Frame of Reference

The End of an Era: A Personal Tribute To Sheila Egoff, Children's Literature Critic, Professor, Mentor and Friend

by Judith Saltman

The past several years have seen the deaths of seminal figures in the criticism and academic study of children's literature: Ethel and Paul Heins, Charlotte Huck, Zena Sutherland, Nancy Larrick. These pioneers in children's literature scholarship and teaching have left a contribution to children's literature—the lasting legacy of their ideas, writing and spirited advocacy of quality children's books. Their passing signals the end of an era to those of us who grew up on their writings and mentorship.

One warm, sunny day in May, 2005, in Vancouver, Canada, the University of British Columbia flag flew at half mast to honour the memory of Sheila Egoff, Professor Emerita of the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, who died on May 22 at age 87.

Sheila's contribution to children's literature scholarship was broad ranging, involving many interests and approaches, from Canadian and international children's literature to scholarly bibliography of early and rare children's book collections. She wrote seminal works of children's literature scholarship for over fifty years, beginning in the 1950s, a time when little serious scholarship was available, and children's literature was not respected in the academy. Through her teaching, advocacy, and scholarship, she was one of the early ground-breaking academics and critics who worked to bring the present acceptance and recognition of children's literature as a legitimate scholarly discipline into being.

Sheila was one of the founding faculty members of the University of British Columbia's School of Librarianship in 1962 and the first tenured professor of children's literature in Canada. For over twenty years at the School, the teaching of children's literature and library services was at the centre of Sheila's life. Upon her retirement in 1983, she had developed five graduate courses in children's literature and youth library services. Her early achievements in this program had an influence two decades later in the founding of Canada's first multidisciplinary Master of Arts in Children's Literature Program at the University of British Columbia, which is offered by The School of Library, Archival & Information Studies in conjunction with three other University of British Columbia departments—English, Language and Literacy, and Theatre, Film and Creative Writing.

For twenty years following her retirement in 1983, she continued, with energy and passion, to write books on children's literature. Her spirited and scholarly teaching formed and influenced a generation of children's librarians. Enthusiastic promoters of children's books and reading were produced at the School and went out to the world—to libraries across Canada, the United States, Japan, and elsewhere. They applied her rigorous message, inherited from Walter de la Mare via Lillian Smith, her mentor at the Toronto Public Library: "only the best is good enough for children", by writing children's books, storytelling, practicing and administering children's services in public and school libraries, and contributing to the cultural life of their communities.

As a young children's librarian in the internationally renowned children's library service of the Toronto Public Library, Sheila Egoff had been a disciple of Lillian Smith, a towering figure in early children's librarianship and a pioneer critic of children's literature. Sheila learned her philosophies of quality library service and stringent evaluation of children's literature under Smith.

Sheila was instrumental in bringing the famed British Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books to the Toronto Public Library and was that collection's first curator. Her experience in serving the reading needs of contemporary children was balanced with learning about four centuries of writing, publishing, and illustrating books for children. Her historical and bibliographic work is meticulous, combining book history and literary analysis with historical, analytical and descriptive bibliography. It includes Children's Periodicals of the 19th Century and two annotated catalogues of holdings in the Arkley Collection of Early and Historical Children's Literature, which she attracted to the University of British Columbia Library.

Her literary analysis of contemporary international children's literature, Thursday's Child, won the Ralph R. Shaw American Library Association Award for library literature. As the chief editor of three editions of Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, Egoff established this resource of critical essays on children's literature as a respected and fundamental choice in courses in children's literature world-wide. Her study of fantasy, Worlds Within: Children's Fantasy from the Middle Ages to Today, is an important source in its field.

There is no single story or image I can conjure up that captures Sheila effectively. She was a woman of many qualities and intellectual interests: a storyteller; a teacher; a critic and a writer; a mentor to generations of librarians and children's literature lovers.

My first memory of Sheila is from 1970. I was a young library school student sitting in the big drafty classroom at the top of the 8th floor of the University of British Columbia's crumbling old main library. A delicate, petite, impeccably dressed woman marched briskly to the front of the room and changed my life forever.

