Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

A Child's Life

Volume 25 Number 2
Spring 2003

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Mary Harris Russell
Photo by Michael Chaseley

Photo courtesy The Lilly Library, IU Bloomington

When Mary meets Harry

by Eric Pfeffinger

An intrepid and independent-minded heroine sets out on a journey, only to be diverted from her course by unexpected events. In the process of forging a new path, she learns about herself, finds her true passion, and slays a three-headed troll.

Sound like a children’s story? It’s also what happened to Mary Harris Russell, professor of English at Indiana University Northwest.

Well, except for the three-headed troll part.

Russell’s field is children’s literature. She trains undergraduates to interrogate Treasure Island and Harry Potter. She writes about gender and cultural diversity. She studies beauty and identity in the books of Philip Pullman, who rewrites Milton and Genesis for young audiences in a sci-fi/fantasy context. And she reviews new children’s books for the Chicago Tribune on a weekly basis.

But this wasn’t always the plan. When she earned her Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, Russell was a medievalist specializing in works of spiritual advice written for female hermits between the 12th and 15th centuries.

If she’d joined an enormous English department, she would probably be working in that field today. But Russell moved to Chicago and, committed to the mission of public education, she took a job with IU Northwest. "You become what the place needs you to be," she remarks, "and they didn't need more classes about hermits."

Instead, Russell found herself being offered the unexpected opportunity to teach a summer school children's literature class. The woman who had taught it before had moved, and Russell wanted to make a down payment on a house. The rest is history.

"When I first agreed to teach the course 31 years ago," Russell recalls, "I was cocky enough to think, 'You know, I read a lot as a child. I have a 6-month-old child. I know everything.'"

She quickly learned that wasn't true, but Russell wasn˙t the first person to underestimate children's literature. Nor was she the last—as she rediscovers every semester in her classroom.

As many undergraduate advisers know, so-called "Kiddie Lit" courses are widely misunderstood to be attractive blow-off options, especially for seniors looking to fulfill a distribution or round out a schedule. And why not? After all, Goodnight Moon has fewer pages than As I Lay Dying. But Russell reports that such students are frequently surprised. "At the end of the semester they often admit in their anonymous course critiques that they had to work much harder than they expected," she says.

The same mentality convinces celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld and John Lithgow that they can write children’s books, even if they’d never think of attempting a novel or an epic poem. The view of children's literature as something frivolous or easy used to extend to other scholars as well, but times have changed.

"It still doesn’t necessarily have the cachet of, say, Shakespeare’s early comedies, but there’s much less animosity than there used to be," Russell observes. "I’m almost 59, and when I started this work it was barely an organized field. Younger critics have had the benefit of specific training. I never did. But 30 years ago the Children's Literature Society came together as a way of being taken seriously, to go beyond 'I just read the cutest book about bunnies.'"

Since that time, the field has become a discipline in its own right, with all the sophistication and pitfalls that territory entails. "There are many more book-length critical works than there used to be," Russell says. "And we have analyses every bit as theoretical as any other field."

Of course, children’s literature has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the popular imagination in recent years with the broad popularity—among children and adults—of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. "They’ve really reminded us of the excitement of reading a series again," Russell says of the phenomenon. "Most adults haven’t read a series since they were young, and now they’re all waiting breathlessly for the next installment."

"I teach the first Potter book in my children’s lit class," she continues. "The class is a good example of how varied the reactions to a book can be. You have Christian groups who protest (Harry Potter), and then you have Christian parents who read the books with their kids and claim they can find Jesus’ values in them."

Diverse reactions to Rowling’s books aren’t limited to the community outside the university. "There are anti-Potter academics and pro-Potter academics," Russell reports. "You get that whenever there’s this kind of over-the-top popularity." She points out that a recent Modern Language Association convention featured a Harry Potter session.

For her part, Russell is reserved but uncompromising when it comes to Potter: "I don’t want to say bad things about Harry Potter, because he gets so many people reading. But when I don’t like Harry Potter, it’s because I think it’s just like an old 1950s British going-away-to-school story. I also don’t much like its treatment of girls and women, and I’m not alone in this."

Russell notes that when the Harry Potter books first came out in Britain, the publisher issued two versions of the book: one in the familiar brightly colored design, the other in a more mature jacket that adults might not be embarrassed to be seen reading on the tube. (This, of course, was before the books became enough of a phenomenon for it to be socially acceptable, or even desirable, to be seen reading about Golden Snitches in public.) When children and adults start reading the same books, it raises the question: what exactly is children’s literature?

"That’s been a big part of the critical discussion in the past 10 or 15 years," Russell says. "Adults write the books, adults buy them—so how do you decide what’s children’s literature? Is it a matter of thematic questions? Formal questions?"

