Retired Children’s Lit Profs Just Wanna Have Fun
Two Interviews with Jerry Griswold (from The Unjournal)
The Unjournal is excited to bring you not one, but two enthralling interviews with the esteemed Dr. Jerry Griswold. The first was conducted by the Unjournal editors (a preview of which you glimpsed and hopefully enjoyed earlier this summer). The second comes from Dr. Julie Anne Stevens of St. Patricks College, Dublin City University, who has kindly granted us permission to publish and share her interview with Dr. Griswold on the nature and future of children’s literary criticism. Dr. Griswold’s colorful perspectives on a variety of topics expressed in both interviews demonstrates his depth of knowledge and experience and confirms that retired children’s lit scholars do have the most fun.
A Very San Diego Interview with Jerry Griswold
Jill Coste, Alya Hameed, Alixandria Lombardo, and Kelsey Wadman
Date Conducted: April 25, 2013
About the Authors: Jill Coste, Alya Hameed, Alixandria Lombardo, and Kelsey Wadman had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Griswold earlier this year for a conversation culminating in this interview. Coste is a recent graduate of San Diego State University, while Hameed, Lombardo, and Wadman are currently all graduate students at San Diego State University and co-founders of The Unjournal of Children’s Literature.
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Dr. Jerry Griswold may have retired from his position as Director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at San Diego State University, but he has not retired from the field of children’s literature scholarship. Already in 2013, he was the keynote speaker at the ninth annual The Child and the Book Conference, hosted by the University of Padua in March; he delivered the Francelia Butler Lecture at the Children’s Literature Association Conference in June; and his dance card is continually filled with future engagements. Considering Dr. Griswold has resolved not to do anything he does not want to do now that he is retired, those of us at Unjournal were touched that he enthusiastically participated in an interview for our inaugural issue. We appreciated his thoughtful reflections on a long, important, and prestigious career in the academic field of children’s literature and we think that, like us, you too will be inspired and enlightened by Dr. Griswold’s insight, humor, and sustained passion for children’s literature.
Dr. Griswold’s has been and continues to be an important voice in the field of children’s literature. He has written countless articles and book reviews for The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, The Lion and the Unicorn, and other esteemed publications. Additionally, he is the author of several books,notably Audacious Kids: Coming of Age in America’s Classic Children’s Books, the Children’s Literature Association’s 1995 Outstanding Book of the Year. While you can find more comprehensive details of Dr. Griswold’s contributions by visiting his website or typing his name into Google, what we hope to show in our interview is just how personable, charming, and boisterously verbose he is in person. As his long-term colleague and friend, Dr. Alida Allison, declares, “Jerry Griswold has the Irish gifts: humor, smarts, eloquence, literary fluency, good friendships. Good taste in beer, too. Whether in York, Calgary, Biloxi, or San Diego, it’s been a pleasure to bond with Jerry these many years.“
How did you become interested in the academic treatment of children’s literature?
My good fortune was to study at the University of Connecticut under Francelia Butler, who was one of the founders of the study of children’s literature in English departments. The field was brand new and she was an exceptionally dynamic woman. Francelia offered this huge children’s lit class every semester. It was immensely popular, 300 or more students enrolled, and I was her graduate assistant one year along with Elaine Scarry, who’s now a famous, famous literary critic and has a chair in Aesthetics at Harvard. Through Francelia, I was able to meet Margaret Hamilton (who famously portrayed the Wicked Witch of the West), Maurice Sendak, Big Bird, James Marshall, and other notables. Probably the most interesting person I met was Pamela Travers, who wrote the Mary Poppins books and whom I later interviewed for The Paris Review. At the time, the academic interest in children’s lit was just starting to take off, so just by being in the field, I was a big fish in a small pond.
What have you enjoyed most about your newish positions as professor emeritus and children’s literature scholar at-large?
