Philip Nel is University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University. His most recent books are the 2013 Eisner Award nominee, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature(2012); Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby Volume One: 1942–1943 (coedited with Eric Reynolds, 2013); and Barnaby Volume Two: 1944–1945 (coedited with Reynolds, 2014). He blogs intelligent and thoughtful pieces at Nine Type of Pie and belongs to the “supergroup” kid lit blogger consortium, The Niblings.
MH: Dr. Nel, thanks for being our guest at From the Mixed-Up Files blog. Can you give us a brief history of how you ended up in academic kid lit?
PN: Sure! Briefest history of how I got into academic kid lit is: Children’s literature made me a reader. Reading, in turn, led me to major in English, and then take the quixotic step of pursuing a Ph.D. in English. Although I could not have told you at the time why I became an English major or enrolled in grad school, kid lit was the reason. And so, long story short, I became a scholar of children’s literature.
MH: Everyone should read your Manifesto piece in the Iowa Review. So inspiring and so relatable for many of us lovers of children’s literature.
PN: The Iowa Review piece expresses most succinctly why I do what I do.
MH: An “I have arrived” moment? The piece had such resonance with how so many of us feel about kid lit.
PN: Gosh, yes, that’s one way to look at it. Sure. I think, mostly, I was pleased that I was able to translate my personal experience with kid lit into something more universal.
MH: What exactly does a professor of children’s literature do all day? Do you sit around with the other professors devising ways to make students’ lives a little more “uncomfortable”? (Evil laugh)
PN: Goodness. How much time do we have? 🙂 Three components of my job are research, teaching, & service. What does that mean, apart from the thin boundary between work and life?
It means that today, for example, I had two meetings, did grading, wrote emails regarding future book project, worked on a talk I’m giving in May. Why work on May talk now? I also have to write May & June conference papers, & (when edits come in for fall book) do them. I am also working on image permissions for fall book (Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature).
I could go on, but I’d further try your patience. So…. next question!
MH: Tell us about how your love of Harold & The Purple Crayon evolved into an academic study of his creator, Crockett Johnson?
PN: Harold and the Purple Crayon is such a deceptively simple idea. Child draws the world in which he lives. The idea always intrigued me — the possibility of the imagination creating reality. But who was Crockett Johnson?
Apart from bios in reference books, there was little on Crockett Johnson. So, I decided to make a website. (Yes, the site is very web 1.0. I created it in the late 1990s. Needs an update.) ANYWAY. The website led to an article. And the article led me to think: Crockett Johnson deserves a book! A monograph? No! A biography! And I’m going to write it!
Yes, I realize that was rather delusional of me. I’d never written a biography before. I’d never written a book before. I started the biography back in 1999/2000. Within a few years, I realized that to tell Johnson’s story, I needed to tell Ruth Krauss’s story. Krauss was Johnson’s wife, & a fascinating talent in her own right. And so,… the book became a double biography.
In sum, the biography derived from a unique combination of ignorance, ambition, and curiosity. In order to write the biography, I needed to not know what I was getting into or how hard it would be. To paraphrase The Phantom Tollbooth, to write a biography, I needed not to know that writing a biography was impossible.
MH: It was overdue. He was pivotal in shaping the children’s lit we know today. Simple lines, sharp story & imagination galore.
PN: Exactly. Crockett Johnson’s clean, precise line conveys deep feeling & a profound story.
MH: You do a fantastic job of not only spotlighting kid lit, but also contributing to the issues of diversity & radical children’s literature’s power.
PN: Thanks! I need to do more on both diversity & radical literature. I learn much from Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Zetta Elliott, and others. Well, we all need to do more in promoting, reading, teaching diverse books.
So, on that subject (diverse books), I’ll climb up on my soapbox.
Racism is structural. We thus need structural change to combat it. A few well-intentioned people won’t be sufficient. The kid lit industry needs a systemic long-term commitment to non-white authors, editors, publicists, etc. Teachers need to teach works by non-white authors, and not just in a tokenistic way.
(Dr. Nel climbs down from soapbox. For now.)
MH: Thank you for the wonderful interview and insight into your life as a distinguished professor of children’s literature. Good luck with the release of Was The Cat In The Hat Black?.
PN: Thanks for having me! To quote wizard-rockers, The Remus Lupins,
“Fight evil. Read books.“