Kate Capshaw on Francelia Butler, Social Justice, and the Academic’s Holy Grail: Writing a Book

KC Butler LectureVolume 2 (February 2015)
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Editors Alya Hameed, Rebecca Howat, Alixandria Lombardo, and Kelsey Wadman
Date Conducted: April 23, 2014

Alya Hameed, Rebecca Howat, Alixandria Lombardo, and Kelsey Wadman had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Capshaw last year during her visit to San Diego for a lively conversation culminating in this interview.


The Unjournal is thrilled to present this long-overdue interview with esteemed children’s literature scholar, Dr. Katharine Capshaw, professor at the University of Connecticut specializing in African American and 20th Century American Literature. Dr. Capshaw has amassed numerous accomplishments: she delivered the Francelia Butler Lecture at the 2014 Children’s Literature Association Conference, her book  Children’s Literature of the Harlem Renaissance won the 2006 Children’s Literature Association Book Award, and she just finished her successful editorship at the Children’s Literature Quarterly. Most recently, she has published her next book, Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks. Dr. Capshaw has contributed prodigiously to scholarship in ethnic American children’s literature, making her work a staple for the children’s literature scholar.

During a time in the United States in which race relations is getting significant media attention, Dr. Capshaw offers her perspective on navigating the academic and social fields of children’s literature, drawing from a long and especially valuable body of work about cultural crossroads in children’s literature. Her colleague and friend, Dr. Richard Flynn of Georgia Southern University, commented, “Her careful historical work and archival research has done much to recover 20th-century African American children’s literature and culture. Kate’s new book, Civil Rights Childhood is one of the finest critical works in childhood studies in recent years.”

When we had the pleasure of sitting down for our interview with Dr. Capshaw, she humbly commented, “I’m happy to be here, but I don’t know why you would want to talk to me.” An hour later, after Dr. Capshaw had illuminated the pleasures and challenges of writing academically in the realm of social justice, commented on the state of children’s literature in academia, and encouraged us in our own scholarly pursuits, it was obvious why we wanted to feature her in the Unjournal. In the words of good friend Dr. Victoria Ford Smith, “Few scholars demonstrate so well, and so lucidly, the importance and relevance of children’s literature criticism. When I need to be reminded why what we do matters – the way our work ranges across history, across cultures, into law and education and politics and art – I can always turn to her work and her advice. And she manages all this with a fantastic sense of humor.” It’s a pleasure to put a spotlight on a scholar who has long dedicated herself to the cause of diversity in children’s literature.

Describe your journey to becoming a scholar in children’s literature.

I started in graduate school as an African Americanist, and then Margaret Higonnet told me that the The Crisis Magazine had a children’s publication. I started looking into The Brownies’ Book (edited by W.E.B Du Bois) and a dissertation just developed out of that periodical and other material from the Harlem Renaissance. In graduate school I was part of an MLA panel on children’s drama, chaired by Patti Pace. That was an important turning point for me as I met the community of children’s literature scholars. Beginning my academic career as an African Americanist has been quite valuable; it gave me a solid background and preparation in ethnic studies that I was able to bring to study of children’s literature.

The short answer to my journey is that Margaret took me by hand and said here’s some compelling and important material–do something with it. And then I found tons and tons of material that no one had examined. It was very exciting.

Even though I did not begin my academic career in children’s literature, because I received my PhD from the University of Connecticut which already had a strong culture in children’s literature–Francelia Butler, Margaret Higonnet and Sam Pickering all hail from UConn–there was always a conversation about children’s literature going on around me. So it was a natural transition.

Francelia Butler, who is credited with bringing children’s literature to the scholarly arena, retired from a long career at UConn in 1992, which is when you got your MA. Did you know her?

I got my MA in 92, but I had not met her. I didn’t know her. And then I came back in 1994 for the PhD. However, Francelia’s presence is still felt at UConn.

I should say that Francelia’s classes were tremendously popular. She would bring in all of these amazing guest speakers, in part because she was an introvert. This is what I’ve heard from people who knew her; she was a really shy person. She held class in a massive, 130 person lecture hall and would bring in people to guest lecture. She hosted Margaret Hamilton (also known as the Wicked Witch of the West), Maurice Sendak, and Carol Spinney, who was Big Bird. Francelia’s classes are still legendary at UConn. Many of her classes were videotaped and archived. At the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection, our archive at UConn, you can see videos of Margaret Hamilton talking to students–that’s really neat!

When Francelia brought children’s literature to UConn, the university environment was hostile towards children’s lit as a discipline. What is it like teaching and studying children’s literature at UConn now?

