The University of Chicago News Office
June 14, 2002 Press Contact: William Harms
(773) 702-8356
w-harms@uchicago.edu
 

Zena Sutherland, children's literature pioneer, 1915-2002

University of Chicago professor Zena Sutherland, an internationally recognized reviewer of children's literature who edited the University's Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books for nearly 30 years and whose textbook Children and Books is a classic in the field of library science, died of cancer Wednesday, June 12th in the University's Bernard Mitchell Hospital. She was 86.

A faculty member from 1972 to 1986 in the University's Graduate Library School, which closed in 1991, Sutherland is among the world's most influential and prolific scholars of young people's literature. She wrote 19 books, and reviewed more than 30,000 children books during more than 40 years as a critic of children's literature.

In addition to editing the University's Bulletin, Sutherland wrote the monthly "Books for Young People" column for Saturday Review from 1966 to 1972 and was the children's books editor at the Chicago Tribune from 1972 to 1984.

Children's book author Maurice Sendak has called her a "giant" in the field.

"She was one of the few people who as an individual had an extraordinary impact on children's literature," said Roger Sutton, (AM '82), a former student of Sutherland's who is now editor-chief of The Horn Book Magazine, a leading journal of children's literature.

As a reviewer, Sutton said, Sutherland gave the study of children's literature credibility. "She took the gloves off," Sutton said, "her reviews were like nothing before them." Other reviewers of children's books, during the 1960s and 70s were more genteel, said Sutton. "They would simply ignore children's books they didn't like. Not Zena."

"She gave honest, fair, sophisticated reviews," Sutton said. "She brought children's book criticism to a new level."

As important as Sutherland's reviews was her work as an educator. She is most widely known as the author of the textbook Children and Books. Sutherland co-wrote several editions of the textbook with May Hill Arbuthnot. After Arbuthnot's death in 1969, Sutherland wrote five more editions of the book, the last one published in 1996. The textbook has had an immense impact on the field.

As an associate professor in the University's Graduate Library program, Sutherland taught two classes, "Children's Literature" and "Literature for Young Adults," which have inspired many practicing children's librarians and some of the country's top reviewers of children's literature. The class "Children's Lit" required students to review more than 100 children's books, writing their reviews on three by five cards.

"She was a very popular teacher," said Martin D. Runkle, Director of the Regenstein Library, who taught at the Graduate Library program during Sutherland's tenure. "She was warm, funny, smart. Just a very charismatic person."

Sutton was one student who was moved by Sutherland's energy. "I had no interest in children's literature," he said. "But she treated children's books in the same way that one would teach an adult masterpiece. Her passion was infectious."

Born in Winthrop, Mass., and raised in Chicago, Sutherland is a 1937 graduate of the University of Chicago. A resident of Hyde Park since coming to the University in 1933, she returned to the University to earn a master's degree in library science, intending to pursue a career as a medical librarian. Her experience as a mother of three inspired her to take several courses in children's literature. In 1958, when the University's Graduate School of Library Science needed a new editor for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, she applied, and was hired to edit the bulletin, which is a comprehensive guide to all the latest literature published for children.

Sutherland has received many awards and honors. In 1998, she was awarded the Norman Maclean Faculty Award for outstanding contributions to teaching and to the student experience of life on campus. She has served as a member of several award committees within the American Library Association, including the Newberry and Caldecott award committees.

In 1983, two former students established the Zena Sutherland Lecture Series and two years ago, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools established the Zena Sutherland Prizes in Children's Literature. The Sutherland awards are unique because the judges are children — students at the Lab School's Lower School.

Survivors include three children: Stephen Bailey, an associate dean and professor of history at Knox College in Galesburg; Thomas Bailey, a teacher in Hellebaek, Denmark, and Katherine Linehan, a professor of English at Oberlin College. She also is survived by seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her second husband, Alec Sutherland, preceded her in death in 1990.

 

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Last modified at 04:29 PM CST on Thursday, February 27, 2003.

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