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Big Green Textbook

Children's LiteratureMy first inkling there was a thing called children’s lit­er­a­ture came at a yard sale. I picked up a thick green text­book, Children’s Lit­er­a­ture in the Ele­men­tary School, by Char­lotte S. Huck. I mar­veled at the idea that peo­ple dis­cussed and stud­ied the books I loved and planned to write, that children’s books were lit­er­a­ture, like Moby Dick. I was eigh­teen, one month out of high school, work­ing as a sec­re­tary. The text­book cost a dol­lar, steep for 1970 tag sales. I wasn’t leav­ing with­out it.

I didn’t read the text­book as much as own it. It went with me from job to job, rental to rental, rep­re­sent­ing a goal I’d reach after I was estab­lished in my real career as the next E.B. White. I was aware I’d skipped a cru­cial step but couldn’t afford col­lege. Dri­ve and desire would have to sub­sti­tute for for­mal edu­ca­tion. Along the way, I’d brush up on children’s lit­er­a­ture.

The pub­li­ca­tion door didn’t open for me, but I cracked a back win­dow. My first book, and many that fol­lowed, were paper­back orig­i­nals, pop­u­lar fic­tion that kids bought with their allowance at B. Dal­ton or ordered from Scholas­tic Book Clubs. The first two pub­lished books gained me entry into the exalt­ed Children’s Book Guild of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. As a guest at month­ly lun­cheons, I was enthralled by talk of school vis­its, library con­fer­ences, and the easy ban­ter of writ­ers com­fort­able in the club of hard­cov­er pub­lish­ing. I loved the Guild’s fel­low­ship but even after I became a real mem­ber, I felt sec­ond-class because my books weren’t lit­er­a­ture.

Going on TwelveThis feel­ing was under­scored by a snub from The Cheshire Cat, the famous children’s‑only book­store in the tony part of D.C. The Cheshire Cat was my mec­ca. I dropped hun­dreds of dol­lars on new books, includ­ing texts on children’s lit­er­a­ture for my col­lec­tion. But I was told I didn’t qual­i­fy for an author sign­ing because my books weren’t for the library mar­ket. How­ev­er, once a year, mem­bers of the Children’s Book Guild were invit­ed to a recep­tion and group sign­ing. For those Brigadoon evenings, I bought a new out­fit. My paper­backs with their pho­to-real­is­tic cov­ers (so kids would know what they were buy­ing) seemed tri­fling next to weighty stacks of hard­cov­er books with artis­tic dust jack­ets.

Even­tu­al­ly my books were pub­lished in hard­cov­er: fic­tion, non­fic­tion, pic­ture books. The paper­back orig­i­nals I con­tin­ued to write sold in the tens of thou­sands and paid the bills. My hus­band and I moved, too far for me to dri­ve to Guild lun­cheons. I fed my children’s lit fix with week-long con­fer­ences at Shenan­doah Uni­ver­si­ty. How I loved strolling around the cam­pus, eat­ing in the cafe­te­ria like a real stu­dent (Froot Loops for lunch!), min­gling with teach­ers and librar­i­ans.

Next, I treat­ed myself to Children’s Lit­er­a­ture New Eng­land, an inter­na­tion­al sym­po­sium held at var­i­ous New Eng­land uni­ver­si­ties. A week of heady dis­cus­sions and famous speak­ers left me dizzy: Gre­go­ry Maguire, John Rowe Townsend, Paul and Ethel Heins. I yearned to be a smart, seri­ous writer whose papers and speech­es were pub­lished in pres­ti­gious jour­nals. But I was still the girl from rur­al Wil­low Springs, Vir­ginia, who nev­er went to col­lege. I attend­ed CLNE for four (expen­sive) sum­mers, once in Eng­land, then stopped, know­ing I’d nev­er real­ly belong to that rar­i­fied group. Maybe if I got a degree, I’d be legit­i­mate.

There were plen­ty of col­lege pro­grams for adults. What kept me from get­ting an under­grad­u­ate degree? Math. You won’t find any­one less inept with num­bers. Then anoth­er back win­dow opened. Ver­mont Col­lege of Fine Arts let me pur­sue an MFA in writ­ing for chil­dren. I was fifty and had nev­er stayed in a dorm. After grad­u­at­ing from VCFA, I was accept­ed in Hollins University’s grad­u­ate pro­gram in children’s lit­er­a­ture. Now I’d be able to under­stand the schol­ar­ly texts in my col­lec­tion! Maybe even write papers that would be pub­lished in jour­nals!

