College of Arts and Sciences
Department of English
Director of the children's literature program
The wizardry in words
Despite being Muggle-born, it's hard to deny that Philip Nel brings a certain magic to the field of children's literature. Nel is a university distinguished professor of English and director of the children's literature program. He is regarded as one of the world's leading experts on Crockett Johnson, Dr. Seuss and J.K Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. He has authored or been the editor of eight books and has been featured on more than 300 national and international media outlets.
"The field of children’s literature has gained more respectability than it used to have," says Nel. "True, there are still people who look at children's literature as somehow lesser because it's written for people with less height and less experience. But it can be rich, complex material. Good children's books are literature. Good picture books are portable art galleries."
Although the books are written for audiences who are smaller in size, the stories inside are anything but small, says Nel.
"Children's literature is the most important literature that we read," says Nel. "We read these stories at a time when we're impressionable and when we're still in the process of figuring out who were are. Everything in those books has the potential to shape who we become."
The power of purple
It was Crockett Johnson's story of the little boy Harold and his world-making purple crayon in "Harold and the Purple Crayon" that inspired Nel to major in English, earn a doctorate, become a professor and eventually one of the leading scholars in children's literature.
"'Harold and the Purple Crayon' was my favorite book as a little kid and has remained so," Nel says. "It's the most succinct expression of what imagination can do that's ever been created. The book is literally a blank canvas and a blank world except for the one that Harold creates. He's the author of his world and of his situations. It's a really profound idea even though it seems very simple in the way that Johnson draws it."
"Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature," Nel's most recent book about Johnson and his wife, was nominated for a 2013 Will Eisner Comic Industry Award.
Right on track
Nel wants others to understand the importance of and appreciate children's literature. Together with his colleagues, a master's-level children's literature program was established. In less than a year, enrollment in the program matched the enrollment numbers in the department's four other master's degree tracks.