Vol. 1. No. 3 R-6 March 1995
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Writers' Voices

Selections from:

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya
ISBN 0-88336-3106-4 (paper)

The Mambo King Plays Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos
ISBN 0-88335-3153-6 (paper)

China Men and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
ISBN 0-88335-3112-9 (paper)

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
ISBN 0-88335-3151-X (paper)

(Various copyrights)
New York: New Readers Press

U.S. $3.50 each

Writers' Voices, a series published by New Readers Press (formerly the Literacy Volunteers of New York City), is another entry into the corpus of authentic literature available to ESL teachers. This series, written for use with adult literacy students, presents extracts (called selections) from outstanding popular literature in a visually appealing and pedagogically accessible way. Each book in the series contains one or more selections from a popular novel or non-fiction work, as well as supplemental readings on the biography of the author, important background information, questions for reflection, and glossaries of unusual words. Many of the titles in this series are selections from popular multicultural literature. The average book is about 60 pages long.

The raison d'être of this series is succinctly stated in the opening to the selections from Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, in which a literacy student says that she wants to "read what others do." In an attempt to respond to this desire, the publishers of this series have chosen authentic, unedited selections and have published them behind attractive, authentic-looking covers complete with titles, pictures, and a brief summary of the book. Although the selections are supplemented with story summaries and background information, it would be wrong to assume that these selections represent condensations or encapsulations of the original works. Instead, as attested in the introductory matter to each book, the selections have been chosen to give the reader an opportunity to hear the writer's "voice" in the original work. This endeavor succeeds better in some selections than in others. The selections from The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, while well arranged and well supplemented to give the reader a bare-bones idea of the story of the Castillo brothers, fails to capture the lush sensuality that was a hallmark of the original work. [-1-]

The quality of the background information provided with the selections varies from book to book. The background information in the selections from The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is appropriate to the subject matter of the original work and the selections: reading passages on Latin music, the Cuban-American experience, and Desi Arnaz. However, the background information about the selections from The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan digresses from the focus of the book and presents a history of modern China, complete with information about the last of the Manchus. This information is useful in understanding the selections, which focus more on events in China, but the reader familiar with the original work is left wondering why Amy Tan's voice--that of a Chinese American, not a Chinese--is not the "writer's voice" that is highlighted in the background information. A brief reading on the subject of mah jong is the only information provided to help the reader understand the American side of the story.

The pedagogical appendices to the selections are useful, but would not be sufficient to use with ESL students in teaching these selections. Since the series appears to be built on the supposition that students choose and read the selections at their own pace, the previewing materials are strong. Although written to the student, these materials do provide useful ideas for teachers using the series. One useful previewing question that is a feature of all the selections is a reminder to the reader to read the front and back cover before reading the selections. This provides students with a useful exercise in judging the book by its cover--something that anyone who has ever bought a paperback has done, but a skill that is rarely taught to students. Another useful pedagogical tip that can be found in these selections is a suggestion to read the selections aloud or to have someone read them aloud to the student. While there are proponents on both sides of the reading aloud question, the tip nevertheless serves as a reminder that for some students the reading experience is enhanced by an oral reading.

The vocabulary materials provided with each selection definitely presuppose a reader with a strong English vocabulary. Since many of the titles in this series are multicultural in their subject matter, almost all the selections have a glossary of foreign words or words that are very specific to the selections. The glossary for the selections from China Men and The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston includes: demons, demonesses, Ellis Island, ghosts, Gold Mountain, lichee, queue, and yin. The definition of ghosts is "A term the Chinese immigrants used to describe non- Chinese people" (pg. 58). The previewing materials in many of the selections do remind the reader to keep reading around difficult words and phrases to "see if the meaning becomes clear" (China Men, p. 9), or to discuss the words or to consult a dictionary, but beyond that the ESL teacher must find ways to deal with the vocabulary level of these authentic selections. [-2-]

Maps and chronologies of important events are also a feature of many of the selections. The selections from Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya are supplemented with a map that highlights Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. The selections from The Joy Luck Club include a chronology of the history of modern China juxtaposed with a chronology of the major events in Jing-mei's family. The selections from The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love also contain a chronology of the story. The usefulness of such chronologies depends on how the selections are used. Some ESL teachers might want to have students write their own chronologies as a comprehension exercise. On the other hand, the chronologies provided with these selections might be useful to the student reading alone.

Finally, there are the questions that accompany the selections. Most of the books divide the questions into two general categories: questions about the reading and questions about the writing. The questions about the reading are open-ended and appropriate for discussion or writing in advanced classes. "What do you think were the most important things Oscar Hijuelos wanted to say in the selections?" is an example of such a question from the selections from The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (p. 52). The questions about the writing are less useful in that they attempt to prod the student to literary analysis--not often an objective in teaching ESL students. In the selections from China Men and The Woman Warrior, students are asked to select dialogue that makes the story "stronger and more alive" (p. 60) and to "pick out some dialogue that ... is strong, and explain how it helps the story" (p. 60). Such questions seem appropriate for use only with very advanced classes of ESL students.

In summation, the careful ESL teacher, willing to adopt a selective approach to the supplemental materials and to develop vocabulary and comprehension exercises as needed, would find these selections an engaging way to present authentic, multicultural literature to high intermediate or advanced ESL students. The books can provide complete reading experiences or they can be used to prepare students to read the complete, original works. In addition, these books would be well placed in a collection from which students can choose their own reading materials for extensive reading.

Elizabeth Mejia
Washington State University


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