Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

The Kerlan Collection with Curator Lisa Von Drasek

Two Reflections on Lisa Von Drasek’s Evening with SCBWI Japan

by Mari Boyle and Andrew Wong

1. Lisa Von Drasek Talks about Children’s Books and Stuff.

Guest post by Mari Boyle, Writer, Tokyo, Japan

Lisa Drasek is Curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections (CLRC) at the University of Minnesota. The internationally recognized CLRC loans materials around the world for exhibitions—such as a Tokyo exhibition on Virginia Lee Burton, author of The Little House, to which Lisa was invited (exhibition info). SCBWI Japan members were fortunate to welcome Lisa, accompanied by her lovely husband, to tell us about her work on April 14.

Lisa Von Drasek speaks to SCBWI Japan. In her hands are the book Big Cat, Little Cat by Elisha Cooper, translated into Japanese as Shiro-san to chibi-neko by Kaoru Shiina—and some sandals that Elisha Cooper decorated for Lisa.

In her talk for SCBWI Japan, Lisa walked us through the history of the CLRC, with particular focus on the Kerlan Collection. The Collection began back in the 1940s when Dr. Irvin Kerlan received a copy of Margaret Friskey’s Johnny Cottontail. Currently housed in the vaults of the university library, in strict climate-controlled conditions, the Kerlan Collection boasts more than 100,000 children’s books, plus thousands of original manuscripts and works of art.

The Collection also includes what Lisa lovingly referred to as “stuff”: items related to authors, illustrators, and translators, such as family photos, notebooks, and correspondence. Even “stuff” like buttons for The Stinky Cheese Man, given to Lisa by the author himself, Jon Scieszka, have found their way into the Collection. Some people may question the scholarly value of such materials, but Lisa considers them to be important artifacts. These bits and pieces flesh out book creators’ lives, she said. They are why many researchers and academics come into the library—to study not only the books themselves, but also the items that accompany them.

Children too visit the library. Throughout her impressive career, Lisa has always taught and worked with children. Accessing her treasure trove, she is able now to show children (and adults) how books are created. Students learn that “writing is messy,” through seeing famous authors’ first drafts. Lisa said that tracking the many drafts authors go through before their work “sings and there is music in the sentences,” provides invaluable insights into the writing process. Lisa explores artwork with students in a similar way, from thumbnail sketches through to bound and printed final copies.

While the Kerlan Collection includes award-winning works, lesser-known gems are housed there too. Lisa delighted us with some beautiful works, past and present, by more obscure writers and artists whose work is collected not only for its literary or artistic appeal, but also to reflect all aspects of diversity and genre in children’s books.

As children’s publishing embraces new technologies, the Kerlan Collection’s digital archives are also growing, allowing people not only to visit the archives in person, but also to view some collections online.

Lisa commented on a range of topics, and her enthusiasm about the Kerlan Collection and her work was palpable. Her knowledge and expertise on children’s books, despite her claim that she is not an academic, is extensive. We were captivated by her ease, her humor and her stories. And, she assured us, if we are ever in the vicinity she would be happy to show us around her library!

Lisa Von Drasek (center front) with some of the participants in the April 14 SCBWI Japan event—afterward at dinner at Crayon House.

For more information on the Kerlan Collection, go to the CLRC website.

You can also follow Lisa’s blog, the Blue Ox Review.

2. A Journey of Discovery with Lisa Von Drasek

Guest post by Andrew Wong, Translator, Tokyo, Japan

On a blustery evening in Tokyo, Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Kerlan Collection (video), introduced us to the Collection’s history and its different holdings, charting a journey of discovery through stories. Weaving her tales into a delightful web, she delivered an invitation to delve into countless stories waiting to be discovered in the Kerlan’s vaults of original manuscripts, artwork, color studies, and other materials, all sitting comfortably underground at 65 degrees Fahrenheit in 50-percent humidity.

Starting off with a personal episode, Lisa then got the crowd on board with a rendition of Ann McGovern’s Too Much Noise, in a preamble to a session that flew by far too quickly.

Lisa told stories of book creation. Because the Kerlan Collection holds original manuscripts and artwork, anyone can pore over the creative process leading up to finished works of children’s literature. The transformation in Kate DiCamillo’s first page of Because of Winn-Dixie over a few drafts becomes clear. How picture book artists separated the CMYK color palettes in their heads before the books could be sent to the printers can be simply enthralling. That the Collection gathers many different language versions of its titles and holds the rights to some works was, to me, a revelation.

Lisa also told stories of choosing books for children’s literature awards (she has served on the Newbery, Caldecott, and New York Times Best Illustrated Books committees among others). She emphasized that narrowing down a shortlist has been and will always be a team effort.

Speaking of awards reminded Lisa to pose with her one-of-a-kind Birkenstock sandals decorated in cats penned by Elisha Cooper. Moving on to speak about selecting titles for events and talks, she dropped a suggestion about a local event to showcase works by Japan-based creators.

Diverging, she then read the opening page of Amber was Brave, Essie was Smart by Vera B. Williams. This story of two sisters told in poems, with their incarcerated father in the background, struck home a message about diversity being not just cultural but also economic. Lisa pulled this thread of thought to Carmen Deedy’s 14 Cows for America, a true story of foreign aid from Kenya, before inviting everyone to share their stories.

Responding to a question on how poetry sells, Lisa offered the advice to believe in your own voice and share your own story, which I thought pretty much summed up the session.

In her response to my questions afterward, about books from Japan, she mentioned that she looks for books that are “universal in tone,” like the works by Taro Gomi for young children; and examples of “exceptional art or format” including the work of Noboru Baba.

To wrap up this post, I looked into the Kerlan Collection online and found a fellow SCBWI Japan translator’s name in the list of contributors! The Cathy Hirano Papers include material related to Cathy’s translation of Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi, and The Friends and The Letters by Kazumi Yumoto.

Who knows what other surprises lie in store?