PICTURE-BOOK PROFESSORS by Melissa M.  Terras

PICTURE-BOOK PROFESSORS

Academia and Children's Literature
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KIRKUS REVIEW

To the ranks of marginalized populations historically stereotyped in children’s literature Terras adds one that has been hitherto sadly overlooked: the academician.

Given that, as the author demonstrates, one popular stereotype of her subject is of “an elderly white able-bodied scruffy man with sticking-out messy hair” and “with wealth or at least disposable income, and…a support network of wife or housekeeper to aid and assist them,” it may be hard for readers to muster much sympathy. Nevertheless, her description of her methodology and findings has much to offer children’s-literature researchers. The project began as a lark, Terras discloses in her acknowledgments, with tweeted commentary on the books she was reading to her young sons. It grew into a Tumblr supplied with examples trolled for during “boring staff meetings” and then into a four-year research project. The arduous assembly of her corpus alone will garner nods of recognition. Finding her 289 books was a challenge that combined keyword searches of online bibliographies, booksellers, reviews, and digitized public-domain texts and the generosity of her social media circle. Then there was the conundrum of defining a professor: the faculty of Hogwarts—not, strictly speaking, an institution of higher education? Yes; “generic scientists”? No. For that matter, and in some contradiction to the work’s title, Terras’ definition of “picture book” is a loose one, encompassing both illustrated books and picture books. Once she dives into her analyses, readers will find themselves admiring her diligence in submitting such characters as Doctor Sock, Professor Nut, and Professor Mudweed to close textual reading. Unfortunately, so seriously does she take her subject that she too often indulges in polysyllabic academic-speak (“Quantitative approaches are used in tandem with detailed qualitative analysis, juxtaposing close and distant reading and treating both illustrations and their surrounding stories as unified texts”). This is a shame; when unleashed, her natural prose style sparkles, as when she mourns in one of the many footnotes her inability to investigate several titles printed in Southeast Asia: “No business trip to these countries was forthcoming, alack.” Still, her oft-voiced regret that even in fiction, “children’s literature seems to veer towards safe, established, dominant tropes that allow plots to develop without much explanation, rather than behaving imaginatively” is one many will recognize. Readers unfamiliar with some of the older, public domain works discussed will be grateful that her companion title, The Professor in Children’s Literature (2018), anthologizes many of them.

#WeNeedDiverseEggheads.

Pub Date: Oct. 22nd, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-108-43845-2
Page count: 152pp
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
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