On the very first day in my very first class, “His­to­ry and Crit­i­cism of Children’s Lit­er­a­ture,” a stu­dent dropped the term dia­log­ic, ref­er­enc­ing a text we were read­ing. I copied it in my notes, whis­per­ing, “Dia­log­ic … what is that? Crap! I am so up the creek!” Despite my fears (and three more sum­mers of dorm life), I felt in my ele­ment in the Children’s Lit­er­a­ture Alcove, a room devot­ed to sources and books. I earned my MA by writ­ing pas­sion­ate papers on the books I loved as a child, ignor­ing close read­ing analy­ses and pop­u­lar crit­i­cal the­o­ries. Nev­er once did I use aca­d­e­m­ic jar­gon. No one sug­gest­ed I sub­mit my papers to jour­nals.

I walked with my class at com­mence­ment in May 2008 and in June I was teach­ing in the pro­gram. I enjoyed my stu­dents, who only a few months ago had been my class­mates, and my apart­ment (pri­vate bath­room!). As fac­ul­ty, I advised the­sis stu­dents, attend­ed con­fer­ences, and lis­tened to schol­ar­ly papers. My col­leagues were bril­liant. Most of my stu­dents were bril­liant. I felt like an imposter. Any sec­ond some­one would find out. My diplo­mas would turn to dust.

Where did I fit in the world of that big green text­book I picked up fifty years ago? Would I ever make my con­tri­bu­tion to children’s lit­er­a­ture?

This time a door opened. After I’d writ­ten sev­er­al pieces for Bookology’s Knock Knock col­umn, Vic­ki Palmquist asked if I’d like my own col­umn. I said yes. We called it Big Green Pock­et­book, after my most suc­cess­ful pic­ture book. BGP became the place where I put my thoughts about children’s lit­er­a­ture.

I count myself lucky to be in the com­pa­ny of won­der­ful writ­ers, illus­tra­tors, teach­ers, librar­i­ans, and oth­er pro­fes­sion­als who devote their lives to cre­at­ing and shar­ing children’s books. Bookol­o­gy makes me feel real. At last, I belong.

16 Responses to Big Green Textbook

  1. Cynthia October 9, 2020 at 7:11 am #

    It’s so hard, isn’t it– find­ing where you fit?

    • candice ransom October 13, 2020 at 10:07 am #

      Cyn­thia: Yes, it’s hard find­ing where we fit in this world. At the age of 11, I was so sure I would be a writer and it would all come eas­i­ly and nat­u­ral­ly. Thank heav­ens kids can dream! It did not come eas­i­ly and nat­u­ral­ly! Many days, still, I feel like giv­ing up. I nev­er do because I sim­ply love the books too much.

  2. Norma Gaffron October 9, 2020 at 8:25 am #

    Can­dice, your col­umn sent me to my book­shelves filled with chil­dren’s books to pull down FAIRY TALES OLD old and new by May Hill Arbuth­not, pur­chased in 1952 while I was a brand new third grade teacher. It has fol­lowed me for all these years…I nev­er reached your heights, but my col­lege did give me a Dis­tin­guished Alum­ni Award a few years ago — based, I think, on my com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice more than the few books I’ve had pub­lished. (Or the need to have an old woman with a cane to walk out on the field at Home­com­ing?!)
    Thanks for shar­ing your sto­ry. If you were close and no Covid-19 about, I’d give you a hug.

    • candice ransom October 13, 2020 at 10:20 am #

      Nor­ma: You deserve that Alum­ni Award and many more besides. You read to your chil­dren (and still are!). I come from a non-read­ing fam­i­ly. No one read aloud to me until I start­ed school. I strug­gled to learn to read (did­n’t learn till sec­ond grade) so I could get into those sto­ries. Your stu­dents and chil­dren are bet­ter peo­ple for your read­ing to them and shar­ing sto­ries. And I’d give you a hug, too!

  3. Aimee Bissonette October 9, 2020 at 8:31 am #

    Oh, I can relate! There is some­thing reas­sur­ing know­ing a bril­liant writer like you has had the same mis­giv­ings. Thanks for this!

  4. Melanie October 9, 2020 at 9:24 am #

    Love this ret­ro­spec­tive of your career. ALSO, I read a lot of Apple Paper­backs and Going on Twelve looks very famil­iar. What year did it pub­lish?

    • candice ransom October 13, 2020 at 10:00 am #

      Melanie: I loved Apple paper­backs! They were fun and afford­able for kids. Going on Twelve was part of an unin­ten­tion­al series called Kobie Roberts. I wrote Thir­teen first, then Four­teen and Hold­ing with the same char­ac­ter, then Fif­teen at Last. The books were doing so well that I was asked to “go back­wards,” which I did with Going on Twelve (pub­lished 1988), and fin­ish­ing up with Almost Ten and a Half.

