EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Angelica Carpenter of The Arne Nixon Center
I visited the Arne Nixon Center at Fresno State, a department of the Henry Madden Library, located on the third floor of the South wing in the library, to sit down with its Curator, Angelica Carpenter. The Center is one of North America's leading resources for the study of children's and young adult literature. Recently, they’ve added an LGBTQ Book Collection through the generous donations of Michael Cart, Kathleen Horning and Nancy Silverrod.
From their website...
The Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature is celebrating the acquisition of nearly 500 LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/ Questioning) themed books which have been given or promised in recent months. Donations from several nationally known librarians have resulted in quick growth for this genre within the Center’s larger collection, making it the largest such collection of LGBTQ books for young readers in any library in the United States.
The combined collection includes picture books, young adult novels, non-fiction, graphic novels, board books, anthologies, advance reading copies, and some bilingual and translated titles. All are comparatively recent; the first book for teens to depict LGBTQ issues was I’ll Get There, It Better Be Worth the Trip, published in 1969.
At a time when bullying, suicides, and the concept of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” are affecting the LGBTQ teen community, and mainstream society alike, these books offer hope and understanding that “It gets better.” They are not always available in school or public libraries.
Chris Jarvis: Tell me about how the Arne Nixon Center got started.
Angelica Carpenter: Arne Nixon was a professor who taught children’s literature and storytelling on this campus for more than 30 years. He loved children’s books and to us that includes Young Adult books too. He was also quite the world traveler. He went to every reading convention and library convention there was, and wherever he went he either bought children’s books or people gave him children’s books. He had 22,000 books, which he donated to us, but he’d never seen them in one place so he was very thrilled when he saw them here, all together.
CJ: Did his donation include any LGBT books?
AC: Yes, but there hadn’t been that many published at that time. He began collecting in the 1950’s. He really went after, for instance, African American books for kids, and they weren’t mainstream either until the 1970’s. He was born to a family in South Dakota who spoke Finnish. He spoke Finnish until he went to school, so he always had a kind of international take on things. As he got older he taught on an Indian reservation in Washington State, he went to the Sudan, he went to Finland, he went to Russia. He really like to see things from different points of view.
CJ: And after he passed in 1995 he left an endowment.
AC: He left a million dollars in addition to the books.
CJ: Tell me about how the LGBTQ collection.
AC: Increasingly those books have become popular. I was looking through Michael Cart’s book about the genre, and I dug out the first two books he mentions…
I'll Get There It Better Be Worth The Trip and Man Without A Face . In the first one the dog dies and in the second one the cat dies. Then they went from killing the dog and the cat in the first two books to often killing the gay characters in later books. It’s kind of a trendy subject now for Young Adult literature. Michael Cart has been affiliated with the Arne Nixon Center longer than I have. Our previous Dean, Michael Gormond invited him to serve on the Senator’s Governing Committee, so Michael’s been here from the start. He’s considered the national expert on Young Adult literature.
CJ: In general?
AC: In general, and then beyond that, in LGBT specifically. Arne Nixon as well was very interested in Young Adult literature. For librarians, that’s just sort of a sub-category of children’s literature. Michael Cart also reviews books, and he’s given us more than 10,000 books in the last 11 years.
CJ: Explain the categories of books for me, children’s versus young adult, etc.
AC: Well we don’t really collect Board Books, which are for the very youngest kids. The next category is Picture Books, which are more likely to be read to a child. Then you get to Chapter Books which are more advanced, those they like to read themselves, like Beverly Cleary, something like that. Then you get into more real novels that are written for fifth, sixth grade. Young Adult fiction is very popular right now. Michael says this is the Golden Age of Young Adult fiction and I think he’s right. There’s a lot of crossover now, where more adults are reading Young Adult fiction.
CJ: Do you know if for instance in some of the early books written in the African American genre, did the characters, given that black Americans didn’t have equal civil rights, face the same fates as early gay characters did?
AC: I can’t give a very definitive answer. Those were really written for a black audience so I don’t think they were so much, killed, as they were stereotyped.
CJ: How many LGBT children’s books are coming out?
AC: We think there are fewer than 500 such books that have been published, ever.
