Katherine Stein and “Epidemics in Children’s Literature”

This week we continue to highlight student work. Katherine Stein, a sophomore double-majoring in English Literature and History, was also in Dr. Knox’s “Black Death” history class with Cara Caputo. Like Cara, Katherine also chose to do her assignment using Wordpress. Katherine’s project, Epidemics in Children’s Literature, examines the presence of illness in children’s literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. Katherine focused on six texts — Little Women (1868), A Little Princess (1905), The Secret Garden (1911), The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), Little House on the Prairie (1935), and By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939) — which cover scarlet fever, malaria, cholera, or “jungle fever” (a severe form of malaria).

Katherine’s home page featuring several illustrations from her texts.

Analyzing illnesses in six different books means a very text-heavy site, but Katherine uses Wordpress to her benefit. Katherine preferred making this a digital media project instead of a typical research paper, because she could “compartmentalize and link it all together. Each page has the same format and linking them to each other helped integrate them.” Katherine’s project included an introduction, a chronology, a bibliography, and a page on each of the six books. Because there is overlap in the diseases discussed in the literature, Katherine was able to link the books that featured that disease. For example, malaria appears in both Little House on the Prairie and A Little Princess, so at the end of each analysis, there is a link to the other book. Making this a digital project helped Katherine “figure out how to structure things differently. The research transcends the boundaries papers have, so this medium highlighted and enhanced the research I had done and gave me greater freedom in exploring a broader topic.”

Besides using Wordpress, Katherine used Timeline JS, a timeline platform created by Northwestern University and funded by The Knight Foundation (KnightLab). “I wanted something to add context: the authors’ birth and death dates, the Civil War, and the invention of penicillin, in particular. It was easy to use. You download a Google spreadsheet template to fill in the information. The only problem is that you don’t know what it’s going to look like till you’re done. I stayed pretty basic.” Though Katherine had some problem embedding her timeline into her Wordpress page, Elizabeth Gibes was able to help her. Overall, Katherine found that process relatively easy.

“Young Boy and Girl,” an illustration showing two children reading a book.

Using a lot of images can be tricky, especially when your project for public consumption. Katherine had a difficult time finding fair use images and changed them out regularly before she published her final product. “I wanted to use first edition covers, but that didn’t work out.” Looking for cohesion to tie all the pieces together, Katherine ended up using the illustrations of Jessie Wilcox Smith, who she discovered on Pinterest (never underestimate social media as a resource).

“The New Book,” featuring an adult woman reading to two young children.

Katherine’s overall experience with using digital media was positive. “I think it can be applied to more classes. The research can reach a wider audience and it’s super cool that the work I did is able to leave the bubble of academia. A project like this lacks conventional parameters, so I was able to be a lot more creative in my research and in my structure. It’s exciting, because I think that the way websites like this are designed have a lot of influence on the way that the information is read, understood, and interpreted, which poses an interesting challenge and is a huge departure from the traditional research paper.”