Children and Young Adult Literature
Kansas children and young adult literature is dominated in the public mind by the two iconic books set in the state. Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), lived on Osage land about 14 miles from Independence, Kansas, in 1869-1870. Uncharacteristically, the government forced the Ingalls to move, but the experience, remembered many years later, became Little House on the Prairie(1935). L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), who set foot in Kansas only once, as an actor with a traveling theater company, set The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) in the state, most likely so as not to offend relatives who still lived in Aberdeen, South Dakota Territory, which is probably the region he was describing as gray, flat, dull and humorless. Although his opening description of Kansas is probably the bleakest of any writer on the state, Baum also gave Kansas the distinction of being the home of Dorothy’s line: “There is no place like home.” And, of course, the less flattering, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” Baum included the Kansas setting in three other Oz books (see “Oz and Kansas Culture,” by Thomas Fox Averill, Kansas History, Vol. 12, No. 1). Baum’s work has inspired several Kansas and/or Oz-based books for adult readers: Wicked, by Gregory Maguire (b. 1954), Was, by Geoff Ryman (b. 1951) and My Life with Corpses, by Wylene Dunbar (b. c. 1950).
Other early children’s literature focuses on equally iconic images of Kansas: the
Oregon and Santa Fe trails, sod houses, cowboys and cattle drives, the Pony Express, and romanticized western figures associated with the state—Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok.
Some specific titles include one of the earliest books for young people, Stories for Kansas Boys and Girls (1895), by Carolina Wade Baker (c. 1850-1920). Col. Henry Inman (1837-1899) of Topeka wrote The Ranch on the Oxhide, a story of Boys’ and Girls’ life on the Frontier (1921). Immortal Dream Dust, A Story of Pioneer Life on a Kansas Homestead (1931), by May Griffee Robinson (c. 1890-1960), is set near Sterling, and is a story of pioneer success in spite of hardships. Bernice Goudy Anderson (c. 1900-1970), of Partridge, wrote two “topsy turvy” books published by Rand-McNally, Topsy Turvy’s Pigtails (1930) and Topsy Turvy and the Tin Clown (1932). Treasure Abroad (1931), by Charles Driscoll, is about boys camping on the Arkansas River near Wichita who discover a treasure in a buried ship.
The 1950s saw such titles as Phantom Steer (1953), by Floyd Benjamin Streeter (1888-1956) and Helen D. Francis (c. 1880-1950), and Sod House Adventure (1956), by Bonnie Beas Worline (c. 1915-1995) of El Dorado. Don Wilcox (b. c. 1915), of Lawrence, wrote Joe Sunpool (1956), about an Indian boy attending Haskell Institute (now Haskell Indian Nations University) in Lawrence.
Another book about Native Americans, Blue Jacket, War Chief of the Shawnees (1969) is by Allan Eckert (b. c. 1930).
The Motoring Millers (1969), by Alberta W. Constant (b. c. 1910), is set in the fictional town of Gloriosa, c. 1911.
Peter Cohen (b. 1931), on the faculty of Kansas State University, wrote Foal Creek (1972).
Patricia Beatty (1922-1991) set her young adult novel Jayhawker (1991) in territorial Kansas.
Climbing Kansas Mountains (1993) is by Kansan George Shannon (b. c. 1955) and illustrated by Thomas B. Allen, who was on the art faculty at the University of Kansas. A boy’s father takes him to climb the town’s grain elevator, the mountain in the town, and he sees a wide vista of level, checker board fields that bring food to the level dining tables checker boarded with tablecloths.
Long-time Wichita librarian Lois Ruby (b. 1942), has written several young adult books set in Kansas, among them Pig Out Inn (1987) and Steal Away Home(1994), the latter about a house in Lawrence in which the current inhabitants discover a skeleton. The parallel historical story is about the runaway slave whose body they’ve discovered.
Best-selling writer of the psychological self-help “Dance” books (see psychiatric literature) Harriet Lerner co-authored two children’s books with her sister Susan Goldhor: What’s So Terrible About Swallowing an Apple Seed?(1996), and Franny B. Kranny, There’s a Bird in your Hair! (2001).
Richard Jennings (b. 1945) wrote The Great Whale of Kansas (2001) about a young man who is digging a small pond in his back yard when he discovers a fossil that only his teacher and the Native American man who runs a used book shop believe to be a whale. Interestingly, this fictional use of the abundance of fossil evidence from when Kansas was covered by the great inland sea came around the time that the Kansas Board of Education was restricting the testing of evolution as part of science standards in the state.
L.D. Harkrader (b. 1962) creates a winning combination of small town basketball, uncertain parentage, and a trip to see the KU Jayhawks in the famous Allen Fieldhouse in her Airball, My Life in Briefs (2005).
Brian Meehl (b. c. 1950) sets his humorous young adult novel in the Patience, Kansas, of Out of Patience (2006).
Kansas children’s book author Stephen T. Johnson (b. 1964), trained as a fine artist, not only writes books, but constructs them so that children can experience them physically. His hands-on offerings are My Little Red Toolbox(2000), My Little Blue Robot (2002) and My Little Yellow Taxi (2006).
Illustrator turned author Brad Sneed (b. 1966) creates in the genre of tall tale and illustrates in the style of Thomas Hart Benton, colorful, elongated, exaggerated and perfectly evocative of his subjects. His Deputy Harvey and the Ant Cow Caper(2006) was named a Kansas Notable Book that year.
Each year since 1953, the school children of Kansas have chosen a book to receive the William Allen White Award. A selection committee of Kansas educators and librarians nominates books, and children read and vote. Past winners include The Giver, by Lois Lowry, Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen, A Light in the Attic, by Shel Silverstein, and Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson.
In the category of picture books, The Bill Martin, Jr., Award, from the Kansas Reading Association, honors that children’s book author, born in Hiawatha in 1916.