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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

On children's literature and academic administration
October 5, 2009 - 9:36pm

I've been going to a lot more meetings this year than I've done in years past — it's a mark of my current position chairing our new First Year Seminar program. There are, it seems, endless meetings on the way to establishing a new academic program: I go from committee meeting to faculty meeting to student interview and back again, usually carrying not only the materials I need to consult in the meeting but also the book I'm about to teach — or have just taught.

It makes for some interesting pairings. I'm not sure anyone else has ever shown up for a meeting with the provost carrying a copy of Where the Wild Things Are, for example. The telltale cover announces the book to anyone who's had, or been, a child in the last forty-plus years, but no one said anything until I threatened to tame them "with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once." Then, suddenly, the room was alive with roaring and gnashing and happy tales of reading aloud — though, sadly, no wild rumpus.

Another time I brought a copy of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to a meeting of department chairs and program coordinators. I can think of no better handbook, actually, for negotiating the occasional absurdities of academic administration, than Carroll's masterpiece. At least no one interrupted the meeting to cry "off with their heads!" Too often at meetings like this we sit sadly around the table like Alice at the tea party, wishing for a clean plate and a cup of tea and listening to someone else bemoan the fact that even "the best butter" can't keep the clocks running on time. On my way out of most meetings, of course, I feel like Alice and the Red Queen at the beginning of Through the Looking Glass, doing "all the running [I] can do, to keep in the same place." I confess to a soft spot for the Red Queen — she may look like a termagant, but I suspect she's just a working mother, trying to keep up.

On the children's lit listserv I frequent, a discussion thread pops up fairly often lamenting the low status of children's literature studies, the condescension some children's literature scholars feel from their more "serious" colleagues, the easy dismissal of "kiddie lit" by students and colleagues alike. I've certainly felt that condescension on occasion. More often, though, I feel a twinge of envy in my colleagues' comments on the books I carry. They look like fun, I know — and they are. But they're not only fun: they are foundational texts, the books that taught many of us to love reading, that gave us the skills we use every day. The themes of children's literature: rebellion and obedience, growth and change, dreams and imagination, continue to inform me, and — it seems — many of my colleagues as well. Last week it was Charlotte's Web, with its potent reminder of the scarcity of good friends who are also good writers; this week David Almond's more recent novel, Skellig, about a boy who discovers a miraculous, extraordinary creature living in an abandoned garage. Like Charlotte's Web, Skellig challenges its readers to see the ordinary miracles around them — the spider's web, the fledgling blackbirds, the hollow bones of birds and the reassuring solidity of pigs. Most children's literature is hopeful, and Skellig is no exception: it offers a welcome break from the Eeyore-like pessimism of many academic meetings. As we head into the busiest time of the semester, the headlong rush from midterms to finals, I'll carry Skellig with me along with the Red Queen, as I run yet another lap just to stay in place.


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