Angelica Shirley Carpenter, Part 1—-A Garden Party of Children’s Literature

Many of us have the experience of being so immersed in a book that we don’t want to stop reading. Late at night, we’re willing to throw off our circadian rhythms, whether it’s a thrilling page-turner murder mystery, a historical saga, or a sweet love story. Just one more chapter—then I’ll turn out the light and sleep.

But have you experienced that with Mary Poppins? How about The Secret Garden, Pippi Longstocking, or The Lightning Thief? Gary D. Scmidt’s The Wednesday Wars or Pay Attention, Carter Jones (see previous post). Even Winnie-the-Pooh.

Then there are picture books like Frog and Toad Together (Arnold Lobel), The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle), and In the Night Kitchen (Maurice Sendak). Equally captivating with wonderful illustrations.

Children’s Literature was my favorite college class. And reading was one of my favorite activities with my kids when they were little. We plowed through Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose (see previous post). My girls loved the Madeline series (Ludwig Bemelmans) and Kevin Henkes’ Chester’s Way and Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. All four kids enjoyed Jan Brett’s rich illustrations and Curious George’s antics. We parodied If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (Laura Joffe Numeroff; Felicia Bond), rivaling each of the sequels .

Some of my favorite bedtime memories with my boys involved reading The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick–see previous post), Gary D. Schmidt’s retelling of The Pilgrim’s Progress (illustrated by Barry Moser), and The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster). We laughed through Phantom Tollbooth nightly, making it difficult to settle into sleep.

We lived beyond the book’s ending. We made our own nursery rhyme and poetry booklets with photographs of the girls as Little Miss Muffet or Little Bo Peep. We crafted our own Madeline hats which also functioned as refrigerator magnets. 

I hung a shadow box on the kitchen wall, full of miniatures representing various nursery rhymes and fairy tales. We hosted tea parties with Raggedy Ann, the White Rabbit, and American Girl Dolls, and joined Mother-Daughter book clubs. After reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, the girls and I took a trip with our friends to the Ingalls’ homes in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota. 

As a teacher, I enjoyed hosting middle school literature circles and teaching folktale classes. Seems I could always find an excuse to delve back into children’s literature. 

Here’s what my study currently looks like–still surrounded by kids’ books:

The framed illustration is Maxfield Parrish’s The Frog Prince, July 1912.

I’m a kid at heart.

So is it any wonder that I suffer from some career envy after meeting the former curator of the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature?

In various libraries and later at California State University, Fresno, Angelica Shirley Carpenter was able to turn her love of children’s books into a career—as librarian, curator, and author. She turned her enjoyment of Oz and Wonderland into opportunities to connect with fellow readers in the International Wizard of Oz Club and the Lewis Carroll Societies.

Jean Shirley (left) and her daughter Angelica with books they collaborated on. Courtesy of Angelica.

Join me for some Q & A with Angelica.

What did your curator job entail? What are some highlights? 

Angelica: I was the first curator for this new collection, so no one really knew what to expect of it or me. The Center was part of the Henry Madden Library at California State University, Fresno. I began by experimenting with different kinds of programs and by visiting libraries all over California. 

In some public libraries, especially, librarians had been putting aside rare children’s books (often with California content) for years in the hope that a special collection would take them in. They didn’t want to sell these books for fifty cents at library book sales. 

I also met with authors and illustrators and asked them to donate their papers to the Center. I met with private collectors who wanted to donate books. I worked with the library’s fundraising officer, Marcie Morrison, to raise money to buy books, too. 

I started a newsletter, The Magic Mirror, and began hosting author/illustrator events as Arne Nixon had done in the past. Some of the authors he had invited came back for return appearances. A community volunteer, Denise Sciandra, took the lead in forming a support group, ANCA, the Arne Nixon Center Advocates.

The Center sponsored many events, large and small. For me a big highlight was an early program, a 2003 Frances Hodgson Burnett conference, the first ever held about this famous author. People came from England, New Zealand, Japan, and all over the United States to attend and eventually we published a book, In the Garden: Essays in Honor of Frances Hodgson Burnett (Scarecrow, 2007), based on the conference. 

We created a fundraising event to support the conference, a Secret Garden Party. It was held in a beautiful private garden (people in Fresno have fabulous gardens, which they like to open and show). Attendees had to buy tickets before we disclosed the location of the party to them. 

The idea was so successful that we made it an annual event, had a Lewis Carroll Secret Garden Party, one based on the work of Leo Politi, and, of course, one based on Oz.

John Tenniel’s illustration of the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In 2005 I used a sabbatical to move with my husband to live for a semester in London. I visited children’s literature collections at the University of Roehampton, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and in Germany and the Netherlands. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, something I had never dreamed of but the Arne Nixon Center opened doors everywhere.

Another highlight of the job for me was the 2010 “Oz: The Books” conference, which was cosponsored by the International Wizard of Oz Club (I was president at the time). The Theatre Arts Department put on a full-scale musical, complete with orchestra and fabulous sets and scenery, to go with this conference. We had a major Oz exhibition at the library and wonderful speakers, including Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked

What ignited your interest in children’s literature as an adult?  

