Snapshot: Megan Lambert '02GS

June 23, 2014

"Our graduates are at the front lines of creating, reviewing, critiquing, using, and promoting books for young people. ...Many find their calling after participating in the Simmons program."

Instructor Megan Lambert '02GS is an award-winning educator who is changing how we approach children with literature. In 2009, she received the Massachusetts Literacy Champion award from the Massachusetts Literacy Foundation for creation of the Whole Book Approach and A Book in Hand programs. A moderator in the recent Boston Public Library's 2014 Lowell Lecture Series, and a judge for the 2009 Geisel, 2011 Caldecott, and the 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book award committees, Lambert shares her insights about her Simmons experience and the opportunities in children's literature today.

As a Government and African-American studies dual major at Smith College, why did you decide to pursue studies in children's literature?

When I was at Smith College, I planned to go to law school. As I was finishing up my degree, I took a children's literature survey course that I erroneously assumed was going to be easy. The class changed my life because it made me realize how reading had shaped my worldview.

After college, I worked in a Washington, D.C., human rights organization for two years, but I continued to feel the pull toward children's literature. I found the Simmons children's literature program and applied.

The M.A. in Children's Literature program exceeded my hopes -- to the extent that I never wanted to leave. My experience as a teaching assistant led me to pursue teaching opportunities at the college and graduate level, and Simmons was among several schools that gave me an adjunct position before I secured my current, full time contract. Nowhere else have I found an institution that values and nurtures the serious study of children's literature as much as Simmons. I feel tremendously fortunate to work with talented and dedicated colleagues and students.

What do you perceive to be the three top greatest opportunities for students specializing in children's literature graduate studies?

Simmons' reputation and educational foundation in children's and young adult literature prepares graduates for many career paths. Alumni of the children's literature programs become literary agents, editors, and marketing specialists in publishing houses. Since the liberal arts and multidisciplinary approach of the master's degree program does not create a direct career path, students participate in internships, use mentorships, and engage the Center's networking opportunities. Those who opt for the dual degree programs in teaching and librarianship find that the children's literature graduate program enhances their understanding by providing a critical analysis of approaches to children's and young adult literature. Meanwhile, our M.F.A. graduates can become writers of children's and young adult literature. Dual degree students combining the M.A. and the M.F.A., and those combining the M.A. in Children's Literature with the M.A. in English, enter doctoral programs and college-level teaching, as well as publishing and related fields.

Our graduates are at the front lines of creating, reviewing, critiquing, using, and promoting books for young people. Alumni often remark, "I can't believe this is my job." Many find their calling after participating in the Simmons program.

Please share the details about your first picturebook, A Crow of His Own, which will be published by Charlesbridge Publishing in July 2015.

Building on the new-kid-at-school theme, the story is set on a farm where the animals initially reject the new rooster, Clyde, until a motherly goose helps him find his voice. While the story is focused on animal characters, the illustrations also depict a gay couple, Farmer Kevin and Farmer Jay, living on the farm, which ties in with the theme of being true to oneself.

The proposed sequel, A Kid of Their Own ̶ which is currently in the revision stage but not yet under contract ̶ tells about a goat and her kid as they arrive at the farm. With the theme of a sibling adjusting to a new baby, Clyde has trouble adjusting to the new kid. Yet he and the others adjust to its presence. Meanwhile, the farmers adopt a "kid of their own" at the end of the story.

Please describe how your independent study in the children's literature graduate program helped you get a job as a children's literature and outreach coordinator/associate at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

In my first semester I took the Picturebook class taught by Susan Bloom, Molly Bang, and Michael Patrick Hearn. It was the first time I had studied art critically. I began to think about how readers engage visually.

I went to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art's information office the year before it opened and offered to take on a variety of projects to support its planning. I was able to apply the work toward academic credit. I began leading storytime at the information office and as a visiting representative of the yet-to-open Carle Museum in area schools and libraries. I initially approached the work traditionally by picking a theme and reading a few picturebooks to children. Then I drew on my studies at Simmons and found a way to engage children with the picturebook's art and design. My idea for the Whole Book Approach (WBA), which became the focus of my independent study project, and later work, incorporated children's thoughts and ideas about stories by transforming storytime into an experience of reading with children rather than reading to children.

