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Eastern Michigan University Library
Helbig Collection of Literature for Children and Young People
Let Them Read Books!
-- by Alethea Helbig. A Talk at the Reception Held by the Friends of the
EMU Library Dedicating the "Helbig Collection of Literature for Children
and Young People" on April 10, 2005
stand before you today feeling very honored and
surrounded by your affection. Both are wonderful
feelings. I'm honored and more than a little overwhelmed
because you have chosen to single out this collection-this
highly eclectic set of books for the very young,
for teens and older, new books and not so new, fiction
and nonfiction, hardcovers and paperbacks, highly
illustrated and unillustrated, TV spinoffs, series
stuff-a motley collection of books.
I've just managed to acquire too many books for the space that I have. My three great granddaughters (better known as the little girls) are fond of saying that great grandma has a library in every room, which is not quite the case. There are a couple of rooms that only have a few books or mislaid journals. And just this last Christmas, one of my granddaughters, who lives in another state and hasn't visited me in a while and who's all grown up now and in graduate school, teased me about whether I'm still storing books in the bathtub. This in return for my teasing her because she is also a bookaholic and has stacks and stacks of them in the corner of her bedroom, tall stacks, which make it impossible for her to find any one book without toppling the whole bunch. At least when the books are stored in the bathtub, with the spines up, one can easily find what one is looking for. My family likes books. But there comes a point when one needs to move them out, and what better place than Halle Library where others can use and enjoy them.
The books have come from a variety of sources, purchase,
gifts and castoffs from friends and relatives, books
I've rescued, and many generously sent by publishers
for various projects I've worked on. And most of
these projects, for teaching, publication, presentation,
or all of the above, arose out of the program in
literature for children and young people that we
have developed and offered here at Eastern for years
now, a very special set of courses, the like of
which, I think it is still safe to say, exists nowhere
else in academe. The program arose because of a
felicitous confluence of factors in the late sixties
and came to fruition in the seventies and eighties.
School populations burgeoned, the boomer kids and
their kids, and EMU, like other universities, was
growing and hiring.
Gradually, courses were developed, to form eventually an English minor with a specialty in children's literature, an interdepartmental major with Speech and Dramatic Arts, and an English master's with a specialty in literature for children and young people, the first program of its size and stature. As far as I know, it is still recognized as a leader and one of the best. Other people joined us and contributed to developing the program, Atelia Clarkson, whose particular interest was folktales and folklore, and Alleen Pace Nilsen, who left here to go to Iowa and then to Arizona State, where she subsequently collaborated with Ken Donelson on books about adolescent literature and became a leader in the National Council of Teachers of English and generally in literature for young adults. Meredith Klaus and Sheila Most came on board, and later Harry Eiss, whose specialty has been adolescent books, and later still Ian Wojick-Andrews. Rita Freidman taught on the program, too, as well as several others, including Margaret Best, who still has a very strong interest in and broad knowledge of the discipline. And others have joined the movement and contributed strongly. This was never a one or two person effort, and has always been the better for that.
Other developments helped the cause along, too, the growth in ethnic studies and women's studies, and since the economy was good, the explosion of publishing for children and young people. Literally dozens and dozens of books resulted, some of them forgettable, some controversial, many exciting and influential. There were new voices in the field, new topics to be explored, subgenres to be expanded, and illustrations like never before. Publishers and writers also discovered the adolescent, as did record and tape companies, all of whom realized that this large age group, who worked at places like McDonald's, had money to spend. Good times were upon us, and good times meant the public and the libraries would buy.
The New Realism became the vogue. Greatly diminished
was the wholesome, respectful, and sometimes didactic
tone that had marked books for children for decades,
to be replaced by the likes of the uninhibited Harriet
the Spy, for whom nothing was sacred-adults had
huge warts--, and Max of Where the Wild Things Are,
who let it all hang out with feelings that all kids
experience but weren't supposed to express. These
two were, of course, controversial, but also became
milestones. They set a new path, and Wild Things
is widely regarded as among the best picture-story
books, not just of its time, but of all time, and
not just here but around the world, a real trendsetter
and a topnotch read to boot, not to mention the
perfectly suited illustrations.
Professional organizations were another strong influence
on the growth of literature for children and the
young and upon those of us in the discipline. They
provided outlets for sharing ideas through conference
presentations and opportunities for publishing.
Hardly any such outlets existed when we began. The
Modern Language Association held sessions, and the
regional LAs did likewise. Literature for young
people in the Midwest MLA, which we supported in
particular, was in turn supported by the women's
studies people-women and children together, right?
We helped one another, and we started a literature
for children and young people section in MMLA. The
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) began
to pay more attention to the literature in its own
right, and the Children's Literature Assembly of
NCTE was organized. An earlier and more vibrant
group within NCTE was ALAN, the Assembly on Literature
for the Adolescent of NCTE, still a strong voice.