Travel. I’ve reached this point of my life now where people invite me to speak about what I love. I just got back from two weeks in Italy and in October I was in Florida. I’ve recently been to Ireland. Upcoming is Biloxi, and then Philadelphia in the Fall. It’s exhilarating to go to these different places and to talk with people about children’s literature. I met with graduate students at the University of Florida and at the University of Padua, and they’re all really enthusiastic about the field and want to know everything they can. There are not many people out there in the real world that you can sit down with and discuss Peter Rabbit critically.
You can’t just walk up to strangers and do that — they look at you strangely! When you’re in this coterie of people who like and study this kind of literature, it feels very comfortable and kind of exciting… Also through my travels, I discovered this new Italian illustrator. Her name is Nicoletta Ceccoli and while she is already big in Europe, her work is just starting to make an appearance here. Her style of illustration is provocative and ethereal. So, my position allows me to feel authorized to call her up, or send her an email, make a meeting, and then go interview her, which is an amazing opportunity… I mean, it’s a pretty good life. Sometimes, I envy my own life, I feel so lucky.
What did you consider was the best part of your work before you retired?
Of course, teaching has always been a favorite aspect of the profession… you know that you’re a good teacher when you leave the classroom and you have more energy than when you entered. The connections and the discussions that bring people together, all that sort of stuff is exhilarating when it occurs in your classroom. As a scholar, when you’re doing that kind of thing in your writing, it has that same sort of exhilaration — when things are really going well, things are clicking, and you feel energized by and connected to your work.
As an early scholar of the genre, did you anticipate that your study of children’s lit would lead to such a prolific and satisfying career?
I didn’t really have any idea. It also depends on when I would have anticipated this outcome. Would it have been when I just got my PhD and I was unemployed for a year, and I was living with my family on a diet of rice and beans and not knowing if I would get a job offer? I certainly didn’t expect then that it would end up where the Italians are paying for me to fly over and talk about children’s books, of all things. So, no, I did not anticipate this future then.
But the field was really new then. Francelia — who was, at that point, probably 30 years older than me — was the first generation. I suppose I’m the second generation. Then there is a third generation of scholars like my SDSU compadrees June Cummins and Joseph Thomas Jr. I guess Philip Serrato would probably be 3.5. In the beginning, things were so new, there were probably only a dozen or so of us graduate students doing this kind of work. There were a lot of battles to fight for the legitimacy of the field and so forth. Anyway, I saw what my professors’ lives were like and I thought, “Hmm, that would be pretty good.” Walking around with like a sports coat, smoking a pipe, wearing a beret — I thought, “I’d like to do that.” Of course, it didn’t work out like that; I didn’t care for sherry.
As I’m sure you know, E.L. Konigsburg (February 10, 1930 — April 19, 2013) passed away recently. What are your thoughts on her generation of writers and the current trends in children’s fiction?
I love her book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967). It has inspired so many other books, even contemporary books. And I know people love that book. I remember I was on the radio doing a couple of things on KPBS. People call in and talk about, you know, “Oh, my favorite book was Elmer the Lackadaisical Guy by so and so,” and “Do you know that?” and often I’ll say that no, I don’t know it, but you can ask, “What did you like about it?” And it’s great to hear people’s enthusiasm about children’s books. I mean there are so many books, and people have no idea how wide this field is.
Another author in the same vein of Konigsburg is Lois Lowry; they’re about the same age. Lowry’s The Giver (1993) seems to me such a fantastic book. When The Hunger Games came out, Maria Tatar was talking about Hunger Games because she’s keen on the feminine warrior archetype thing. And she dvises me that she’s going to see Lois Lowry later and I said, “You tell her that Suzanne Collins owes her a million dollars!” because The Giver was so groundbreaking and Hunger Games just completely lifted it! I’m surprised no one’s been noting that: “Look, it’s all been seen before!” This is the thing: if you have a long reading history, you’re always surprised why the newest incarnation is getting so much attention. I mean, when Harry Potter came out I thought, “Oh Jesus, I’ve seen this a million times, I can tell you how it’s going to end.” I just saw it like that. Maybe there’s something to be said about not being well read. That way, you can be blown away by books.
