Roberta Trites has a message.

“Girls, boys and non-binary children matter equally.”

Trites is a distinguished professor at Illinois State and is currently serving as an interim department chair in the College of Business. However, most of her time at ISU has been spent in the department of English where she helped build one of the strongest children’s literature programs in the country.

Outstanding Research Leads to Prestigious Award

Trites’ research examines female empowerment in children’s literature and includes six published books as well countless scholarly articles, essays, and editorials. Her work has been translated into multiple languages and is known by scholars from around the world, but her most recent recognition might be the most surreal. She’s the recipient of the 16th International Brothers Grimm Award, an honor given biannually to one global scholar who contributes outstanding research to children’s literature.

Fitting to her focus on female empowerment, Trites is the first American woman to receive the award since it was established in 1987.

“Seeing my name linked with other scholars of such high caliber is almost unbelievable,” she said. “These are people I’ve learned from and who have been like mentors to me. This is truly a great honor.”

“Seeing my name linked with other scholars of such high caliber is almost unbelievable,” she said. “These are people I’ve learned from and who have been like mentors to me. This is truly a great honor.”

Trites is not aware who nominated her for the award, but explains that all nominees are sent to a panel of 400 reviewers around the world. The reviewers vote and present a shortened list to a committee of former award recipients, who then select the finalist.

As the recipient, Trites will give a presentation and be recognized on October 1, 2017 in Osaka, Japan. Sticking true to her message, Trites plans to present a portion of her latest book, Twenty-First Century Feminism in Children’s Literature, which examines how female empowerment is present in modern literature for children.

Promoting Female Community

Ethics of care is one of the topics Trites explores in her new book and she’s likely to present on it in Osaka. “This argues that the most important thing we can do is care for one another ethically,” she explains. “It’s not a male-female thing, but more of a feminist gesture. How can anyone experience equality if there’s not a network of people caring for them ethically? It’s a social responsibility to be ethically caring.”

Equality is a common theme throughout Trites’ work. In her first book, Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels (1997), Trites emphasizes that feminism is not about hating men, but more so empowering girls, giving them a voice and female community. Like many of her other publications, the book was translated into different languages, including Japanese. Several years ago, she was asked to keynote and speak about the book at an event in Kyoto, Japan, and was particularly touched by a reporter who approached her after the address.

“She had tears in her eyes and said, ‘Your book is the first book that taught me I can be a feminist, remain positive, and still love men.’ This moment moved me. Realizing someone has read your work and had their life changed by it is most gratifying.”

Recognizing Discrepancies and Connecting with Literature

Trites can pinpoint an exact moment in life from which her message of equality is derived. At seven years old, she and her twin brother received birthday cards in the mail. “His was addressed as mister and mine was miss. It sparked a conversation with my mother about name prefixes. She explained to me that when I get married, I’ll become misses and get to change my last name. I didn’t understand why I had to change my name and my brother got to keep his.”

From that moment on, Trites started paying attention to how she was treated differently than her twin brother, which later helped her recognize discrepancies as she got older.

Trites’ interest in children’s literature also stems from an early age. “I was a sickly child so I spent a lot of time in bed reading,” she said. “In second grade I came down with pneumonia and was looking for something new to read. My grandpa went to a bookseller and ended up bringing home Little Women and I fell in love with it.”

One reason Trites felt a connection with Little Women was due in part to its family structure. Like the book, Trites was one of four children and also constantly battling illness, similar to the character Beth.

“After reading Little Women, I suppose you could say I never really outgrew children’s or even adolescent literature.”

Teach Through Stories

Bringing equality and children’s literature together, Trites has found and continues progress for a unique niche in research that has made her a well-respected, global scholar. Receiving high accolades such as the prestigious International Brothers Grimm Award is another strong indicator that Trites’ work continues to be relevant and important.

“Children are the most exploited group of people on the planet,” she said. “It’s the only marginalized group we have all belonged to yet we ignore the vulnerability and marginalization experienced during childhood. We must pay attention to what we teach children through the stories we tell them.”