Children’s literature expert Victoria Ford Smith has found an ideal environment in Storrs to teach her specialty.
“This is the first time I’m teaching children’s literature at an institution that has an investment in the genre,” says Smith, an assistant professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “I’m trying to design my classes to take advantage of these opportunities.”
The opportunities include visiting the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center; an annual children’s book fair that features contemporary authors and illustrators; and a School of Fine Arts that has majors in illustration and puppetry, as well as the newly expanded Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry in Storrs Center.
“We have a critical mass of people who are really invested in this subject,” Smith says. “We have so many events dealing with children’s books. I’m encouraging my students to attend them. It’s exciting.”
Children’s literature in a multimedia world
Teaching children’s literature to college students who have lived in a multimedia world for their entire lives presents both challenges and opportunities, says Smith, who also is a specialist in 19th and 20th-century British literature and culture. Children’s literature today is saturated with media, and many beloved children’s stories are best known through the lens of animation.
“When students know Peter Pan through Disney, they know a pretty scrubbed version,” Smith says. “The characters in J.M. Barrie’s play don’t know if Peter’s adventures are real. In the novelized version, he often went out alone and they never knew whether he had had an adventure because he might have forgotten about it, and they would go outside and find a body. This is a very jarring moment for them. I ask what does Walt Disney’s adaptation of Peter Pan say about how we view childhood now, as opposed to how it was understood in the early 20th century when Peter Pan was popular on the stage? You can’t fight Disney. You have to let him in.”
When students study classic books they have read, however, such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Smith says there is an emotional attachment to the books. She presents the material through a critical lens that can face some resistance, as contemporary cultural and historical views may change the way characters are depicted, such as the representation of Native Americans in Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“You have to work through that kind of resistance and say [a critical view] does matter, because these are books that are communicating our cultural values to very young readers and it’s good to know the assumptions that underpin them,” Smith says. “For the most part, students are excited to learn about the critical context of the books they think they know so well.”