Montana State University

Irving students give perspective on research into early children's literature

May 17, 2006 -- by Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Alia Sobrepena, a student at Bozeman's Irving School, demonstrates the power of an Aesop's fable during a presentation on 19th century children's literature to be held May 18 at the Museum of the Rockies. Written by MSU professor Lynda Sexson, the play and lecture illustrate the roots of American literacy and mores. MSU photo by Jay Thane.   High-Res Available

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Lynda Sexson, professor of religious studies at Montana State, says there is a link between the rhymes children have recited for centuries and the roots of American culture.

Some of those connections will be explored at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 18, at the Museum of the Rockies' Hager Auditorium when 10 students from Irving School enact Sexson's presentation and lecture, "What is a Book: Literacy in the 19th Century." The presentation, which is free and open to the public, is subtitled "Alphabet, Book, Child."

Sexson said that the 10 aspiring thespians from Irving have helped her to look at the topic of her long-time research and planned book, through fresh eyes.

"The kids are absolutely amazing," said Sexson of the children who demonstrate the role of the books in American values and history by bringing to life the lessons and messages evidenced in early children's primers, chapbooks and entertainments.

Sexson wrote the script for the presentation, which includes narrations by her husband, MSU English professor Michael Sexson. She says his comments are placed "in the crevices of the children's vignettes." The script is playful and clever, an example of Sexson's probing into literacy and its historic development in America, and lessons that Sexson usually reserves for graduate and upper level history, philosophy and religious studies students.

As she wrote the presentation, Sexson discovered that the subtleties of her scholarly work were not lost on young students.

"I think if something is very compelling, it will be equally compelling if you are 7 years old to 70 years old," Sexson said. "The level of imagination does not change, and the children have been very happy to give me their ideas."

Central to the presentation is Sexson's personal collection of antique tracts and early childhood books, some originally published in the late 18th century. Some of those books will be displayed at Thursday's performance. Sexson delights in the books' brittle, yellow pages illustrated with blunt woodcuts, and the severe lessons they conveyed. Many of the books were published as awards of merit for outstanding academic performance. Some are covered in wallpaper and others are tiny enough to fit in a Victorian child's pocket.

"These books are ephemeral, small enough to fit in pockets and printed on paper at a time when paper was so dear," she said of the books that she carefully stores in wooden chests and organized binders.

"The purpose of these books was to help the children (of early America) to learn to read the Bibles," said Sexson as she gently lifted away a leaf that had been pressed into one yellowed volume for more than a century, leaving an imprint of dark gold. "They represented a shift in what a child was handed out and how he or she should learn."

Sexson was not surprised that her seven-year-old granddaughter, Devita, was nearly as fascinated with the delicate and aged books as was Sexson, since the books were originally focused on the young. When she came upon the idea of using kids to demonstrate the impact of the books on children long ago, she contacted Jim Bruggeman, principal of Irving School, proposing a play based on historic children's literature. In addition to the school, the Montana Committee for the Humanities, Irving International School, the Museum of the Rockies, and the MSU Department of History and Philosophy, Montana State University, sponsor the presentation.

"It has been great fun," said Sexson, even though some of the lessons of the lecture are profound. For instance, the children have learned the core lesson that books are for the purpose of diversion, information and transformation. "And," Sexson adds, "They a have learned that no one is the same after reading a book."

Lynda Sexson (406) 994-5200, 586-3479, uhils@montana.edu