Transforming Passion for Children's Literature into Opportunities

June 09, 2014

"Harry Potter was more a cultural phenomenon than a literary one. It visibly changed the reading audience for children's books. Adults began reading children's literature for their own enjoyment rather than simply as gatekeepers of children's reading."

"We seem to have entered a New Age of the Child," said Cathryn Mercier, Director of the Center for the Study of Children's Literature (CSCL) and Director of the Children's Literature Graduate programs at Simmons GSLIS. "Harry Potter was more a cultural phenomenon than a literary one. It visibly changed the reading audience for children's books. Adults began reading children's literature for their own enjoyment rather than simply as gatekeepers of children's reading. The film versions of Lord of the Rings, The Golden Compass, Coraline, and Matilda, to say nothing of the blockbusters like The Hunger Games, continue the momentum as they bring adult readers to literature for young people. In addition, publishing initiatives, such as the genre of "new adult" books, make our critical lenses on the field that much more important."

Mercier is passionate about children's and young adult literature. She has more than 30 years of experience working in children's and young adult literature, including being on the Caldecott, Newbery, Sibert, and Laura Ingalls Wilder award committees of the American Library Association as well as being on the Children's Book Council's selection committee for the National Ambassador of Children's Literature and advising the MacArthur Fellowship programs. In addition to knowing many authors in the field, Mercier uses her career-coaching skills to bring new talent to the academic, publishing, educational, library, and other professions that embrace children's literature.

"The Center for the Study of Children's Literature and the Children's Literature graduate programs are related but distinct," said Mercier. "At Simmons, we've created a bridge between the children's literature graduate programs and CSCL's networking and advocacy opportunities to create unparalleled access to a wide range of experiences for our students and involvement in the community."

With its first summer institute in 1975, the CSCL was founded in 1977, as an advocate for the advancement of children's and young adult literature through a variety of community-engagement initiatives and as the home of the first graduate degree program to award a Master of Arts degree in Children's Literature. In the spirit of the "Homecoming" theme of the 40th anniversary celebration of CSCL, scheduled for July 24 - 26, 2015, Mercier will invite alumni to join academics, authors, illustrators, publishers, booksellers, teachers, librarians, literacy advocates, and others to campus. Recently, the CSCL partnered with The Horn Book, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Charlesbridge, and Candlewick publishers to launch Children's Books Boston, a grassroots organization to encourage discussion about children's books throughout the city. The programs are open to anyone with an interest in the field and desire to bring together people seeking community and conversations about children's and young adult literature. Through CSCL, Simmons is a sponsor of the Boston Book Festival, which will take place on October 25, 2014, at Copley Square, an event founded by Deborah Porter '01GS of the M.A. ChLit program that has transformed the city's book landscape. Whether offering welcoming events, such as the BookBuilders of Boston Networking Evening for publishers and graduate students, participating as a panel moderator in the 2014 Lowell Lecture Series: Gateway to Reading on May 13, 2014, or providing expert advice for a Boston Globe article, Mercier works to sponsor initiatives that increase awareness about children's literature, bring the community together, and support scholarship. As the CSCL director, she takes seriously her role as a "thought leader" in the field.

The Horn Book's move to Simmons offers great opportunities for the Simmons' community. "The Horn Book has a long history with Simmons College's children's literature graduate program," said Roger Sutton, Horn Book editor-in-chief. "Most of our employees are Simmons graduates and I have taught courses in the program. We have been able to capitalize on the resources and talents offered by Simmons by collaborating with Cathie Mercier to develop Children's Books Boston, as well as bringing the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards to the CSCL. I look forward to enhancing partnership opportunities as we move into our new space."

Ultimately, Mercier envisions the CSCL as a think tank that would support research initiatives and develop a strong social media presence. Mercier hopes also to develop a doctoral program to expand research opportunities. "Graduate students come to Simmons because they have a passion for the field that cannot be met in any other academic setting," said Mercier. "If a student is interested in working in a literary agency, a publishing house, an editorial position, or higher education, or if the student wants to be published she/he needs a different kind of academic immersion from what one has in library or teaching settings. Yet the interaction of all these professional interests marks the M.A. and the M.F.A. programs as unique. While other programs may have writing or academic mentors, we foster professional connections that place developing writers with agents or editors, match potential doctoral candidates with experts in their areas of study, and enable teachers and librarians to translate theory to individual practice. The multidisciplinary perspectives open the doors to perceiving texts in multiple ways and the cross-professional student body thrives on animated exchanges that privilege the book and accentuate the potential of literature to change lives."

Mercier would also like to sponsor a Writer or Artist-in-Residence. Many are familiar with the Children's Literature program's most notable alumnus, Gregory Maguire '78GS, the author of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, among other novels. Yet Maguire isn't the only success story to emerge from the program-the works of Kristin Cashore '04GS and Jo Knowles '95GS were on The New York Times list of Notable Children's books of 2012: Cashore in the young adult category with Bitterblue, and Knowles' See You at Harry's on the middle grade list. "I don't know of another graduate program that has two alumni on the list simultaneously. We couldn't be prouder of them and this deserved recognition," said Mercier. Students have become editors and vice presidents at publishing houses, such as Little Brown and Scholastic, respectively, and managing editors of review publications, such as The Horn Book and Kirkus. Simmons Instructor Megan Lambert '02GS has become a leader in higher education and was named a Literacy Champion by the Massachusetts Literacy Foundation for her work on the Whole Book Approach and A Book in Hand, interactive story time models designed to engage children with picturebook art and design. Others have translated texts for award-winning authors Rick Riordan and Jack Gantos, while others have gone on to doctoral programs, distinguished positions in teaching and library settings, and a host of other professions.

The master's degree in Children's Literature provides critical, historical, cultural, and philosophical explorations of children's and young adult literature. The Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children blends writing with a critical engagement. Four dual degree programs combine the Master's degree in Children's Literature with library science, with education, with English, and with writing. Children's Literature classes are offered on the Simmons campus in Boston and at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA. Mercier hopes to add an illustration track to complement the existing programs and to capitalize on the collection and vibrant artist network at the Carle Museum.

With about 100 students currently enrolled in the children's literature graduate programs, Simmons attracts high caliber students from many backgrounds. Mercier reported that the average G.P.A. of incoming students in the fall of 2013 was 3.7. "Students who apply to our graduate programs self-select because they overtly search for the rare place where their passion for children's and young adult literature meets serious, rigorous study. When they find us, they find a welcoming home," said Mercier. "Our students are highly prized in the editorial, publishing, teaching, and library professions. They become successful published authors, and they flourish in scholarly endeavors. More than anything else, they influence today's readers and generations of future readers."

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer