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Honoring a True Pioneer: The Alison White Award

By Henry Kreisel

At the beginning of the 1950s the Faculty of Education asked the Department of English to develop a course in children's literature. The proposal was not, to put it mildly, received with enthusiasm.

It seemed outlandish at the time to offer a course in children's literature at the university level. It was not considered academically responsible. But the Faculty of Education would not be deterred. Their students needed to be prepared, and it couldn't be taken for granted that every new teacher would know how to present literary works that were read by children.

The members of the Department of English resisted, but eventually the pressure proved too great and they had to agree to develop such a course. There was one proviso. The course, once offered, could not be taken by students in the Faculty of Arts.

Who would give the course? No member of the Department volunteered. No one felt competent, and that was certainly true. But there was also a snob factor at work. None of the men (there were no women staff members in the Department at the time) felt that it would enhance their careers if they developed such a course. For was it really possible to do "serious" research in such a new-fangled field, if indeed it was really a scholarly field at all?

So we had to search for someone who might be able to teach children's literature. It was not easy to find such a person, because our attitude to the subject was wide-spread, and there were very few specialists in the field. Eventually, we found Alison White, and she joined the Department in 1955.

It was immediately apparent that we had found a true scholar, a person who brought rigorous and exacting intellectual standards to literary analysis. She had received her PhD from the University of Iowa in 1947, and had served as a research assistant to Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, two of the great names in literary criticism at the time. She was also a wonderful human being and she became one of the most loved figures in the Department.

She retired in 1974, but has remained a friend to all of us who knew her when she first came here, and has become a friend to a whole new generation of staff and students.

Alison White did not only teach students, but she taught her colleagues as well. Very soon after she arrived, we became aware, because of her presence and the practical example she set, that children's literature could be an exciting and intellectually demanding field of study. She showed us how to read (or re-read) "Mother Goose", how children were treated in the old Ballads, how Pilgrim's Progress could be read as a fairy tale, and how folklore was related to children's literature and found its way into the most sophisticated literary texts. She thus opened up a whole new world of literary exploration.

When the course she had developed had to be sectioned, the old prejudice against children's literature had disappeared and many of Alison White's most distinguished colleagues were ready to teach the course. Students no longer had to be in the Faculty of Education to take the course, and many from other faculties did. Children's literature entered the curriculum in many universities and Alison White was widely consulted by universities both in Canada and in the United States. In 1970 the University's Department of Comparative Literature asked her to offer a graduate seminar in international literature written for, or read by, children.

Alison White thus played a seminal role in the development of what was, in the 1950s, a new and not particularly highly regarded specialty and she helped to establish standards of excellence in the field. It is therefore most fitting that the Department of English is about to establish the Alison White Award in Children's Literature. It will honor a true pioneer in literary studies.

We hope that many of her friends, both members of the academic staff and students, will make contributions to this award. Donations will be tax-deductible and eligible for matching grants, and may be sent to the Department of English or to the Student Awards Office.

Published Summer 1989.

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