Dr. Rachel Maley is a Visiting Lecturer in Literature who specializes in Children’s Literature and adaptation.
This interview was conducted over Zoom during the Spring 2022 semester. It has been edited for clarity and concision.
How long have you been teaching in the English department, and which courses do you typically teach?
I’ve been teaching a long time at this point, since the Fall of 2013. I started with Seminar in Composition when I entered the department as a PhD student. Since my research is in Children’s Literature, I then taught in the Children’s Literature Program. I was a TA for Children and Culture with Tyler Bickford and then moved into Childhood’s Books and Representing Adolescence. Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to branch out with other literature courses like Words and Images and Reading Poetry, which has been really fun and unexpected. In the Spring of 2022, I taught Narrative and Technology.
How did you find your way to Children’s Literature? Could you describe your journey toward your disciplinary interests?
It started in my undergraduate institution; I was an English major, but I was also a Secondary Education minor, so I actually came into Pitt with certification to teach English for grades 7-12 in Pennsylvania. One of the requirements for the Secondary Education minor was to take at least one Children’s Literature or Young Adult Fiction class. I took both, and I just immediately fell in love. When I was taking my other English major course, my interests married together in taking a Sentimental Politics class in 19th century American Literature, basically, women’s writing. With my interest in Children’s Literature and Young Adult Fiction, I came across an adaptation of the women’s novel The Lamplighter. When I found this adaptation, I was like, “This is so cool!” Honestly, this project that I wrote about in my senior [undergraduate] year ends up being a section of one of my chapters of my dissertation. It carried me through even though I thought I would be doing research primarily in girlhood; I ended-up switching [focus] and saying I really want to [research] adaptations of the 19th century.
What are the questions that motivate your research and teaching?
I not only think about how the content has changed in adaptation—though I certainly find that interesting—but I also find really fascinating, at least within the 19th century, the material transformations within print itself. These kinds of books are still being marketed and created for children, as board books and ebooks. I never really focus on one particular narrative; I like seeing the result of re-formations. I’m really motivated by material transformation. In the classroom, we interact with things. [I like to ask] what kinds of interactions are scripted [into the object of the book] in order to interact with these things.
Would you speak about your approach to teaching, maybe sharing a bit about a recent course?
Two things: First, I love slowing down. I love annotation practices and everybody doing some attentive digging because [students often] feel compelled to rush and move through and know exactly what it is that they think and say. To me, that’s what creates the anxiety, and I’m interested in instilling confidence and competence. [Secondly, I’ve] become a huge fan of working with Archives & Special Collections. [My classes] go several times per semester, and it’s been an amazing experience working with the curators there, including Clare Withers. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also incredibly intriguing for the students.
Was there a teacher, mentor, family member, event, book (or some combination thereof!) that shaped your thinking, teaching, and your desire to study literature professionally?
My family was very much into reading, and I have an older sister who was a voracious reader, and this is where I’m sometimes sad because I aged myself up and sort of skipped over young adult literature when I was a tween and teenager. Once I got to college, it was my professor who really provided an honest look at what it meant to go to graduate school. I was graduating in a time in which it was really difficult to get a job as a teacher; this was right after the recession. My mentor is the one who introduced me to archival work. She took me to the American Antiquarian Society as a research assistant and let me work with her. She ended-up developing an article from some of the items we pulled there. She was fundamental and continues to be a great mentor and friend after all these years, so it’s been wonderful.
Would you please list your recent books/articles/media projects/talks? I want to be sure to mention these accomplishments at the start of the printed interview.
I’m currently revising part of one of my dissertation chapters into an article; it’s on paper doll books. The other [project] is to dig back into a digital project [I started] in the final chapter of my dissertation. I’m doing something like data mining with McLoughlin Brothers Catalogues from the later 19th century to trace their adaptations through their toy book products. I’m getting a sense of the kind of recycling with stories and materials. I’m also figuring out how they’re branding their items. I started with four catalogs and wasn’t expecting to do more. [When I decided to do] a digital project, my sample size expanded exponentially. I coded 1800 entries, and I’m looking to expand it because the American Antiquarian Society has digitized multiple catalogues.
What are some of your interests or hobbies outside the classroom?
I love to cook, and I’ve been baking more when I can. My signature dish is a jalapeno popper pizza with homemade pizza dough.
What are you reading now? And are there any books you’d like to recommend to others?
I’m really excited about one book I think more people should read because it’s going to become a TV adaptation: Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn. Basically, it’s a combination of the King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable myth and Black Girl Magic. It is rich and detailed; the layers of this world that [Deonn] has created are incredible! The second book in the series is coming out in November. I’m currently reading A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. I’m a fan of her [books].