Rediscovering children’s nature writing

Posted on March 18, 2022

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Digging into the public domain archives isn’t for the faint of heart.

“There are a huge number of primary texts, and most of them are lost because of the sheer volume,” says English major Rene Marzuk.

Marzuk is on a team of students, led by Dr. Karen Kilcup, who are excavating the archives in search of children’s literature written between 1824 to about 1924 for an online anthology. “The Envious Lobster,” which is supported by a UNCG Libraries Digital Partners grant, is an open-source collection of texts at the intersection of children’s literature and nature writing.

“The distinction between children’s literature and nature writing wasn’t very defined,” he says, “So there are all these writings for children that no one’s ever explored in terms of how they intersect with environmental topics.”

Marzuk, who is in the accelerated BA to MA program, is passionate about bringing these forgotten texts to light. “If these texts remain unidentified in the public domain archives, they can’t be used, and they can’t influence our current conversations about these topics.”

His focus within the project is rediscovering the work of authors of color.

“It narrows my search, and also makes it harder. The work of writers of color was not as visible as other works during this period. They often had specific magazines they wrote in, and specific audiences.”

Writers of color had specific expectations bearing on their writing, too. “There’s this very important poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, who wrote poems in dialect and in standard English, but his poems in dialect were more in demand,” says Marzuk. “That’s what was expected of writers of color: to provide some idea of ‘authenticity.’”

Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask,” highlights “this idea of always having to wear a mask instead of showing who you really are in these intellectual public settings.”

Though Dunbar was well-known in his time, readers today may not know that he wrote for children as well as adults.

Marzuk’s search for relevant texts relies heavily on his knowledge of the period. “It’s a long period, and there were a lot of changes happening. The Civil War, Reconstruction. New scientific findings that changed the way people were thinking about nature, and the place of humankind within it.”

His search also benefits from serendipity, he says.

“I was looking at the Southern Workman magazine and saw an article by Leslie Pinckney Hill. I hadn’t heard of him, so I looked him up and found a book that he wrote an introduction for called ‘The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer,’ which was edited by Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Now I have this massive book of poems that were meant for black children. It’s like finding a treasure chest.”

The work doesn’t stop at finding new texts to add to the anthology. Each text is accompanied by annotations that place it in context, including information about the author and about literary and other elements used in the stories, poems, songs, and even riddles included in the collection.

One poem he found mentioned an owlet’s hoots, so he linked the piece to the Audubon Society’s collection of recorded owl sounds.

Another text – a fable for African American children called “The Boy and the Ideal,” written by Joseph S. Cotter Sr. – follows a boy looking for a star. Animals the boy talks to on his journey tell him his search is silly, but he perseveres. Marzuk linked this text to sources discussing how black children were often excluded from the innocence associated with white children during this period.

“I think understanding this dynamic makes this text even more important. It was going against the grain and reasserting this group that was being sidelined.”

“We try to enrich each text as much as we can,” he adds. “It’s not just about finding these texts, but making them relevant and meaningful for modern readers.”

Story by Hope Voorhees

Portrait photography by Jewel Oates

Marzuk discusses his undergraduate research experience in the URSCO blog

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