At UConn now there is a very positive atmosphere for children’s literature. In addition to being among the first universities to teach children’s literature and cultivate a place for it in the academy, UConn’s English Department now has many new professors who are interested in interdisciplinarity, so work in text-image relationships is very important to many of our faculty. This makes for a nice point of correspondence between work in children’s literature and other disciplines. Popular culture studies is also important to professors at UConn. We are lucky to have Anna Mae Duane, a leading critic in childhood studies, and recently we’ve added to our faculty Victoria Ford Smith, a really exciting scholar of Victorian and modernist children’s literature. There are many PhD students doing amazing work in children’s literature at UConn, so the environment for children’s literature is terrific.

While the atmosphere for children’s literature in academia at large has gotten much better, children’s literature scholars are often still encountering derisive tones towards their work. How do you handle that?

First of all, I think that all English Departments should have a children’s literature specialist. Many do not. There’s so much pressure on departments because of budget cuts, and that pressure often comes down on hiring. Many English Departments don’t even think along the lines of including expertise in children’s literature if they are not already strongly connected to programs in secondary education or elementary education. It is a real problem that there are many elite institutions which do not offer children’s literature courses. It may not even cross minds that they should have someone in our field; it may also be that budget restrictions prevent hiring in English departments that are not connected to education or librarianship.

But I think the more visibility that we have in terms of interdisciplinary projects—like the MLA Children’s Literature Division’s collaboration with the Comics Division, for instance—the more we can draw in people from outside of children’s literature, which has been happening. I’ve made an effort to go to various conferences, like that of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers, in order to build bridges between the work scholars there are doing with childhood studies and the scholarship we have pursued. I know many of my colleagues in the ChLA regularly visit conferences outside of our field in order to share our work and perspectives with others.

I think because so much work in English is interdisciplinary and connected to popular culture that there isn’t necessarily that bias as much as in the past. But, yes, academic institutions need children’s literature professors in their English departments.

And, one of the ways to start rectifying that is being more visible in the literature community at large?

Yes, and online work is really important for that too.

There are a lot of issues and debates about diversity in children’s literature right now. Of course this is ongoing, but just recently there has been Dr. Phillip Serrato’s essay “Working with What We’ve Got” and Walter Dean Myers had an article published in The New York Times titled “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Why do you think children’s literature still suffers from a lack of books that are representative of lived diversity?

There are definitely issues surrounding the publishing industry, and we will be discussing these issues at the 2014 ChLA conference. We’re going to have a panel of publishers talking about some of the impediments and pathways to publishing more books about people of color.

Frankly, scholarship is also part of the problem. We need more work on writers of color and on writers with diverse investments. Scholarship influences what people teach. If, as professors, we aren’t teaching diverse texts then they are not going to get into the hands of the classroom teachers that we’re training, so they’re less likely to get to children. When you have student-teachers in your class, you want them to at least have the choice to teach texts that are representative of lived diversity. In terms of African American literature, you at least want them to know about Walter Dean Myers, Virginia Hamilton, and Marilyn Nelson, for instance.

I think there is also an issue with children’s literature as a field because it is not, perhaps, as responsive to lived experience as other literary fields. What do you think?

Kate Capshaw delivering Francelia Butler Lecture

Kate Capshaw delivering Francelia Butler Lecture

That makes perfect sense. I struggle when I look at diversity issues in literature at large. I’m Pakistani American [Alya Hameed speaking], and I don’t know if that literature exists anywhere. When people talk about diversity they talk about “African American” or “Latino American”or “Asian American” in general, which is painted with broad strokes. Even the term diversity ends up not being diverse.

I agree! We tend to teach texts like American Born Chinese, a fantastic graphic novel to be sure; but I wonder about the way that text selection for syllabi helps create narratives about ethnic identity for our students. We also need to be public in

tellectuals and talk about these limitations in blog posts, or Huffington Post, or Salon. These venues have wide access to the public, and publishing pieces with them can help change people’s sensibilities. Alya, you could write a piece about diversity as a term not being diverse enough, particularly concerning Asian American children’s literature. That is a really pressing issue.

Did issues like these prompt the beginning of ChLA’s Diversity Committee?

Yes, in 2005, a number of scholars at the conference talked about ways to make the conference offerings more representative. So we formed a committee and the membership and the board approved it. One of its goals was an established diversity panel at every ChLA conference. Michelle Pagni Stewart and the rest of the committee helped to create the ChLA Diversity Research Grant (a new initiative that ChLA has just approved) in order to support scholarship in diversity. This diversity committee was initiated by Kenneth Kidd, Michelle Martin, June Cummins, Michelle Pagni Stewart, and others, and now new members are elected every year. We wanted to take the energy around diversity and make sure it became a permanent part of the conference.