CJ: Wow, that’s amazing. Do you feel that the resistance of parents, mostly, who regularly object to these kinds of books in school libraries, etc, have influenced that?
AC: I think publishers need to make money and they need to publish books that sell. There are some publishers that have a history of taking chances. Michael Cart is published by Simon & Schuster.
CJ: Although he’s fairly established.
AC: But let me tell you, his book is being challenged right now in a high school in Mt Holly, New Jersey, because of homosexual themes.
CJ: Does he face that a lot?
AC: I don't think a lot, because he writes for older kids.
CJ: And it takes only one parent to create a debate these days.
AC: Yes, and I think the books for younger kids get more flak, because maybe parents of teenagers either don't know or don't care about every single book they read. In general, teenagers just have more control over their own lives.
CJ: I noticed in the piece you wrote for the Fresno Bee that you talked about a love of books at a very young age, and how they spoke to you about some of the things you were feeling but that you noticed there were no books about the problems that girls who like other girls might be facing, or boys who like boys. What was your first exposure to that?
AC: I know I read "The Well of Loneliness" by Radclyffe Hall , because it was so famous. I think that was the first time I read a book about lesbians. I had the same experience with books about African Americans. "Roll Of Thunder Hear My Cry" just sort of changed my whole outlook on the racial situation. So kids need to see themselves in books and see that they're not the only ones going through whatever it is they're going through. At the same time they need to see that other kids are going through other things and that they're still human beings. Arne Nixon said this too...he grew up in a town in South Dakota that was so small it didn't even have a high school. So he had to go to school in another town and somewhere he had access to a library. He felt that reading opened the world up to him. My family moved around a lot and my sister and I would sometimes read all the books in the children's section of the library. It wasn't until I was grown though that there were a lot of books with (LGBT) themes like this.
CJ: I saw this quote by Arne Nixon which I really love..."It's a function of some people to be a lamp and some to be a mirror. I have been very pleased to function as a mirror of other's works."
AC: He really promoted reading and the love of books. He didn't think that kids should have to write book reports and I'm sure he would have disapproved of being tested after reading a book.
CJ: How are LGBT books doing commercially? Are they selling?
AC: Oh yes. They're well reviewed.
CJ: And the young adult market?
AC: The young adult market is hot right now. Harry Potter may have had something to do with it.
CJ: And it's interesting that there was controversy over the fact that JK Rowling revealed after the last Potter book that Dumbledore was gay. Even though that fact wasn't included in the actual books there was still a degree of controversy over that revelation. What about the subject of being transgender in children's and young adult books?
AC: They're here. They've been slower in coming. Michael thinks "Luna" is one of the best. There's a new one called "My Princess Boy". Libraries are brave as far as buying them. They do get censored in subtle ways. They'll complain about them through a normal process, like what's happened with "And Tango Makes Three". But sometimes they just check them out and never bring them back. That's a subtle form of censorship. So we're hoping some of the publicity we're generating gets out, and gets out to kids and young adults.
CJ: Now this is a reading library only, correct, you can't take the books out.
AC: That's right, but some of the books we have are in a circulated collection on the other side of the library as well. You know, there can be a stigma attached to finding these books. If you're a transgender kid are you going to be able to go into a library and ask about books on that subject? I don't know. We're getting ready to put up on our website an annotated bibliography of all these books and people will be able to find them that way. It'll all be one list, but you'll be able to search for terms, such as transgender.
CJ: This collection is very new, isn't it?
AC: It is, and we're cataloguing them now. I'm hoping to get students up here to write papers using them as research. And we're open to the public as well, and if people email us ahead of time with what they're interested in we can pull the books and have them ready.
Angelica pulled out some of the books she found interesting on the topic and we discussed some of them…
"Oh Boy! Babies!" (Alison Herzig - A photo essay of a class in infant care given to fifth and sixth grade boys with the help of mothers and real babies. 1980)
AC: This was a controversial book because it shows boys taking care of babies. It was radical idea, that boys could learn to take care of babies. All of these movements that hit during the 1960's, civil rights, the women's movement, Stonewall, everything started to change, and I think this was an outgrowth of that. My husband stayed home with our daughter for a year when she was little and people couldn't believe it.
CJ: Right. Back then you couldn't be a house husband.
AC: Exactly, it was too shocking.
