Why Study Diverse Books?

Within the field of children’s and young adult literature, publishers, authors, and educators at all levels have made a commitment to increasing awareness of and access to texts that invite a variety of narratives into the conversation. This is evidenced readily by the quickly growing We Need Diverse Books campaign, a grassroots effort that “advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people” (http://weneeddiversebooks.org/.  As this movement gains momentum, the field is shifting in response—in ways that are simultaneously exciting, complicated, challenging, and hopeful. This momentum, coupled with the research questions that arise from the changing landscape of multicultural children’s and young adult literature, make this an ideal time to think collaboratively about our role in this work.

Literature for Young People at UConn — history and commitments

The University of Connecticut spearheaded the academic study of texts for young people. In the early 1970s, Francelia Butler was the first professor in the United States to teach children’s literature within an English department, an effort that launched the field of children’s and young adult literature within the humanities. She helped develop the Children’s Literature Association, create the field’s first academic journal, and found the Modern Language Association Division on Children’s Literature. To date, the plenary talk at the Children’s Literature Association Conference is named in Francelia Butler’s honor.

UConn has developed significant curricular and programmatic efforts on behalf of children’s and young adult literature; we host the annual Connecticut Children’s Book Fair, offer a speaker series that has included landmark writers like M.T. Anderson and Marilyn Nelson, adjudicate the Aetna Prize in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults, offer courses at Storrs and Hartford on creative writing for an audience of young people, and have housed premier academic journals in Education and English, such as The ALAN Review and the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. Through the School of Fine Arts (SFA), our university also has particular strengths in puppetry and illustration, and faculty members have worked collaboratively to bring award-winning writer/illustrators like Brian Selznick, who is also a puppeteer, to campus, and to offer gratis “master classes” for students in SFA and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with writers and illustrators like Javaka Steptoe and Chris Raschka.

Scholars at UConn and beyond benefit from the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection (NCLC), an archive of historical and contemporary material related to children’s literature and culture, from the nineteenth century to the present, housed in the Dodd Center. The strengths of this collection are wide-ranging, including manuscripts, author correspondence, rare and first editions, illustrations, and materials relating to history of children’s literature at the university. Scholars and students working with our center would be particularly interested in those elements of the NCLC that preserve the work of authors and illustrators of color as well as materials that speak to the sometimes-troubled history of children’s literature that represents children of color and their experiences. For example, the NCLC contains the papers of Leonard Everett Fisher, winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Children’’s Literature, and Ed Young, the Asian American author and illustrator who won the 1990 Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po. We anticipate that the NCLC will enrich both the teaching and the research of faculty, students, and visiting scholars affiliated with the center.

Given the already well-established commitment to children’s and young adult literature at UConn, we are well-poised to address the complicated realities of changing demographics and the need for sustained, real exploration of multicultural literature for young people.