Speaking of diversity in scholarship, your new book appeared on December 1. Can you describe your project for us?

It’s called Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks. It’s about photographic books by African American authors from the 1940s to the contemporary moment. I begin with books from the 40s and 50s that try to advocate for social change through photographs, and then move into a text from the early 1960s that connects with the efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I also focus on texts emerging from the Black Arts Movement that foreground the disappointments of the early civil rights efforts, and culminate with representations of civil rights in contemporary books. In each chapter I try to consider the different roles of photographs in staking a claim for civil rights or charting the memory of civil rights. I have been working on this book for eight years now, a long time. Quite frankly I’m very excited that it’s out in the world!

We’re looking forward to reading it! What is the process to get a book published?

That’s a good question. Often, the first book [of a tenure-track professor] is a version of one’s dissertation. The first few years of one’s tenure-track position is usually spent working on that transition from dissertation to book. As you’re writing the dissertation, you work with your committee to create the best version possible; when you defend it or discuss it, advisors will then provide guidance on how to transform it into a book. You take that guidance and work from there. Once you accomplish that level of revision, you also need to reshape the project for a particular market by being aware of what the academic market is like.

Next you start considering which publishers will be a good fit for your book. For instance, University of Iowa is a fantastic press because they’ve published much important work by children’s literature scholars, including Roberta Seelinger Trites and Karen Coats. University of Georgia Press publishes in childhood studies and also issued Perry Nodelman’s landmark Words About Pictures, so it has a stake in children’s literature. And Minnesota, Johns Hopkins, Routledge, and Ashgate are all excited about children’s literature. I’d also strongly suggest University of Mississippi since it is now the imprint for the Children’s Literature Association.

Once you’ve narrowed down potential publishers, you write a proposal and make contact with an editor–sometimes you go to the MLA conference and pitch it and sometimes you write a short letter. Once the editor asks to see the project, it goes to readers. Does this sound fun? A lot of success is awareness of fit, finding the right place for your work.

You have a very nice writing style; it’s very approachable and it makes things very clear in ways that readers attach to. How did you develop your academic writing style? We don’t frequently talk about how to become writers, despite it being so essential to our purpose.

That’s a really good question. I think being trained in the 90’s, at the rise of high theory, influenced the way I considered prose style. I made the choice to be able to write something that my mom could read. She has a Masters degree and is quite sophisticated but isn’t well versed in literary theory. This doesn’t mean that I don’t use theory in my scholarship, but that I try to communicate its ideas clearly and concretely. I think to be accessible and to be grounded is important if you want people to read your work. You want to invite people into your work. Also, I think editing has really helped me a lot in terms of clarity. Our field has so many different kinds of people in it–librarians, educators, professionals, and professors–and that makes us a really distinctive place. Accessibility is key. I don’t want to keep people out of what I’m trying to communicate.

When you have a stake in social justice, you want your work to be legible, accessible. You hope people will engage with what you’re talking about.

You’ve recently finished your term as Editor of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. Can you tell us about your experience serving in that position?

It was a fantastic experience. It was a lot of hard work but I was very lucky to have a brilliant editorial team and supportive ChLA board. All of us have particular niches within the field, and we work to develop our strengths within those niches. As editor, I was able to meet and correspond with critics and readers on a vast array of subjects and critical approaches. And people are working on so many fascinating writers and texts – from Maria Edgeworth to Terry Pratchett, from children’s letters in 19th century periodicals to Italian children’s literature. I learned so very much.  I have two more issues to edit [at the time of this interview in April 2014. Claudia Nelson has now assumed the position of editor]. I just learned that there are 575 journals on indexed on Project Muse, and in terms of hits, our ranking is number 7 out of 575. That’s definitely worthy of celebration.

Congratulations! Isn’t one of the most frequently downloaded articles on Project Muse Dr. June Cummins’ article Romancing the Plot: The Real Beast of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast?

Yes, that is a terrific article. Another piece that’s frequently downloaded is Tison Pugh and David L. Wallace’s “Heteronormative Heroism and Queering the School Story in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series.” It’s great to see such visibility and interest in our journal and in children’s literature overall.

What does the Editor’s role entail?

A lot of work with many, many steps. You read each submission when it arrives, figure out which ones should be sent to readers, and discern which readers would be best for each essay. The Children’s Literature Association conference is an ideal place to find readers because you can see what people are working on, as well as advertise that the journal is looking for readers. Then you have to reach out to the readers themselves. I have so much respect for our readers because I know how much time and consideration they offer to essays. The feedback writers receive from our readers is truly exceptional – detailed, realistic, insightful, and encouraging. Once I have all the readers’ reports, it is time to decide which essays should be published. Of course, after you have chosen the articles, the production of the issue itself begins, which is a task made easier by the support of Johns Hopkins University Press.