"The Harvey Milk Story" - Kari Krakow - 2002 ("On a rainy day in January, on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall, Harvey Milk was sworn into office, the first openly gay elected city official in the United States of America. Harvey Milk had made history.")
CJ: Wow, to see the Harvey Milk story in picture book form for children is really touching.
"In Our Mother's House" by Patricia Polacco - 2009 (The oldest of three adopted children recalls her childhood with mothers Marmee and Meema, as they raised their African American daughter, Asian American son, and Caucasian daughter in a lively, supportive neighborhood.)
AC: I love this book. This is a picture book set in Oakland and it's about a lesbian couple who adopt a bunch of kids. It starts with adopting the kids and it ends after the mother's have died. It shows what happy lives they had. There's one neighbor that doesn't approve, but they don't let that bother them. It's beautiful, that's one of my favorites.
"Welcome to Our Family - A Baby Journal for LGBT Families" by Sally Lindsay - 2004 (Created especially for LGBT families, this beautifully illustrated record book allows parents to preserve the memories of their child's first year.)
CJ: This is an actual baby book, for recording the history of the children.
AC: Right, so people are recognizing now that there is a market for that. Another trend right now in young adult is graphic novels.
Angelica and I step away from her office and take a stroll through the library…
CJ: What’s one of your favorites in the LGBT collection?
AC: I think “And Tango Makes Three” is just the most lovely book. And it’s true. I’m always amazed when people don’t like that one.
CJ: And the controversy continues about that book. You know, I think people don’t want to acknowledge that homosexuality exists in the animal world because one of the arguments they continue to make against homosexuality is that it’s not in the animal world so it’s a choice, which of course has been disproven.
From Publisher’s Weekly…Levithan's groundbreaking novel—set in an idealized high school where kids are free to express themselves without repercussions or embarrassment—whisks listeners into a unique teen scene via the work of this cast of young actors.
AC: I saw a movie the other day where Nancy Garden talked about “Annie On My Mind”. The author herself is a lesbian and it’s considered the first book in which being lesbian is the solution, not the problem. That was a really big shift in how people looked at things.
From Amazon…Published in 1982, Annie on My Mind remains one of the most censored and controversial teen novels, but it is, even after twenty years, remarkable for two reasons: its emphasis on the healing (even redemptive) power of love and its departure from young adult books that, as Michael Cart has observed, subscribed to "the idea that to be homosexual is to be doomed, either to a premature death or to a life of despair at the darkest margins of society." (Booklist Youth, v. 95)
I find a book on the shelf titled "Pug Dog", which seems out of place but it in fact deals in a subtle way with gender stereotypes…
From Bookclub…Ages 4-8. Gender stereotypes are the not-so-subtle theme driving this slim story about acceptance and pet ownership. Pugdog loves life with owner Mike. The days are spent chasing, rolling, and digging in the park; nights bring fresh bones and belly scratches. But on a trip to the vet, Mike discovers that his "good boy" Pugdog is actually a girl. Mike gives Pug a makeover, bringing her to the doggy salon where she's groomed and outfitted in bows and a dress. Miserable, Pug escapes, tears around the park, and meets a frilly "ladylike" poodle, who's male. Mike learns his lesson, and Pugdog returns to her former life of mud rolling and squirrel chasing. The easy-reader style text is heavy with message, but the clean-lined, humorous illustrations create an endearing character in Pugdog, slobber and all. Pugdog's desire to be seen and accepted will resonate with children, and young pet owners will recognize the sincere bond between Mike and his dog. Gillian Engberg Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
We wander farther back and come across a collection of 6,000 books, all about cats...
AC: She (?) was a world traveler who wherever she went she bought cat books, and most of them are children’s picture books.
Angelica points out that there is a total of 50,000 children’s books at this point in the collection, all organized by author’s last name. The day of our interview, the library was also getting ready to accept a donation of 30-40 boxes of books in Spanish, from all over Latin America.
