ISU is trailblazer in children’s literature
The reading list looks deceptively simplistic for courses taught by Roberta Trites and Jan Susina in the Department of English. There are classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and of course Little Women.
Depending on the specific class, works such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Where The Wild Things Are or Charlotte’s Web are on the syllabus. Some semesters the assignments range from The Outsiders to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series.
Only the unknowing student, however, enrolls expecting a semester of nostalgic reading and an easy A. The classes are designed for advanced undergraduate or graduate students ready to be challenged by the department’s nationally recognized children’s and adolescent literature program.
Distinguished Professor Trites and Professor Susina are the most senior of four faculty teaching courses that range from the history of adolescent and children’s literature to contemporary lit for young people. Other classes focus on the cultural influence of the genre, with seminars using children’s literature as a lens for tackling critical theory or political issues.
Professor Karen Coats and Associate Professor Mary Moran complete the team that is advancing a niche of teaching and scholarly excellence many Redbirds don’t know exists on campus.
The program is no secret in academia or within national organizations for the profession, including the Children’s Literature Association. The founder of Illinois State’s program, the late Professor Taimi Ranta, helped launch the association in the 1970s. Among its past presidents are faculty members and doctoral graduates of the program that draws interest around the world.
Students from Japan, Cypress, France, Jordan and Thailand have enrolled. Fulbright Scholars and visiting faculty have traveled to campus from Belgium, Tanzania, Indonesia and Denmark.
International awareness is tied directly to the scholarly reputation of faculty, whose journal articles and books have received myriad national and global awards. The research has been translated into numerous languages ranging from Chinese and Korean to Russian and Danish.
Books include Looking Glasses and Neverlands: Lacan, Desire, and Subjectivity in Children’s Literature by Coats and Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels by Trites. Susina authored The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children’s Literature, and Moran is completing a book on fantasy and feminist ethics.
Children’s literature courses have been a part of teacher training since early in ISU’s history. A shift occurred in 1931, when the stories became the subject matter versus content for methods courses. While Ranta’s writings point to that change as the start of ISU’s children’s literature program, she is the one praised for maximizing the moment of transition.
“She was an early pioneer of the program,” said Trites, who joined the department in 1991 because of its reputation in children’s lit. Ranta developed several courses and worked to elevate the study of the genre nationally.
A Fulbright Scholar knighted in Finland, Ranta focused on keeping students reading. The memory of her reading lists that cut across social issues and diverse authors remains legendary in the department.
She willed thousands of titles to Milner Library upon her death—in addition to her lecture notes, syllabi and research documents. She is remembered on campus for the Taimi Ranta Children’s Literature Scholarship that was established upon her death in 1996 at age 79.
“She endowed one of the only children’s literature scholarships in the country,” Trites said, noting the department continues to name Ranta Scholars. The fund is just one of the firsts credited to ISU’s program. Another is the Lois Lenski Children’s Literature Lecture Series.
Started by Susina in 1994 to honor the prolific children’s author from the 1950s, the program was the first children’s literature speaker series hosted in an English department. The event ties to Lenski’s work held in Milner Library’s Special Collections and continues today with Milner’s support.
Susina came to ISU in 1992. He joined Ranta, Trites, Robin Carr and Anita Tarr ’76, M.A. ’81, D.A. ’92, as one of the department members specializing in children’s literature. The five fueled growth that was possible in part because several states—including Illinois—started requiring in the 1990s training in children’s literature for teacher licensure.
The fact English teacher education classes had shifted to the College of Arts and Sciences with its creation in the 1970s meant the burden to meet the new standards fell to the Department of English.
Even today the children’s literature program has elementary education majors as half the enrollment. They are primarily undergraduates equipped to teach in K–12 classrooms. At the graduate level, the program is preparing the next generation of faculty.
Doctoral graduates teach on campuses across the country and around the world. From Tribhuvan University in Nepal to San Diego State, the impact of ISU’s program remains so strong that alums as faculty are sending their own students to Illinois State for graduate work.
Among alumni are Mike Cadden, D.A. ’96, and Michelle Martin, Ph.D. ’97. Cadden is director of Childhood Studies in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Missouri Western State University. Martin is the Augusta Baker Chair in Childhood Literacy at the University of South Carolina.
“I arrived at ISU in 1992 and it was already an established program,” Cadden said. “I think it was the only program that advertised itself as offering coursework specifically in children’s literature. That was unique, and it still is.”
The extensive national networking established with Ranta—who Cadden recalls as his instructor—was another draw. “I felt I had an advantage in that I had already made contact with people through the program into the larger children’s literature community.”
Martin had an equally rewarding experience. She chose Illinois State’s program because it was one of the longest standing at the time she enrolled in 1993. “The fact Illinois State had 10 children’s literature courses was huge,” Martin said. “Most universities had one, if that.”
She appreciated becoming grounded in the history of children’s literature and gained a renewed teaching confidence. “Because Illinois State started out as a Normal school, you cannot get out of there without being able to teach well. Teaching is highly valued, and the mentoring I received has contributed to the success I’ve had in my career.”