In your review of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA, you said it was “remote” in terms of location but “rightly situated” with regard to the area’s contributions to children’s literature. Do you think the city of San Diego would be a good location to host a children’s literature museum considering the city’s abundance of children’s authors and thriving academic interest in the field?
Possibly. I think one of the most interesting events I went to in San Diego was a lecture at the San Diego Museum of Art in the early 80’s with Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), a San Diegan. The two of them lectured together and it was absolutely fantastic. The lecture has been transcribed in Glen Sandler’s Teaching Children’s Literature (1992).
So, San Diego has Dr. Seuss and San Diego State University which has an extraordinary, important, strong, and prestigious children’s literature program. Moreover, the city has had and has plenty of other writers and illustrators too.
The author of Misty of Chincoteague and many other children’s books, Marguerite Henry, lived in Rancho Santa Fe. Currently, there’s a very talented author and illustrator who’s won a number of awards, Eric Shanower. He’s doing an entire comic book series about the Trojan War, and he is a big Oz guy too. He has written, edited, and illustrated a collection of Oz books and comics. Additionally, Brian Selznick lives in San Diego and is good friends with Pam Muñoz Ryan, another San Diegan and a really great hotshot Latina writer. In fact, Selznick and Ryan did a few books together. Janelle Cannon, who wrote Stellaluna, also lives here. There’s a whole bunch of people associated with children’s literature around this area, so there’s a logic to thinking of San Diego as the capitol of children’s literature.
You’ve talked about children’s books in the era of the iPad, writing in Parent’s Choice that “[d]igital books will never replace their print versions. They will always be used in addition to print books.” How are you so sure?
You know, we’ve got to quit worrying about the idea of books as a repository of stories. Stories are what are important. They could be oral. They could come on CDs. They could be television programs. It’s fascinating that when the iPad first came out, the initial marketing campaign had it linked with Winnie the Pooh. It shipped with a free copy of Winnie the Pooh. It was a marketing concept — we’ll get the “soft and fuzzy” to go with the silver, steel thing. The Android tablet — the Nexus — used Madeline and Curious George in advertisements last summer. But what they didn’t anticipate was that the most resistance to the idea to put children’s books and tablets together would come from reactionary parents. Even the most high-tech parents want their offspring to experience stories in the old-fashioned way. My point is that we shouldn’t get upset about stories and what they’re embedded in. Stories are what are important.
Stories have been embedded in a variety of devices. In the 19th century there was something called toy theaters: these cardboard things you would cut out and glue, with characters and scripts. When I was growing up, there was the “View Finder,” a device to put this disc in and you would click it and see fairy tales and so forth in 3D, and we have pop-up books. We’ve got to get over the idea that stories can only be embedded in books and there’s some sort of natural link between them. Stories can be embedded in a lot of different things…
What did you enjoy reading as a child?
Everybody at this moment says, “Oh, well, I read a lot of comic books,” and I did. I read a lot of comic books. It’s funny that people want to establish their déclassé cred, their street cred, by stating that. But yeah, I read a lot of comics, and… weird stuff.
The earliest books I can remember are two. One was a Good Housekeeping book of children’s stories my mother would read to us from, and the one story I remember her reading over and over again was The Little Red Hen. That’s every mother’s favorite story! Do you remember The Little Red Hen? It’s like, “Who’s gonna help me bake this cake? Who’s gonna help me roll this out?” and then she gets the cake, and [says] “Who’s gonna help me eat it? Well, too bad!” It’s a sort of mother’s revenge story. Then, the other one of my earliest memories is a book by Elmer and Bertha Hader called Little Appaloosa, a story about this boy who lived on a ranch and had his own horse. Now, my grandfather had a ranch which we would visit, and I would ride horses when we went up there, but I lived in town and didn’t have my own horse.
