Interview with Assistant Professor Liz Hoiem

Interview by Anna Shustitzky, CCB Outreach Coordinator

“I didn’t set out and say ‘children’s books are the object I want to study,’ rather, I had questions, and looking at children’s books was going to help answer them.”

The CCB is thrilled to welcome Assistant Professor Liz Hoiem to the GSLIS youth services faculty this semester. Her research is on the history of children’s literature, with a focus on the development of British children’s literature during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We were excited to sit down with Professor Hoiem and learn more about her unique research interests.

Below you will find extended highlights from our interview with Professor Hoiem, arranged by topic. Interested in more information? Check out the bibliography and research suggestions after the interview.

Skip to a Topic:

What brought her into the field of children’s literature
Current research projects
Advice on researching 18th- and 19th-century children’s literature
What the history of children’s literature can teach us about responding to new technologies
Advice for non-librarians

Further Suggestions and Bibliography
Additional research suggestions
Notable resources for discovering obscure texts

What brought her into the field of children’s literature:

I decided to come to children’s literature through a rather circuitous route. [After studying art and English and working freelance as a graphic designer,] I decided instead to go into teaching, and I ended up coming to Illinois.

When I came here I studied British literature, and I had no intention of studying children’s literature at all until I read some works by Maria Edgeworth and Mary Wollstonecraft. [Mitzi Myers] was also really formative for me because she was one of the first scholars I encountered who, when talking about late 18th century, early 19th century authors, regularly discussed their children’s literature alongside their other works, and didn’t give precedence to any of them in terms of status. I didn’t even know [these stories] were famous, I was just encountering them and I thought, “This is a really good story!”

I didn’t set out and say “children’s books are the object I want to study,” rather, I had questions, and looking at children’s books was going to help answer them. I was curious about how people used to think about the mind. Many of the people writing children’s literature were connected with a lot of the prominent scientists, especially the materialist scientists—people who believed that you think not with the spirit, but rather, with the mind itself. For me, children’s literature was going to help me answer these questions [about historical theories of mind].


Current research projects:

“My new project is to try and figure out what forms of children’s literature are out there that we don’t recognize.”

I have my fingers in a lot of different pies right now. [My current book project] is mainly about how manipulable toys and using your body to learn was seen as not in opposition to reading, but actually helpful to it and part of it. As far as people in the 19th century were concerned, the way that you learned to read was through exercising and activating your senses. Not only is the book itself an object to be examined, but it’s also modeling for the child to put down the book and go over and examine objects and make their own judgments.

This led me to another project on working-class children’s literature. A lot of the education theories of the time only work if you have property, time, parents who are looking after you and have a great deal of leisure. I wanted to think about what regular people thought of this, and did any of it trickle down. What I found was really surprising to me: it’s not that it trickled down into the working-class practices, but rather the reverse. This is going to sound really terrible, but a lot of [middle-class educators] thought that their own wealthier children were in some sense going through the same process as workers who they thought understood the world in terms of tactile, physical awareness, were incapable of abstract thought, and were in that sense childlike. Both of their developments required the same kinds of developmental work to be done.

There are lots of depictions from the time of what poor children look like, but not a lot of works written exclusively for children who have less money. It tends instead to be written for the whole family, as an economic decision, so a lot of people say there isn’t children’s literature for this period for the working class. My new project is to try and figure out what forms of children’s literature are out there that we don’t recognize. We’re very good at recognizing children’s lit that’s about imagination and play, that assumes a reader who’s not a worker, and in the 19th century all children worked unless they were very wealthy. We’ve discounted other things that don’t look like [today’s imaginative fiction]. And those other things contributed to where we are now, and they’re interesting and important—I don’t like the story that the people whose literature survived until now are the ones who created children’s lit.


Advice on researching 18th- and 19th-century children’s literature:

“I want to give a second chance to the texts that they loved.”

Sometimes texts you don’t like can be engaged in a different way: [try] to puzzle out what was going on, how people think and thought about children, what kinds of texts people encountered in their daily lives. When you look back, it’s the minority of children who were reading the kinds of texts that we read today. [It’s important to have] respect for the experience of everyday kids and what it was like for them to be reading… it can be wonderful and can give you a new appreciation for things that aren’t enthralling, that don’t look like page-turners.

To give you some idea, kids in the 19th century lived [with 8 or 9 other people] in 1 or 2 room cottages or apartments and they often couldn’t afford candles. In the early 19th century, a lot of them were working during all of the daylight hours. The time when they developed literacy was those short few hours on Sunday. Those are kids who learned to read, and it just blows my mind. If you think of that as the condition of the average reader, I’m just so inspired to have that kind of respect for that history of the people. I want to give a second chance to the texts that they loved.


What the history of children’s literature can teach us about responding to new technologies:

“Those responses have been dictated for the past 200 years to us and we can, if we want, try to figure out something else to do.”

A lot of times when people talk about technology in education and tech in books, there’s a polarized response… and it turns out that that’s been going on for a really long time. In fact, I think that those responses come from the era that I look at, when people were extremely enamored of these political, revolutionary utopian philosophies. It’s around the time of the French Revolution and the American Revolution, so people were looking around to see new forms of government that were republics rather than monarchies. So they were seeing children’s lit and technology in a revolutionary context, and very much saw it [as a way to] create a utopia in this republic, something that’s never been seen before. Those responses have been dictated for the past 200 years to us and we can, if we want, try to figure out something else to do.

