By Allison Campbell-Jensen
“I want everyone to know that children’s literature is not one thing. It crosses the curriculum, it crosses the genres, and it’s accessible to everyone,” says Lisa Von Drasek, Curator of the Kerlan and the Children’s Literature Research Collections. “And it’s not limited to children.”
Crossing the curriculum
It’s easy to imagine that in her work with educators and students, for example, Von Drasek uses materials from the collections in creative writing or design classes. She adds, however, that there are possibilities in engineering, in biology, and other fields.
“’Balloons over Broadway’ [by Melissa Sweet] is about a man who is an engineer who invented the balloons that floated in the Thanksgiving Day parade, she says. “You go to the online exhibit — it is about trial and error.”
The exhibit also includes examples of Sweet’s research, skills fostered in most classes at the University.
“What better way and what joyous way to show examples of that and to mentor that [research] activity than to look at this one children’s book?” says Von Drasek. “To see Melissa Sweet’s research — and then to see pages of her research distilled in a manuscript.”
A biology student might learn photosynthesis more profoundly by explaining it in a picture book, she suggests. “History, popular culture? Let’s look at the images in the collection and talk about social justice,” Von Drasek says, adding that children’s literature was included in the “A Woman’s Place: Women and Work” exhibit.
Making deep impressions
“Why children’s books? I never get tired of them and I’ve never not surprised. Every season, there’a a book that just blows you out of the water.”
—Lisa Von Drasek
Children’s literature connects with readers, and Von Drasek has never lost her love for it. She remembers fondly from her childhood “Little Plum” by Rumer Godden.
“I loved that book so much because the children in that book were bad — they behaved badly, they had bad thoughts,” Von Drasek says. “They were not the Bobbsey Twins.”
“Little Plum” and other books planted in her the seed that children’s literature could and should express big feelings. “It’s literature that speaks to us, that makes us say, ‘Ah — I’m not alone in this world.’” Through children’s and young adult literature, readers peek into others’ lives and experience things they can’t otherwise, like Ernest Shackelton’s voyages to Antarctica.
Picture books, moreover, can be art forms like a great song, she says.
“When you read aloud a children’s picture book, and a group of kids say, ‘Read it again!’ … That familiarity, that ability to comfort, that ability to speak not only to our experiences but also to the fantastical world” — in this way, picture books make deep impressions much like well-loved songs, pieces of music, or plays do.
Insights into creators
“I loved that book [Little Plum] so much because the children in that book were bad — they behaved badly, they had bad thoughts. They were not the Bobbsey Twins.”
—Lisa Von Drasek
“What a treasure I have to be able to peek behind the curtain of the making of these books,” Von Drasek says. With correspondence and illustrators’ and authors’ work that goes into books before they are published, the collections also offer insights into the creative process.
“Dr. Kerlan and [previous Curator] Karen Nelson Hoyle collected materials that at the time, nobody cared about,” Von Drasek says. “Nobody [else] cared about the process art, the dummies, the sketches, the drafts. And that’s what makes our collection so amazingly rich — their work building this collection.”
Gustaf Tenggren illustrated “Poky Little Puppy,” and, because Hoyle built a relationship with his family, they donated his life’s work, which became the Tenggren collection. “The majority of our materials are donated to us and entrusted to us,” Von Drasek says. She continues to build relationships with children’s literature creators.
Now she has the satisfaction of sharing these materials with students, teachers, researchers, and the community. An exhibit about Andrea Pinkney’s work was displayed on three floors in the Elmer L. Andersen Library prior to the pandemic. It included the editorial process of one book, as well as providing contextual materials about the March on Washington from the Givens Collection of African American Literature.
Sources of delight
Grateful that the University of Minnesota takes her work seriously, Von Drasek finds delight in her specialty.
“Why children’s books? I never get tired of them and I’ve never not surprised. Every season, there’a a book that just blows you out of the water,” Von Drasek says. “One of those books was ‘Shh! We Have a Plan,’ by Chris Haughton.”
The poetry of Joyce Sidman, the artwork of Mike Wohnoutka in “Moo!” by David LaRochelle,” and the oil paintings and page-turner story in “Akiak: A Tale from the Iditarod” are just a few examples of children’s works that surprise and move her.
She gave “Akiak” and Kate DiCamillo’s “Because of Winn-Dixie” to a dog-loving professor who could be condescending about her work. “And a world of literature opened up for him,” Von Drasek says.
She also seeks to make up for past slights, oversights, and prejudices by widening the spotlight. Of the creators they highlight, she says: “They are people of color, they are women, they are Americans, they are also from other countries. That’s how we want to teach — we want to imbed diversity in whatever we do. And I have that opportunity.”
Her work delights her and she wants to share that delight.
“There’s a phrase: Poetry, like bread, is for everyone,” Von Drasek says. “I think children’s books, like bread, are for everyone.”