New Brunswick

The collection that Eileen built

A gaggle of children are on the edge of their seats as a grey-haired woman flips the yellowed pages of a storybook, reading aloud a story that fascinates and surprises its small listeners, even though it was first told more than 300 years ago.

A gaggle of children are on the edge of their seats as a grey-haired woman flips the yellowed pages of a storybook, reading aloud a story that fascinates and surprises its small listeners, even though it was first told more than 300 years ago.

The woman reading the book knows all about the power of stories. Eileen Wallace, 78, has the rare accomplishment of amassing one of the largest and most appreciated collections of children's literature in the country. She began collecting books more than 50 years ago, and through her love of reading was able to revolutionize how children are taught and what they learn in New Brunswick classrooms.

"I'm a compulsive reader. I read cereal boxes, I read anything I can find. And I always very much liked reading. But when I grew up there were very few children's book available," she says.

Her love of reading in spite of her lack of books. As a child in Mapleton, New Brunswick, she had no access to a library. She grew up on a dairy farm where education wasn't a priority. Her father died suddenly when she was eight, and her mother picked up the family and moved to Fredericton three years later. Though her mother only had a Grade 5 education, she wanted her daughters to have more.

"My mother decided we had to move to the city to get an education. And so she moved to Fredericton. We moved here in 1935, right in the middle of the Depression years."

Wallace graduated from Fredericton High School in 1940. She went on to study at the University of New Brunswick, then to library school and eventually to the Sorbonne in France for a diploma in French.

Wallace then went to work in Elgin, Ontario in 1947. Always a self-starter, the young woman learned to drive a standard shift van so she could drive one of the first bookmobiles in the country, delivering books from libraries to rural schools.

"I had a bit of trouble in the spring of the years because the road was clay," she explains. "One school I could only get to in the early morning, when the roads were still frozen. Because the minute they thawed they were too muddy and you couldn't get through them. We had one school and we used to leave the books at the highway and teacher came out in a tractor to get them."

Back to New Brunswick

After her stint in Ontario, Wallace went to England for a year and then returned home to New Brunswick in 1955 to work at the New Brunswick Teachers' College, which was later merged with the University of New Brunswick. Her job was to take care of the library and teach children's literature for the first time. " I started out by getting books the different teachers wanted for their classes," she says.

When Wallace was asked to teach would-be teachers in outlying areas, she realized she needed books. Many more books. And that's when she started her own collection. She rummaged through yard sales, used book sales in libraries, antique stores, wherever she could find books at a price she could afford on a teacher's salary.

She sometimes found treasures in the musty piles, paying a dollar or two for first editions of historic books the owners didn't realize were valuable. "This book is one that is an example," she says, holding up a collection of French Canadian legends. "I paid a dollar for it and saw in a second-hand catalogue that it was $35. I wouldn't have been able to afford $35, but the dollar I could. So this is the way I bought them. My collection was bought primarily by price."

But she also had an eye for what was needed in Canadian classrooms – more Canadian books. "When I first started in the county library in 1947, there were very few Canadian books for children. You could count them on your hand, there were so few. I automatically bought anything that was published in Canada, because you had so few to buy. But as time went on, we've become much better. Now I would say Canadian authors are on a par with authors anywhere in the world."

Wallace worried that children in New Brunswick were being short-changed by the library system, so she often packed up her Volkswagen Rabbit with books and travelled the dirt roads where would-be teachers could get their hands on them. "I used to pack the whole trunk, and the whole back seat, with boxes of books and I would take them with me. And then they would be available if students were doing research on a particular topic, they would take the books from that. And keep them until they finished their assignment."

Creating the special collection

Eventually, Wallace collected more than 2,500 books. When she retired from the University of New Brunswick in 1988, she agreed to have them put into a special collection in the Harriet Irving Library. The collection has grown to 15,000 books, and Wallace is still its benefactor, contributing to the fund to buy new books, paying for the part-time curator and providing a yearly fellowship of $5,000 to students wanting to study children's literature.

Collection curator Sue Fisher says it's is one of the most important collections of children's books in the country. "Eileen had an eye for what children enjoyed. She would collect popular books. And so you will find those Little Big Books from the early 1970s alongside of 18th and 19th century classics. So it's really fun to just come in and browse the collection. It attracts researchers from Canada and from around the world," she says. "This is a collection that is not for children, but for them to learn how to figure out what children like to read, and why children's literature is so delicious no matter what age you are."

Wallace received a honourary Doctorate of Letters from the University of New Brunswick in 2001, acknowledging her contribution to children's literature. But the highest recognition comes when she sits in a class surrounded by children's books.

"I think I got my students so interested in it that when they went out, they made sure that children's books were used. That's the only way to change it. You can't change things from above. You have to go from below. And my whole point was to get the teachers so interested in having books, and this material, that they would make sure they had it."

  • Related Web sites:
  • The Eileen Wallace children's literature collection – University of New Brunswick Harriet Irving Library
    The Eileen Wallace Fellowship – University of New Brunswick
    Children's Literature Resources – University of New Brunswick Saint John