I ask Angelica how she comes across the books…
AC: When I first came I made a point of speaking at Library Conferences. I write children’s books too, so I get speaking gigs at various libraries. As it turned out librarians had been squirreling away books for some time hoping there would an historical collection in California. So one way I get them is libraries. Another way is private collectors like Michael Cart, and publishers were giving Arne Nixon new books as they came out. Scholastic pretty much gives us every book they publish, which is pretty good news at a time when book budgets are falling
Angelica points out the foreign language section of the collection which includes books in Finnish and Spanish. I notice the catalogued sections include Tanzania, Tagalog, Thai and Turkish.
Having seen that the center also collects the “papers” of authors, I ask Angelica what that includes. She tells me it can include manuscripts, correspondence (including emails), contracts, photographs and letters. The library currently has over a hundred boxes of papers from Michael Cart, as well as a large collection of bilingual papers from Alma Florada, who also donated a large amount of the Spanish language books.
As we walk back toward her office, Angelica points out their collection of books by Walter R Brooks…
In honor of the Friends of Freddy fan club gathering in Fresno, the Arne Nixon Center will exhibit books and artifacts from the library of the late Walter R. Brooks, author of the Freddy the Pig series.Brooks wrote 25 Freddy books, which were published from 1927 to 1958. He also wrote some 200 short stories for adults, 20 of them featuring Ed the Talking Horse, whose adventures formed the basis of the kitsch classic TV show of the 1960s, “Mr. Ed.”
The exhibition includes two cases of books by Brooks and a third case showcasing books illustrated by Kurt Wiese, who provided pictures for all but the first Freddy book. Two pieces of original Freddy art are also included. Wiese became well-known for his illustrations in Felix Salten’s story of Bambi. He won two Caldecott Honor medals, one in 1946 for his book, You Can Write Chinese and another in 1949 for his book, Fish in the Air. He is also the illustrator of the picture book classic, The Story about Ping by Marjorie Flack.
Angelica Carpenter loves what she does. You can see it in her eyes and the expressions on her face when she discusses her work as curator for the Arne Nixon Center. She's emotionally engaged and passionate about the collection, as well as books in general, and that passion is infectious. Her knowledge of books is vast and her charm is abundant. This is an important library collection and Angelica wants to do her best to see that it gets the attention it deserves.
The United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) will hold its 9th IBBY Regional Conference, co-sponsored by the Arne Nixon Center, on the California State University, Fresno campus, October 21-23, 2011. The conference theme is "Peace the World Together with Children's Books." USBBY is expecting 250 participants--professors, librarians, teachers, authors, illustrators, publishers, collectors, and fans from many countries--to attend.
This three-day conference is a rare opportunity to interact with world-renowned authors and illustrators, including Jehan Helou (Tamar Institute and IBBY Executive Committee member), Grace Lin (Chinese-American author/illustrator), Roger Mello (Brazilian illustrator), David Diaz (American illustrator), Beverly Naidoo (South African-British author and Briley Dinner speaker), author Pam Muñoz Ryan and illustrator Peter Sis (collaborators on the book, The Dreamer), Adwoa Badoe (author and storyteller from Ghana), and Cuban-American author, Margarita Engle!
“Down the Rabbit Hole” with Lewis Carroll and Leonard Weisgard
The Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature will offer two coordinating exhibitions from September 14-October 26, 2011. The Leon S. Peters Ellipse Gallery will display books, art, and ephemera from the Arne Nixon Center’s 2,500-item Lewis Carroll collection, one of the largest Lewis Carroll collections in the country. The exhibition will feature original paintings by Leonard Weisgard for his 1949 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The Pete P. Peters Ellipse Balcony will showcase additional art by Weisgard, on loan from his family. Leonard Weisgard won the 1947 Caldecott medal for illustration for his pictures for The Little Island. Author Leonard Marcus will give a talk on “The Art of Leonard Weisgard” on the evening of Friday, September 16, at 6 p.m. The exhibitions are planned to coordinate with the United States Regional Conference of the International Board on Books for Young People, which will bring about 250 people, including dozens of well-known authors and illustrators, to Fresno from around the world, October 21-23, 2011. The conference theme is “Peace the World Together with Children’s Books.” For more information about all events see www.arnenixoncenter.org and www.usbby.org or call 559.278.8116.
Henry Madden Library
California State University, Fresno
5200 North Barton Avenue M/S ML34
Fresno, CA 93740-8014
Telephone: (559) 278-8116 Fax: (559) 278-6952