Monday, September 25, 2017

Professor Roderick McGillis

By Frank Boles

On Tuesday September 19, Roderick McGillis delivered the annual David and Eunice Sutherland Burgess Endowed Lecture to a large group of students, faculty, and other guests. A distinguished senior scholar of children’s literature Dr. McGillis presented a fascinating history of the development of children’s literature as an academic discipline, and ended his presentation by sharing one of his many stories; something he is justly famous for.

When Doctor McGillis began his career children’s literature was not taken very seriously. Books for children were considered nothing more than brightly illustrated and cleverly written teaching tools. The point of children’s literature was simply to educate children, with words and illustration having no real importance other than to keep the child’s interest. “Real literature,” the books English professors read, discussed, argued over, and eventually taught to their students, was written by adults for adults.

Over his long career Dr. McGillis struggled to help create professional organizations dedicated to children’s works, a professional discourse about children’s books, and to make those organizations and that discourse a recognized and accepted part of literary study. His presentation talked about the development of these goals, and contained more than a little concern that even today children’s literature is still dismissed by some “serious” academics as beneath their concern. But today those who dismiss children’s literature as a mere trifle are in the minority.

It was a presentation that captured the development and change of a field by one of the individuals deeply responsible for that development and change, offering insight not only into what happened, but more importantly why it happened.

But Doctor McGillis is also a well-known story teller, who proved the acclaim he has received for his ability in the field with a wonderful tale to end the evening. I cannot do the story justice, so let me simply say it was about his relationship with his grandmother, Grandma Burchill, how she claimed to him she was always up first in their house because she awoken by “the crack of dawn,” and that someday, when she died and no longer could beat him into the kitchen, she would be sure that he too knew the secret of hearing it. True to her word, the morning after she died, at first light, “Roddie” heard the crack. 

Is the story true?  As Professor McGillis reflects here,  it is a story he first heard someone else tell, over twenty years ago. He retells it placed in his own childhood home, with his own Grandmother, as it would have happened for him.

So, is it true?  Ernest Hemingway once wrote: ““You make something from things that have happened and from things that exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, and you make something through your invention that is truer than anything true and alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality.” 

Professor McGillis story about the crack of dawn I think would pass Hemingway’s test as something “truer than anything true.”