Angelica: As a child, I loved to read. We moved a lot because of my father’s job as a salesman of agricultural chemicals (I don’t know why this required moving once a year) and whenever we got to a new town, our first stop was the public library, where we checked out as many books as four people were allowed to take. 

I never stopped reading children’s books, or rereading my favorites. My mother Jean Shirley was a writer, mostly for children, so I’m sure that fact influenced me, too. She read Publishers Weekly like the Bible. 

When I went to library school, in my thirties, I had a daughter who was six and I took a course in children’s literature, so I was always reading children’s books. Then, working in public libraries, I kept up with the new ones. 

The real motivation came when I was director of a small public library in Florida. When my mother retired, she moved from our hometown of St. Louis to live near me. It was the first time we had lived in the same town for twenty years. She had the idea that we should write children’s books together, and, as I always tell people, mother knows best! 

Our first book was Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden and after that we wrote L. Frank Baum: Royal Historian of Oz.

What career path did you follow on your way to becoming curator at the Arne Nixon Center?  

Angelica: I got a degree in French which was fairly useless, so I took education courses to get a teaching credential. I taught French in high school and college until the bottom dropped out of foreign languages in the early 1970s. 

Then I got a job as a library assistant in an academic library, where I quickly figured out it would better to be a librarian. So after going back to school for a master’s in library science, I ran a branch library in Springfield, Missouri, for a time, and moved to South  Florida to become director of the Palm Springs, Florida, Public Library. 

When my mother moved to Palm Springs, she founded the Society of Children’s Book Writers (as it was known then) for the state. She and I began putting on conferences and book fairs together. In 1999 I moved to California to take the job at the Arne Nixon Center.

Who are your favorite children’s authors and what are your favorite children’s books?

Angelica: It’s so hard to choose favorites! L. Frank Baum, for sure, and Maud Hart Lovelace, who wrote the Betsy-Tacy series. Frances Hodgson Burnett, especially The Secret Garden. I loved The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and I still do, even though they are now deemed politically incorrect. I reread these books frequently. 

I also liked a really sappy series my great-aunt gave me, the Patty Fairfield books by Carolyn Wells. I loved all her childhood books—The Little Colonel series, the Dotty Dimple series, the Hollow Tree books, The Little Lame Prince, and more modern titles. 

From Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, I moved right on to Perry Mason and Agatha Christie. As a young child, I especially enjoyed biographies in the Childhood of Famous Americans series, though it made me mad that so few of these were about girls.  

Angelica and the Lion—a child’s thank you to Angelica after she spoke to a 4th grade class in Fresno in the early 2000s. Courtesy of Angelica.

How would you compare the Lewis Carroll societies to the International Wizard of Oz Club? What are some of your experiences with each one? 

Angelica: Well, the Oz Club is the club of my heart, of course. I joined in the 1970s but for twenty years my only contact was through The Baum Bugle. When my Baum biography came out in 1992, I could finally afford to attend meetings and I was thrilled to meet people like Peter Hanff, whose name I had read so many times. 

I think Oz Club members are more passionate about their Club than the Lewis Carroll members. They care intensely about every Oz detail and they like to defend their positions, however controversial. They are also sillier, dressing up in amazing costumes. 

Lewis Carroll people go for quiet accessories like White Rabbit neckties or Alice charm bracelets. Oh, maybe once in a while a jacket with Tenniel illustrations. But no full-on Gump costumes or Wheelers or Langwidere with accompanying heads, all of which I have seen at Oz conventions.

Angelica tried on a Glinda costume when she produced an Oz stage show. 1998. Courtesy of Angelica.

All the Clubs are very welcoming. I attended my first Lewis Carroll meeting, organized by the British society, in Oxford in 1998. What would they think of me, I wondered, an American who wanted to write about their favorite author and who didn’t really know all that much about him? 

I needn’t have worried—they couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful with the book, Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass, as I did the research for it. And at that Oxford conference I met other Americans from the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, which I also joined. These three clubs—one Oz and two Lewis Carroll—have shaped my life and my career. The people I have met through them are my dear, lifelong friends. 

How many years were you the Oz Club president, and what roles did you play in the club before and after that?

Angelica: I was president for six years, from 2004 to 2010, I think. Right after I became president, I moved to London for six months, but it was easy and fun (after we figured out times) to have phone meetings during that time with the executive committee. 

Since I am a librarian, I was always able to promote Oz in libraries where I worked, sponsoring programs and exhibitions. In 2000 I chaired the literary track, one of five tracks for the Oz centennial convention at the University of Indiana. 

While I was president, I put on a national Oz convention here in Fresno. Both before and after being president, I served on the board of directors. For many years I have been a contributor to The Baum Bugle.

As president, what were your duties in the Oz Club?


