When Anne Phillips was a child, she had a copy of the book “The Wizard of Oz” and a record with a voice reading the book.
“I followed along, and that’s how I learned to read,” Phillips said.
Phillips still loves “The Wizard of Oz” and has made a career of teaching children’s literature. Phillips, an English professor at K-State, believes children and adults alike can learn from reading books written for a young audience. Her job allows her to indulge two of her passions: children’s literature and working with her students.
“It’s a privilege to get to work with these young emerging wonderful people,” she said.
Phillips, 56, grew up in Reno, Nevada, and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Nevada at Reno and then her doctorate from the University of Connecticut. She came to K-State in 1993.
Phillips said she enjoys working in children’s literature because it allows both her and her students to revisit books they loved when they were younger, but also because it can teach people of all ages to think critically about the topics at hand.
“We’re having conversations about ethics, morality,” Phillips said. “We’re talking about hopes, dreams and goals.”
The novel “Little Women” has become a mainstay in Phillips’ research.
She and fellow K-State English professor Greg Eiselein have co-edited several books on author Louisa May Alcott, including “The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia.” She’s currently the president of the Louisa May Alcott Society.
Phillips and Eiselein were hired at K-State the same year, and Eiselein said that after working together for so long, they know instinctively how to move forward with a project.
“When we write articles, I’ll start a section, she’ll see I’m stuck and she’ll finish it,” he said. “Both Anne and I get excited about things. She feels joy and happiness about things, and I do, too.”
Her relationship with the book began when she was home sick as a child. Her mother gave her a copy that had belonged to Phillips’ grandmother.
She said that in the past, most people who read the book identified most with the character Jo. (Phillips said she identifies with aspects of all four of the March girls, but if she had to pick only one, it would also be Jo.)
However, she said the character Beth has become increasingly popular.
“Beth suffers from severe social anxiety, and that’s really relevant right now,” Phillips said. “A character readers in 1980 wouldn’t look twice at is the most relevant now.”
Phillips said she often sees views on books or characters change over time like this. Phillips has co-edited a book on Laura Ingalls Wilder to be released this year and said people have begun to look more carefully at the “Little House” series, particularly its portrayal of Native Americans.
“For some people who loved it as children, it’s hard to resee it, but these are important conversations to have,” she said.
Because many of her students are future teachers, Phillips wants to train them to have deeper conversations with their own students. She can’t predict what the children will notice about a story, but she hopes her students understand how to encourage them.
“Kids will notice stuff we’re too busy to notice,” she said.
Eiselein said Phillips, who he called “an extraordinary teacher,” demonstrates this with the care and interest she shows in her students.
“She wants to know where they are and what they think,” Eiselein said. “When they say things, there’s a sincere interest.”
Through both teaching and advising, Phillips said she finds it most rewarding to watch her students grow over their careers at K-State. Especially with advisees, who she works with for their entire time at the university, she said she enjoys seeing them become more confident.
“They come in as freshmen and they’re kind of out of focus, but by the time they come in for their last appointment, you can hear it when they come down the hall,” she said. “There’s a purpose. They know who they are. The way they come into focus takes my breath away.”
However, one of most special lessons Phillips has been able to share was with her son, Wesley. When he was small, she read “The Wizard of Oz” to him and was happy he loved it as much as she did. They read a chapter a night but then he wanted to start over at the beginning.
They ended up reading it nine times in a row. Phillips said they still can have energetic conversations about the book.
“I’m proud that this book that matters to me matters to him too,” she said.
Another book they read for younger kids called “So Many Bunnies” showed how children’s literature can be more than a story and can spark something in children and in families. The book was a sort of alphabet book, with each letter represented by a different bunny. The final page shows all of the rabbits, and Phillips and her son would pick out a bunny from the crowd and try to find it earlier in the book.
“It wasn’t just a book, it was a game,” Phillips said. “It’s what you can do with it.”