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  • From Kalamazoo to Timbuktu:ChLA at 30
  • Joel D. Chaston

They took him to Boston, to Kalamazoo,Chicago, Weehawken and Washington, too;To Dayton, Ohio; St. Paul, Minnesota;To Wichita, Kansas; to Drake, North Dakota.And everywhere thousands of folks flocked to seeAnd laugh at the elephant up in a tree.

—Dr. Seuss, Horton Hatches the Egg (n.p.)

Yes, There is a Children's Literature Association!

In 1987, when I first applied for a one-year position teaching children's literature at Western Michigan University, I was surprised to discover that Kalamazoo is a real place. As a child, I had assumed that the cities mentioned in Alec Wilder's Big Band song, "Kalamazoo to Timbuktu," were imaginary lands, something on the order of "Shangri-La," "East of the Sun, West of the Moon," and "Neverland." Shortly after taking the job at WMU, I received incontrovertible evidence that Kalamazoo is real—a button from the Chamber of Commerce that proclaims, "Yes, there is a Kalamazoo!"

In Kalamazoo, I made an even more astonishing discovery. Apparently professors and scholars of children's literature are also real, not fantastic creatures like "Hobbits" or "Whos." While pursuing a Ph.D. in English, I had begun to doubt their existence. For some inexplicable reason, I wanted to teach and write about children's texts. At first my professors found it hard to believe that I was more interested in the whale in Pinocchio than the one in Moby-Dick and that I preferred deconstructing the jungles of Where the Wild Things Are and Tarzan of the Apes to those of Heart of Darkness and The Jungle. Generally, they humored my "eccentric" interests—but I was warned that there is no such thing as a children's literature professor, at least not in an English department. After all, the only children's literature-related course at our university was a methods class for elementary school teachers. You can imagine the surprise of these professors when I was actually offered a job teaching children's literature in an English department (largely due to the chapter on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that I had slipped into my dissertation when they weren't looking).

At Western Michigan University, there was a long tradition of teaching children's literature in the English department. I was told that my office, which was on the ninth floor of Sprau Tower, had once belonged to a hockey-loving Canadian named Jon Stott. According to legend, Stott had arrived in Kalamazoo with fairly traditional literary interests, only to shock his colleagues by morphing into a "kiddy lit" teacher. I didn't pay much attention to these stories at the time. I was more concerned with trying to publish in the field and was searching for journals and scholarly organizations that might help further that goal.

Many of the "children's literature" journals in the WMU library seemed preoccupied with methods of teaching literature to children, while others were filled with reviews, as opposed to "refereed" articles. I had been a middle school teacher and was actually interested in pedagogy, and I was already familiar with the National Council of Teachers of English, its regional affiliates, and its journals. However, I also wanted to write about children's literature as "literature." One wintry day, I discovered, hidden away on a dusty library shelf, three issues of a gray-covered journal with the title "Children's Literature Association Quarterly." Inside their covers were critical articles that appeared to take children's texts seriously. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! Apparently, I had found both an association and a journal interested in children's "literature."

The publication information provided in these issues listed another university, which I called the moment I got back to my office. I don't think that that university's operator ever got me through to the right person. Whoever I eventually talked to informed me that the Quarterly was no longer associated with their university, and they knew nothing about any "Children's Literature Association." And, no, they didn't have any buttons that said, "Yes, there is a Children's Literature Association!" I was disheartened—perhaps unlike Kalamazoo...


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pp. 178-182
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