Children’s Literature and Education: A Memoir of Dr. Lawrence Sipe
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A personal reflection about Dr. Sipe as a teacher and a mentor.
KeywordsDr. Sipe Tribute Memorial Reflections
“Knowing you, dear Gower, has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” said Abel. (Steig, 1976, p. 94)
This issue marks the one-year anniversary of Dr. Lawrence Sipe’s untimely death. While he was a renowned scholar in the field of children’s literature in education, he also was a phenomenal educator. For 15 years he taught educators, researchers, and scholars about the power of children’s literature. He took great joy in this position and often marveled at his good fortune to teach only classes that focused on this literature. Dr. Sipe’s office reflected his passion, with books bursting off of bookshelves, often stacked two deep! His personal library of books—including picturebooks, academic texts, and novels for young adults—contained nearly 5,000 titles. While the walls may have moaned and strained from the weight of his library, the spirit that emanated from his office resonated with joy, wonder and laughter.
Intertwined among the scholarly articles in this journal to honor Dr. Sipe’s work are a series of reflections from some of his former students. Each of us had a unique relationship with him; our diverse connections reveal the scope of his knowledge and interests. These memories are but a small sampling of the tributes to Dr. Sipe. Ours are no better or more important. Their inclusion in this journal is the result of a desire to allow this memorial issue to reflect beyond his scholarly impact on the field. For, while Dr. Sipe was a significant scholar and researcher, he was also a tender and meticulous teacher. His presence in the classroom, in his office, and on the University of Pennsylvania campus is greatly missed.
We are united in our grief for Dr. Sipe’s passing and for the subsequent changes to our academic community, a community that was made richer because of his passion for children’s literature, his devotion to understanding childhood reading experiences, and especially his delight in teaching people about his discoveries and ideas. His enthusiasm resonated with each of us and inspired us to push at our own boundaries. While Dr. Sipe’s spirit lives on in the work each of us does, still we miss him every day and wonder how our academic careers—which we are just beginning—have been altered because of his premature passing. For us, his death marks the loss of a great teacher, mentor, and scholar who had much to share, which he did so generously.
I had the good fortune of taking Dr. Sipe’s class, Responding to Literature, a required course for doctoral students, during my first semester at Penn. Through this class we explored literacy theories and each class was grounded in one or two books from Dr. Sipe’s library. In the first class he read aloud The Faithful Elephants (1997), written by Yukio Tsuchiya and illustrated by Ted Lewin, a picturebook based on the true story of the fate of the elephants housed at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo during World War II. It is a terribly sad story and by the end of the book there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Even Dr. Sipe had to pause several times to recompose himself, though he read it aloud in this class every year.
Dr. Sipe’s decision to read a tragic tale to us was purposeful. He wanted this room full of rather learned people to feel the power of a picturebook, to understand that picturebooks are more than “cute kiddie lit” (a phrase he despised). In the conversation that followed, we discussed the issues around international perspectives of World War II, metaphors for human experiences, symbolism, the meaning of peritextual design elements in the book, and much more. Each week, as in this first class, Dr. Sipe would anchor theory to different literary experiences, welcoming all comments—often looking down at his tie to encourage a democratic space for discussion—and he would draw on his vast wealth of knowledge to help us construct meaning and understanding.
And so, while Dr. Sipe was indeed a brilliant scholar, he also was a powerful voice in the university classroom, and he loved his students. Many weeks, he would proudly announce that a former student had authored our required reading, and he would discuss strategic tips for getting published in academic journals. He was beloved for many, many reasons, especially because he brought to our academic experience a playful joy of learning, an opportunity to look at our own childhood memories and understand them from a different perspective, and an appreciation for children’s literature as a valuable source for understanding societies, teaching practices, and ourselves.
My Tale: Fabula and Syuzhet
…the main purpose of literature is to allow us to acutely experience the freshness and vibrancy of life, through literary techniques and practices that ‘defamiliarize’ life and make it strange and new again. (Sipe, 2008, p. 48)
This quote, and the terms fabula and syuzhet, echo throughout my memories of Dr. Sipe. Perhaps it is because he introduced these terms and Shklovsky’s work as a Russian formalist to my academic repertoire, perhaps because I still wrestle with exactly what they mean, or perhaps it is the visual memory of him and his joyful demeanor when using these terms. My memories of Dr. Sipe are a part of the story of how I became a doctoral student. From the first time I heard his name to the first time I met him to the last time I saw him and the last email I got from him, I can lay these memories out end-to-end. This is my story of Dr. Sipe, a series of linear events that occur in real time (Sipe, 2008), or the fabula of a relationship; but for many of you, the readers, my story of Dr. Sipe is only a small part of your knowledge of him. I hope that I can shape my story and create syuzhet that resonates and informs you, and that my memories can be integrated into your own, thus deepening the plot of who Larry Sipe was. For it is not just literature that can instruct and delight us, but people, and Dr. Sipe, in his own passion for children’s literature and children’s engagement with literature, not only did this, but did it in such a way that he fulfilled his own expectations for literature: he defamiliarized the ‘life’ of children’s literature, filling it with vibrancy and life for all of us.