What did you enjoy reading as a child?

I had an unusual childhood. My parents were progressives and my father had a Ph.D. in English, so I had a bifurcated experience. I read 17th century poetry for my dad, and then we’d go to see performances of Langston Hughes’s plays. I did not read Anne of Green Gables or Heidi or other classic children’s texts. I did not have that experience of children’s literature as a young person. But I did have family recitations of poetry and trips to unconventional performances. And music! Lots of music.

Did you enjoy your childhood reading material?

Oh yeah! I loved it. I liked reading poetry a lot as a child, was able to recite Yeats’s “Second Coming” and Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty” and “The Windhover” and all kinds of other poems. But a lot of the traditional children’s books weren’t in my household. My family was multiracial, and my parents made efforts to connect us to African American culture, so that’s what I was brought up with – Langston Hughes was very important to me. I think my distinctive childhood is also part of the reason why I fell in love with children’s literature as an adult. I thought, “Woah, Anne of Green Gables is great! This is wonderful. And there are more?!” I value my childhood reading experience and my second experience as an adult reader!

Postscript: We followed up with Dr. Capshaw this January to get her insights on the current social and political climate in conjunction with the publication of her book, Civil Rights Childhood.

Civil Rights ChildhoodYour book came out during a time of particular upheaval in race relations in the US. Do you feel like your book, which chronicles the history of the civil rights movement through photographic books, can influence positive change?

I don’t know if the book itself can influence change, though I would hope that it could broaden our awareness of the range of civil rights activity involving young people. Teaching the civil rights movement has historically focused on a familiar set of images and individuals. I try in my work to demonstrate the variety of people advocating for civil rights change: forgotten writers and schoolteachers from the 1940s and 50s alongside Langston Hughes, a children’s book by artists associated with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) just after Freedom Summer in Mississippi, child authors publishing at the same moment as June Jordan, and so on. So many people issued books that they hoped would change the world. You are right that we are presently in a moment of particular upheaval. I think that Civil Rights Childhood demonstrates that anyone, no matter age or location or prominence, can get involved in creative work for social justice. In that way, perhaps it will inspire change or new scholarship or new creative interventions.

What conversations do you hope your book can stimulate?

I hope that the book allows people to think about the variety of photographs about civil rights available to young African American readers. In many ways representation has been attached to the idea of the child as martyr or the child as imminent victim of racial violence. What I’ve found is that many of the images offered to readers represent child resiliency rather than victimhood, child agency rather than immobility, and children in community rather than in isolation. I’ve always been more interested in texts and images offered within black networks rather than those presented to a white public. Some of the texts I study in Civil Rights Childhood fit that definition, but even others that had a multiracial audience represented civil rights efforts in ways that have fallen out of popular consciousness. I’d love to start a conversation about the variety of versions of black childhood offered in civil rights images. I’d also really like the book to contribute to dialogue happening now about the long civil rights movement – the idea that civil rights efforts didn’t arise out of the blue and then conclude with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. And we are seeing in responses to the deaths of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice that the struggle continues — and childhood remains at the center, with the protesters declaring the value of young black lives.

It’s difficult not to feel helpless when faced with today’s inequalities and the continued crisis of injustice for African Americans. What advice do you have for young scholars who want to pursue work in racial in/equality?

It is very difficult for young scholars in any field to find their own sense of place. I think that for scholars who wish to work on social justice and racial equality, the main advice I can offer is to respect one’s own experience and perspective. Love the way you see the world and let that propel your scholarship. Work on subjects and texts that you think matter and know that you are the only person who can do what you see needs to be done because your perspective is irreplaceable.

What can children’s literature scholars in particular do to contribute towards positive change?

I think that children’s literature scholars are the ideal individuals within the academy to work for social justice. Because we’re interdisciplinary and often engage multiple departments in our institutions, we can contribute to conversations about the need for social justice work to reach actual human beings in the world. And because youth culture can be tremendously inventive and labile, we can be just as responsive to the current moment.

You’ve worked on this book for 8 years and now it’s done! What’s your next project?

I haven’t pinned anything down just yet. I’m interested in the role of photographs to African American periodicals before 1930, so I might head down that path for a longer project. I’ve also done a lot of work on childhood and the Black Arts Movement. I’d love to write that book. Other irons in the fire are a collection of essays on early African American children’s literature, co-edited with my fantastic colleague Anna Mae Duane; and I also want to finish an edition of Bessie Woodson Yancey’s children’s texts and periodical work. She was a black Appalachian writer and sister to Carter G. Woodson. Mostly I just want to keep learning about black childhood, politics, and representation.

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