Q&A: Jamie Osborn, Branch Manager of the Halls Branch Library and Organizer of 'Reading Appalachia: Voices of Children's Literature'

Branch manager of the Halls Branch Library, Jamie Osborn is the lead organizer of the exhibit "Reading Appalachia: Voices of Children's Literature." It runs June 15-Sept. 16 at the East Tennessee History Center (601 S Gay St.), which is also the site of an opening reception Sunday, June 15. The free event includes a talk by Appalachian author George Ella Lyon, music by Emi Sunshine, and food from Dale's Fried Pies.

What's your role with this exhibit?

I completed my Master's thesis in 2008 at UTK's School of Information Sciences, with my topic being Appalachian Children's Literature. So my role primarily involved content—not just titles, but what topics and subtopics we needed to have and what not to include as well (that was harder).

Why is this exhibit important—and to whom?

I think this is important to the region, children in the region and the greater body of children's literature as a whole. I don't have lofty goals, do I?

How did you narrow the definition of "Appalachian" writer?

I won't lie, that was not an easy thing to decide. In the end we decided we wanted to include high-quality titles that represented Appalachia in a positive light. So, there are a few titles included that were written by folks outside of the region, but they were important enough to be representative. For example, Lawrence Yep, who is not from the region, but his mother was, wrote two books that were based off of the experiences of his immigrant Chinese mother's life in West Virginia.

Are you yourself from Appalachia?

Yes! I was raised in Hazard, Ky. and Poca, W.V., both in the heart of central Appalachia. Many of my ancestors are from Appalachia as well and I did feel the responsibility of representing the region and people of Appalachia in a positive manner. I hope the work I have done on will make them proud to be from Appalachia—and make my mom proud of me, too!

Is there an ethnic mix in the selections?

Absolutely, I think that might be one of the nice surprises for those visiting the museum. It did surprise me a bit when I first started my research.

Will the average parent have heard of any of these authors?

There will certainly be some titles I hope they have heard of—Sounder, by William Armstrong; Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson; and Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, just to name a few. My hope is that there are many more they were not aware of or did not think of as "Appalachian." Part of my impetus for writing my thesis was because, in doing another research project prior to that, I came across numerous titles I was never exposed to growing up in the heart of Appalachia and it made me angry. If I was not the perfect audience for these books, who would have been?

Are there works by authors who mostly write for adults?

There are a handful that we think of as primarily adult authors that might cross over into young adult or "classics." Wilma Dykeman, James Still, Jesse Stuart are a few.

Are there any how-to books?

We have included an entire section on the Foxfire series, which is a complete series of "how-to" books written and compiled by children from Appalachia.

Any great Appalachian children's illustrators involved?

Oh my goodness! If you are not familiar with Barry Moser, you should be. He was born and raised in Chattanooga. He is a world-renowned artist and illustrator. Some of the books of his that we hope to showcase are reworkings of classic fairy tales he reset in Appalachia, like Tucker Pfeffercorn, aka "Rumpelstiltskin" and The Tinderbox, a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale.

Is it difficult for a librarian to conceptualize books into these interactive and three-dimensional exhibit pieces?

That part was very difficult for me. I have zero creativity and imagination. Luckily for me I worked with an amazingly talented team of people to pull this together. If they had to rely on me it would have ended up being words on a page with no visual elements at all and that would not have been much of an exhibit! Some of the folks that are much more talented and creative than I: Adam Alfrey (Curator of Exhibitions at the East Tennessee History Center), Mary Pom Claiborne (Communications Director for KCPL), Miranda Clark (Director of the Center for Children's and Young Adult Literature), Michele MacDonald (Curator of Collections for the East TN Historical Society) and Lisa Oakley (Curator of Education, East TN Historical Society), Kayti Tilson (Graphic Designer at KCPL).

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Of course my favorites were not Appalachian, that would be too easy! I loved Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I still do, to be honest.

Anything controversial during your research for the exhibit?

We included some titles that might have stereotypical elements. However, many of those titles were written in a time when those types of labels and terms were accepted. We did discuss how to deal with stereotypes and felt the best thing to do was to build the exhibit with high-quality pieces of work and let the exhibit speak for itself. What was acceptable in the 1930s and 1940s would not be acceptable to today's audiences, but those books still needed to be included to show how the genre has grown and who those early authors were. It is all part of the history.