  5. David LaRochelle October 9, 2020 at 11:56 am #

    Dear Can­dice, We are so hard on our­selves as authors, aren’t we, always wait­ing to be “found out” as imposters. I am so grate­ful for my writ­ing men­tor, Judy Del­ton. When, at the age of 40, I was tak­ing class­es from her, sit­ting around her din­ing room table with oth­er hope­ful writ­ers, I so bad­ly want­ed to be a seri­ous writer of chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture (with a cap­i­tal “L”). Judy was the one who helped me find my voice as a humor­ous writer, and told me that there was noth­ing infe­ri­or about writ­ing fun­ny books for kids. She stopped me from try­ing to be some­thing that I was­n’t. That’s a gift from her for which I will always be grate­ful.

    • candice ransom October 13, 2020 at 9:56 am #

      David, I’m a fan of your books and am so glad you com­ment­ed. Judy Del­ton’s work paved the way for many of us – I loved her series books and used them as mod­els. Lucky you for tak­ing class­es from her. My ear­li­est books sold and I received fan mail. Now that I’m aim­ing for Lit­er­a­ture, I have not so great sales and nev­er get any fan mail (part of this is a sign of the times – no one writes let­ters). You learned a valu­able les­son ear­ly – be your­self. I think I’m still learn­ing that … Thanks for com­ment­ing!

  6. Vicki Palmquist October 11, 2020 at 3:18 pm #

    Can­dice, Although I haven’t pub­lished any books, I used to feel like an imposter in my own cho­sen field, a feel­ing that we can nev­er have enough edu­ca­tion. Your books are well-loved.

    • candice ransom October 13, 2020 at 9:51 am #

      Vic­ki, you are one of the smartest peo­ple I know, but you are also kind and car­ing, a com­bi­na­tion that few achieve. I still long for a PhD (ridicu­lous con­sid­er­ing I hat­ed writ­ing papers in grad school!) though I’m not sure why. I sub­sti­tute read­ing all I can, my own post-grad­u­ate school.

  7. Heidi Hammond October 11, 2020 at 3:34 pm #

    Hi Can­dice. I felt like an imposter in my grad­u­ate cours­es and then my advi­sor told me about “imposter syn­drome.” It’s a real thing, or as much of a thing as one makes it. Now that I teach grad­u­ate stu­dents, I have them read about imposter syn­drome, and so many of them iden­ti­fy with it. Once uncov­ered, it can be over­come! Thank you for relat­ing your expe­ri­ences because so many of us can iden­ti­fy with them.

    • candice ransom October 13, 2020 at 9:48 am #

      Hei­di: I have nev­er heard of imposter syn­drome and will look it up! In a way, feel­ing infe­ri­or my entire life has been an odd gift: I’ve worked hard­er. I always felt I was “behind” because I did­n’t get an under­grad­u­ate degree. So I worked and worked and worked … and one day, I looked around and real­ized I was well ahead of many of my peers. It was such a strange feel­ing. Then I put my head back down and bar­reled on.

  8. candice ransom October 13, 2020 at 10:03 am #

    Aimee: I love your pic­ture books and your nature-themed work! I am so far from bril­liant it’s not fun­ny. I sim­ply work hard all the time. I have nev­er acknowl­edged “tal­ent” as a fac­tor in suc­cess, but dis­ci­pline and dri­ve. After 40 years of full-time book-writ­ing, I admit I’m a lit­tle tired!

  9. Catherine Urdahl October 14, 2020 at 1:00 pm #

    Can­dice, I feel like this all the time. Some­times the feel­ing of being an imposter has kept me from join­ing in con­ver­sa­tions or pur­su­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties – for fear of being found out. Thanks for the inspi­ra­tion to over­come fear and dive in! I’m won­der­ing, too, whether this feel­ing of being an out­sider some­times fuels our empa­thy and abil­i­ty to cre­ate char­ac­ters who tru­ly con­nect with read­ers fac­ing their own inse­cu­ri­ties.

    • candice ransom October 16, 2020 at 3:39 pm #

      Cather­ine: I think you are on to some­thing here. I nev­er thought that being an out­sider – some­thing I’ve been my entire life – helps me cre­ate char­ac­ters who, I hope, read­ers can con­nect with. Most of my char­ac­ters are out­siders them­selves. Your com­ment about fear of being found out – I know that feel­ing, too! I would­n’t raise my hand in class when I knew the answer and no one else did because I thought I was prob­a­bly wrong. And at con­fer­ences and oth­er events where the audi­ence can ask ques­tions – I nev­er, ever ask a ques­tion, not want­i­ng to call atten­tion to myself or sound dumb. So glad you and oth­ers com­ment­ed, mak­ing me feel less alone.

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