I had promised one of my English professors, when I chose library school over pursuing a Ph.D in English, that I wouldn't become what she called "one of those smiling girls handing books to children". I replied that I was going to work in a rare books library, no doubt surrounded by Shakespeare folios. But this course in children's literature—something I'd never studied in an English department—taught by a Professor Egoff—well, I'd try it just for fun. Something to take my mind off cataloguing.

The tiny woman walked to the front of the class and without a single word of preamble, in a deep, still voice began: "Lady Mary was young and Lady Mary was fair. She had more lovers than she could count on the fingers of both hands.... Among them all was a certain Mister Fox."

After the long story of "Mister Fox," the British folktale variant of "Bluebeard," I was left shivering with the refrain "Be bold, be bold, but not too bold, lest that your heart's blood should become cold." And my life had changed. I wanted to be a storyteller. I wanted to work with children. I wanted to immerse myself in the children's books that Sheila introduced to our classes in her rigorous and resonant lectures.

She taught her students the long and complex history and exciting present of children's books. She believed that children's literature was about ideas, spirit and the education of the imagination—that how something was written was as important as what was said.

Sheila taught us that children's librarianship was a calling, a vocation, and that children deserved from libraries and children's books, "only the best," in her quotation from Walter de la Mare. I can still hear her say: "If you think a mediocre book can do something for a child, my question to you is: why can't a better book do it better."

Thirty years later, as part of a course, two of my students spent a spring visiting Sheila, talking with her about philosophies of children's literature and librarianship. One of them said to me: "Judi, you've talked and talked to us about how children deserve the best children's books, but Sheila made me believe it to my core."

Sheila was one of the first Canadian critics of children's literature recognized outside Canada. She was the first Canadian appointed as a judge for the international Hans Christian Andersen Awards for children's literature. Whenever I have travelled to conferences in other countries, people always mention her name as an advocate for quality children's literature, a critical guide through the world of books.

She was sought after as a speaker for her strong ideas and controversial opinions. She was an Arbuthnot Lecturer in 1979 and a Library of Congress Book Week lecturer over a decade later. Whether in a classroom, in a speech, or in conversation, her ideas were always large and expansive. In an email to me, Marie Davis Zimmerman, children's literature professor and co-editor of CCL: Canadian Children's Literature, remembers: "She was so fierce in her opinions. Discussing things with her was like drinking strong scotch after sipping watery spritzers all day."

Sheila recounted an experience that took place at a 1980s children's literature conference in Japan, when a young woman asked her a question following her lecture. The translator refused to translate the question, saying it was insulting. But Sheila insisted and the question was a challenge: What gave Sheila the right to make these pronouncements about children's literature? How could she be so certain of her statements? Sheila was delighted with the debate and the question. It went to the heart of her beliefs. Her answer was simple: "Because I have read so many children's books." Her conviction that reading thoughtfully and deeply led to understanding was one of her major teachings.

She became the first critic of Canadian children's literature with her groundbreaking 1967 The Republic of Childhood: A Critical Guide to Canadian Children's Literature in English, the first monograph on the subject. Two further editions followed in 1976 and 1990. Her advocacy for quality international standards in the beginning years of Canadian children's literature and publishing in the 1960s and 1970s had a profound influence on the development of Canada's books for children. She worked closely with other 1960s and 1970s advocates of Canadian children's literature and publishing for children, such as William Toye, Oxford University Press' editorial director. She advocated tirelessly for a children's literature division at the National Library of Canada. She was the only children's literature professor to be honoured as an Officer of the Order of Canada. Sheila developed the first Pacific Rim Conference on Children's Literature, at the University of British Columbia in 1976, one of the first children's literature conferences held in Canada and one of the first international conferences to include Pacific Rim conference speakers. The conference continues to this day as an internationally noted children's literature conference.

Many emails to me after her death commented on her significance to Canada. "What a great Canadian and a transformational figure in Canadian children's literature," said Catherine Ross, professor at The University of Western Ontario.

Professor Egoff was honoured for her inspiring teaching of children's literature, winning awards from library associations and honorary doctorates from three Canadian universities. She received recognition in the United States for her publications and teaching. Susan Bloom, director, of Simmons College Center for the Study of Children's Literature emailed me to say: "The American children's book world mourns Sheila's passing. So many of us used her books when she was one of the pioneering intelligent voices to which one turned when one wanted a good read and thoughtful probing commentary." Along with the American Library Association Ralph R. Shaw Award for Library Literature Sheila received The University of Utah's Landau Award for Excellence in Teaching Children's and Young Adult Literature in 1983. Just last year she received the Children's Literature Association's lifetime achievement for scholarship in children's literature, the Anne Devereaux Jordan Award. In the 1980s, the British Columbia Book Prizes established an annual award for children's literature which bears her name.