There is no better endorsement. “We see our graduates leading in the field,” Susina said, “and it shows the success of our program.”
Indeed, Cadden and Martin are just two graduates teaching and publishing in children’s literature—which they note has only in recent years moved from being overlooked, misunderstood or dismissed as inferior by scholars.
That fact alone makes Ranta’s vision decades ago and the department’s steadfast stance that books for children constitute literature worthy of serious study a significant point of pride, not just for the English Department but all of Illinois State.
Hard lessons emerge from easy language
Sit through an ISU children’s literature class and it is quickly apparent that tough topics are tackled through the simplest of text.
English professors Jan Susina and Roberta Trites will in fact argue that a storyline written at an adolescent reading level or below is the perfect vehicle for driving home social and political concepts too often lost in the complicated language of a tome.
“If you aren’t struggling with the reading, you are more open to theoretical issues,” Trites explained. “We are teaching critical thinking skills and using children’s books to do it.”
The approach is much different from how readers interacted with children’s literature when it became popular during the Puritanical era. Books then delivered overt moral lessons adults deemed crucial for salvation of youth, who were expected to obey instead of question.
“Before Alice in Wonderland, children’s books were for teaching and preaching,” Susina said. He credits Lewis Carroll’s writing with moving the genre “from instruction to delight,” as his novel introduced the concept of children’s literature as entertainment.
There are still, however, many lessons to be learned from Carroll’s text and those that followed for the youngest of readers. For example, Susina notes that Alice in Wonderland is a window on social and cultural norms 150 years ago. Trites agrees, adding that the book presents the ideology of Victorian culture with particular emphasis on how girls were to behave.
It is but one example of subtle messages in children’s literature. As students learn to unearth this subtext, they see that children’s literature is a persuasive and manipulative genre ideal for opening discussions about constant and controversial issues.
“Good children’s literature helps us think seriously about the world and how to see it. Some of it is intense and deeply troubling,” Susina said. “Once you start reading, you find the literature is diverse and complicated. Even fairy tales are not happily ever after and as in life, the good guys don’t always win.”
One consistent theme found in the genre is the effort of children to navigate their world by making fun of adults. Classics such as The Outsiders force young readers to face difficult ethical situations. Other popular titles, such as The Chocolate Wars, deal directly with dark psychological issues. Regardless of the author or storyline, the professors agree that the books have a message far more complicated than the language used would suggest.
The simple storytelling is why the field of children’s and adolescent literature failed to gain the respect due until J.K. Rowling invented Harry Potter. An adolescent novel atop the New York Times bestseller’s list for months made it much easier for ISU’s faculty to explain the genre’s value and program’s purpose.
It is not to teach children how to read, but rather to focus on the meaning and message of the literature. It is an opportunity to realize how times have changed while dissecting persistent issues such as the racial divide, gender equality, social injustice, empowerment and the role of government.
The Hunger Games is a recent example of how these issues are inherent in adolescent literature yet today. Trites describes the series as a statement of mistrust in government and asks the question of why the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, fails in every female relationship. Susina finds the storyline equally intriguing for other reasons.
“The Hunger Games fascinates and deeply troubles me,” he said. “Teens are pitted to battle to the death, which suggests this generation of youth sees their future in a very negative way.”
Susina also notes that every teen reader no doubt envisions being the victor, which relates back to the fundamental value of children reading. They engage their imagination, improve their vocabulary, grasp an understanding of the wider world and gain fundamental knowledge needed to question.
“People undersell children’s literature. It is the first of what we read and has such an important influence,” Susina said. “The best of good children’s literature is that not simply read by a child, but enjoyed by adults as well.”
Did you know …
- Dorothy Gale, the protagonist of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) was named after Baum’s young niece, Dorothy Gage. She is buried in Bloomington’s Evergreen Cemetery.
- Eric Rohmann, the author and illustrator of the 2003 Caldecott-winning picture book My Friend Rabbit, is a 1985 graduate of ISU’s College of Fine Arts.
- Before Suzanne Collins authored the popular dystopian The Hunger Games series, she wrote scripts for Nickelodeon children’s television programs including Little Bear and Clifford’s Puppy Days.
- A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) was inspired by the author observing his young son, Christopher Robin Milne, playing with his stuffed animals. The original Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore are displayed at the Stephen Schwarzman building of the New York City Library.
- According to Jon Lindseth’s Alice in World of Wonderlands, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has been translated into 174 different languages, making it one of the most frequently translated books in the world. Ironically Carroll wrote his publisher, “Friends here seem to think that the book is untranslatable.”
- Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) was originally titled Where the Wild Horses Are, until the illustrator realized he had trouble drawing horses.
- Shel Silverstein, author of the poetry collections Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) and The Light in the Attic (1981), was also a cartoonist for Playboy and a songwriter. He wrote Johnny Cash’s hit song “A Boy Named Sue.”
- S.E. Hinton began writing The Outsiders (1967) when she was 15 and in high school. The novel was published when she was 17 and a first-year college student at the University of Tulsa.
Susan Marquardt Blystone can be reached at sjblyst@IllinoisState.edu.