Reading Appalachia

It may have been when Jamie Osborn (’08) came upon Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May that she found herself getting angry.

Back when Osborn was a master’s student, Professor of Information Science Jinx Watson worked with her on creating an online bibliography of Appalachian children’s literature. In the course of carrying out that assignment, Osborn came upon dozens of books—like Rylant’s novel about a West Virginia orphan girl—which she had simply never known about while growing up in Hazard, Kentucky, and Poca, West Virginia.

“In Appalachia, all this great literature was not shown to you as a kid,” she says. “I had wonderful teachers, but none of this was taught to me. I don’t know why it wasn’t, but it wasn’t. I became very passionate about it.”

When it came time for Osborn to do her thesis, Watson heard her talk about Appalachian children’s literature and said, “That’s your topic.”

Osborn titled her thesis “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.”

In other words, Osborn asked, why aren’t these titles showcased more?

Through September 14, visitors to the exhibition “Reading Appalachia: Voices from Children’s Literature,” at the Museum of East Tennessee History, may ask themselves the same question as they experience a multimedia rendition of Osborn’s bibliography.

“There’s so much depth in this body of work,” says Osborn. “There are so many universal themes—like the theme of family in Missing May. You often see the love of nature in these works, like Children of the Great Smoky Mountains by May Justus and My Appalachia: A Reminiscence by Rebecca Caudill. The authors understand the love of the place.

As it was with Osborn’s thesis, the exhibit was a result of her passion for the topic.

Osborn has worked for the Knox County Public Library since 2002, at the McClung Historical Collection, in Lawson McGhee Library downtown, and now as branch manager in Halls.

Two years ago, her colleague Mary Pom Claiborne, the library system’s director of marketing and community outreach, was looking for an exhibit to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Knox County Library’s Children’s Festival of Reading. “I heard Jamie talking about her thesis,” says Claiborne, “and I said, ‘Bingo!’ What could be more perfect?”

Claiborne enlisted Adam Alfrey (’04 A&S), the East Tennessee History Center’s curator of exhibitions, to present Osborn’s bibliography to the public. “It’s supposed to feel like you’re in a storybook,” says Alfrey, who mounted life-size storybook characters, gathered period clothing and toys, and included recorded voices of regional authors and storytellers.

Alfrey also mounted more than fifty books on boards, secured by thick string but available to be touched and read. It is almost impossible to walk by classics like The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman and Daniel Boone by James Henry Daugherty without opening them up and starting reading.

“The main theme is voices,” says Osborn, “and Adam’s exhibit really brings that to life. You see the literature evolve from the 1800s and a pioneering nature to the modern day. And all the voices are represented. There’s a lot more ethnic diversity than one might imagine. I hope people pick up on that.”

It’s hard for passers-by to resist books like Knoxville, Tennessee by Nikki Giovanni, Sounder by William H. Armstrong, Myths of the Cherokee by James Mooney, Dream Soul by Lawrence Yep, and the Melungeon voice in Sang Spell by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.

When hard copies of classic titles were hard to find, Alfrey turned to librarians Miranda Clark and Sarah Webb at UT’s Center for Children’s and Young Adult Literature and Kenneth Wise at Hodges Library.

“We couldn’t have done it without their help,” says Claiborne.

In the end, the literature is all about inspiring the imaginations of young people. On a panel where visitors can leave their impressions of the exhibit on a Post-It, one child wrote that the exhibit “Inspired me to write a book about being a traveling frontier-era ghost!”

For more information about the exhibit and Appalachian children’s literature, visit tiny.utk.edu/enV6q.

2 Comments on “Reading Appalachia

  1. Kudos to the practice of getting the right book into the hands of the right child at the right time. Since most things rural have been purged from other media it is so important that children of Appalachia get the idea that it is just great to be a child of the Appalachian culture. Where best than in books like the award winning When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant.

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