July 2021 President's Message

Our successful first virtual conference, ChLA 2021—The Arcade, ended over six weeks ago, and my head is still spinning. Thinking about it actually sends me back to my first ChLA 20 years ago, in Buffalo, NY. At the time I was a recently-tenured faculty member and had spent my sabbatical shifting my focus from Victorian literature to children’s literature instead of working on the “tenure” book that I have, actually, never written. Then, as now, I came back from the conference filled with new ideas, with hope, with possibility—and with no small amount of trepidation as well.

I’m aware of all the privilege that’s packed into that introduction. It feels like a time long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when and where there were still more than a few tenure-track jobs and sabbaticals, and I am deeply aware of, and deeply grateful for, the privilege that got me to that place at that time. I come into the presidency of ChLA aware that it’s my responsibility now to use that privilege to do whatever I can to make this place better, more open, more inclusive, for the spectacular scholars of today, many of whom didn’t hit the same jackpot that I did.

But back to that first conference, in Buffalo. When I arrived at ChLA in 2001, I can’t say that I felt I belonged. I didn’t have the background so many of the fine scholars I was meeting did— I was teaching myself, and this organization was teaching me. I came home from every conference with a reading list (you should see the one from this last one!), and my thinking changed every year as I read new books, learned new approaches, and caught up on all the reading it felt like everyone else had been doing for years.

And, in the sessions, I mostly sat in the back and absorbed. As the only person teaching children’s literature in a small English department, this was the one time every year I felt like I had colleagues--but they were still only names to me, most of the time. As I came back every year, though, I kept learning, and as I learned, I was invited in. Teya Rosenberg, Naomi Wood, Karin Westman, Lee Talley, and many others invited me on to panels to present inchoate work that they and many others helped me rethink. June Cummins invited me, as she invited so many of us, to have a meal with her and talk about books (and being an academic parent) and I felt as if maybe in this place I didn’t have to wall parts of myself off, as I did in so many other academic spaces. Michelle Martin actually invited me up on stage to sing, and I learned that 1) I would not die and 2) scholarship takes many forms, some of them performative. Mike Cadden, Julie Pfeiffer, Jack Zipes, Phil Nel, Lissa Paul, Jennie Miskec, and any number of anonymous readers--probably some of you--pushed me to make my work better, then published it in journals and collections inspired or sponsored by this organization. Mostly, though, I learned in panels and roundtables, scribbling down lists of books and turns of phrase, revising my syllabus every year after ChLA, making it more inclusive, more interesting, more diverse. My pedagogy developed here as well, as I learned new tools and new approaches. I did my own homework, of course, but ChLA was and is my school.

On Monday, June 14, the new Board of Directors of ChLA held their first meeting. Usually this is a one-hour meeting held during the conference itself, but--as with everything this year--we had to do things differently in our virtual space. I am immensely grateful to the Board of Directors: Chris McGee, Lara Saguisag, Amy Pattee, Naomi Hamer, Cristina Rhodes, Angel Daniel Matos, Victoria Ford Smith, Sarah Park Dahlen, Karin Westman, and Brigitte Fielder; and our Executive Committee: Vice President/President-Elect Althea Tait, Past President Thomas Crisp, Secretary Maude Hines, and Treasurer Tammy Mielke--for their willingness to take on the hard work of governance this year and for showing up on a two-hour Zoom call the day after a five-day Zoom conference. Our association manager, Jamie Reed, also deserves our thanks for organizing the meeting after her herculean efforts in the conference.

At our first meeting, we spent most of our time getting to know each other and establishing our norms and guidelines for our work during the upcoming year. What I heard, threaded throughout our conversation that day, was a deep desire for openness, transparency, and accountability. As we begin our work with the Archway Consulting Group, some of our greatest challenges will be to ensure that we are aligning our budget with our values, our actions with our vision. It is easy, we reminded ourselves, to say we support each other, to form a committee, to write a report. It is harder to make the difficult choices about how to allocate limited resources, or to fundraise when so many are so precariously employed and have faced such immense hardships this past year--not to mention all the previous years, as the academy has withdrawn support, year after year, for tenure, for full-time positions, for fair treatment of scholars and teachers.

But here’s the thing: the academy is us. And ChLA is us. We saw that this year, I think, in the most inclusive and accessible conference we’ve ever held, as we reminded each other at every panel to follow our accessibility guidelines, as we held panels and events across five days, including the Creative Kids and Black YA and the Arcade events, the amazing panels sponsored by the Diversity, Accessibility, and International Committees, the Syllabus Exchange that focused on Disrupting Whiteness in the Classroom, and such an incredible intellectual feast of papers and posters that I am still processing all I learned. The conference represents the best of us, including new ideas that have come from the membership, and it is up to us to continue to develop and change and grow into our uncertain future.

