By Guy Spriggs
Joe Sutliff Sanders is a professor at Kansas State University specializing in children’s literature. But according to Sanders, he found his way into children’s literature – and eventually into a job at one of the field’s leading programs – by accident.
As he was finishing his dissertation at the University of Kentucky in 2005 and preparing to enter the job market, Sanders took note of a series of interesting job offers.
“I kept coming across all these children’s literature positions,” he explained. “I kept saying, ‘It’s too bad that I don’t do children’s literature.’”
Then, Sanders says, he realized that his whole project was directly related to his future field.
Sanders started applying for those positions and found himself in the middle of this young academic field. And, apparently, the path Sanders took path isn’t all that unusual: “Later I found that’s how most of us got into children’s literature,” he said.
“The field is never going to be in danger of settling down,” he said. “People are still falling into [children’s literature] and bringing this wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives.”
Sanders is a prime example of this: he is not only a specialist in children’s literature, but also an authority in the world of comic books.
“I was actually publishing on comics long before I was interested in children’s literature,” Sanders said. “No one wanted to believe that there was something interesting worth reading in those comics.”
In addition to his scholarly publications, Sanders works with Classical Comics, a company that creates graphic novel adaptations of classic novels that are frequently taught in the British secondary school system.
Staying true to form, Sanders’ relationship with Classical Comics developed somewhat by chance.
“My previous job was at Cal State, San Bernardino, which is near San Diego, where the annual comic book convention [Comic-Con] is. I had wanted to go for decades,” he explained.
Sanders made the trip and soon afterwards found himself connecting with a group of comics industry professionals, among which was the owner of Classical Comics. Now Sanders works with Classical Comics to help with translations for adapted works like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“With my scholar’s hat on I make sure that we’re translating those in a way that is at least defensible, then I will also make sure that the translations will make sense to an American audience,” he said.
Exploring this wide variety of interests has always been important for Sanders. He says that he was drawn to UK because of an interdisciplinary conference on popular culture hosted by the English Graduate Student Organization.
Even seemingly small things like funds for traveling to conferences played a huge role in Sanders’ career path. “If I hadn’t gone to those conferences I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Sanders said. “[UK] put money into student research and it made an enormous amount of difference.”
Yet while UK seemed like a place he could think outside the box, Sanders was worried that his wide variety of interests didn’t fit into any normal corner of the profession.
“I was looking for a dissertation director who had a lot of different interests and would be all right with me picking a central topic that focused the dissertation but that [also] let me look at all these different areas of interest,” Sanders said.
“I can’t say enough about how lucky I was to have Virginia [Blum] as my dissertation director,” Sanders explained. “She had a broader base of knowledge than I had any right to expect.”
“The flexibility and support I got at Kentucky allowed me to develop a competitive project that led me to a job in one of the top programs in my field,” Sanders said.
The dissertation that Sanders worked on at UK has expanded and evolved into his first book: “Disciplining Girls – Understanding the Origins of the Classic Orphan Girl Story,” due out in November 2011 from the Johns Hopkins University Press.
Sanders’ book explores how the competing ideas of corporal punishment and disciplinary intimacy are represented in American novels written after the end of sentimentalism in the mid-19th century.
“Literary historians have said that when sentimental fiction stopped being popular women writers didn’t say anything about discipline anymore,” Sanders explained. In “Disciplining Girls,” Sanders contends that arguments about discipline continued after sentimentalism in the form of orphan girl novels.
“The debates continued in the same kind of novels, [and] these books have formulas that were borrowed directly from sentimental novels.”
Sanders continues to build his reputation as a respected scholar of comic books and children’s literature. But even as he negotiated the contract for his book last year, Sanders knew he could rely on the support he received as a graduate student at UK.
“I had Virginia [Blum] on speed dial. I was still calling her to get advice of how to be the kind of professional she is.”