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Spring 2000

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Stirring up children’s literature

Education professor Susan Lehr endorses literature—even for children—that “disabuses us of complacent notions.”

     B arbarous and didactic women” is how some authors of children’s literature have been described by their male contemporaries. Among these authors was Sarah Fielding, sister of Tom Jones author Henry Fielding. Her novel The Governess appeared in 1749, was revised and emulated repeatedly, and remained in print until 1903; yet in 1802 Charles Lamb called authors like her “those Blights and Blasts of all that is human in man and child.”

     Those blights and blasts came as a breath of fresh air to Professor of Education Susah Lehr, who described her research into them and other children’s lit topics in this year’s Moseley Faculty Research Lecture, titled “Barbarous Women and Invisible Children.” Lehr joined the Skidmore faculty in 1985, after earning a Ph.D. from Ohio State University. Her research has focused on how children interpret themes and derive meaning from the stories they read—including, more recently, their responses to stories that deal with gender, race relations, and other social issues. Her children’s literature classes are perennially popular.

     Lehr’s interest in Victorian-era female authors was kindled during a recent sabbatical spent mostly in the rare-books room of the British Library in London. “What I found was astounding . . . a group of English women writing for children in the late 1700s (when children’s literature was in its infancy), women who railed against their tightly constricted lives in public and private spheres by writing loudly and passionately.” In The Governess—abouta group of girls at Mrs. Teachum’s boarding school—Sarah Fielding not only argued against violent punishment and cruelty, but depicted the girls enjoying leisure time in rigorous physical exercise. Such revolutionary ideas, said Lehr, were “nettlesome” to the more conventional members of Victorian society. Moreover, instead of telling fairy tales and fantasies, authors like Fielding encouraged young readers to study nature and investigate the world around them—an approach condemned as dreary and didactic. Lehr argued that these early feminist authors sought “to produce mature and reasonable adults, even women. And that’s their real sin.” Eventually such books were omitted from anthologies and bibliographies, even well into the 20th century.

     Lehr also used the Moseley Lecture to trace the evolution of her research into gender issues. Early in her career, using a child-centered method that was new in education and reading research, she conducted reader-response studies that focused on how young children develop thematic understandings of fiction and folktales. Later she undertook similar studies using children’s books that centered on themes of social or political injustice. The author of a 1991 book on children’s responses to literature, and the editor of a 1995 collection about controversial issues in children’s lit, Lehr is also the editor of a forthcoming volume on gender issues in children’s books, which will include several authors who have won Caldecott or Newbery awards for children’s lit.

     As a researcher and in the college classroom, Lehr said, “I admit that I see my role . . . as a wasp under the saddle.” She said teachers are under pressure from conservative groups opposed to teaching social or political issues in public schools; too many believe “that the goal of elementary teaching is the mastery of basic skills for future application” only; and many see the ideal child as a conforming, compliant student. “Too many teachers are afraid, so they teach safely. My research is not about teaching safely. I happen to believe, like John Dewey, that the classroom should be a dynamic place where students digest challenging content as they learn what it means to be active and reflective citizens.” To that end, she said, her research seeks out the disenfranchised—such as “barbarous women” who were rejected by anthologists, or young readers who were discounted by researchers—and “gives them voice, renders them visible.” —SR

Ghoulie, giggly Gorey

Children’s books (or at least books about children) were part of a quirky little exhibit this winter in Scribner Library. The display showcased the work of Edward Gorey, creator of stories, limericks, alphabets, and verse collections illustrated with elaborate, Victorian-style pen-and-ink drawings. Gorey’s baroque, comically macabre, sometimes surreal works—which often depict hapless tots who slip down drains, die of ennui, or get carried off by giant bugs—reflect both droll sophistication and, at times, a childlike silliness.

Gorey began publishing in the 1950s. In the late 1960s New York City’s famed Gotham Book Mart, then owned by Saratoga native and Skidmore benefactor Frances Steloff, began to represent Gorey and promote his work. The exhibit at Scribner Library, curated by special-collections associate Elizabeth Putnam, included Gorey creations from Skidmore’s own Steloff Collection and from additional gifts and loans made by Andreas Brown, the current owner of the Gotham Book Mart.

Among the children’s books in the exhibit were The Dwindling Party, a pop-up book complete with pull tabs and three-dimensional foldouts; The Tunnel Calamity, a freestanding 3D “story” with a porthole in the front revealing a series of scenes deeper inside it; and a small accordion-folded rendition of Jack the Giant Killer with Gorey illustrations.

Serial demise, calamity, and giant-killing—what more could a child want? —SR


© 2000 Skidmore College