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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
March 13, 2007
DeKalb — Chris Carger lives in a world of vivid colors, familiar characters, rich stories and, of course, endings.
Some are happy. Some are sad. Almost all, however, resonate with her in a way that touches her soul and moistens her eyes. Her anecdotes are tied to her favorite children’s books, and she’s quick to name their titles, their authors and their plots.
“The books themselves are just so beautiful,” says Carger, an associate professor in the Department of Literacy Education at Northern Illinois University. “I’d take the books home, sit on the couch and read them, and sometimes I’d just be in tears. My daughters used to tease me about it.”
But it’s the way that children relate with books that moves her, and sometimes surprises her, the most.
That’s why her car’s trunk and back seat are packed with wonderful children’s books, many of which she bought and some of which she gives away. It’s why she’s challenged some school administrators who’ve locked away the literature in favor of more time spent on skill sheets and workbooks. It’s why she’s prodded teachers who, in some school districts, are almost afraid to admit they’ve read fiction aloud in class.
“If you can get children to connect to a book … that’s what’s going to make them lifelong readers,” Carger says. “We’ve got to get books into children’s hands – into all children’s hands.”
Her passion and mission have the world’s attention.
Carger has won the International Reading Association’s prestigious Arbuthnot Award as the year’s outstanding teacher of children’s and young adults’ literature. It recognizes knowledgeable professionals who are innovative teachers, leaders in the field, role models, mentors and disseminators.
The honor comes May 17 in Toronto at the IRA’s annual conference.
“This means a lot to me. It affirms my life’s work,” she says. “For years, I carried books to teachers and children across northern Illinois and talked about their many values.”
Norm Stahl, chair of the NIU Department of Literacy Education, calls Carger a “beacon for our students, our faculty and the greater Chicagoland community by advocating for the many ways children’s literature can be used.”
“Across 35 years of service in our field, I have yet to meet an individual who has more commitment to, or love of, children’s literature than Dr. Carger,” Stahl says. “Chris is tireless in writing proposals and gaining grants so as to put children’s literature and art materials in the hands of children and teacher candidates.”
Carger came to the NIU College of Education in 1994 with a background in reading and bilingual education. She was asked to prepare a course in multicultural children’s literature, an assignment that changed her life.
The granddaughter of immigrants discovered one glorious book after another, all full of tales of young children living in their native countries or in the “New World” of the United States.
She discovered that children of any culture can find themselves in the stories; book characters often can break apart stereotypes. She also discovered some teachers don’t know about these books, or don’t have the funds to buy them.
There was “The Circuit,” Francisco Jimenez’s story of a migrant farm boy in the Mexico and California of the 1940s. There was Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars,” about a 10-year-old girl living in Denmark during World War II. There was “Nory Ryan’s Song,” by Patricia Reilly Giff, about the Irish famine’s effect on a 12-year-old girl and her family.
But there was also “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” Eleanor Coerr’s book about a real Japanese girl in the 1950s suffering from leukemia brought on by the atom bomb that struck Hiroshima.
Sadako believed a legend that folding 1,000 tiny paper cranes would grant her any wish – she would wish for her disease to go away – but died before she could complete her task. Her classmates finished it for her.
That book inspired one NIU student to fold 1,000 paper cranes and suspend them from a mobile that now hangs in the Children’s Literature Teaching Collection inside Gabel Hall. The mobile, in turn, inspires Carger.
“I remember seeing it when I first came to NIU 13 years ago,” she says, sitting next to the mobile just outside her office, “and wishing I could be a teacher of children’s literature in one of the nearby offices.”
And there was also “My Very Own Room,” linked to an experience that demonstrated to Carger the profound potential that reading can unlock in children.
Amada Irma Pérez’s book is about a Mexican girl living in the United States who is forced to share a bedroom with her younger brothers. When she decides to claim a closet as her own, there is not enough paint of one color to cover the walls. She decides to use all three leftover colors she has, painting in swirls.
Carger read the book aloud to Latino children at a school in Chicago where the principal had locked away all the children’s literature. When she reached the page of swirls, one child chirped, “That looks like a painting by Vincent van Gogh!” Another added: “It’s like ‘Starry Night!’ ”
She later learned their teacher had read a story about van Gogh, and showed his famous painting, during a recent lesson in social studies. The students drew the connection on their own, Carger says, and even searched their local library that weekend for more books illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez.
“This is what they’re capable of,” Carger says. “Don’t keep these books from them and think that English language learners can’t handle literature discussions. We have got to get these books out to the people who can get the most out of them.”
Although Carger worries about the distractions children face – television, computers, cell phones, video games, iPods – she has plenty of ideas to keep students involved.
She points students to a Web site on César Chávez when teaching “The Circuit.” She visited Denmark to take pictures of WWII sites, tour a museum and interview a member of the resistance to create a PowerPoint presentation about “Number the Stars.” She downloaded museum pictures of the Irish famine to discuss “Nory Ryan’s Song.”
Literacy Education students who take her Techniques of Tutoring course serve as reading tutors for Latino children in several DeKalb and Aurora schools. The “Reaching Out through Art and Reading” program pairs books with art projects that bring the literature to life.
Some of her students in the early childhood studies program put on puppet shows connected to books at the DeKalb Public Library.
“It’s more than just holding up a book and saying, ‘You should read this,’ ” she says. “Nothing replaces your own enthusiasm for the books.”
And nothing dampens her fervor.
Carger keeps busy writing grants to find funding that would pay for books and art supplies, and also is applying for money that would support her new idea to tap NIU’s international students to read aloud books from their native lands to DeKalb school children.
She’s also the chair of this year’s annual Children’s Literature Conference, scheduled for March 16 and 17 at NIU. Guests include Giff and Pam Muñoz Ryan, author of “Esperanza Rising.”
Meanwhile, Carger is nearly finished with the sequel to her 1996 book, “Of Borders and Dreams: A Mexican-American Experience of Urban Education.” The first book related her case study of a Latino boy who dropped out of school; a decade later, she follows up to illustrate what happens to a dropout.
She served on and chaired the review committee for the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature and served on the selection committee for the Monarch Award: Illinois’ K-3 Children’s Book Choice Award.
“Chris is not just somebody who likes children’s books. She really does her homework to stay up on new books. She brings a wealth of information to me, her students and, finally, to the children,” says Pam Nelson, a colleague in the Department of Literacy Education. “Nobody knows where that ends. You just don’t know which of these kids will become teachers of children’s literature someday.”
Carger, who’s grateful to Nelson, retired NIU professor Carl Tomlinson and all her associates, students and mentors, says she wishes they all could share the Arbuthnot Award.
The professor also hopes her family can join her in Toronto for the ceremony. She and husband Jim, who live in suburban Chicago, have been married 28 years. They are parents to Elizabeth, 26, who graduated from the University of Chicago, and Mary, 22, a math major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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