On Studying and Teaching…

“Chief Professors All should be
Drowned in early Infancee!”

(Mary Poppins Comes Back)


Many years ago, I went to school to become a poet.  I did this in high school, in college, and in graduate school.    Because I loved writing poems. I loved reading poems. I loved talking about poems.

But… as it turned out, I did not love studying poems. I don’t know why.  I had virtually no interest in learning ABOUT poems and poets.  ”Schools of thought” didn’t interest me, and I seemed to forget all the things other students managed to store in their brains..

Occasionally, I’d make an attempt to check out “texts” out from the library, but then, almost always, I’d return them unread.  I’d listen to other students discussing such texts in bars, and find the conversations fascinating. But I couldn’t make myself do the WORK of becoming an academic in that world.  I had to make peace with the fact that though I was a poet, I was not a real academic.  I didn’t have the love for study inside me. I decided I must just be lazier than everyone else.

Of course, in theory, becoming an academic was still my official goal. I’d gone to school for it, and I loved university life– the community and culture of my college town. Plus, I loved teaching!  I loved workshops. I loved the classroom. I loved watching students wake up to language.

I just felt like a fraud, whenever I tried to keep up with my well-read peers at a dinner party.  Mixing up my modernists. Puzzled by poststructuralism.

Then a few years after I finished my MFA, a funny thing happened. I published a book for kids, and found myself in an entirely new literary community  With a new “canon” (such as it is) and new conversations. Pretty quickly, I found that my feelings about studying had changed entirely.  Though I had no “reason” to be studying ABOUT children’s literature, one day I looked over at my bookshelf and saw this…

Books like Minders of Make-Believe and Dear Genius were cluttering up my bedside table. I regularly dipped into my Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. I was re-reading Grimm, and then hunting down parallel stories from other cultures. Though poetry hadn’t ever completely caught my interest, the history of children’s literature was absolutely fascinating to me. I spent my time thinking about myth and fairy tale, the effects of technology and war on childhood, and how the poetry craft I’d learned in grad school operated in picture books too. I suddenly had imaginary papers I was writing in my head– about the  iconoclasm of Mary Poppins, for instance. Or the historical events that stunted the development of Jewish picture books.I found I was becoming… something of an academic.  At last! I’d found the subject that set me on fire.

Except that then I realized something else. This, children’s literature, had always been my subject, in a way. Though I never talked about it in school, I’d been lugging THESE texts around since I moved out of my parents’ home at eighteen…

Reading and rereading. Arnold Lobel and Margaret Wise Brown. Edith Nesbit and Noel Streatfield.  I had been studying all along. I just hadn’t given myself permission to take my subject seriously.  I hadn’t known there was a world for someone who wanted to reread C.S Lewis yearly.

I was happy to have found my subject. I was delighted to make friends who geeked out on the same texts I did, and wanted to laugh and gab in bars. To talk about how science and religion intertwined in L’Engle’s work.  Or to scan Dr. Seuss.  I figured I’d never find a job teaching the craft and study of children’s lit, but I was happy. It was enough to have found a cohort.

Well, this week I found a job!  This week I joined the faculty of the Hamline MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and in January, I’ll fly to Minnesota, to learn and teach, to meet the incredibly gifted writers and teachers and students who make up that exciting program.  I am pinching myself, utterly overjoyed at my good fortune.

And I just want to take a second to thank YOU, to thank all of you, who have helped me find my way. Simply by being interested in the same things I’ve been interested in.  For helping me take this subject and myself seriously.  For being part of the conversation. For studying along with me, here in this space.

One Response to “On Studying and Teaching…”

  1. Kerry Clare Says:

    Love this post. And congratulations. And isn’t DEAR GENIUS the greatest? I’ve never read such a long book so fast.

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