My own experience with Dr. Sipe was very privileged. He was my advisor and I was his graduate assistant. But our relationship wasn’t as simple as that. For me, a mother of two young children returning to full-time study after 7 years as a stay-at-home parent, the transition to graduate school was emotional, intense, and in many ways all-consuming. Dr. Sipe opened a door to the Academy that was supportive and encouraging. As others will attest, his door was open to everyone, but I had the good fortune to have weekly meetings with him. We would talk about research projects and the work that needed to be done for this journal and his courses, but he always had time to check in on my “growing pains” as I learned to juggle my family’s needs aside my newly acquired academic ones. His laughter at my wry humor, often followed with the chuckling phrase, “You have such a great sense of humor, Rachel! Don’t ever lose it!” gave me space to relax in his company, to consider him someone who would be a stalwart support for me as I progressed through the doctoral program.
This support was confirmed in June when, 3 months after his death, I received an email from Alexis Wolson, an Assistant Dean at GSE. I had received an award to fund my studies on early childhood literacy. When I asked how I was selected for this award, I discovered that Dr. Sipe had recommended me for the award the previous December. The thrill of receiving the award was that much sweeter because of this special connection to Dr. Sipe, but it was also poignant since it reminded me of my own personal loss.
During my first semester at Penn, starting in September 2010, I often marveled—truly!—at the consequence of serendipity that I was working with someone as knowledgeable and well-respected as Dr. Sipe, and to have this incredible opportunity to be surrounded by picturebooks on a daily basis—picturebooks I could immerse myself in and use to carve out a scholarly career. He understood my marveling and, often while working together in his office, we would acknowledge, with a slight giddiness, our fortuitous luck to be able to devote our careers to studying children’s literature, and in an Ivy League institution no less!
One very special memory of Dr. Sipe is from last February, only a few weeks before he passed away. We were discussing a submission to this journal and were debating whether the results supported the argument presented. Cited children’s books were flying off the shelves as we studied the work of different illustrators. This was not a heated debate but scholarly inquiry as we worked together to ensure the submission’s authors were consistent. In the midst of a fine-combed analysis of a book by David Wiesner, Holly Link, a doctoral student from the Educational Linguistics program, knocked on the door. She said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy listening to your conversations.” She worked in the cubicle outside his office and was able to hear our regular conversations. Then she left, leaving us to our inquiry. This was the last article I worked on with Dr. Sipe, and it was one that he approved just before he passed away. It holds a special place in my heart because it is a very good article and because it represents a significant moment in my own academic work. When I learned that Dr. Sipe had passed away, one of my first thoughts was that I would never have another day like that one to share with him.
I still have many days when I think about Dr. Sipe and about the few months I had with him as his graduate assistant. His door was always open, and so was his heart. My last meeting with him was the day before I left for a family vacation over spring break. Dr. Sipe and I were finalizing plans to revise two chapters of the 8th edition of Literature and the Child, a textbook he co-authored with Lee Galda. I was working at a table outside his office and he came to me several times over the course of an afternoon to ask me questions about the project. Each time, he was so gracious. I remember thinking that his gratitude was not necessary, I was his graduate assistant and this is what graduate assistants do. I was excited about the project and had packed materials from the textbook to work on during my vacation. Before I left, he came out of his office and said to me again, “Thank you. Thank you for everything you do for me.” I remember thinking that he seemed tired, but I also know he was excited about all the work we had to do. I did not think for a minute that these words would be the last words we would ever share.
This past July, I helped dismantle and pack up Dr. Sipe’s library. I wanted to be a part of this process, to be able to say goodbye to him by ensuring his belongings were organized and sorted just the way he would want them sorted. Four of us, including his sister Judy, worked through the hottest week of the summer to catalogue his books, to sort his files, and to put the final effects of his life in order. I had expected this to be an act of closure for me, a point when the grief would recede, but in those long, hot, humid hours, I found my grief mounting as each box was sealed. In the end, I helped pack nearly 5,000 books. When I left his office, it was not Lawrence Sipe’s office anymore. It was someone else’s. I know this new professor has the right to make it his own space, to create an institutional identity that is his, but for me the space behind that door will always be bursting with picturebooks, full of the colorful emotions so vibrantly portrayed in the books and in the work Dr. Sipe did. I hope that I will be as true to my own academic voice as he was, and in doing so, I may—just maybe—be able to leave a trace of his legacy in my work.
- Sipe, Lawrence R. (2008). Storytime: Young Children’s Literary Understanding in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
- Steig, William. (1976). Abel’s Island. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.Google Scholar
- Tsuchiya, Yukio. (1997). The Faithful Elephants. New York: Sandpiper.Google Scholar