The University of Chicago Magazine

February 1997


What does it mean to be able to read? For children, it's a key to new worlds and meaning. The books they read--like the stories they're told--stay with them for a long, long time.

Photos by Matthew Gilson

When Katie Trumpener--an associate professor in Germanic studies, comparative literature, English, and the College--offered a course in children's literature and the history of childhood this fall, 50 students signed up to "consider a series of famous 18th, 19th, and early 20th-century texts for and about children," from Songs of Innocence and Experience through Mary Poppins.

The first paper was a five-page essay, moving from the autobiographical to the analytical, on a "childhood reading experience"--a particular book, learning to read, one's relationship to books or to the library, being read to. The assignment, Trumpener admits, was intended to "get students through and past their autobiographical and reminiscent relationships to these texts."

Instead, Trumpener (for whom the book of her childhood was Little Women) was struck by the students' insights and memories: what it felt like to be a child; how a child thought about language, parents, bedtime, space, other children, reading, and fantasy life. Above all, the essays--excerpts from seven of which appear here--make it plain, she says, "to what degree this question about early reading is foundational for the intellectual lives and personalities of these students."

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