Then I think around the fourth grade, maybe fifth grade, there was a librarian who started giving me books. It started off as boys’ adventure things, you know, like the Piper Cub airplane crashes in Alaska and Bill Jones has to survive and work his way out of the outback — how does he do it? By rubbing sticks together, he took a little piece of the plane off, etc. This is what Kenneth Kidd calls ‘boyology.’ Isn’t it curious that the popular children’s books have included Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe? What is it about kids that they want to relive, they want to have these survival skills, and they want to understand about how a culture is built from the ground up? Why? They arrive in a world that is already formed. They want to know, how did it get this way? There is the whole notion of independence and so forth, so there was that period of my life, too.
In high school my favorite book was not really a children’s book. It was Albert Camus’ The Stranger because I fancied myself disenchanted, misunderstood, and French. I would smoke Gauloises, wear a beret, and walk around my parents’ suburban living room saying, “Oh, it’s all meaningless.”
Are you working on any new books?
No, I’m working on an old book: Audacious Kids. It was due, oh God, a year and a half ago, but it’s hard — now that I’m used to just having fun — to be responsible and finish that book. I mean I have five more pages to finish and it has been that way for over six months. These opportunities come up — like this interview with the Italian illustrator — that are diversions but really, really fun, and these have sort of vectored me off.
Then at some point, I’m also going to collect my work. I’ve got hundreds of things that I’ve written. It’s embarrassing when I think of what I’ve done to the forests of North America! It really is! My mother died two Octobers ago, and I went up the following April to clear out the house and she had a complete collection of her son’s work. And I’m looking through it and there’s this Nation magazine from the 70’s, all yellowed and so forth but a small part of a larger collection, and I’m thinking, “The poor trees, the poor trees! There were about 10,000 of these published!”
What can we look forward to hearing from you in your Francelia Butler Memorial Lecture this June at the ChLA conference in Biloxi?
I’m going to talk about Francelia. I know at a certain point I’m going to be asked for a title and I’ve already thought that through… In fall of 1999 I was just beginning to teach for a year at the National University of Ireland in Galway, and Frank McCourt — the fellow who wrote Anglela’s Ashes and who was about to publish his next book ’Tis — came through and gave an evening lecture at the university. He starts reading from his new book and gets through the first paragraph, and then he stops and says, “That reminds me of a funny story…” and starts talking about how people always ask him where he got the title Angela’s Ashes. Then he goes back and he reads the next sentence and it reminds him of another story (and hours of that), and after about the third story, he remarks, “I’m the devil for digression.” And I thought, “Now there’s something.”
Later, I’m coming to Japan, and a friend of mine says, “We’re going to have you lecture and I think we should call the lecture ‘Digression,’ because, one: you’re really good at it, and two: you can never go wrong if you call your lecture ‘Digression,’ since no matter what you talk about you’re on topic!” So I’m waiting for the good folks at the ChLA conference in Biloxi to ask me what I’m going to talk about because I’ve already rehearsed a title. My lecture will be titled “Children’s Literature and Digression.”
But honestly, I’m just going to have fun. At this point in my life that’s all I want to do. I’m going to go to Biloxi and have a good time. Now that has gotten me into trouble before, but I have to say I really don’t care. It always seems to work out. Not that I won’t be anxious; I’m already anxious. I’ll prepare, and it’ll be okay, I think. Tell me, afterwards, if I pulled it off or not.
1 The calendar on his website indicates an event he will attend held by the Childhood Studies Program at Rutgers University (Camden) in October 2013. Details have not yet been posted.
2 Jerry’s love of teaching is evidenced by his continued attention to the Children’s Literature program at SDSU. Much to students’ delight, he continues to make occasional appearances in graduate classes and, on occasion, partake of a dim sum brunch.
3 Dr. Jerry Griswold pulled off his Francelia Butler Memorial Lecture wonderfully. On Saturday, June 15th, hundreds gathered to hear Griswold’s speech, “Children’s Literature and Digression: A Post-Manifesto.” The audience was treated to colorful insight into the life of Francelia Butler, in which Griswold noted the expansion of the field since Butler first brought the study of children’s literature into English departments. Appreciating the presence of an academic community in the field, Griswold stated, “The good thing about having children’s literature colleagues is that when you spend half of an hour photocopying pictures of rabbits wearing clothes, no one asks you questions.” Griswold went on to discuss the future of the field, emphasizing that while it is problematic to make broad statements about the differences between children and adults, we do need to pay attention to childhood and children as they really exist. A controversial manifesto, his sentiments reflect the comments on his kindergarten report card regarding his behavior with crossing guards at school: Griswold “does not obey the patrol boys.”