  • To preside over board meetings
  • To set the agenda for them
  • To hold monthly phone meetings of the executive committee
  • To set the agenda for these (we lived all over the country then and the current committee does, too)
  • To be the public face of the club or to refer people to other, better-qualified public faces
  • To answer questions or refer them
  • To resolve problems or refer them
  • To keep an eye on the money (but Peter Hanff, finance committee chair, and Michael Gessel, treasurer, did that so well that I didn’t need to worry about it)

Once I did an NPR interview with Meinhardt Raabe, the actor who played the Munchkin coroner, who was then quite elderly. The host, whose name I have forgotten, had played the Scarecrow in a high school production of The Wizard of Oz and he insisted that I sing along with him to “If I Only Had a Brain.” 

I really can’t carry a tune and I didn’t even know the words very well, but I tried. I was mortified that my sister, a musician who has a poor opinion of my singing, heard me on her car radio in Texas. She was kind about it, but that was my most embarrassing moment—I am never singing on the radio again!

What did you enjoy most in your role as president? 

Angelica: I was so proud to be the president of the Oz Club! The only thing better than that would to be Ozma. 

Princess Ozma of Oz, as illustrated by John R. Neill in The Lost Princess of Oz, 1917.

Were there any particular events, goals, or challenges that you tackled during your time as president?

Angelica: We were debating whether to have multiple, regional meetings or one national meeting that moved around the country, never fully did it one way or another. OzCon (the former Winkies convention) continues to meet yearly in California and we have a national convention that moves around, sometimes meeting at OzCon. Both the national and OzCon were virtual this year. Also, for years, we have been trying to decide what to do with the Oz Club’s valuable collection of rare books, L. Frank Baum’s scrapbooks, etc., to keep it safe and make it accessible to researchers.

Join me next time as Angelica discusses her recent book about suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage and a new book to be released in September.

BIO: Angelica Shirley Carpenter has master’s degrees in education and library science from the University of Illinois. She is the author or co-author of four illustrated biographies for young people. For sixteen years, she served as director of the Palm Springs, Florida, Public Library. In 1999 she became the founding curator of the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at California State University, Fresno. Having retired in 2011, Carpenter currently resides in Fresno and is active in the Authors Guild, the International Wizard of Oz Club, the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. 

What were your favorite books as a child and why? Are there any that had a long-lasting impact? Any that you enjoy re-reading with your children or grandchildren?

Please add your comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,


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10 thoughts on “Angelica Shirley Carpenter, Part 1—-A Garden Party of Children’s Literature

  1. This was great! Some of my faves-and my students’-include The War that Saved My Life, Wonder, Winter Danger, Hugo Cabret, An Orange for Frankie, anything by Patricia Polacco, Undefeated

    1. So glad you dropped by, Rita! Thanks for sharing your favorites. I’m guessing you have a list a mile long. I’m not sure how you narrowed it down. 🙂

  2. My go-to favorites were always Little Women and The Witch of Blackbird Pond–I wore my copies out. And yes, pulled many all-nighters re-reading them. Recently, my kids found some of my childhood favorites that I always described and bought them for me. Like Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. Now they love the stories, too!

    And talking about taking a book beyond its ending, recently for me, that’s been If You Give a Mouse a Cookie…which can be rewritten, “If you give your wife new kitchen floors, she’s going to want to paint the cabinets. And if she paints the kitchen cabinets, …” (I’m not sure my husband knew what he was getting into. I know I sure didn’t. But the book has been front and center in my brain for the past two months! Proof that children’s books apply to life no matter how old you are.)

    Angelica’s job sounds fascinating. To delve into the minds of such creative authors and share those facts with readers! And those garden parties 🙂 Such fun!!

    1. I loved Little Women as a kid, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It’s so fun when your kids end up loving the same stories you do.

      Sounds like you have a brand new kitchen now! That has happened in our house, too—many times unexpectedly because in an old Victorian house, you never know what you’ll find during your next house project. One thing leads to another . . . Enjoy your kitchen!

      You need to continue writing out your home remodeling adventure: “If you give your wife new kitchen floors . . .”

      Yes, those garden parties sound wonderful!

    1. Ah, yes. Can’t forget those titles. For those who don’t know, those are 2 of a 3-part series that also includes House Mouse, Senate Mouse (Peter W. Barnes & Cheryl Shaw Barnes). They’re fun, illustrated stories for kids that show how all three branches of our government works.

  3. Your study is wonderful! Sadly, many of my childhood favorites were water-damaged and I don’t have them, but I have many books that I enjoyed with my sons.
    And I loved the ‘Childhood of Famous Americans’ series! Our library had the old ones—I think the artwork inside was all silhouettes? Maybe that’s another reason I don’t have many books from when I was little—I read and reread the ones in our public library, church library and every Christian school library I could get my hands on. I can’t think of any particular book that had a long-lasting impact. Lots of them did! Some not so good (putting obedience to moral law on par with grace) and some wonderful (like the ones that taught empathy without being preachy about it). I did read a host of Grace Livingston Hill books that my dad owned though! ‘The Red Signal’ was my favorite!
    Thank you for the introduction to Angelica. What a fascinating life she leads!

    1. Sounds like you were an avid reader, Anita–putting the libraries to good use. Thanks for sharing some of your favorites!

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