Where `Winnie the Pooh' is more than a kid's tale. At Simmons College, master's program boosts stature of children's literature

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For students enrolled at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature, discussing the merits of ``Winnie the Pooh'' or ``The Wind in the Willows'' is not child's play. These students, many of whom are librarians, teachers, or publishers and editors of children's books, are studying children's literature at Simmons College in Boston, the only school in North America that offers a master of arts degree in children's literature. The interest in children's literature, which has grown steadily over the past decade, is getting a further boost as baby boomers become parents.

Program director Barbara Harrison originally taught an introductory course on children's literature at Simmons on a part-time basis. She says it was ``the immensity of the material, the scope and depth of the subject matter, and the obvious need'' for more than just a survey course that prompted her in 1973 to approach John Robinson, dean of graduate studies, with a proposal for a children's literature department that would offer a master's degree. The aim of the program since it officially opened in 19 77 has been to ``raise public consciousness and knowledge of children's books, and [in turn] help children's literature become respected as art and literature,'' says Harrison.

Assistant program director Gregory Maguire comments that a ``fascinating part of the program is the number of people who have spoken [at Simmons] and given their support'' to the program. The course attracts such outstanding people in the field of children's literature as British author Jill Paton Walsh, critic and author John Rowe Townsend, author Eleanor Cameron, and two renowned scholars in the field, Paul and Ethel Heins.

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Mrs. Paton Walsh says that the program's ``uniqueness is that children's books are not being studied for their use.'' Instead books are being ``read as literature. How to use them is secondary.''

John Rowe Townsend agrees with Paton Walsh. He also believes that the concern ``with the disinterested search for the best'' in children's literature is the program's strength.

Another unusual aspect of the program is the summer institute, which is offered every other year. Students gather in Boston for three weeks to read, write, and talk about a given topic. The summer institute is open to anyone interested in children's literature, and usually attracts over 100 participants, compared with classes of 6 to 10 students during the year.

Guest speakers this summer included illustrator Barbara Cooney; lecturer Sonia Landes; storytelling specialist Augusta Baker; author-illustrator Robert McCloskey; Robert Cormier, author of ``The Chocolate War''; illustrators Jerry Pinkey and Ed Young; and author Lloyd Alexander, whose book ``The Black Cauldron'' has been made into an animated movie by Walt Disney. In keeping with the conference's Homeric theme, ``Ithaka and Other Journeys,'' each speaker discussed an aspect of ``journeying'' -- whether physical or mental -- in their own work or in the work of other authors or writers.

Most graduates of the Simmons master's program attend a summer institute at either the beginning or end of their studies. Recent graduate Barbara Lowe, who concluded her degree program this past summer, says that ``a lot of activities at the summer institute helped to tie together any loose ends.'' She feels that the institute gave an overall picture of the field of children's literature rather than just focusing, for example, on the Victorian age of British writers or on young adult literature.

Assistant director Maguire says that ``Simmons students are out there working'' and the college is proud of the achievements of its graduates. Many go into the publishing field -- Patricia McMann and Sarah Gill, for example, both work in the children's department at Little, Brown & Co. in Boston, and Amy Cohn is marketing manager at the Horn Book Magazine, the leading children's book review periodical. Others often become teachers, reviewers, librarians, or writers.

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