When I answer honestly - "What did you do with the last book YOU read?" some think that I am being a bit sarcastic - it is difficult for them to imagine a classroom where children are not listening to or following teacher's directions; they seek to hold their students spellbound. If novices measure their success by their ability to engage children in "boring" information, it is no wonder that basal readers present an interesting challenge! Perhaps these students are afraid that by putting faith in the power of the book they decrease their own sense of control and importance.

More experienced teachers, also, seem to think of books as "mediated" objects. In a series a taped, think-aloud protocols with approximately twenty teachers chosen for their expertise in science and literature, the overwhelming majority referred to some way in which a "bad book" (factually incorrect, poorly illustrated, conceptually misleading) could be used to the advantage of the class, e.g. "children could do their own illustrations" or "this one can be used to show that we need not believe everything that we read" or" we could write to author X and tell him that..." etc.). Teachers believe that their skill is ultimately gauged by what they can do with a book. In this very public sense then, teachers and librarians have markedly different takes on children's books and their professional roles in "finding the right book for the right child at the right time."

Learning from One Another

The implications of the distinction between mediated and unmediated approaches to books may be far-reaching. On a very basic level, a clarification of perspectives may help both teachers and librarians appreciate one another's book interests. On the one hand, librarians must recognize that teachers are not simply uncritical, non-readers (two charges frequently heard at media specialist meetings); rather they want children to have books, lots and lots of books from which to learn. Teachers, on the other hand, need to realize that librarians, in their role as book selectors, are not being uncooperative or obstructionist when they refuse to purchase more titles on a given subject (a charge often voiced by teachers'). In many school systems, media specialists must include at least two positive reviews from respected journals with each book order. As one librarian put it, "With money this tight we can only afford the best of the best."

My point here is that both groups could learn much from heeding the concerns of the other. Teachers need to become more cognizant of the fact that they are, in fact, making a choice when they select a book. Books should be actively, consciously chosen for the classroom. As teachers realize that they have neither the time nor the inclination to undertake significant bibliographic work, they might become more skilled in asking librarians for help. It takes energy to track down appropriate titles and order them, if necessary, from inter-library loan; teachers will surely profit from giving librarians time for a good search.

Similarly, librarians and teachers have long been critical of each other's role in helping young patrons find topics and resources for "research reports." Obviously, a teacher who sends twenty-six third grade students to the library looking for books on raccoons, frustrates both children and the librarian. A diversity of topics can also prove problematic as well. In a classroom where each student chooses a tribe of Native Americans to research, Marta, assigned to the Chitimachas, found practically nothing whereas Julio, assigned to the Sioux, was overwhelmed with information. Librarians have suggested that they become actively involved in helping teachers choose research topics since they know the holdings in their collections. On the one hand this makes perfect sense. On the other hand, however, media specialists need to understand that in whole language classrooms library searches are often generated from children's own questions and concerns. If a curriculum is to value authenticity, library successes and failures arise naturally and should be valued and discussed, not controlled for.

Furthermore, literature-based classrooms often promote the kind of intellectual queries that could drive a well-organized librarian batty. Students, feeling independent and at home in the media center, come in with questions that are messy, both linguistically and conceptually. Hannah is at the card catalog looking for books on "rides." After some conversation it turns out that she has to do a report on an invention and wants something about the "thing at the carnival that has little hanging baskets to ride in." Once the object is identified as a Ferris Wheel, Hannah will, of course, have more luck. If an adult had not come along to help, this student may well have opted for another, less personally interesting invention.

Other messy issues regularly bring librarian and teacher face to face. For instance, many science educators strongly believe that astronomy is an inappropriate topic for young children, that they cannot understand the principles involved, and few hands-on applications allow children to check out their own data. For these reasons, and because some cognitive psychologists have suggested that it is terribly difficult to unseat misconceptions, the topic is purposefully omitted from many curricula. Still, we know that the planets and stars, the gee-whiz of the heavens, have fascinated children since humans began looking up. Should the school library in districts where astronomy is purposefully omitted spend limited dollars on highly-touted books about space?

The notion of mediated vs. unmediated texts also has implications for the book reviewing process. Traditionally teachers have neither written nor read book reviews used for ordering. Fairly mechanical questions arise here: Could teachers who are willing to read reviews be (more effectively) included in the purchasing process? Is there information that teachers would like to see included in such reviews, information that would better enable them to decide if a specific book should be marked for priority purchase?

