Bechtel lecture honors spirit of children’s literature

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courtesy of the Education Department

Children’s literature has gained much at­tention in recent years and much of that is thanks to the hard work of Louise Hunting Seaman Bechtel, a Vassar alum who graduated in 1915. Bechtel is known for creating the first children’s book department in an American publishing house. Her hard work created a leg­acy that continues in the Bechtel lecture 100 years later.

The Bechtel lecture, sponsored by the edu­cation department, will take place on Thurs­day, Dec. 3 in the College Center. This year, lo­cal teacher and Poughkeepsie resident Stephen Currie was invited to speak.

Currie is a published author and editor of children’s books and young adult novels, which is especially apt considering Bechtel’s legacy in the field of children’s literature.

The lecture was organized by the Adminis­trative Assistant of the Education Department Dayle Rebelein. She commented, “Stephen Currie grew up surrounded by children’s books in Chicago, where he composed stories, plays and puppet shows on his grandfather’s World War II-era typewriter. He now lives in Pough­keepsie, but his interest in writing, reading and teaching with children’s literature continues.”

This year is particularly special in that it celebrates the 100th anniversary of Bechtel’s graduation from Vassar in 1915. Upon gradua­tion, Bechtel went on to teach young children at Miss Glendinning’s School in New Haven, Conn.

She later worked at the Macmillan Publish­ing Company in various departments, where she started the first children’s book depart­ment in an American publishing house. During the next 15 years of her tenure at Macmillan, her work for Macmillan expanded to include sales trips across the United States of America, wide lecturing and writing about children’s lit­erature, including speaking at Vassar.

Bechtel viewed book publishing as a profes­sion, rather than as a trade. Her well-known book catalogs were full of photographs, color illustrations and quotations about her authors. Even after she was no longer active as a pub­lisher, Bechtel continued her commitment to the field of children’s literature as a member of the committee for the first Children’s Book Week and as a Fellow of the Pierpoint Morgan Library; she also served on a number of juries of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

Similarly to Bechtel, Currie’s passion for his work is strong, but is also expansive over a wide variety of topics. “These days, I write some fiction, but most of my publications have been nonfiction. Though I’m scarcely a house­hold name, there’s a decent chance you’ve used at least one of my books for research purposes somewhere between, say, fifth and 10th grade,” Currie said.

Rebelein explained, “He has written dozens of books for children and young adults on top­ics ranging from goblins to the whaling indus­try and from math puzzles to potatoes. He has also published fiction, much of it ghostwritten under various pseudonyms.”

She continued, “In addition, his writing credits include teachers’ guides, textbooks and other educational materials, and he has taught at levels ranging from kindergarten to college.” His books, both fiction and nonfiction, are used in various middle school and high school class­rooms for research purposes and cover a wide variety of topics.

Although Currie’s work is broad and mul­tifaceted in nature, it is difficult to compare between the different categories his novels fall into. “Not sure I could tell you which books are the most popular; I did write one on goblins that seemed to interest quite a few people who found out about it,” he said.

Currie himself is full of stories about how exactly he got involved in writing children’s books and young adult novels. “I’ve always been interested in writing. As a boy, I used to compose looooong stories—the longer the better, apparently. Most of them had too many characters, and the plots generally didn’t go anywhere, but I enjoyed writing them anyway! I had an old manual typewriter that had be­longed to my grandfather and used it to com­pose most of my stories,” said Currie.

The Bechtel lecture not only discussed the nature of the publishing business for children’s books and young adult novels, but also gave insight into how Currie’s personal preferences for child literature have impacted his work. He was quick to preview the topics and nature of his lecture before fully diving in to his personal experiences. “The lecture will discuss several things. I’ll talk some about children’s books that I loved as a boy and that have been influ­ential in my own life as well as on my writing,” he said in his introduction.

He also illuminated the various ways chil­dren’s books affect the kids of today through his experiences with the children he teaches and his own kids.

Currie mentioned the ways he uses young adult novels and children’s books in his per­sonal and professional interactions with chil­dren. “I’ll also highlight some books I’ve read with children as an elementary teacher and as a father and describe how I’ve used them,” he went on to say.

His own career as a writer and editor has flourished in children’s literature, and he talks about many experiences that he has had in the publishing world. “Finally, I’ll discuss my own career as a writer and share some of my expe­riences in the world of publishing for children and young adults,” he explained right off the bat.

Currie’s lecture will present an uncon­ventional path not often seen when possible writing careers are considered. His focus on writing, education and publishing will give the audience new information about different ways they can pursue a career in writing or in pub­lishing.

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