In the years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks focused America’s attention toward the Middle East and southwest Asia, middle and high school educators have sought literature to help students understand the people and cultures of the region. Associate professor of English Megan Isaac offers help for those teachers in her second book, Suzanne Fisher Staples: The Setting is the Story, which focuses on one of America's award-winning young-adult fiction authors.
Staples’ books have become the “go-to” selections for teachers wanting to open their students up to the nations of southwest Asia.
In The Setting is the Story, Isaac spends a chapter on each of Staples’ seven novels, offering traditional literary analysis and insights about the historical and sociocultural references each novel includes. For example, three of Staples’ books – Shabanu (1989), Haveli (1993) and The House of Djinn (2008) – focus on a Muslim family on the Pakistan/India border.
“While the book doesn’t really focus on Islam, you need to understand details like what a prayer platform is,” Isaac says. “Teachers need that context, and I try to fill in the background knowledge so they don’t have to look for it themselves.”
The Setting is the Story sprung partly from Isaac’s personal familiarity with Staples, whom she met at a book festival in the early 1990s. The book came together over five years, and Isaac’s research included several interviews with Staples and significant research into the novels’ cultural references, which are set in the United States, India and Afghanistan.
Part of the reason why these novels are so highly regarded, Isaac says, is because of Staples’ personal experience living and working in the region. In the 1970s and 80s, Staples served in United Press International’s South Asia Bureau and consulted for the United States Agency for International Development in Pakistan.
Staples also speaks several of the region’s native languages.
“She’s not coming to the area as someone who’s trying to pick up on a current fad,” Isaac says. “She has a depth of knowledge that is less typical of an author from the U.S. writing about a distinctly non-Western set of cultures.”
One of Staples’ most significant contributions to young adult literature might be the way her novels encourage adolescent readers to compare foreign cultures in a constructive manner.
“Understanding the similarities as much as the differences among cultures is what’s most important,” Isaac says. “It’s always easier to see the differences rather than the similarities, and it’s helpful to highlight those similarities when readers are reading outside their own cultural framework.”
Similarly, Isaac says, her analysis of Staples’ novels fills an important gap in the body of research about children’s and young-adult literature.
“The field tends to be very anglocentric, focusing mostly on U.S., British, Canadian and Australian books,” she says. “We aren’t too good at thinking globally with children’s literature.”
Isaac has a penchant for thinking – and teaching – out of the norms of the field, says Kim Pyne, assistant professor of English and director of Elon’s English teacher licensure program.
“The field of literacy education has a number of books targeted toward practitioners,” she says. “Where Megan is a little bit different is, because she’s both a savvy practitioner and a scholar, she can bring all of the tools of the English discipline, the scholarship and the theory of literature, to bear as well as giving educators practical advice.”
Isaac’s interest in children’s and young adult literature began mostly as a necessity, she says. After completing her bachelor’s degree at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and her master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of California at Los Angeles, she landed at Youngstown State University where there was a need for teachers in the genre.
“It’s where the persistent lifelong readers develop an interest, when they’re a child or a young adult,” Isaac says. “They may move out of those genres, but I think that’s where we make readers – before they become adults, not after.”
Isaac’s first book, Heirs to Shakespeare: Reinventing the Bard in Young Adult Literature, was published in 2000.