Oh, to have watched as Francelia Butler defied her employer and refused to write favorably of Adolph Hitler or, later, insisted on admitting black alumni from Oberlin, her alma mater, to a banquet at her place of work. And, to have witnessed the same indomitable will take on the academic world when Butler championed the hitherto denigrated field of children’s literature!
Francelia McWilliams was born on April 25, 1913. She made a great life for herself, despite enduring an unhappy childhood in Ohio. In July 1939 in Paris, Francelia married Jerome Butler, journalist for the Paris Herald Tribune (which became the International Herald Tribune), with staff members in attendance.
In 1963, at the age of 50, she earned her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia in Renaissance Literature. She returned to school as an odd duck—a middle-aged single mother. Her beloved husband, Jerome Butler, whom she nursed and advocated for, died of cancer in 1949. During those challenging college days, she was befriended by graduate student Richard H.W. Dillard, who became a renowned poet and fiction writer and, in 1964, a professor of literature, creative writing, and film studies at Hollins College.
In 1965, Dr. Butler became a professor in the English Department of the University of Connecticut. She was relegated to children’s literature, or what her colleagues mockingly termed “kiddie lit.” Butler called the field the "great excluded," because at the time, she found it to be the redheaded stepchild of the university and wider academic community. With her characteristic feistiness, Butler took on the challenge of changing academia’s contempt for children’s literature.
Dr. Butler’s children’s literature course quickly became one of the most popular at the university, with guest lecturers such as Maurice Sendak, Bruno Bettelheim, and Big Bird. She also forged ahead with the creation of the journal Children’s Literature, the first of its kind in the field. And, in 1972, became the founding director of the Children’s Literature Association (ChLA).
Despite her accomplishments, Dr. Butler still felt the study of children’s literature was disparaged by her colleagues at the University of Connecticut and eventually transferred sponsorship of her journal to Yale University. Upon her retirement in 1992, Butler searched for a permanent home for her journal. She also wanted a repository for her knowledge and philosophies in the form of a program dedicated to the serious study of children’s literature. Her quest led her to think of her pal, Richard H.W. Dillard, and Hollins College.
On the condition that the school would create a graduate program in children's literature, Butler transferred academic sponsorship of Children’s Literature to Hollins. The graduate program was launched in 1992 with six students. And, when the college’s own children’ literature texts were wiped out by a flood, she gifted Hollins with her considerable children's literature collection. Some of these books are so valuable—early editions, special editions, or with fabulous autographs—that the books and materials are available only with supervision in the Special Collections room of the Wyndham Robertson Library.
Francelia McWilliams Butler passed away on Sept. 17, 1998, in Windham, Connecticut, at age 85. She left a legacy of thriving children’s literature studies at Hollins and around the world. In her honor, Hollins’ annual children’s literature conference bears her name. But, more, Hollins students are participants in Francelia Butler's dream, challenging the prevailing attitude of “kiddie lit” and, with determination and unflagging creativity, changing the future of children’s literature forever.
~By Jan Godown "JG" Annino, with Jenette Guntly, 2009
Some of the information for this article was taken from Thomas, Robert McG. Jr. Francelia Butler Is Dead at 85: Children’s Literature Champion. New York Times, 25 September, 1998.