English 355: Paper #1


in class, Thursday, September 21, 2000.


3 to 5 pages.


Option #1 | Option #2 | Guidelines for both | Useful handouts for both

Option #1: Nonsense and Ideology

        Is nonsense ideological? In "Toys," Roland Barthes writes that

The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions cannot but prepare the child to accept them all, by constituting for him, even before he can think it, the alibi of a Nature which has at all times created soldiers, postmen, and Vespas [a kind of motorbike]. Toys here reveal the list of things the adult does not find unusual. (53)

He notes, "French toys are usually based on imitation, they are meant to produce children who are users, not creators" (54). After re-reading Barthes' essay and Russell's description of "The Language of Poetry" (pp. 179-83 in Chapter 9 of Literature for Children), write a three-page paper in which you investigate the use of nonsense in the poetry of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, or Dr. Seuss. What does nonsense poetry do? Do Barthes' remarks apply to the works of Carroll, Lear, or Seuss? Your thesis will answer this question.

        The work you choose to focus on must be poetry, and you may choose only one work by the author under discussion: for Seuss this means one children's book; for Lear it means one nonsense song; for Carroll, it means one poem. You have Carroll's Alice books (there is poetry contained in each Alice novel), Seuss's books can be found in Hale Library and in the Manhattan Public Library, and Lear's can be found both in the aforementioned libraries and on-line: the nonsense songs are in Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany, and Alphabets (1871) and Laughable Lyrics: A Fourth Book of Nonsense Poems, Songs, Botany, Music, & c. (1877).

        Seuss and Lear each did their own illustrations; John Tenniel did Carroll's illustrations. If the work you choose is illustrated, your paper must address the illustrations as well as the poetry: do the illustrations reinforce or undermine any particular meanings, rhymes, images, etc.? Which ones? And how do the pictures shape your reading of the work?

        If you've re-read Barthes' "Toys" and want some more thoughts to get you started, you might take a second look at Robert Frost's discussion of the "sound of sense," review our notes of discussions of Dr. Seuss and Edward Lear. If you're feeling particularly intellectual, you might consider Wendy Steiner's idea that nonsense refects the "paradox that langauge can be both motivated and arbitrary, a self-sufficient system and one affected by extralinguistic meaning, a social and an individual tool" (The Colors of Rhetoric 93). Whichever of these ideas you draw upon (and you must draw upon Barthes), remember that your focus is the poetic work in question. To support your points, quote primarily from the poetry you're discussing. And, of course, consult the guidelines below.

Option #2: Picture Books

        After reading Chapter 7 ("Picture Storybooks") in David Russell's Literature for Children, study a range of picturebooks by a single author (for example, Marcia Brown, Anthony Browne, Virginia Lee Burton, Eric Carle, Leo and Diane Dillon, Wanda Ga'g, Kevin Henkes, Crockett Johnson, Leo Lionni, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall, Robert McCloskey, Marjorie Priceman, H. A. Rey, Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, William Steig, Chris Van Allsburg, Rosemary Wells, David Wiesner). How would you characterize this illustrator's style? That is, what is characteristic of his or her style of illustration? What is the relationship between the illustrations and the text? What themes does the illustrator treat? Do you see any change in direction or in development over the course of his or her career? Your thesis will be a claim that states what you perceive to be this illustrator's primary concerns and (if applicable) how these concerns have developed over time.

        The best way to go about this would be to focus on only three books by this author. As you prepare to write the paper, you will want to read more than these three books, of course; however, devote your paper to the analysis of just three. If you see the author's development changing over time, choose the three books from different moments in an author's career (ideally, one early, one middle, and one late). If you perceive little change over time, then when the books were written in the context of her or his career may not matter so much. For more guidance on this option, please see the handout Analyzing Picture Books.

        To support your analysis, cite the text and pictures of the books you're discussing. And, of course, consult the guidelines below.

Guidelines for Both Options

Getting Started…

1. Read and Reread. Read and reread the work or works you've decided to write about, with a mind to the topic you have chosen. As you take careful notes (making note of all relevant words, phrases, images, and illustrations), consult the "Imagery and Figurative Language" handout, Russell's chapter on "Picture Storybooks" (pp. 122-41) and description of "The Language of Poetry" (pp. 179-83).

Writing the Paper…

1. Formulate a thesis. Make sure your thesis is specific enough to be covered adequately in the space of your discussion. Remember: merely noting a difference or similarity does not constitute a thesis. So, it would not be sufficient to say that Dr. Seuss's The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1937), Horton Hears a Who! (1954), and The Lorax (1971) all are versions of the "quest" narrative. True enough, but so what? Instead, you might argue that the changing nature of the "quest" narrative in Dr. Seuss's The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1937), Horton Hears a Who! (1954), and The Lorax (1971) shows an increasingly political engagement with real-world issues: from a fairly mild indictment of an unjust king, Seuss's concerns grow to include threats of anihilation and environmental catastrophe. Refer to the handout titled "Thesis vs. Topic."

2. Each paragraph should begin with a claim. Just as a thesis claim guides the paper as a whole, a paragraph's claim (often referred to as a "topic sentence") guides a paragraph. So, at or near the beginning of each paragraph, include a topic sentence that states your paragraph's central argument. The topic sentence serves as a bridge between thesis and paragraph by making an interpretive claim that indicates how the paragraph will support your thesis.

3. Provide support. To persuade your readers to your position, you will need to provide some evidence in support of your claims. Quotations from the poem, or illustrations and text from a picture book should be used as evidence to prove your assertions.

4. Analysis and explanation of evidence. Be sure to analyze the quotation and discuss its significance. Explain for your reader how your evidence supports your claims.

5. Conclusion. Your last paragraph should synthesize, not summarize. You should resolve -- and not merely repeat -- your argument. Think of a conclusion this way: it both reminds your reader of where you've been and suggests new areas to explore. For these papers, I suggest you devote your conclusion to practical applications of your thesis. What implications does what you've proven have for the teaching of these children's books? How would you put your ideas into action, in the classroom?

And, after you finish your draft…

1. Revise and edit. Read your paper out loud to yourself. Often you will hear what your eyes will miss.

2. Grammar and structure are important. To help yourself proofread and revise with both of these ideas in mind, please see the handout titled "Keys to Structure and Style."

3. When in doubt, get help. My office hours are on the syllabus, and by appointment. My email address is philnel@ksu.edu. Also, please make use of a grammar handbook and of the handouts linked to this paper assignment: "Imagery and Figurative Language," "Thesis vs. Topic," "Keys to Structure and Style," and the Sample Essay.

Useful Handouts: Imagery and Figurative Language | Analyzing Picture Books | Thesis vs. Topic | Keys to Structure and Style | Sample Essay

Return to Syllabus for English 355

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