When people pick up a picture book, they˙re reasonably confident it’s for the OshKosh set—"It’s easy to make that decision if something has 32 pages and lots of pictures," says Russell. But with many young adult novels, the distinction becomes almost arbitrary.

"Is it children’s literature because it’s written by a children’s author? Or because it’s put out under a children’s imprint? Or because the bookstore shelves it in that section?" Russell asks. "We’re very comfortable going into a bookstore and saying 'Where are the children’s books?' But people don't often think about how complicated that distinction can be."

Russell points to recent books like Aidan Chambers’s Postcards From No Man’s Land, which addresses issues of war, euthanasia, and sexuality. Her synopsis of the book's plot and concerns makes it sound like something that could easily fit on the shelves between Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan, rather than in the section of the store that stocks Hop On Pop.

Even some of the recent books for younger readers boast a sophistication that the uninitiated might find surprising. Russell cites Letters To Mrs. LaRue From Obedience School (which includes hilarious throwaway references to Eisenhower, among others) and Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type (a combination of barnyard storytelling with labor issues and social commentary). Appealing to adults is savvy business—as Russell points out, they’re the ones paying for the books—but it can also be a tricky tightrope.

"How does the dual audience work?" Russell asks. "Does anyone write just for children anymore, or are they all working to pitch laughs at that second level?"

Russell is well-equipped to observe such trends—thanks to her work reviewing for the Chicago Tribune, up to 2,000 children’s books cross her desk every year. Some of the developments she has seen in the field have been positive.

"When I first got into the field, you didn’t find women characters doing such a variety of tasks, or illustrators working as hard to mix up boys and girls," she says. "Often you’d have a female character as a sidekick or helper. In C.S. Lewis’s fantasies, for instance, female characters didn’t get quite a fair shake. We’ve come a long way since those days."

Other trends aren’t so encouraging, especially at the business end of the literature. Because the wizard kid with the lightning-bolt scar has showed that children’s lit can mean big crossover bucks, companies are scrambling to land the next sensational hit, and with that comes the phenomenon of hype. As a reviewer, Russell works on the front lines of that hard-sell propaganda—glossy pictures, elaborate folders, even T-shirts. "I tend to dig my heels in when it comes to overhyped books," she says.

Occasionally, the book itself will live up to its advertising. "Philip Pullman’s (His Dark Materials trilogy) came through with a lot of hype in advance," says Russell, who has three academic articles on Pullman coming out this year. "But when I actually read his stuff, it was absolutely fascinating. Pullman is like the student we all always wished we had in class. His books reference Milton, Blake, current poetry, and quantum physics." Smiling like someone who knows she's about to utter a blurb that wouldn’t be out of place on a book jacket, she proclaims: "He’s the thinking person’s Harry Potter."

The Harry Potter comparison hasn’t been lost on other observers, either. Russell reports that "Pullman has been written up in the kinds of newsletters you find in the back of a church on Sunday morning, saying he˙s much more deserving of the bonfire than Harry Potter is." And even a cursory glance through The Golden Compass, the compellingly readable first installment of Pullman’s trilogy, reveals multiple themes and plot points that compare with Rowling’s: orphaned protagonist leaves a mundane existence for a life of thrilling adventure and learns that her parents were much more interesting and powerful than she ever expected. And everyone she meets, to her surprise, seems already to have heard awesome things about her.

Oh, yeah—she’s a girl.

"In my academic writing, at first I wanted to show how she, Lyra, is a departure from the traditions of previous high fantasy," Russell explains. (High fantasy is fiction that takes place in fantastic worlds, often centers around a quest, and is descended from heroic poetry. No one really uses the term low fantasy, Russell says with a laugh, but "it would be, like, talking rabbits.")

"I’ve ended up discovering that what distinguishes Lyra is not her high-fantasy gender pedigree but rather how she fits into religious issues," Russell continues. "Pullman is revising Eve much in much the same way that Blake wanted to rewrite the polarities of heaven and hell. He tells the story of the Fall by reemphasizing an Eve based on gnostic and apocryphal writings. Instead of a Fall that’s bad, it’s a Fall that’s good. He’s questioning how one moves on to a post-theistic ethics without a god narrative to rely on."

Pretty heady stuff, certainly, but consider that Pullman’s book also includes fast-paced chases, narrow escapes, and talking armor-clad polar bears. "When people pick up a children’s book, they aren’t always aware that there are many ways to look at that book," Russell says. "It’s like music or art: people come to children’s books for certain kinds of enjoyment, but people also study them.

"Sometimes for students that’s a jarring experience. Sometimes it’s a jarring experience for me," Russell admits. "You have to listen to stereophonic voices in your head."

And realize that we're a long way from cute stories about bunnies.

Eric Pfeffinger is a freelance writer in Toledo, Ohio.