The obvious answer to each of these questions is "yes," everyone would profit from having teachers' review materials. My claim, however, is that such an activity needs to be undertaken with care. For many teachers the act of reading is so closely and almost reflexively tied to visions of how a given title will be situated and used, their critical comments, without a context, may appear misleading or unhelpful. For instance, a teacher who has successfully used four biographies of Marie Curie to enable children to compare differences in authorial perspective, might well give each of these books a favorable write up. A reader of this review, seeking to purchase only one Marie Curie book and unaware of the reviewer/teachers' reason for praising a single volume, might feel woefully disappointed when the title does not meet her desire to focus on Curie's relationships with other scientists.

Please do not misunderstand: my suggestion is not that each review should be coupled with prescriptive advice on how to use the book in question. The librarian who claims that a book is more than what a teacher or a student does with it is right. But teachers do need a platform for sharing insights garnered in their work with children and books. Teacher reviewers might do well, for instance, to carry descriptive statements about how a teacher thought about a given volume after watching students make sense of it under several different circumstances. Indeed, teacher reviewers who almost automatically make connections between book and activity, need to be conscious of their tendency to view books as mediated objects. I worry that current library-oriented reviews, in the interest of objectivity, fair-mindedness and generalizability lead book purchasers to think of reading as less situational, less anecdotal, and therefore, less child-centered than it, in fact, is. In sum, my hope is that both librarians and teachers come to base their judgments of children's trade books not on assumptions about readers but rather on experience with readers. Both teachers and librarians, unlike academic reviewers, have day to day experiences with children which should give them a privileged place in the world of book reviewing and book purchasing. Moreover, all book purchasers would be well-served by clearer statements of reviewers' perspectives, experiences and interests.

Perhaps it is most productive to view the distinction between mediated and unmediated texts as a heuristic, sites on a continuum. Certainly librarians who produce "programs" for children think about how best to mediate titles, how to say or do something that matters to children about books. Similarly, anyone who visits lots of classrooms also notices real differences in teachers' attitudes toward literature. As educators struggle to figure out how intrusive or pro-active a role they wish to take in guiding reading, numerous questions arise: Can an excellent teacher use a basal reader to advantage? Does breaking a novel into isolated segments to teach "skills" effectively diminish the literary experience of the reader? Teachers, like those who read The New Advocate regularly think about such issues.

In reality, although recognizing differences in perspective is useful, we need to be wary of a professional rhetoric that suggests a bifurcation of responsibilities, i.e. librarians attend to literary matters and teachers attend to children's needs. At this point in history, this is surely not the case for educators. The burgeoning interest in whole language has spawned literary discussion groups for children and teachers alike, and the body of professional publications aimed at encouraging meaning-centered reading continues to grow. Many teachers are already literary readers and there is a significant movement underway to encourage the sharing of book-based experiences.

Librarians have not written nearly so much about what they call "readers' advisory services" for children, the practice of finding books for individuals, and should be encouraged to do so. That does not mean, however, that they don't think about what interactions with children should look and feel like. I recently watched an Ohio librarian, Rachel Alexander, who was demonstrating her book conversation skills with children for a computer whiz trying to design an "expert system." After several minutes of dialogue with a pre-teen, near the end of the conversation with the girl, Rachel asked the child what grade she was in. The computer designer, used to Boolean logic, assumed that this was an oversight - that perhaps in her nervousness Rachel had forgotten to ask the main sorting question first. But this was not the case. Rachel had deliberately avoided what might be a potentially embarrassing question for a less than adequate reader, until the end. Not only would this give the librarian a chance to better explore this child's interests and verbal abilities, but it would also give the child a private setting in which she felt listened to and wherein she might admit any feelings of inadequacy as a reader. Surely this librarian had thought about her practitioner's skills in relationship to children.

The point here is that both Rachel and the computer whiz knew their jobs. The programmer was looking for efficient ways to limit the field of books that might interest a child. Once the topic was chosen, he wanted to hone in on an appropriate title as quickly and efficiently as possible. Rachel, on the other hand, was clearly more interested in establishing a relationship with the child, a relationship that would ultimately enable her to serve this youngster better. Fortunately for all of us, the programmer was bright enough to pick up on the problem and design a product that mimicked the gentle and ultimately productive inefficiency of the practitioner.

Learning from Children: A Shared Goal

Approximately one hundred years ago the progressive educator, John Dewey wrote about the importance of a curriculum which helped children connect their personal interests to both the practical and cultural wisdom of the ages (1902). A well-prepared practitioner, he argued, is one who understands both the child and our intellectual heritage. I think of Dewey when I see several trade books tucked into a hands-on science kit or notice a list of trade books recommended as an "add on" in a social studies unit. Although these titles may be topically germane and well-regarded, I question if and how teachers and librarians are being asked to help these books become personally relevant to children. The best practitioners, I would argue, think long and hard about how books matter to children.

