A novel is a machine for generating interpretations," Italian novelist Umberto Eco wrote. He might have added: "and many of them are great for generating thinking and discussion about rights and responsibilities, fairness, social justice, morality... in a word: citizenship".
Good children's fiction offers a solid, rich and exciting springboard from which to embark on the abstract concepts associated with citizenship, morals and ethics. The most crucial thing is choosing the right book.
The award winning author Beverley Naidoo's novels and stories are treasure troves for primary and secondary teachers looking at fiction as a way of engaging children with moral dilemmas and issues of social justice. She has run workshops with primary and secondary schools, focusing on the issues raised in her most famous book, Journey to Joburg (Longman; HarperCollins). The story, about a sister and brother struggling to be reunited with their mother in apartheid South Africa in order to save the life of their baby sister, opens the reader's eyes to a world founded on inequality, distrust and fear. But the story is not about apartheid; it is about commitment, love, responsibility and taking difficult moral decisions. Racial inequality is there as the backdrop: the reason their mother does not live with them, the reason they are so poor, the reason they are looked at so suspiciously in the white neighbourhood where their mother works. As a way of introducing equality issues, it is as powerful a book as you can find.
"There's a terrific potential for books to help teachers explore human experience and for young people to develop the critical skills to examine how we relate to each other," says Beverley Naidoo. "By leading the reader in through conflicts and beyond that, to how the wider society impacts on the characters, I'm attempting in my stories to do what all educators want to do: to help children recognise their connections with the wider world. It's something that's difficult for many young people to feel in these depoliticised and in some respects anti-social times."
Her latest book, Out of Bounds: stories of conflict and hope (Puffin), is a collection of short stories, each set in South Africa during a different decade over the past 50 years. All five stories have a child as protagonist caught up directly or indirectly in the events and situations that characterise their times. The book was published on June 16 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, the rebellion led by children and young people against a regime that had denied them their basic human rights. The author hopes the stories will be a catalyst for pupils "asking questions of themselves and of others, which is essential to the citizenship curriculum". By creating emotionally identifiable characters in these stories, she is also laying the foundations for empathy.
"If citizenship's going to work, it's important that space is given to empathy as well as to the development of skills for critical thinking. The challenge for young people is to read these stories and to ask themselves if there's anything in their own lives and environments that relates to the lives of the children portrayed."
Susie Hollway, a Year 6 teacher at Normand Park Primary School in Hammersmith and Fulham, west London, is committed to using fiction as a stimulating and motivating vehicle for citizenship. "Fiction definitely fits into citizenship and RE schemes of work and when issues are set in a story, it's much easier for children to engage with them."
She has used two of Beverley Naidoo's books, Journey to Joburg and The Other Side of Truth (Puffin), with her pupils and finds that "they get very fired up by issues of social injustice and once their emotions are aroused, it's a way of leading to understanding".
The Other Side of Truth has been shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, which will be awarded on July 13.
The Citizenship Foundation has long appreciated the power of stories to stir emotions and understanding and has produced some stories of its own, which come with suggested frameworks for teachers to introduce citizenship-related discussions. The foundation's director of curricular resources, Don Rowe, says: "Narrative stories make abstract ideas concrete for children and in the context of specific situations, children bring their own ideas and understandings to shared discussion. We encourage teachers to deconstruct the narrative, to see beyond surface events and explore, for example, the conflict of rights between people. Teachers who use our texts and become acquainted with the methodology we suggest in the framework can gain confidence about using other texts."
Particularly at primary level, citizenship education that draws on literature can be cross-curricular. Don Rowe says: "Discussion of shared texts is part of the literacy hour and these discussions are important for speaking and listening and for analytical thinking. You can combine work by asking about the author's intentions as well as grappling with the social and moral issues presented in the text."
Beverley Naidoo says: "I believe that through literature, we can help young people unpack some of the influences on their own lives. Through sensitive teaching and sufficient time to allow them to make connections for themselves, we can help them see how the moral dilemmas they have to face in their lives are reflected in the lives of the characters they read about."
* Citizenship Foundation publications, tel: 0207 367 0500.
* Introducing Citizenship by Don Rowe, (Aamp;C Black, pound;14.99) is a handbook for teachers and includes a short list of stories and a video for primary classes.