‘Reading Appalachia: Voices from Children’s Literature’ opens at East Tennessee Historical Society

Posted by | June 16, 2014

Jamie OsbornPlease welcome guest author Jamie Osborn. Osborn holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from East Tennessee State University and a Master’s degree in Information Sciences from the University of Tennessee. Her thesis topic, which was named “Best Thesis” in the School of Information Sciences in 2008, was “Factors affecting the use of Appalachian Children’s Literature titles in libraries located in the Central Appalachian region, as offered by librarians in the Central Appalachian region”. While that sounds very academic and dry, the goal was to assess whether or not Appalachian Children’s Literature titles were being used and recommended to children in the region. She has worked as a public librarian for the last twelve years, and is currently the branch manager of the Halls Branch Library in the Knox County Public Library System in Knoxville, TN. In addition to being a librarian, she is a wife, mother and lifelong Appalachian. She has lived in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, and has called Knoxville home for the last twenty years.

 

The Knox County Public Library, in conjunction with the East Tennessee Historical Society and the Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, has opened a one-of-a-kind museum exhibit on Appalachian Children’s Literature. “Reading Appalachia, Voices from Children’s Literature” opened on June 15th and will run through September 14th. It will be on display at the East Tennessee History Center in Knoxville, TN.

Reading Appalachia graphic

First a little background on me as well as my role in this amazing project. I am a child of Appalachia. I grew up in Hazard, KY and Poca, WV, both in the heart of Central Appalachia. It was not until I was in my 30’s and was working on a research project for my Master’s degree that learned about the majority of the books considered Appalachian Children’s Literature. I knew of a handful of titles, primarily those considered classics.

My first response in realizing what I had missed out on was anger. I was mad that no one in the educational systems I was educated in exposed me to any of this literature. I do realize this is unfair and misplaced anger, because I had some amazing teachers and educators. However, the way I saw it, if I was not the perfect audience for such books, then who would be?

So, I funneled my anger and frustration into research that would first become my Master’s Thesis at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tennessee and now has become this museum exhibit.

Reading in App preview 4

I don’t want anyone else to experience what I did. I want every child in Appalachia to know there are stories, books, and poems that might reflect their own voice. I want them to know they should be proud of where they come from and those who have come before. As far as my role with this exhibit, I am a librarian by trade, not a curator. I guided the project in terms of content, what to include and what not to include. It was hard for me to eliminate anything, to be honest; people with much more creativity than I have created the visual elements and design elements: Adam Alfrey (Curator of Exhibitions at the East Tennessee History Center), Mary Pom Claiborne (Communications Director for KCPL), Miranda Clark (Director of the Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature), Michele MacDonald (Curator of Collections for the East TN Historical Society),Lisa Oakley (Curator of Education, East TN Historical Society), and Kayti Tilson (Graphic Designer at KCPL). They took my research and guidelines and ran with it. It is simply amazing.

The main purpose of the exhibit is to showcase the diversity, depth and breadth of the literature that we are calling “Appalachian Children’s Literature”. So, how did we define such a hard to define topic? To be honest it was not easy. We had to decide what titles to include, what states constitute “Appalachia”, what authors to include and if where those authors were from really mattered. In the end we made the decision to find and include authors and titles that were high quality and represented the region in an authentic manner and voice.

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We limited the geography to the central Appalachian region, defined loosely as West Virginia, Southwestern Virginia, Eastern Tennessee, Western North Carolina and Eastern Kentucky. However, even with this geographical definition in place some titles outside of this area made the cut. They were just too good not to be included. Regarding the authors themselves, a few were included because of the high quality of their works irrespective of where they themselves were from. For example, Laurence Yep, while not from Appalachia, set his two novels The Star Fisher and Dream Soul in the region. They are fictionalized accounts of an Asian-American immigrant family in Appalachia, specifically West Virginia. He drew from the experiences of his Chinese-American mother and her life growing up in West Virginia. So, in a nutshell, the exhibit includes both historical and modern works that represent the many, diverse, voices of Appalachian in a genuine manner.

Once the larger parameters were defined, we decided what topics and sub-topics to include. Several of the categories that are a part of the exhibit are: “Award Winners” — people might be genuinely surprised at just how many Caldecott and Newbery award winning books have come from their own region; “Nature Writing” — the people of Appalachia have always had a unique tie to the land and we wanted to highlight some works that represented that connection; “Jack Tales/Folk Tales/ Fairy Tales and retellings”— many of the first stories we all remember hearing are stories such as these, and the retellings of Fairy Tales set in Appalachia might surprise some museum goers; “Early Voices” — it was important to emphasize the authors that started writing in the early 20th Century to help explain how the genre has grown; and “Foxfire” — while not children’s literature per se, this series of “how-to” books set a precedent in that many of the collaborators in this series were children from Appalachia.

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There are many more topics beyond these, as well as interactive pieces for children, audiovisual pieces, which include interviews with select authors, George Ella Lyon and Barry Moser to name two, and highlighted author panels. One very exciting component is the nearly life-sized character cutouts that make you feel as if you are entering a storybook.

Another important element of this exhibit is the role of oral traditions and storytelling. Many of the Native American stories came directly from oral traditions handed down throughout the generations. When I researched this particular piece, I felt we needed to include the works of James Mooney. While he was not a children’s literature author, his work as an ethnographer for the U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century played a vital role in cataloguing many ways of life and stories from the Native American tribes. The exhibit also has information on the role of modern day storytelling and highlights individuals like Jo Carson and Ray Hicks.

Finally, when one is doing any kind of research project on Appalachia, the concept of stereotypes always arises. As a researcher and a native, I wanted to make sure this exhibit did not perpetuate any negativity. However, we did include some titles that might have stereotypical elements, because those books came from a different time and historical era. For example, in Robert Montgomery Bird’s title Nick of the Woods or the Jibbenainosay, Native Americans are referred to as “savages”. Since this title was originally published in 1837, one must take that in context.

Other titles were also written in a time when certain labels and terms were more acceptable. We felt the best thing to do was to build the exhibit with high-quality pieces of work and let the exhibit speak for itself. What was acceptable in the 1930s and 1940s would not be acceptable to today’s audiences, but those books still needed to be included to show how the genre has grown and who those early authors were. It is all part of the history. In the end I, as well as everyone else working on this exhibit, felt the responsibility of representing the region and people of Appalachia in a positive manner. I hope the work we have done will make them proud to be from Appalachia and proud of the children’s literature that has come out of this wonderful region.

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