As a teacher and critic, she could always prick a puffed balloon of pretension. Marking my first student essay, she added a brief note: "Please, for me, next time, don't add 250 Ibids" and "if you use the word Edenic one more time...." That same sharp and humorous eye was still there 20 years later, as I worked with her on The New Republic of Childhood, sitting long hours at her kitchen table, talking back and forth about individual books and ideas, while she wrote in long hand on lined, yellow paper. After I wrote ten pages of plot synopsis to convince her of the value of a particular book: "Judi, if you have to write all this to explain it to me, it can't be a good book."

Sheila treated children and children's books with great respect and took her writing very seriously. A forceful push for the truth, the courage to never take the easy way out, the energy and commitment that she brought to meticulous revisions of the same chapter over and over, these qualities have marked Sheila's career in her writing, speeches, teaching, and criticism. As we came to the end of The New Republic of Childhood, she told me, "Writing is the only thing that lasts."

Professor Egoff's graduates include writers of children's books, two of whom, Kit Pearson and Sarah Ellis, are national Canadian award-winners and known world-wide. Those who studied with Sheila became, in their turn, mentors for another generation of children's writers and librarians, teaching at universities and writing critically on children's literature.

Sheila possessed a gift of friendship. She was a great hostess whose parties were legendary. We remember her dancing on table tops into her 70s. Her colleagues and students remained her life-long friends, taking delight in her warmth, generosity, and wit.

In her last years, as she struggled with declining health and the loss of her sight, Sheila wrote her final book by dictation. It is to be called Once Upon a Time: My Life with Children's Books, by Sheila Egoff, with Wendy Sutton, and will be published in October, 2005 by Orca Book Publishers. Some of my remembrances in this article will appear in the book, as will those of other students, colleagues and friends.

I have received scores of emails from librarians, academics and writers since I sent out Sheila's obituary in May. They have come from every province and territory of Canada, from the North West Territories to Newfoundland, throughout the United States, from Boston to Wisconsin, from Japan and Shanghai. Listservs buzzed with comments and emotion. Ginny Moore Kruse, children's literature specialist, on the ALSC listserv said: "This morning I'm certainly not the only person who has already reached for her or his personal copy of Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature after reading [the obituary]... Sheila Egoff was directly involved with ALSCA, ALA and other endeavors in the U.S.A., such as providing the 1979 ALSC Arbuthnot Lecture. Sheila contributed mightily to our collective understanding of Children's Literature; and in an entirely different way, so did the 1992 Arbuthnot Lecturer, Charlotte S. Huck, who died on April 7. Their substantial works continue to provide essential insights and connections."

Some of the emails recall her many kindnesses, as does this from Andrea Deakin, Canadian children's literature reviewer and critic: "I remember the first special event I was part of. [Sheila] was the guest speaker and I was one of a panel. It was the first time I had met her. I was dreadfully nervous about speaking.... She had me sit next to her, and held my left hand under the table while I spoke, squeezing it if she liked a point I had made. She got me through that!" Other critics, such as Lissa Paul, recalled meeting her for the first time: "I remember the day clearly when you walked me deeply into the interior of the library—and there she was in person, surrounded by what—in my memory—felt like towers of books. Which seems right."

Children's book writers from Canada also emailed their thoughts. Nan Gregory said that Sheila had passed on "her tradition of clear eyed, open hearted passion for communicating a love and appreciation of good books for children." Tim Wynne-Jones wrote: "The end of an era. What a remarkable woman. I'm not sure if I ever told you but Only Connect was the single most important book for me when I was starting out in this biz. I'm talking about the second edition, which I have read again and again over the years. It is the critical book I first recommend to my graduate students at Vermont College. They are 'creative writing' students who are, none the less, required to write critically throughout their two year MFA. Only write as vibrantly as this, I tell them. Nothing else will do."

Judith Saltman

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"The End of an Era"
© Judith Saltman, 2005.
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