An Irish Interview with Jerry Griswold on Children’s Literary Criticism
Julie Anne Stevens
Date Conducted: September 20, 2011
About the Author: Dr. Julie Anne Stevens is Director of the Masters Program in Children’s Literature at St. Patrick’s College, Dublin City University. She is also a critic and publishes on Irish literature and the visual arts as well as children’s literature. She published a book titled The Irish Scene in Somerville and Ross in 2007 and edited a book on the ghost story in 2010. This year, she has a chapter about the New York writer, Elizabeth Enright, coming out. Dr. Stevens has kindly granted permission to include this interview in The Unjournal.
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Emeritus professor and international critic of children’s books, Jerry Griswold recently retired from lecturing in San Diego State University and tells me during our interview that for the first time in his life he could turn around and ask himself, “Okay, now what was it that I really wanted to do?” The question, his quizzical expression while asking it, and his slightly mocking but still implicit sense of expectation indicate Griswold’s greatest strength as a critic — the strength of curiosity, a kind of penetrating and inherently self-aware wonder about life.
In his 2006 study of childhood and children’s literature, Feeling Like a Kid, Jerry Griswold speaks of the importance of lightness in writing for children. Lightness not only refers to weight or, more correctly, weightlessness, but also to characteristics such as fluidity, deftness, and humour. Humour especially. There is no doubt that Jerry Griswold sees humour as a ‘high art’ and in his book he speaks more generally of a ‘Party of Lightness,’ a group that resists having too much gravity in life, and with a kind of tongue in cheek humour he quotes Oscar Wilde, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”
Jerry Griswold belongs to the Party of Lightness in the sense that his criticism of children’s books is graced with a similar deftness and humour that he deploys with such skill in his study of the writings of Mark Twain, Hugh Loftus, Robert Louis Stevenson, George MacDonald, or Pamela Travers. I mention mainly the nineteenth century writers because he is especially good when discussing their works and he makes them accessible for readers accustomed to the movie versions of the same. Indeed, Griswold also writes about film; he moves fluidly between the genres, like some sort of shape-shifting commentator. His writings about children’s literature for the New York Times or the LA Times consider film, illustrated books, novels, and these newspaper articles and reviews are marked with the same grace and yet swift penetration we find in his longer studies like the award-winning Audacious Kids of 1992 or his study of the fairy tale called The Meanings of Beauty and the Beast of 2004.
I would like to say that the grace of Griswold’s thought and prose comes from his Irish background but that would be relying on stereotype — just as likely is the impact of his growing up in Montana and his love of children’s literature. The children’s literary critic, Perry Nodelman, notes the “complexity of apparently simple books” in this field of study — “complex books that work very hard to appear simple.” In a similar way, Jerry Griswold’s criticism can be disarmingly charming but needing much further consideration and thought. His book Feeling Like a Kid is like this. The Irish critic, Robert Dunbar, reviewed the book for the Irish magazine, Inis, in 2007 and noted the ‘seductive thesis’ at the heart of the critique — that children’s literature allows us to “glimpse and come to comprehend (or recall) what it feels like to be a kid.”
What do you think makes a good critic of children’s literature?
Besides the usual (superior intelligence, infallible judgement, a “good ear,” scrupulous honesty), it seems to me that the ideal critic of children’s literature should have read everything. Everything. Not just children’s books but adult fiction and nonfiction, the classics, literature, science. Boethius, Banville, Galileo, Pullman. Really. Everything!
On another note… I have noticed that the very top critics in this field are well dressed and have a sense of fashion. I don’t count myself among them.
Do you think that literary theory should inform children’s literary criticism and, if so, what do you think works especially well with children’s books?
