AJ Dome: OUR NEIGHBORS | Author, professor Philip Nel finds framework for life in children's literature studies

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AJ Dome, The Manhattan Mercury, Kan.
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Mar. 23—As a child, Philip Nel wrote and illustrated his own stories, giving him the notion early in life to create something another person might read someday.

"One of the best parts of my job is I'm always learning new things, and I get to share what I learn with others in classes I teach and things I write," Nel said. "That's what makes this gig interesting."

The gig Nel, 52, is referring to is university distinguished professor and director of the children's literature program at K-State, a positions he's had since 2006. Nel, who has been at K-State since 2000, said his academic career has guided him into writing books, and to date he has authored or co-authored 13 books on children's literature, including a biography of Dr. Seuss.

"I thought, 'That's going to be my job' without any experience in writing a biography or the full awareness of how extremely hard that was to do," Nel said. "Also key to that process was not knowing; I think entering into an impossible project without knowing how impossible it is, is important."

As an undergrad at the University of Rochester in New York, facing the prospect of graduation, Nel knew he did not want to quit his academic pursuit and decided to pursue a master's degree to continue reading and writing about literature.

"It really was not at all a practical choice; I was very much about following my own interests," Nel said. "Never in a million years would I have imagined I would be employed in pursuit of that path."

Nel said he was a poor student growing up, yet he was able to seek higher learning opportunities because his mother worked in private schools.

"It's true that following my passions led me to where I am, but I also had a lot of support that not everybody has access to," Nel said. "I never would've had these opportunities if it weren't for the sacrifices my mother made; I don't know if I even would've gone to college, because my grades were terrible."

Nel said he writes a lot and works hard. However he said hard work is not necessarily the precondition to success that people imagine.

"Some people succeed because they were born with a silver spoon in their mouth; some people attain power without effort simply because they were handed advantages in life," Nel said.

Nel has written and spoken about privilege quite a bit recently, having been the scholar-of-choice for national media interviews relating to the removal of six Dr. Seuss books from publication and sale because of racist imagery. He said the important thing for people to remember as they discuss privilege, especially among white people, is to recognize one's own individual experience is not universal.

"We need to listen to people who have had different experiences and take those seriously, really listen to what it means," Nel said.

Nel said books are the same way: to read a book about people with different trajectories in life is to "step outside the borders of one's self."

"It's not that it makes people more open-minded or accepting of difference, or willing to respect the differences, it just truly enriches your life to know more about other people and know about the world," Nel said.

Nel said there is "absolutely a social good" for stepping beyond one's comfort zone in terms of literature or culture.

"I think not enough people realize that any kind of hatred towards another person or group of people corrupts the soul of the person doing the hating," Nel said. "If you want to hear your soul, if you want to try to neutralize some of that toxicity that we all have within us, that's another reason to read diverse books, to learn about lives that are not your own. That will help you heal yourself."

One of Nel's books, published in 2017, is titled "Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books." Nel said he will always understand less about the effects of racism because he is a white man, and while he is uncomfortable at times about being in the public eye speaking on topics of race or racism, as a scholar he aims to educate and help push society toward a greater justice while being conscious of his privilege.

"The only really good use of these unearned privileges I have is to dismantle them, to speak out when given the platform," Nel said. "To use whiteness to dismantle white supremacy."

Nel said that attention to understanding the world and its inhabitants in new or fresh ways is one of the reasons children's literature interests him so much.

"That's where you get your first ideas of who counts as human, who deserves your respect, who's important and deserves to be represented," Nel said. "That's why it's important to have these conversations about what children read, what ideas — good or bad — they might get."

Karin Westman, Nel's wife, is the head of the English department and associate professor at K-State. She said any book, when a reader returns to it at another phase of life, can yield new insights.

"Reading or re-reading books for younger audiences provides perspective on our current lives and can foster sympathy for others," Westman said.

Nel said he showed up to his first day of elementary school already knowing how to read, thanks to his mother reading to him and raising him in a house with books.

"That's something not to be taken for granted," Nel said.

Nel said good children's books are aware of the audience, and do not "talk over kids' heads" while also being honest.

"Children's books recognize that kids may have less experience with vocabulary than adults but are just as intelligent and curious about the world, and often have understandings they might not be able to articulate," Nel said. "There is a kind of respect and joy in these works that is closer to the surface perhaps than a more complex novel."

Nel said no matter whether one reads a children's book aloud or quietly to themselves, the reader should "savor the language."

"A child reading alone in the corner of the house, undisturbed, is just as powerful as having the close loving experience of an adult devote the time to read a book to you," Nel said. "We are influenced by what we read in ways that we may not be aware."