Pioneering appreciation for young people’s texts and cultures
This article by Adam Campbell was originally published in the commemorative 2017 edition of UWinnipeg Magazine.
Dr. Mavis Reimer was convinced she was an expert in English literature.
And then she had a daughter.
“I loved to read, I was an English literature scholar with an MA in the field, and I had no idea how to choose good books for a kid,” said Reimer, now Dean of The University of Winnipeg’s Faculty of Graduate Studies. “I thought, ‘That is odd. What’s wrong with my education?’”
With that, Reimer, then on a hiatus from her graduate work, had discovered a lifelong passion: children’s literature. When she returned to doctoral studies ten years later, she shifted the focus of her research from Renaissance and Jacobean-era dramas to the texts of L.T. Meade, a popular author of British girl’s stories at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
And while today few academics would question the study of children’s texts, in the 1970s, her pursuit was a novel one.
“At one point, I would have recognized a complicated text that rewards an educated reader as ‘good literature,’” said Reimer. “Today I would ask, ‘Good for what?’ … We read in different ways for different things — for information, for pleasure, because you’re interested in an issue, to figure out a problem of language or form, among many other things.”
In fact, Reimer says, many children’s stories reward nuanced and complex readings — often made even more impressive by their reliance on pictures. As an example, Reimer cites one of her favourite books, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.
“At the beginning of Charlotte’s Web, readers are asked to give their complete sympathy to the underdog [Wilbur, a pig destined for slaughter], which is a really common strategy in children’s books. But as time goes on and Fern [Wilbur’s saviour and caregiver] loses interest in Wilbur, readers are asked to read with both of the central characters at different points. … There’s a fairly complicated experience being created for young readers.”
While children’s texts may seem to be a niche study, UWinnipeg has been home to several trailblazers in the field, including Dr. Kay Stone, who taught the first children’s literature course at the University, and internationally recognized author and critic Dr. Perry Nodelman.
That list includes Reimer, who has forged an impressive path during her career. In addition to her numerous publications on the subject, she served as a Canada Research Chair from 2005 to 2015, during which time she established the Centre for Research in Young People’s Texts and Cultures at UWinnipeg. She also played a key role in the founding of the University’s Faculty of Graduate Studies in 2012.
So why has the field grown so much at UWinnipeg? According to Reimer, it’s simple: because it was allowed to.
“I think it has to do with the kind of university we are that [children’s literature studies] grew into something really substantial here. There were people interested in growing the field, and the university allowed them to do so. Students sometimes talk about valuing [UWinnipeg] as a place of flexibility for them, but it also supports professors and their passions.”