As an undergraduate majoring in linguistics at UW–Madison in the late 1970s, Kathleen T. Horning found herself at a crossroads — and took a fortuitous turn into the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC).
As Horning recalls the situation, she loved linguistics but not its job prospects. So she decided to pursue certification to be able to teach English as a second language.
“You could pretty much go anywhere in the world and make a living at it — and that excited me,” says Horning, who started taking a series of five courses to be able to teach English as a second language.
One of the classes met on the fourth floor of Helen C. White Hall — which at the time was home to the CCBC.
“One day I arrived early for class, and I just wandered down to the CCBC,” says Horning, who chatted with a librarian, joined the center’s monthly book discussion group, and quickly felt at home with the library’s small staff. “I found I really enjoyed children’s books and I loved getting together with this group that was serious about these books”
Adds Horning: “I began to realize that this was something I could do after I graduated and that I could go to library school and spend my life doing this.”
Linguistics’ loss was a major victory for the CCBC in particular, and the realm of children’s and young adult literature more broadly. Horning started working at the CCBC as an undergraduate volunteer in 1979, learned and thrived under the mentorship of director emerita Ginny Moore Kruse, and took over as the center’s director in 2002.
A remarkable career that spanned parts of six decades ended on July 1, when Horning retired from the university.
“Few people are fortunate enough to find the place where they can thrive professionally and personally so early in their careers,” says Horning, who is known by friends and colleagues alike as KT.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates Horning’s contributions and rock-star-like status in the field than a glowing article that appeared in the School Library Journal in July 2009. The big, bold headline simply reads: “KT the Magnificent” — with a sub-headline explaining: “Kathleen T. Horning is one of the most influential librarians you’ll ever meet — and one of the kindest.”
In honor of Horning and her many accomplishments, the Milkey Family Foundation provided a lead gift to establish the KT Horning Directorship for the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. As part of this support, the Milkey Family Foundation is currently matching all gifts up to $500,000 to establish this endowed directorship. (Learn more and make a gift today!)
Administratively housed in the School of Education and also supported by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the CCBC serves as a resource to Wisconsin schools, teachers, librarians, and others interested in children’s and young adult literature. The center’s team of librarians, which currently includes Merri Lindgren, Megan Schliesman, and Madeline Tyner, works to: provide expertise in contemporary children’s and young adult literature; increase diversity in children’s and young adult literature; provide intellectual freedom services to schools and public libraries; and recommend outstanding books for children and teenagers.
Horning says one effort she is most proud of is the CCBC’s deep commitment to the tracking of diversity — and the lack thereof — in children’s books. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Kruse and Horning started documenting the scarcity of books for children and teens that were by and about people of color.
“It’s important for children to be able to see themselves in the books that they read,” says Horning.
Since 1985, the CCBC has been the national source for annual diversity statistics in books for young people. There were about 2,500 new books published for children in 1985 — and of those, only 18 were published by African American authors and illustrators. Over time, the numbers have slowly increased — with bigger jumps in positive change coming around 2015 and again in 2020.
At first, these diversity statistics were conveyed in a simple statement in the front of the annual “CCBC Choices” — a best-of-the-year list created annually by the librarians of the center. But over time, publishers, librarians, and teachers started taking note of the numbers — as did publishers and major media outlets. Today, the CCBC fields about 100 media and research inquiries per year about its diversity statistics and the center houses a web page devoted to a range of diversity resources.
“That’s some of the work I’m most proud of,” says Horning. “We’ve established the CCBC as an advocate for diversity in children’s books. Our diversity work has made an impact on children’s book publishing that has ultimately led to getting more diverse books into the hands of children and teens.”
Horning is also recognized as an expert in the history of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, which honor the author and artist, respectively, of the most distinguished American books for children. For the past 15 years, she has taught popular online classes aimed at teachers and librarians about the history of these awards.
“I think it’s critical for anyone using the Newbery and Caldecott Medal books with children to understand the history, context, and process of how and why they were selected. My goal is to get people to think critically about past winners,” says Horning.
Other major accomplishments for Horning include:
• Publishing in 1997 the book, “From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Books for Children.” This work is now in its second edition (HarperCollins, 2010) and is widely used as a core textbook in children’s literature classes.
• Being named the 2010 May Hill Arbuthnot Lecturer, an honor shared by such luminaries as Fritz Eichenberg, Ursula LeGuin, and Maurice Sendak. Horning’s lecture, titled “Can Children’s Books Save the World? Early Advocates for Diversity in Children’s Books and Libraries,” was delivered in Riverside, California.
• Under Horning’s leadership, the CCBC in 2014 moved its physical location from Helen C. White Hall to the Teacher Education building.
“The move gave us the opportunity to reassess our book collections and really put us at the center of the School of Education and its teacher education students,” says Horning. “It’s so much easier to bump into and meet our education students.”
• And in 1997, Horning worked with Kruse to create the Charlotte Zolotow Award and Lecture. Zolotow was a longtime distinguished children’s book editor with Harper Junior Books, and author of more than 65 picture books. Zolotow attended the University of Wisconsin on a writing scholarship from 1933-36, where she studied with Professor Helen C. White. This annual event — which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year — brings a distinguished children’s book author or illustrator to the campus to deliver a free public lecture.
“KT is a phenomenal colleague and terrific human being,” Anna Lewis, the School of Education’s interim chief information officer and director of MERIT, says of Horning’s time leading the CCBC. “She is one the nation’s fiercest champions for diverse and inclusive literature for children and young adults. For 40 years, teachers, librarians, researchers — and most of all, children — have benefited from KT’s wisdom, recommendations, and visionary work. She leaves UW-Madison with a tremendous legacy and she will be leaving the CCBC in excellent shape to continue building its services and successes.”
Horning’s colleagues within the CCBC similarly sing her praises.
“I especially appreciate the collaborative environment of the CCBC under KT’s tenure,” says Schliesman. “Some of my favorite memories are from the times when we’d meet as a staff to discuss an issue or share ideas and brainstorm and something exciting would begin to emerge. That doesn’t happen in a space where there’s fear of being judged. We laughed a lot when we’d meet as a staff, too. Both of these things are a testament to the tone she set as director.”
Adds Lindgren: “One of the things I appreciate most about KT is her unfailing generosity with sharing her time and knowledge. I also value her willingness to listen openly to differing opinions. Some of my favorite moments at the CCBC are when the librarians discuss recently published books we are considering for ‘CCBC Choices.’ Even when we disagree, the conversation is positive, enlightening, and respectful of everyone’s perspective. KT cultivates and encourages a collaborative work environment.”
While Horning says she’ll miss her time working on campus, she adds that she’s excited to see what comes next as the center’s leadership is picked up by Tessa Michaelson Schmidt, who was named the next director of the CCBC this past spring.
“I trust that the CCBC will continue to find new and creative ways to meet future challenges to best serve our users,” says Horning.
Asked what her retirement plans are, Horning says simply: “To continue to read great books — but during the day, by natural light.”
“KT the Magnificent” has certainly earned that right.
“I really enjoyed being a part of a highly regarded School and university, and working with and supporting so many talented faculty and staff, teachers, and librarians,” says Horning. “I put in a lot of work with the CCBC but it was what I loved to do.”