NHPRC Grant | Twentieth Century Children’s Literature

In September 2019, SCUA began working on a new project: Twentieth Century Children’s Literature: Exploring the Past, Understanding the Present. This project is generously supported by a two-year grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), a division of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Detail of dust jacket illustration for The Newcomers.
Detail of dust jacket illustration for The Newcomers, circa 1974. Left: Ink on acetate overlays, Right: Color proof. Kurt Werth papers, Coll 100, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.

This project will greatly improve access to the collections of three prominent children’s literature authors: Kurt Wiese, Edwin Tunis, and Kurt Werth. The goals of this project are to:

  • rehouse manuscript material and original illustrations
  • update associated finding aids to current standards
  • mount online and local exhibitions promoting the historical significance of the material

The collections identified for this grant represent a core strength in the University of Oregon’s holdings, with broad appeal that reflects upon the American experience during and after the two World Wars. Children’s literature, which often flies under the cultural radar, is a fascinating rubric through which one can understand the ideological tenor of a society. Our collective values, for better or worse, are mirrored back to us in the stories and lessons of our children. Twentieth century children’s literature echoes the radical changes that occurred in American society: at times celebratory, optimistic, and inclusive; and alternately vexing and racist, presenting a white-washed and Eurocentric account of American history.

The authors selected for this project offer us insight into this complex and contradictory terrain. For example, Kurt Werth’s illustrations for The Newcomers—Ten Tales of American Immigrants and Meet Miki Takino embrace multicultural perspectives as intrinsic to the fabric of American life. On the other hand, Edwin Tunis’s award-winning books, such as Indians and Frontier Living, paint a narrow and distorted account of life in the American West, told in an exclusively white and privileged language. Kurt Wiese celebrates international cultures with titles such as The Chinese Ink Stick, but has been criticized for succumbing to common Asian stereotypes of the era. His illustrations for the Freddy the Pig series, however, raise important questions on topics as diverse as free speech and propaganda, to what constitutes a model citizen in the modern age. These are but a few of the complex subjects that surface in these collections of children’s literature.

In today’s era of political unrest, radical changes to immigration policy, and fears over the spread of false information, it is vital that we understand and challenge the influences that have shaped our culture. Preserving and promoting these important collections will provoke crucial conversations for our youth and adults alike, while also contributing significantly to the history of the genre.

We will be sharing our progress and discoveries during the grant project here, so stay tuned!

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