Visiting Special Collections: the Ellery Yale Wood Collection

On a recent Wednesday morning, I stopped by Bryn Mawr’s Special Collections to look at some materials from the Ellery Yale Wood Collection of Children’s Books. The Ellery Yale Wood Collection was donated to the college in 2016 and includes around 12,000 books, with materials spanning from the 18th to the 20th centuries. I was hoping that the collection would help me with a project for my Transatlantic Childhoods class, which is taught by Professor Chloe Flower, English department’s brand new specialist in children’s literature and culture. Working with such rare primary materials is a wonderful opportunity, but this was actually the first time I visited Special Collections outside of a class.

I looked at two texts, The Orphans of India: a Tale for Young People, and The History of Little Fanny, published in 1815 and 1810 respectively. Both of these little books have survived remarkably. Although brittle, the pages are intact (with the exception of 17 pages from the middle of The Orphans of India; sadly I’ll never know the full details of the fates of the orphans in question). Nonetheless, the materials are fragile enough that it’s best to look at them on foam supports, with weighted cords to hold them in place.

In class we’ve been reading and discussing a wide variety of American and British genres such as poetry, pedagogical texts, picture books, and novels. I became interested in the recurring theme of orphans. In modern children’s books, orphanhood is often romanticized: conveniently absent parents allow for greater independence and adventuring. By contrast, in texts from the 19th century, orphanhood seems to be held up as a threat. Children who are disobedient or ungrateful are punished with abandonment, a fear which is based in the historical reality of widespread child labor and cultural anxieties about delinquency.

The Orphans of India and Little Fanny share an instructive purpose; the characters who, through their own faults, become orphans, serve as examples to the reader. These books were written to teach children literacy, but they also work to maintain a social order, hinting that a disruption of the status quo would mean not just a breakdown of society, but of the most basic sources of childhood stability. In The Orphans of India, a girl named Ellen tells a petty lie that causes the deaths of her father, aunt and brother. In Little Fanny, Fanny’s mother tells her not to stray from home, and when Fanny disobeys, she ends up a homeless beggar. She is re-accepted by her mother once she learns to be “pious, modest, diligent, and mild.”

Handling original copies of historical books adds a richness and context to the texts. The History of Little Fanny, for example, came with paper dolls that correspond to the various phases of the narrative. Fanny has a new outfit for each scene, complete with little accessories like a feathered hat when she is a pampered rich girl, and a basket of eggs to carry in her lowered status as an errand girl. These pieces of material culture reinforce the text, and perhaps helped a very young child to internalize its message.

Read more about the Ellery Yale Wood Collection here:

October days

Happy October!

I took some photos walking back to my dorm after my morning class. It’s hard not to appreciate Bryn Mawr’s beauty in all seasons, but you can always take the time to look a little closer. Just this morning, I saw two things I never noticed before: a blue jay and the most fairytale-perfect toadstools. We are in the throes of a moody mid-autumn: thick mist in the mornings, tizzies of rain during the night. The rain has nurtured soft carpets of moss on the trees, and some of the leaves are starting to blush with the promise of their changing colors. I love it when the sky is bleached, and the buildings and trees, darkened with rain, stand out so starkly. It can be a bit melancholy, but in a pensive way. Weather like this gives me a feeling of solemnity, like the world is quieting down in preparation for something important.

The last week has been quite busy for me, and this past weekend I had to finish three essays, two in English and one in Spanish. I’ve also been keeping busy with quizzes and tests in German. Studying a brand new language has been a good change of pace from my other classes, but the barrage of new material can be overwhelming. As you can imagine, I’m very ready for Fall Break, which starts on Friday. I’ll be going home to Minneapolis for the first time since June, and I’m so excited. I know I’ll have to use some of my time off to catch up on reading for my classes, but I also hope to start some creative projects and spend time outdoors.

Studying children’s literature this semester has been making me nostalgic for some of the books I grew up with. Aren’t there some books that just fit perfectly with certain seasons? I think summer is for nonfiction so you can learn even when there are no classes, winter is for big sprawling novels to read alongside a mug of tea, and autumn is for cozy books: poetry and children’s stories.