In a day to day way practitioners, both teachers and librarians, balance the responsibility of finding and sharing children's literature with the heady task of learning HOW books matter. Their work as both activists and thinkers, made public, results in better decisions for all who follow. Furthermore, I believe that an understanding of meaning-centered reading is often and most authentically found in small, peculiar and often-unexpected moments. Practitioners, both teachers and librarians, who make room for and take note of such moments serve all of us well. This knowledge about how books matter will surely help both teachers and librarians in the everyday work of finding the right book for the right child at the right time.

An example might prove helpful here. Recently teacher-researcher Jeanne Reardon, who has fostered the development of first grade reader-researchers told me this story. One youngster reported firmly that Byron Barton's Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs "makes no sense at all." Rather than arguing with him, Jeanne listened. The color of the sky/background changes at each spread; this child was trying to figure out a scientific reason for the color change and none was apparent. Moreover, the text is broken up in such a way that only a sentence fragment appears underneath several of the full-page illustrations. This child tried reading each fragment as a complete thought, a totally reasonable strategy given books he had encountered to date, but in this case he was confronted with a text that made "no sense at all."

I find this story interesting because of what it tells me about the act of reading, in both a mediated and unmediated sense. As a teacher this story invites me to be more sensitive to standard literary conventions with which first grade children may or may not be familiar. It makes me anxious to go into a classroom and help children formulate, share and rethink their ideas about how print works in various books, how color works, how to make sense of a book when its meaning is not readily apparent.

From a librarians perspective such information might serve as the basis for a casual comment to the child checking out this volume, about an "interesting thing another young reader pointed out to me." Would such a comment inspire a similar sharing on the part of another reader? In no way should Jeanne's story be used as ammunition to shoot down a beautifully conceived and executed picture book.

Ultimately, I would like to see all practitioners who work with children take seriously the job of listening to children, making sense of their comments, and generating responses which resonate with both logical and feeling sense. Teachers and librarians need to recognize that they are both in the business of helping children become life-long readers. The values, perceptions and tasks practitioners who view literature as key to awareness and respect share, may be more important than the differences that divide. I propose that teachers and librarians help one another by thinking together about the problems - both theoretical and practical - each encounters in her work. Individually and together they may test, in a day to day way, their assumptions, perceptions and ideas as they listen closely to the children whom they serve. Very little about that work is routine.

Finally, then, it is children's conversation (both oral and written) that teachers and librarians can bring to discussions and decisions about book choice. The understandings that undergird such choices are, of course, multi-faceted and involve a knowledge of children, a knowledge of books, and a continually evolving consciousness of HOW a practitioner decides if he or she has "gotten it right." In thinking about practitioner knowledge I keep returning to the same analogy. Remember those "hidden pictures" that we looked at as children? Somehow, in a black and white line drawing that seemed to be about a jungle scene, or a birthday party, other "hidden" images would emerge. In order to find those hidden pictures one needed to know first what a "whale" or a "top hat" looked like. One also needed to know how to scan a drawing. If the hidden images were not immediately obvious, then a different strategy would be employed -- looking, for instance, at the total picture to see what pieces seemed forced or oddly out of place.

So it is, I believe, with practitioners. Their insights come from looking for parts in the whole, but their pleasure lies in seeing the relationship of the part TO the whole. From this perspective, the real work of teachers and librarians is to engage in conversations with children, scanning minute by minute, retrospectively and with anticipation, for ways to connect children's underlying questions and concerns to the books in our midst From this perspective, the mediated vs. the unmediated approach to books can best be viewed as a difference in culture and training rather than an irreconcilable difference in respect for or interest in both the child or the book.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. TPE-8955187. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Hoage, Robert J. (1991) "Anthropomorphism in Children's Science Books" Science Books and Films Vol 27, No. 1 .

Dewey, John. (1902) The Child and the Curriculum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Children's Books Mentioned in this Article:

Barton, Byron (1989) Dinosaurs. Dinosaurs! N.Y.: T.Y. Crowell

Cherry, Lynne (1990) The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest N.Y. Harcourt, Brace and Javanovich

Cole, Joanna (on-going) The Magic Schoolbus series. N.Y.: Scholastic

All materials featured on this site are the property of the Elementary Science Integration Projects (ESIP) and/or their respective authors, and may not be reproduced or distributed in any form, printed or electronic, without express written permission.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 9912078. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.