Recovering Classic Children's Literature in the Twenty-First Century
By Prof Thomas Ruys Smith and Dr Hilary Emmett - School of Art, Media and American Studies, UEA
When we launched a new module focused on the development of American children’s literature in the nineteenth century in the spring of 2021, we knew that creativity and collaboration would be key to bringing old books to life for a new generation.
Our ambition was a deceptively simple one: while we explored the history of American writing for young readers, we would simultaneously produce a new edition of a classic piece of children’s literature with our students - a real, physical book that they would be able to hold in their hands at the end of our time together. Thankfully, we found a willing and able creative partner to bring this marriage of theory and practice to reality in the shape of Nathan Hamilton, Managing Director of the UEA Publishing Project. Nathan enthusiastically worked with us to fit the traditional publishing timeline into the shape of a twelve-week module in ways that would best allow students to experience the full publishing process, from pitch to launch, building in practical sessions with both himself and other publishing professionals. Crucially, as part of this planning process, he also introduced us to book designer Emily Benton, who immediately grasped the potential of this collaborative work.
The book that we chose to republish for this inaugural iteration of the module was Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did, first published in 1872. It was about to celebrate its 150th anniversary, and while it still had some name recognition amongst readers it was hardly as famous as contemporaries like Little Women or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Moreover, we thought that this was a book that might have something to say to a modern audience. From the start, students embraced the creative possibilities that this project and this text offered them.
Their main task, in small groups, was to write a collaborative introduction to the book, giving it a fresh critical framing that would equip contemporary readers with a sense of this book’s rich history and its potential meaning in the twenty-first century. This in itself was ground-breaking work: no previous edition of What Katy Did has received this scholarly attention. What’s more, writing during a succession of pandemic lockdowns and collaborating remotely, students drew out the ways that this book - in which the main character is trapped in her room by illness and disability for a number of years - was a perfect text for our times.
Beyond the introduction, students’ creative impact on the finished book was profound; they were involved in every aspect of the design process and made the project entirely their own. They produced visual moodboards which provided our designer with a springboard for the striking cover, both vintage and modern in its aesthetics. Their desire to make this a visually unique edition pushed us all to think about the role of image and illustration in children’s literature. The result - a series of evocative, antique photographs peppered through the text - provides contemporary readers with a rich sense of Katy’s world.
Perhaps most importantly, though, students pushed us to be creative in relation to the issue of accessibility. Drawing on a number of their own experiences, students were passionate that this needed to be a volume that - while remaining aesthetically beautiful - was also amenable to readers with visual impairments or dyslexia. All of us immediately appreciated the importance of this issue; as publisher, Nathan was fully supportive of this approach, and Emily worked with us to source a typeface that was specifically designed by the Braille Institute for its readability, and experimented with a wealth of page layouts to work out the most successful and accessible combination of font and paper size. The result is a book that is both visually delightful and open to as wide a group of readers as possible.
I have a visual impairment which meant that I was able to access a particular understanding of this book and to experience the process of publishing What Katy Did from the perspective of a partially sighted reader. The classes in which we worked on the project became very supportive spaces for me personally. To be given the opportunity to share the difficulties I face when reading was really important to me, but also for the project as a whole. For the publication of a story which is fundamentally about disability to value the input of disabled students really sets this edition up to consciously and decisively bring this novel into the twenty-first century. I feel honoured to have been able to contribute to that. - Madeleine Bracey, student.
What was so engaging about taking this module was the feeling of it being something that was going to have a life outside of our degrees. It was the practical realisation of what could have been a theoretical exercise and was a really lovely step in terms of moving from students into graduates - Jessie Young, student.
Taken together, then, the finished book stands as a testament to the power of collaboration and creativity: in every way imaginable, it bears the imprint of our students’ care, attention and vision for this book and its renewed significance in the twenty-first century. And as we write, we’re doing it all again: this year’s cohort of students are putting the finishing touches to their edition of Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1880), a forgotten bestseller about poverty and wealth in Gilded Age America that has its own resonance in our straitened times. Hopefully, they are only the first of a library of children’s books for readers, young and old, that are brought back to life and made newly accessible through the creative collaboration of UEA students, academics, and publishing professionals.
This blog post was written by Prof Thomas Ruys Smith and Dr Hilary Emmett, School of Art, Media and American Studies, UEA. UEA Publishing Project is a publisher of fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and everything in between. You can find out more on the UEA Publishing Project website.
Find out more about What Katy Did on the UEA Publishing Project Website.