Although I have to say on the other side of things, there is something big that’s going to happen when kids are learning from screens instead of actual books. I think they were right—and we have to figure out some way to maintain skills and critical investigation that are valued in the fields that I came from, that are very much aided by the ability to physically interact with the text. There’s something about taking notes, creating tabs, and forming a physical mind-map of what you thought while reading right there in front of that. I’ll leave that question to Dan Tracy, but I feel like my own work indicates that may be true. I’m curious what people have to say to that.


Advice for non-librarians:

The kind of student that I most feel eager to advise is the student who’s not yet in GSLIS. As somebody who didn’t choose originally to go into library science, as a convert, I feel like I’m a really strong advocate of the thing I’ve been converted to. I came out of a field like literature and English where people were hungry for ways that they could combine their love of literature and their respect for communities, and they don’t know where to go.

I think that people should just volunteer in a library. A lot of people going into humanities work really love their subject matter. Some of them want to teach, but teaching isn’t the right option for everyone. Librarianship is related but different enough, so it gives people with different strengths and personality types the opportunity to reach out and work with people who love books or working with kids. So… go try it!


Additional Research Suggestions

“Come talk to me, even if you don’t want to work with me, and we’ll have a little geek fest!”

  • It can be difficult to find print copies of older children’s books outside of special collections. Try Hathi Trust (available to U of I students) or locate hard copies using WorldCat.
  • Use reference books to guide you to old books that you haven’t discovered yet. Check out a few suggestions below!
  • Bibliography books are usually done by publisher. “You get a lot of information just knowing who the publisher is.”
  • “Sometimes you don’t have to read the whole book just to see what it was.”
  • Visit the Rare Book Room! “We have original Caldecott books, for instance—you can go see things in person and handle them. So often, too, they’re weird—they had advertisements and stuff in them back then, and a lot of that isn’t digitized or preserved when you’re seeing them in other forms.”
  • “Other advice for anyone doing research is come talk to me, even if you don’t want to work with me, and we’ll have a little geek fest!”



18th- and 19th-Century Children’s Books:

Barbauld, Anna LætitiaHymns in Prose for Children. 1828.
“If I were to revive any work for modern kids, I think that might have the most general popular appeal. It’s still very accessible and it just has these beautiful sentiments in it that are really simple and very comforting. It’s often pointed to as one of the first works for children that discusses God only in the terms of love, without any fear…. It’s a really nice religious text.” Available online through Hathi Trust.

Edgeworth, Maria. Rosamund. Munroe & Francis, 1846.
An iconic example of aristocratic/middle-class children’s literature from this time, this collection of stories taught children how to examine the world around them through the example of its eponymous heroine. Available online through Hathi Trust.

Kilner, Dorothy. The Life and Perambulations of a Mouse. G.S. Appleton, 1851.
“People still read these narratives all the time, so it’s going to be a form that people recognize. It’s a story of a mouse and his adventures, and his vulnerable position as a small animal not only accords with the position of children who are vulnerable to abuse, but also to all the other small people in various hierarchies. The mouse experiences things that are addressed to women, to cultures and classes, and he experiences those prejudices and abuses.” Available online through Hathi Trust.

Marcet, Jane. Willy’s Travels on the Railroad. 1847.
This story follows a seven-year-old on his railroad journey throughout England. “The railroad is a metaphor for the things that connect people of various classes. I find it very helpful because it’s so obvious about its ideological position for understanding some of the assumptions people had back then.” It’s tough to find, but you can ask Liz for her copy.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Original Stories from Real Life: With Conversations, Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness. J. Johnson, 1796.
Another iconic example of middle-class children’s literature, designed to teach lessons through a variety of short stories around the education of two young girls. Available online through Google Books.

Recent Children’s Books:

Anderson, M.T. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party. Candlewick, 2006.
“I was so impressed that he actually wrote in the style of an 18th-century person and it was totally accurate. His depiction of the kind of cruelty of the scientists who were conducting the education experiments on Octavian was [also] absolutely accurate.”

Anderson, M.T. Feed. Candlewick, 2002.
“I really liked Feed, despite that it’s an apocalyptic description of literacy.”


Notable resources for discovering obscure texts

The Dartons
“The Dartons are a publisher of children’s literature for hundreds of years and one of their descendants in the 1950’s and 1960’s started publishing in children’s literature. The disadvantage of a lot of these early books is that they routinely insult a lot of books that are really worthwhile, especially by female authors, so I wouldn’t take their word for it.”

Peter Hunt
“Hunt’s book is going to be more measured [than the Dartons’]; you can get lots of titles and plug them into World Cat and into our catalog and see what we have and what’s been digitized.”

Iona and Peter Opie
“Iona and Peter Opie are a couple who went around collecting the folklore of children in the mid 20th century. It’s been eroding over time, partly because of age segregation in education, partly because the older rough-and-tough rhymes aren’t really palatable in families today so they’re not really passed down. So the Opies started recording these things and they have many books on fairy tales, children’s rhymes, etc.”

Jill Shefrin
“If you want anything to do with mainpulables,” Hoiem says, Shefrin is the one to consult. “She created a compendium to the original Dartons list of all the education objects published also by these children’s publishers alongside the books. It turns out to be thousands of objects that they published, and it used to be a considerable portion of what was sold in stores.”