The idea also arose from how the Carle Museum approaches guided programs in its galleries through Visual Thinking Strategies. Instead of standing in front of a piece of art and telling visitors about it, docents ask open-ended questions about the art: "What's going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What else can we find?" Adapted to storytimes, the approach encourages investment in the picturebook's visual elements and invites children to actively find meaning in what they see and hear. I switched from a storyteller to a facilitator by asking children questions, such as "What do you think about this endpaper? What do you see happening in this jacket art?" WBA is designed to make storytime an interactive ̶ and not a "shushing" ̶ experience.

The A Book in Hand model grew out of my WBA work. It involves giving board book copies to each child during storytime so they can experience the tactile and visual sensations associated with reading. Re-directing children with simple cues, such as "We'll turn in the page after we count 1-2-3," encourages them to stay focused. The model promotes inclusion of children's attention to the book's materiality.

What needs do the Whole Book Approach and A Book in Hand programs fill?

Since language development and creating a love of reading encourage verbal literacy, and picturebooks incorporate visual literacy, WBA and A Book in Hand develop these skills concurrently. Reading art and text simultaneously draws on the child's cognitive and creative energies. The child becomes the site of synthesis, puzzling about how words and pictures fit, how they amplify each other, and how they might tell the same story or different ones. Emphasizing the physicality of the book draws attention to how the art and design of the book contribute to the reading experience.

The key is to keep it all playful and to allow children to set the pace of the storytime. One parent told me how the WBA enabled her "storytime drop-out" to engage with storytime again, although her child couldn't sit still for 30 minutes. I had shared a similar feeling when I felt my child was failing at storytime because he could not sit passively for any length of time. Other parents told me that their children would "play Megan" by reading and sharing their books with their stuffed animals. When teachers and librarians began asking me about where and how I learned the ideas behind the WBA method, I seized the opportunity to provide professional development instruction, which became a big part of my work at The Carle.

My forthcoming book, Storytime Stories: A Whole Book Approach to Reading Picture Books with Children, will be published in September 2015. The book is geared toward educators, librarians, and parents. I've also spoken at conferences for pediatric nurse practitioners and home-visiting programs because clinical healthcare audiences have also found the value in applying the approach with their clients. While I reached more than 25,000 people with this approach during my tenure at The Carle, the book's publication and marketing, including the power of social media, will expand WBA's reach to new audiences.

Why and how did Simmons set up a satellite program for MFA, MA Children's Literature, and MFA/MA dual degrees at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art?

Director Cathie Mercier had the vision of creating a satellite site for the Simmons children's literature degree programs that would draw students from other areas. Known for its art, literature, and education resources, The Carle was the perfect fit.

I have gone from working at The Carle and teaching at Simmons part-time to becoming a full-time instructor at Simmons. I continue to have a relationship with my colleagues at The Carle and offer occasional workshops there, in part because they cultivate enrollment in our courses. In a delightful turn, The Carle hired Simmons graduate Emily Prabhaker '10CAS to take over WBA outreach.

What other professional activities are currently keeping you busy?

In addition to facilitating MFA student placements with their mentors (editors or literary agents), I contribute to the Horn Book Magazine and published another essay in the May/June 2014 issue. I am developing my Horn Book essays into a book-length project aimed at parents. I also write for Kirkus Reviews.

Two of my daughters who came home to our family through adoption inspired another picturebook text I've just started. I overheard them engaging in pretend play while grappling with the phrase "real sisters," which they'd heard from a person who "didn't understand about adoption." Their compelling experience was the seed that produced a story told in art and text.

What are your hobbies and interests outside of writing and teaching children's literature?

My spare time revolves around my five children and shepherding them to various activities. My son recently starred as Donkey in his high school production of "Shrek" and also performed in the All-State Chorus, and I am often chauffeuring children to horseback riding, tennis lessons, karate training, and soccer practice. I love reading, going to museums and concerts, bird-watching, beachcombing for sea glass, and taking walks in my neighborhood, and my fiancé (we're getting married in October of 2014) is taking me hiking and canoeing.

By Dean's Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer