I get questions all the time from readers about what I do as a children’s literature researcher in an English PhD program, so today I’m taking the opportunity to tell you all a bit more about my lovely, non-blogging job!
I spent last weekend at my first ever Children’s Literature Association conference in South Carolina. And excuse my language when I say lordie oh lord: after five amazing days with this bunch of nonsensical ninnies and silly scholars, I am unofficially allowing ChLA and all its wonderful members to adopt me. These people are like human versions of these muffins I’m sharing with you today: the funnest, brightest, warmest, most unique bunch of (raga)muffins I’ve ever met!
This conference primarily features scholars, professors, and the occasional grad student. We present our research and findings on various aspects of children’s lit at this four-day conference through a series of panels, talks, and banquets. We are a kooky, Kool-Aid kind of cult, minus the cult and probably minus the Kool-Aid (we prefer tea and fun muffins like these, though I do recall someone making a Kool-Aid reference at one point). I was hugged more times by complete strangers at this conference than I have been by the academics in my English department for my entire three years as a grad student (at one point, the chair of the ChLA award committee turned around, gave me a giant bear hug, and then shouted to the room, “It’s a new one!”) . We basically staked out an entire hotel in Columbia, dominated its conference rooms, and sat back to enjoy a 4-day carnival that involved lots of networking, lots of meeting & greeting, lots of brilliant (or at least interesting) research, and a heck of a lot of food.
If you know anything about academic institutions, you’ll know that academia can be both an awesomely intelligent field and a frigid rat race. The children’s lit folks are (I am happy to report) only of the first sort–there’s something about being a member of a field that has a long history of marginalization that brings out the team spirit in us.
And let’s face it: a bunch of geeky weirdos who devote their lives to reading Dr. Seuss? If that sounds UN-fun to you, then your fun-o-meters seriously need tweaking. Perhaps the Doc should be a-paying you a visit…
Speaking of the fun doctor, this conference also meant meeting an eclectic group I’ve affectionately dubbed The Boys of Nun-sance (let’s hope they never see this)–a handful of nonsense literature scholars who love Dr. Seuss and all whimsical wit abounding to the upperest heights of Nooper. And yes, this is how they would describe themselves if you ran into them in real life, except they’d probably throw in a few coordinated jigs and hops and head bops for good measure as they said it to you.
(How do I know? They did this to me on the last night of the conference after our big banquet, and we all hopped and jumped around together like a bunch of confused grasshoppers before saying our garbled goodbyes.)
The other amazing point of the conference was that I finally delivered my first paper at a major conference last week. I was moderately nervous, but after listening to one paper and another and another, I realized that this incredibly bright bunch of scholars act more like Southern mothers (or jovial pops) who just want to invite you in for homemade buttermilk biscuits all the time.
So at some point during the presentation, as I stood up there speaking to a packed room of nonsensical listeners about Dr. Seuss’s And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (anyone else remember this one?), the thought suddenly hit me like a rogue tetherball: I wasn’t nervous. I was talking about something I loved, and what’s more–people were actually listening to me. I quickly scanned the room as I spoke and found a particularly attentive listener I could look at when I wasn’t sure where to look–he was nodding along, not in a glazed-eyed kind of way, but in genuine agreement at the strongest points of my paper. My voice grew stronger as I plowed through my final arguments about narratorial authority, and before I knew it I was beaming at the room and moseying with a sprightly step back to my seat, where the rest of my panel patted me on the back and the panel chair (who is also a tenured professor at the local university) actually whispered in my ear, “Great paper!” before taking the podium.
The best part, however, is what happened next.
At one point during Mark’s presentation, he hesitated over the pronunciation of a name from Dr. Seuss’s biography and addressed the crowd: “Perhaps Phil knows?” he said. My head snapped around so fast I almost twisted it Easy-Twist-style clean off my neck. Phil. As in the Phil I’d cited in my own paper as one of the authoritative Seussian scholars? Of course, I’d had an inkling he might come (we were, after all, treading the same terrain), and another great nonsense friend had mentioned he might, but it was still very cool to see that he could blend right in with the crowd, and amusing to think that I had once again–in my typical oblivious fashion–managed to bumble through an entire paper without realizing that one of my own was sitting in the room listening.
As it turns out, he tossed me my first comment and question of the Q&A: while I don’t consider myself starstruck (the only person who’s ever been able to elicit that effect from me is Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted), I was definitely pleased by his amiable response. He thanked me for my paper, told me he enjoyed it, then recommended I visit the Dr. Seuss archives at UCSD for some really interesting versions of Mulberry Street. He also asked a question that I ended up clarifying, and so he left it at a comment and another thank you before we moved onto the rest of the session.
I didn’t bother trying to track him down afterwards to thank him: the amusing thing is that even in scholarly communities we have our big-named celebrities, and after seeing a few folks craning this way and that to talk to him, I decided he’d probably had enough attention for a weekend and figured I’d thank him via email or something.
As it turned out, though, we ran into each other at a panel the next day and he actually came over to let me know again that he enjoyed my paper, and in his down-to-earth way told me that I should “definitely do something with it.” We chatted for a while about the SD archives and some mutual acquaintances (in my geeky fashion, I scribbled down a transcript of our conversation as soon as I got back to my hotel room that night), and before I knew it we were exchanging hugs all around–doing some nonsensical jigs–and packing up to leave. And when everyone waved with shouts of, “See you next year!” I felt a little tug that extended from the corner of my lips to my sentimental heartstrings, and I had to grin back and yell, “Next year it is!” (And this was to established professors and fellow serious scholars, mind you. Talk about positively disrupting academic stereotypes!)
I’ll be counting down the months until then–and though I realize that my experience may not always be as bright-eyed and as wondrous as this first time, I’ve fallen madly and deeply in love. As a children’s lit scholar, I’ve never felt like part of a real, welcoming scholarly community until now. Which is why I’m celebrating with the brightest, best summertime muffins I know.
I made these for a friend’s care package and they are a superb way to kick off the warm weather. If I’d brought them to the 100-degree humidity of Columbia, I’m pretty sure they would have been gobbled up in a gobbling flash. As it happens, though, these were gobbled up anyway–and with a perfectly moist crumb that just beams with the brightness of citrus and the sweet tang of ripe raspberries, I have no doubt they’ll become a go-to favorite in this household.
So that’s what I’ve been up to for the past month or so: prepping, preparing, worrying, then laughing, beaming, jigging, nonsensing. I am still caught up in the post-conference flurry and getting very little in the way of rest, but I wouldn’t have it any other way–though I’ll be working extra-hard to resume more quality posts (because I realize that the last few sham posts have been pretty shoddy), and you may see some fantastic guest posters helping me out in the coming weeks. Until then!
(And for the record, throwing a bunch of wet raspberries at your camera lens is a bad idea. But I did it, so I had to share it…)
With nonsensical love,
“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.” –Dr. Seuss