The Art and Craft of Literary Analysis

Katie Buhler (BS ’20, Elementary Education)

Among the outstanding students in Elementary Education who have pursued our relatively new minor in Children’s and Adolescent Literature and Culture, Katie Buhler (BS ’20, Education) is especially impressive.

In Professor Naomi Wood’s ENGL 384 “Multicultural Children’s Literature,” Professor Wendy Matlock’s ENGL 445 “Romance and Fairy Tales,” and my ENGL 355 “Literature for Children” and ENGL 545 “Literature for Adolescents,” among others, she has demonstrated remarkable aptitude. Throughout, she has created distinctive projects involving fabric, following on her earlier successes in 4-H’s Working with Wool competitions.

For “Literature for Children,” she created a quilt in connection with our reading of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, depicting the title character’s final passage away from the lair of the Other Mother. Every detail of her quilt was meticulous and appropriate. Writing about her creative choices, she elucidated insights about Gaiman’s characterization, setting, and plot.

In “Literature for Adolescents” this semester, she developed a lesson plan on story quilts and guided her fellow students through a creative and analytical examination of Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved. Her culminating project for the course, a quilt commemorating the eleventh sonnet in Marilyn Nelson’s poignant A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005), is simply outstanding.

Katie’s fabric creations are informed by the conviction that literary analysis can take unconventional forms. Beyond the conventions of the traditional essay, creative projects, as R.R. Morgan, J.A. Ponticell, and E.E. Gordon (2000) have argued, draw on traits such as “risk-taking, independence of judgment, self-confidence, attraction to complexity, self-actualization, and an aesthetic orientation” (193). With an avocation for arts education, Katie uses art to express significant reactions to and reflections on course materials.

Nelson’s heroic crown of sonnets includes the following powerful lines:

This country we love has a Janus face:

One mouth speaks with forked tongue, the other reads

the Constitution. My country, ’tis of both

thy nightmare history and thy grand dream,

thy centuries of good and evil deeds,

I sing. Thy fruited plain, thy undergrowth

of mandrake, which flowers white as moonbeams.


Featuring the Janus face in her quilt, Katie explains,

The tongue emerging from the mouth of the right face is made of red and brown jute wound together and split at the end to mimic the image of a forked tongue and explicitly represent the ropes used to hang the “men slain for their race” (line 4). This tongue represents the stories told by Emmett Till’s murderers and their privileged position in communities where their words would not be questioned. The tongue on the left side of the collage is made of a muslin fabric transcribed with the initial statement in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution. I chose to leave the edges of this tongue unfinished as well as the statement to the preamble to remind the viewer of the “unfinished” nature of this document and the requirement that we, as US citizens, continue to challenge ideas which do not serve to “establish justice . . . promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” (“The Preamble”).

Katie’s work is meticulous, thoroughly grounded in the text, and, simply, stunning. We are developing a showcase in the English Department for this exquisite, haunting creation (stay tuned).

As Katie commences her student-teaching semester in January, we feel the utmost confidence in her ability to enrich and transform students’ lives!

Anne Phillips, Professor and Associate Department Head


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