Curator retires after four decades of building the University of Minnesota’s world-class children’s literature collections
The paths that led Dr. Karen Nelson Hoyle to a four-decade career building a world-class collection of children’s literature at the University of Minnesota began inside the walls of Bugbee Lab School in Oneonta, N.Y. That’s where the young Karen Nelson discovered two of the first books she fell in love with: Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág and Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, tales by two Minnesota authors who would, in time, play interesting roles in Nelson Hoyle’s adult life.
Curiously, at the age of 10, Nelson Hoyle found herself not-so-willingly heading to the land of lakes, after her father took a new job and moved the family west. “I was just despondent because I enjoyed my friends [in Oneonta] so much,” she said. But she found solace in that “I knew Wanda Gág was from Minnesota and Carol Ryrie Brink was from Minnesota.”
Fast forward a decade or two: Nelson Hoyle marries her sweetheart and fellow St. Olaf College grad, Bob Hoyle, and they eventually build a house in St. Anthony Park, just around the corner from the house Rirey Brink lived in when she wrote her 1937 Newbery award winner, Caddie Woodlawn. Gág makes an appearance, too, in 1999, when Nelson Hoyle’s book, Wanda Gág: A Life of Art and Stories, is published by the University of Minnesota Press.
Hoyle, who retired in January after more than 40 years as professor and curator of the U’s Children’s Literature Research Collections, was a big reader as a child and maintained an interest in children’s books even as a teenager, she said. But it wasn’t until she went to graduate school in Berkeley, Calif., that she realized one could have a career as a children’s librarian.
“Grad school was a very intellectual challenge,” she said. She took courses called Rare Book Librarianship and History of the Printed Book. “I realized there were rare children’s books and that people had written tomes on the history of children’s literature in different countries.” She went to an American school in Germany for a year and worked at an international youth library in Munich that was dedicated to books for children from around the world, an experience she describes as “an eye opener.”
In 1967, Nelson Hoyle was hired to oversee the children’s literature collections at the U. The job title was originally “librarian,” she said, and eventually evolved to “curator.” She acquired her Ph.D. and became a full professor in the mid-1980s.
The Children’s Literature Research Collections are a vast store of books contained in nine collections. There is a Paul Bunyan collection, an Oz collection and the John Philip Borger Comic Book Collection, which was acquired just three and a half years ago. The J. Randolph Cox Collection of Popular Culture includes comic books, newspaper comic strips, detective books and more. The Hess Collection includes inexpensive dime-store novels.
But probably the most well known of the collections is the Kerlan: 100,000 books and original manuscripts and artwork for more than 18,000 titles of work by such names as Madeleine L’Engle, Lois Lowry, Tomie dePaola, Maurice Sendak and Minnesota authors Kate di Camillo, John Coy, Betsy Bowen, Debra Frazier, Dara Dokas and Susan Marie Swanson—and, of course, Gág and Ryrie Brink.
The Kerlan Collection was established in the 1940s by University of Minnesota alumnus Dr. Irvin Kerlan, longtime chief of medical research for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Kerlan began collecting children’s books as a hobby, choosing children’s classics and past Newbery winners. He also collected the background material that went into making the books, writing letters to authors and illustrators, and acquiring their original manuscripts, artwork and selected correspondence with editors and children. In 1949, he donated his collection to the U and continued to add to it until he was killed in a car accident in 1963.
Nelson Hoyle was hired four years later. She has spent more than four decades courting authors and artists and acquiring literary artifacts that include an original painting of Gustaf Adolf Teneggren’s Poky Little Puppy from the 1942 Little Golden Book of the same name, preliminary dummies for the dust jacket for Millions of Cats (visitors can see the dust jacket in green, as well as the familiar yellow and orange), first printings and rough drafts.
February marked Nelson Hoyle’s second month of retirement, which she describes as bittersweet. She has time to travel now to visit her two daughters, Natalie, a school media specialist in Illinois, and Rebecca, a public administration scholar in California. And, of course, her four-year-old granddaughter, Mona, who lives in California and is acquiring a nice collection of children’s literature herself, thanks to Grandma. What was the first book Nelson Hoyle gave to her grandchild? On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier, which was signed and sent in advance of Mona’s birth so that it could be read on the day she was born.
Nelson Hoyle will return to the U on May 5 for the annual Kerlan Award Lunch, where she will receive the Kerlan Award, an honor that she instituted in 1975 to recognize “singular attainments in the creation of children’s literature and in appreciation for generous donation of unique resources to the Kerlan Collection for the study of children’s literature.”
Kristal Leebrick is the editor of the Park Bugle.