It was the outgrowth of the efforts of big movers
in the field, Marguerite Archer, Jerry Weiss, Ted
Hipple, Guy Ellis, and Charlie Reed, with all of
whom I had the privilege of working. Michigan professional
groups like the Michigan Academy, Michigan Council
of Teachers of English, for which I wrote a column
for several years, Michigan College English Association,
Michigan Reading Association, the state counterpart
of the International Reading Association, a strong
force, and the various folklore and pop culture
groups, both state and national, also responded
with sections and opportunities to present.
Since most of these organizations I've named had journals or newsletters, or initiated them, there began to be opportunities for publishing that were not available earlier, and hence other avenues for exchanging ideas and ways of looking at books for the young. And publishers began putting out books of criticism.
Selection lists proliferated, too. The John Newbery Award (1922) and the Randolph Caldecott Award (1938), of course had already stimulated similar awards and citations in other organizations and countries, in addition to the American Library Association, long an active and positive voice. We at EMU were in on one that has proved influential; you can see it cited on book jackets: the Phoenix Award of The Children's Literature Association. At a ChLA Conference the year I was past president and still on the board, some of us were lingering over lunch or dinner and chatting about what else ChLA might do to advance the cause. ChLA was giving annual awards for critical books and articles and also scholarships. Somebody mused about whether we might do something that might more immediately affect young readers. Somebody else said, "Well, what about an award for a book written for children and young people?" We talked about that, batted the idea around, and agreed that we should give an award and that it had to be a different award. We decided to spotlight a book that had not previously won a major award but that had stood the test of time, acknowledging that not all good books win awards upon publication, witness Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little. The ChLA board endorsed the idea, and the Phoenix Award was born. The Phoenix would be given to a book originally published in English twenty years earlier that had not won a major award or citation. The first Phoenix committee consisted of Agnes Perkins of EMU, Rebecca Lukens of Miami University-Ohio, Sarah Smedman, at that time of the Univ. of North Carolina-Charlotte, Mary Ake, a librarian at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Elementary School in the Denver area-it was Mary's idea to call it the Phoenix-and I served as chair, a post I was privileged to hold for 15 years, a real honor. The first Phoenix went to Rosemary Sutcliff's The Mark of the Horse Lord and was awarded at the conference Marcia Shafer chaired at the U. of M. in 1985.
Now, on to the books themselves. On February 1 of this year, a short article appeared on the editorial page of the Ann Arbor News, entitled, "Why Won't Johnny Read? Maybe Boring Books Are Turning Him Off." The article was first published in The Washington Post, written by Mark Bauerlein, Director of Research at the National Endowment for the Arts, and Sandra Slotsky, a research scholar at Northeastern University and member of the steering committee for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The article summarizes three recent studies, one by the National Endowment for the Arts, another by the U.S. Department of Education, and the third by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that indicate that there has been a serious decline in readership generally, that the gender gap in reading among young readers has widened considerably in about the last ten years, that girls read more than boys, and that the gap in reading performance between girls and boys has increased greatly, almost double with girls now well ahead of boys.
The writers conclude that the K-12 curriculum may be at fault. They state, "It has long been known that there are strong differences between boys and girls in their literary preferences both boys and girls are unlikely to choose books based on an 'issues' approach children are not interested in reading about ways to reform society-or themselves boys prefer adventure tales, war, sports, and historical nonfiction, while girls prefer stories about personal relationships and fantasy." They go on to point out that school texts and literature "do not reflect the dispositions of male students," and that "Publishers seem to be more interested in avoiding 'masculine perspectives' or 'stereotypes' than in getting boys to like what they are assigned to read." In other words, the curricular material seems aimed toward girls. In addition, with respect to elementary children and teens, it strikes me, based on observation, that these days much of kids' time is devoted to homework and organized activities, both of which seem to have proliferated. At least it seems so with my neighbors' children and my great grandchildren. There are undoubtedly other factors, indeed many factors, that determine the extent to which kids read or that contribute to nonreading. We must be very, very wary of oversimplifying.
Looking now to the content, that is, the subject
matter, of recent books. I turn to the last two
critical references that Agnes Perkins and I have
published: Dictionary of American Children's Fiction,
1995-1999: Books of Recognized Merit (Greenwood,
2002) and Dictionary of American Young Adult Fiction,
1997-2001: Books of Recognized Merit (Greenwood,
2004). The first reference deals with 245 books
by 192 writers represented on 18 award and citation
lists, among them the Newbery, Boston Globe-Horn
Book, Fanfare, Phoenix, and Poe lists, and the ALA
list for children. The other reference, that for
young adults, treats 290 books by 242 writers drawn
from the Alex, ALA/YA, Booklist, New York Public
Library, and Printz lists. I must point out that
these references deal only with American books and
only with fiction.
While many novels are adventurous, fast-paced, and action-filled, few are of the good old-fashioned realistic adventure or survival-story categories, types that have always appealed to boys. A good number of stories take place in school, and about 22 percent concern minorities. Mysteries are among the best written, considered both from the standpoint of technique and of sheer entertainment value. Many books tackle topics once considered taboo for young readers, like assisted suicide, abuse of handicapped people, rape, AIDS, live-in boyfriends, single-parent families, domestic abuse, deterioration into mental illness, teen pregnancy, and malfunctioning social services agencies. And far too many seem to be almost carbon copies of already published books on the topics.