“October arrived, spreading a damp chill over the grounds and into the castle. Madam Pomfrey, the nurse, was kept busy by a sudden spate of colds among the staff and students. Raindrops the size of bullets thundered on the castle windows for days on end; the lake rose, the flower beds turned into muddy streams, and Hagrid’s pumpkins swelled to the size of garden sheds.” –Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

(In case you needed more proof that English House is magical, look at these little umbrellas for elves that I found growing on the lawn outside.)


ear-whispered: Works by Tania El Khoury

This fall, Bryn Mawr is exhibiting four of the five interactive art installations that make up ear-whispered: Works by Tania El Khoury. Tania El Khoury is an artist who works in London and Beirut. She partnered with Bryn Mawr as a part of the 2018 Fringe Festival. In September, I was able to see two of El Khoury’s pieces, Camp Pause and Gardens Speak. I wanted to write a little bit about my experiences with these installations, but it’s been difficult to decide what I wanted to say.

Camp Pause is a video installation that can be viewed all semester in Canaday Library. It pieces together the narratives of four Palestinian residents of the Rashidieh Refugee Camp in Lebanon. Various storytelling threads come together in Camp Pause to create an unsettling but powerful impact. When you walk in, there are four screens facing each other, all playing simultaneously through headphones; while you can only concentrate on one story at a time, you are aware of the others going on at the same time. Some visual elements appear in more than one of the videos, hinting at common threads among residents of the camp. The ocean is a strong motif in all of the stories. It makes up one of the camp’s borders—the other being a military checkpoint—and therefore represents the refugees’ feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia. At the same time, the videos’ subjects often feel drawn to the water, entranced by the beauty and mystery of the natural world.

It’s hard to draw a clear moral from Camp Pause. Pieces of the camp’s historical background are interspersed with the often gut-wrenching stories of the camp’s residents. The one that struck me the most followed a young girl, because of the normalcy with which she viewed her life in the camp. In fact, her biggest complaint about her community was the abundance of litter by the seaside. It made me wonder how the generation that is growing up in Rashidieh will come to understand their situation.

Gardens Speak was only open for a limited length of time at Bryn Mawr. The piece was inspired by people who were killed by the regime in Syria. Their families are forbidden from holding public funerals, so the martyrs are often buried in secret or private graves. Gardens Speak gathers these stories through interviews with survivors, and creates a really singular experience. Although it was entirely immersive installation, it was an experience for the senses of touch, smell, and hearing, rather than vision.  This seemed quite unique for any piece of art, and I felt a bit apprehensive as the small group of us were ushered into the Hepburn Teaching Theater.

The space was entirely black, with only dim lighting. We were asked to leave our shoes and electronic devices at the entrance, and then we put on plastic coats over our clothes. Then we were led to the room, where we saw what looked like a plot of earth. Simple headstones stuck out of the soil, and each of us took our places at a different “grave.” Our guide had instructed us to begin digging in the dirt by our headstone; the dirt under my hands felt moist and smelled strongly of real vegetation. Soon enough, I found a sort of inflated cushion, from which a voice emanated. To hear, each of us had to lie down with our ears pressed against the speaker. The dirt was very uncomfortable under my body. I soon learned that the voice I was hearing was telling the story of Abdul Wahid al-Dandashi, as if in his own words. He told a brutal story of being tortured in an army prison, learning that his brother had been killed, and even after that, choosing to return to Syria and fight.

When each of the graves had finished speaking, all of us were invited to write a letter addressed to the person whose story we had heard, responding to the experience in any way. We then buried our letters back under the soil, where they would later be collected and added to the exhibit. As you can imagine, this was a sobering experience, and I found it interesting, once I had retrieved my shoes and washed the dirt off my hands, to go downstairs to see all the letters from past exhibitions displayed. Many of the letters—maybe even most of them—expressed a loss for words. Like Camp Pause, it’s hard to find an easy symbolism or moral to Gardens Speak. One might feel anguish over the senseless loss of life, or sympathy for someone whose loved one was killed, but what is there to say? “I’m sorry” is inadequate and feels detached, even meaningless. At the same time, it seems patently untrue to claim you can feel the pain of something so removed from your own life. Some of the letters I read expressed hopelessness, thinking of how many people could sacrifice their lives for freedom, yet still that dream is unrealized. The reaction that I most appreciated reading, which came from only a few letters, was inspiration. Some people, after seeing Gardens Speak, felt energized to dedicate their lives to a great cause, or to live for something truly worthwhile.

Letters written to Syrian martyrs, displayed in Goodhart Theater