If we value this community, then, it’s up to us to continue to work to change it, and to change it by doing the hard work of calling us out when we deserve it, but also, perhaps even harder, calling us in. In, to community with each other. In, to conversation and dialogue. In, to the hard work of rethinking our structures. Are the prizes unfair? Let’s make a plan to change them. And then, let’s enact it. Is the conference inaccessible? Let’s listen to the accessibility committee, adopt their recommendations, and work harder to make sure our members can participate fully. Are our members hurting? Let’s listen to them, really listen, to start the hard work of healing.

I do not have all the answers. Indeed, I’m not sure I have any. Borrowing from Kate Capshaw’s presidential address from 2019, I’m here to say, I don’t know. But I come to ChLA to learn. It’s what I’ve always done, from that first conference I attended in 2001. This is where I find strength, and wisdom, and hope. This is where, even in sadness, I find joy: because it is here, among you, that I know I am among others who also care. About children, about their books, about their media, about the lives they live and the world we are leaving them. The best way I know to honor that is to work together to learn, study, and grow: as an organization, as scholars, and as teachers.

So, some specifics:

  1. I’ll continue Thomas Crisp’s practice of monthly office hours, so anyone who likes can drop in via Zoom and let me know what’s on your mind. If the time I’ve got scheduled doesn’t work for you, drop me a line and we’ll find another time. Let’s talk.

  2. The Board has been researching training options for the Ombuds committee since its inception this past December. The generosity of members like you makes it possible to fund training for our Ombuds committee this year, and we are exploring ways to make sure that funding is not a barrier to training in the future. The Ombuds Committee has now received details on several options for training, and we are working to make sure they are able to do their work as intended. The committee will focus much of their time this year on training and developing procedures for the committee to follow in the future, and if that’s the case, please be patient with them and with us as the committee develops best practices going forward, remembering as well that our Ethics Committee is the first point of contact for concerns and complaints regarding possible violations of our anti-harassment and appropriate conduct policy.

  3. Our work with Archway Consulting is only just beginning. This consulting group will focus on helping us infuse equity into our strategic plan. A steering committee comprising members of the board and members at large (myself, Althea Tait, Tammy Mielke, Amy Pattee, Cristina Rhodes, Roberta Price Gardner, Michelle Martin, and Thomas Crisp) is meeting with Archway monthly. The consultants will interview several key stakeholders in the association, review our governance documents, and, in consultation with the steering committee and with input from their interviews and document review, survey the membership later this year. Please be on the lookout for that survey, which will be central to our strategic planning process. Please also feel free to be in touch with members of the steering committee with your questions.

  4. Our first virtual conference taught us a lot about how to hold such events, and while most of us are eager to return to a face-to-face conference next year (and while we have contracts that oblige us to do so for the next two years), we also want to take what we learned from this event forward, both into our face-to-face conferences and perhaps into future online events, which may be more accessible to many of our colleagues. Let us know your thoughts: about accessibility, about conferences, about how the organization can best serve you, our members, as we move forward—not back to normal, but ahead into our new reality.

  5. And, of course, please send me your ideas, your comments, your complaints, your concerns. I know I can’t do this alone. As I noted above, we’ve got a great board, and I expect to rely on them greatly, but they are only a dozen people in an organization of over 400. Reach out to the committees that interest you, to me, and to the Board, and let us know how we can make this the accessible, inclusive, and equity-minded organization we know it can be.

Finally, I must close with some bittersweet news for ChLA: Jamie Reed, our indefatigable association manager, has been offered and accepted a promotion to Senior Association Manager to support another client at Meeting Expectations. This means that as of August, she will no longer be our association manager, although she will remain at Meeting Expectations and will be available to help with the transition.

Over the past five years Jamie has helped ChLA grow in many ways, and has supported us as we took on new challenges and opportunities, from the Diversity Committee’s strategic plan to the development of the Accessibility, Ethics, and Ombuds Committees, and including especially this past year’s successful virtual conference. Her hard work, cheerful demeanor, and genuine commitment to us and to our community have been invaluable as we have faced the inevitable growing pains of a professional organization moving into its sixth decade. 

The Executive Committee will soon meet with Beth Chitnis of ME to discuss our options going forward. In the meantime, Jamie will continue to support us, with the help of a transition specialist from ME.

Please join me in congratulating Jamie on her promotion, and in thanking her for supporting ChLA for the past five years. Jamie, we’ll miss you—but we look forward to keeping in touch!

Warmly, and with all best wishes for the coming academic year,

Libby Gruner Signature

Elisabeth Gruner
ChLA President, 2021-2022

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