I think, inevitably, literary theory influences the way critics approach children’s literature: I’m only sorry that it doesn’t seem to work the other way, as well. As for literary approaches that I recommend, I think it’s important not to put the cart before the horse. I’m from the use-the-right-tool-for-the-job school. Rather than coerce a text into some Procrustean theoretical mold, I think the work being examined dictates approaches that are apropos.
That said, let me add that a few years ago I gave a lecture in Massachusetts and at the end this scholar stood up and asked me where I got such and such an idea, where I had read it and what thinkers it had come from, I was flummoxed; I mean, really silenced for a minute or two. Finally, I said, almost apologetically, “It comes from my experience. See if the idea squares with your own experience and if it doesn’t, throw it out.” It says something about academia these days that she seemed puzzled by my reply.
To what extent does a good critic of children’s books encourage good book reading?
Jerry: To a great extent, and involuntarily. Enthusiasm is communicable. When we talk about this, we should use such terms as “outbreak,” “transmission,” “cluster,” and “virulence.”
Does the critic of children’s books work within constraints of any kind?
Of course. There are many, many kinds of constraints. In February, for example, in a passing remark in the New York Times, I criticized the Tea Party for rewriting America’s revolutionary history in nonsensical ways; shortly thereafter, a right-wing U.S. congressman from Florida had his staff investigating my university and the funding sources of the research center I was then directing. If you’re talking about constraints, however, I’ll tell you what’s worse: Being told to review a book in 600 to 800 words. It used to be twice that, in the pre-Twitter era.
Does he/she need think of classroom requirements or moral questions?
Many of my students eventually become schoolteachers, but I never thought about that much. Then one day one of my own offspring came home from school carrying an obscure paperback that I had used in my children’s literature classes years before, and it dawned on me that what I was doing had some effect on what was being taught in San Diego County. My former pupils had grown up, become teachers, and now made curricular decisions that affected the half million school kids in my county. To be frank, that realization paralyzed me: “How could I ever draw up a booklist for my classes again?” I finally had to put that idea out of my head and deal with things close at hand.
In that regard, just because your students are future schoolteachers doesn’t mean that you need to offer a class of higher moral calibre or always be mindful of morality. I think something is off kilter when you feel you should ratchet up your rectitude before crossing the threshold into the classroom. Not to make too fine a point about it, simply to say what others have said, but being a good person seems to me an all-the-time thing — whether you’re standing at a university podium or buying milk at the Spar store on the corner. It’s seamless. You bring your everyday life, and who you are, to class.
Do you think the critic guides public taste and influences book sales?
Well, it works both ways. Sometimes public taste and book sales influence the critic. I endured months and months of hectoring by friends and students before I went to a store looking for a book by someone called J.K. Rowling. That book, incidentally, had been on the bestseller lists for quite a few seasons. But sometimes the influence thing works the other way.
I was lucky to get the assignment to review Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Desperaux for the New York Times Book Review. I loved the book and praised it to the stars. Some weeks later her offering won the Newbery Award, the top prize in American children’s books and (like the Man Booker Prize, say) something that is immediately translatable into increased sales and oodles of dollars. Noting how this increase followed my laudatory review, my joke at the time was: “Where’s my check?”
Of course, a critic can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and I couldn’t have made something out of DiCamillo if she wasn’t a genuine talent and real genius; indeed, from this promising debut, she has continued on to an illustrious career. I simply pointed out her gifts in a highly visible milieu, and others subsequently confirmed my opinion. But the story doesn’t end there. Let me tell you the sequel.
A former student of mine has gone into publishing and met Kate DiCamillo at a convention. They started talking and put two-and-two together until DiCamillo realized the connection and said, “You know, that’s the only review I ever framed. It’s hanging in my house. Every author dreams of receiving, once in their life, a review like that.” Of course, when that story got back to me, I was immensely touched. I didn’t know what to do but I can tell you what my first impulse was: To call her up and propose marriage.
These interviews first appeared in “The Unjournal” (2013), and I thank the the editors for their permission to reprint them here.
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