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Kansas State University

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Program delves into magic of children's literature


For Philip Nel, director of K-State's program in children's literature, kids and adults are not all that different when it comes to books.

Philip Nel, Bill North and Stephen Johnson"Children may know fewer words than adults," he said, "but literature for children is as rich and complex as literature for adults."

And though their subjects and treatments may be far apart, "books for children and books for adults tackle some of the same basic themes," said Nel, an associate professor of English. "Love, loss, belonging, betrayal, adventure, identity and politics, to name a few."

That range of endeavor helps account for the growth in K-State's master's degree track for children's literature, which began with five English department graduate students in fall 2006. The following fall, 13 master's candidates chose the track, according to Karin Westman, department head.

"Students include current and former kindergarten-through-12th-grade teachers, as well as graduate students who plan to pursue a master's in library science or a Ph.D. after completing their master of arts in English," Westman said.

The children's literature program is in keeping with Jon Wefald's directive that departments build on their strengths.

"K-State is the first Big 12 university, and the first in our region, to offer a graduate concentration in children's literature," Westman said. "We decided to create the track to meet this regional need and because we had a concentration of faculty expertise in the area."

The track also met student demand for additional graduate courses in children's literature.

Six other U.S. universities offer a master's in English with a concentration on children's literature, according to Nel. The first was Simmons College in Boston, which in 1977 started its Center for the Study of Children's Literature.

At K-State, the program has given rise to the Children's and Adolescent Literature Community, a student group that organized a conference on campus in April. Eighty people attended to hear keynote speaker Stephen Johnson, the illustrator and author of "Alphabet City" and "City by Numbers."

The conference looked at children's books from the viewpoints of educators, librarians and literature students.
"We're happy for any opportunity where we can share with others a love of literature," said Westman, one of the group's advisers.

"And we value the contribution that the Children's and Adolescent Literature Community has made to the English department and the K-State community through its book talks and events."

Events have included the July 31 public discussion of the "Twilight" series by Stephenie Meyer, and the Hallows and Horcruxes Ball in March, "a wizard rock concert for literacy," which benefited the nonprofit organization First Book.

In the future, look for the department to bring in noted scholars and authors to talk with students and other K-Staters, Westman said. "For instance, in October, we will be hosting Leonard Marcus, a biographer of children's authors and a historian of children's book publishing," she said.

Looking farther ahead, Westman mentioned the likelihood of playing host to the annual conference of the International Wizard of Oz Club in October 2009. That gathering would coincide with Wamego's OztoberFest and would offer panels for scholars, teachers and community members.

Nel, noted for his expertise in the works of Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling, says that the vantage point of an adult gives valuable insights into books intended for children.

"One of the pleasures of reading is interpretation, thinking about how and why books mean what they do," he said. "And our interpretations change over time. Your experience of a book at 8 may differ from your experience of the same book at 18 or at 38."

Such possibilities keep students and professors alike revisiting old standbys even as they search for the next generation's beloved classics.


Photo: Philip Nel (left) and Bill North, senior curator at the Beach Museum, worked with illustrator and author Stephen Johnson (right) on an exhibition and conference on children’s literature in April.