Stylistically, the "I" person dominates,
to such an extent that it has almost become a convention
and tiresome because of excessive use. It can also
be demanding on the reader, undoubtedly too much
so for some young readers. Also third person is
often so limited as to seem like first person. More
than half the books have female protagonists, not
a new trend but perhaps unfortunate since, while
girls will read about boys, boys don't like to read
about girls, and trash talk, sex scenes, frank mention
of birth control, erotic language, and put-down
one-liners occur. There are many conventions from
movies and TV. Numerous departures from linear narrative
exist, like letters, journals, emails, newspaper
reports, stream of consciousness, flashbacks, mixtures
of approaches--a wide variety--, and there are many
blends of subgenres, like combinations of family
and sports stories. This all, now, in books intended
for middle grades, sometimes lower, and very early
high school, or what once was called junior high.
While many books are to be applauded for innovative approaches to narrative structure, again first person predominates, in fully one-half, and many of them with uninteresting narrators. Too many, in particular the adult novels, ramble on (they needed better editing), and far too many for both age ranges plow old ground. So there seems to be a wide variety of books for both girls and boys to choose from, and apparently for curricula to be based upon, though few are really top notch.
I'm reminded of an NCTE conference session about 20 years ago, in which a panel of high school juniors and seniors, pretty bright kids as I recall, discussed the adolescent books they were being assigned to study and discuss in class. To a person, they concluded that the material was not substantial or interesting enough for such use. Such use of class time should not occur, they felt. Whereupon, Richard Peck, the highly regarded writer of many books for young adults who won the 2000 Newbery Medal for A Year Down Yonder, said that he never intended his books to be so used. The implication was that he thought his counterparts didn't either. So what does this say about choosing such books for curriculum? Such use may be defeating the purpose, if the studies mean anything.
While my sense is that publishers are cutting back on quantity now, since budgets have tightened, there is still a wealth of books to choose from. Many are worthy, some wanting; there are paperbacks, hardcovers, reissues of worthy and not so worthy books, neo Nancy Drews and neo Hardy Boys among other neo books, thrillers and soupy ones, Dora the Explorer, Bob the Builder, and, yes, Sponge Bob Square Pants galore, and many other TV spinoffs, among them the Buffy and Angel books. In most instances, I feel when I'm reading that I've read this book before, and I probably have in some other incarnation of the book. Many are simply formula books, and I wish writers would come up with some new ideas. It is important, however, to remember that the kids don't know that the books are the same old stuff. The kids are always new. The challenge remains somehow to bridge the disconnect between audience and material. But we need to be realistic. There are undoubtedly many factors besides substance and style that may entice readers or turn readers into non-readers.
We read, those of us who are here. What made us into readers? Why is my ten-year-old great granddaughter a voracious reader and her younger sister a reluctant one? The ten-year-old immersed herself in the first Harry Potter book when she was in first grade, a mite of a child toting around a huge book that seemed almost as big as she. She'll tackle any book. Why when I was a kid did I argue with my father over who had dibs on the books just brought home? My son read more books than any other kid in his elementary school until he was in fourth or fifth grade, when somehow he discovered that boys don't read, or aren't supposed to read as much as he had been reading. It's a cultural thing, too. As I said earlier, there are many factors that may have a bearing on whether kids read or don't read. We need to make books available, do our best as models, and hope for the best. But books are an important way for us to understand the people around us, the world around us, and ourselves better, to paraphrase Richard Hogarth. Reading is certainly one way to help people learn to think, and we sorely need a thinking populace. We sorely need a thinking electorate. Maybe reading angels will intercede.
I want to conclude with a story, a true one, about an event that occurred when I was in my last year of undergraduate work in Classical Studies, Latin and Greek at the University of Michigan, and, of course, I thought I knew everything. One of my last classes was with a distinguished Classics scholar, Fred Dunham, who was planning to retire that year. We asked him what he was going to do when he was no longer teaching, and he gave the usual responses-read, spend more time with his friends and family, especially his grandchildren, travel, and finish some projects he had going. Then, he said, somewhat wistfully, that what he most wanted to do was write a children's book. We gasped, this distinguished scholar, a children's book! Oh, come on! Then he said something that astonished us even more, that he thought he probably never would, because he said it's just too hard to write write, the really good ones, are few and far between, as are all really good books. But while the really good ones are rare, many worthwhile books are out there waiting for readers, waiting to be enjoyed, savored, benefited from. While some of us decry the same old stuff, the kids are always new, and they can find a great deal of pleasure and reward in what's there waiting for them.
I thank you all for this occasion. I thank the newly formed Friends of the Halle Library, and I thank in particular my many friends here at Halle, Rachel Cheng, Mary Murphy, Margaret Best, Julia Nims, Brian Steimel, Rosina Tammany, Rhonda Fowler, Rita Bullard, Keith Stanger, Kevin Davison, Kirstan Simonds, all of you, whether named here or not.
You have helped me so much through the years and have done so much to make possible what I hope have been worthwhile and profitable years at EMU. I am truly grateful to you.