Kay E. Vandergrift, an esteemed educator and leader in the field of children’s and young adult literature who served as professor and associate dean emerita at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information (SCI), died July 1 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She was 73.
Vandergrift was born in 1940. She received a B.S. in library education at Millersville State College in Pennsylvania before going on to study at Teachers College at Columbia University, where she earned an M.A. in elementary education in 1965. In 1978, she received an Ed.D. in elementary education. Vandergrift worked as a school librarian and also taught at Columbia University School of Library Science, as well as at Barnard College, Queens College, and several other institutions.
Vandergrift joined Rutgers University in 1985 and retired in 2004. During that time, she served as chair of the Department of Library and Information Science, director of the MLIS program, director of distance education, and associate dean. She was a beloved teacher and invited many children’s book authors to visit her classes, sparking and fostering a love of literature among her students. During Vandergrift’s time at Rutgers, the Department of Library was consistently ranked among the top 10 programs in North America and as the best program in Services for Children and Youth by U.S. News and World Report. She also realized the school’s decade-long dream of offering a program in information and technology to undergraduates with the founding of the Information Technology and Informatics degree program.
In addition to her scholarly accomplishments, Vandergrift was known for her ability to nurture and mentor both students and colleagues. Rocco Staino, contributor editor for SLJ and retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York, was a student of Vandergrift’s in the 1970s at Teachers College and praised the professor’s forward-thinking approach to children’s literature.
“She was always on the cutting edge in having teachers and librarians present controversial topics to kids. I specifically remember reading The Grass Pipe (Little, Brown, 1969) by Robert Coles, which was about two ninth graders experimenting with marijuana, and Norma Klein’s Mom, the Wolfman and Me (Pantheon, 1972), [in which] an 11-year-old girl describes her life and relationship with her mother, who has never married.”
Author Marc Aronson, a lecturer at Rutgers School of Communication and Information, spoke of Vandergrift’s influence in his own path toward education. “I got to know [Vandergrift] when I worked in publishing through our mutual admiration for Paul Fleischman, some of whose books I had the good fortune to edit,” Aronson said. “She and I stayed in touch, and when I grew interested in teaching, I approached her about coming to Rutgers. Though she had retired, she was most gracious in facilitating my connections with the school. So I feel I got to know and admire her twice: through books, and through teaching—two passions we shared.”
Her influence, however, spread beyond the walls of Rutgers. Vandergrift was one of the first professors to establish a significant Web presence, spearheading the use of the Internet as a teaching tool. Her website, a self-declared “means of sharing ideas and information with all those interested in literature for children and young adults,” was considered an important resource for those working with children and linked to more than 500 other sites. Like a Wikipedia for children’s literature, the site collected information on publishers, biographies of well known authors, bibliographies for librarians, analyses of literary works, and more. Vandergrift’s “Snow White” site, an in depth examination of the Grimm’s fairy tale that compiled several resources, such as criticisms, alternate story versions, and illustrations, was particularly well received and was featured as an outstanding scholarly site in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1997.
Vandergrift also wrote and edited a number of books, including Mosaics of Meaning: Enhancing the Intellectual Life of Young Adults Through Story, Ways of Knowing: Literature and the Intellectual Life of Children (both Scarecrow, 1996), and Child and Story: The Literary Connection (Neal-Schuman, 1980).
Her myriad awards and honors included the Teaching Excellence Award from the Association for Library and Information Science Education in 2001, the Warren I. Susman Award for Excellence in Teaching from Rutgers University in 1996, and a Mellon Grant from Rutgers’s Zimmerli Art Museum in 1997.
Vandergrift’s former colleagues at Rutgers spoke of her enduring impact that her presence had in the field of librarianship and of children’s and young adult literature.
Michael Joseph, rare books cataloger at Rutgers, who worked with Vandergrift, praised her legacy. “Vandergrift was a multifaceted figure, a cutting-edge educator with boundless knowledge and expertise in children’s literature. Foremost among her interests were a concern with the representation of gender, race and ethnicity, illustration, and how technology might mediate education,” he said. “Although Kay withdrew from active participation in children’s literature after her retirement, her passionate commitment to the field is alive in the work of her many illustrious and dedicated students.”
“Kay Vandergrift was an extraordinary individual who used her many talents and creativity to advance education,” said Claire McInerney, acting dean of Rutgers SCI. “She was an intellectual who nevertheless had her feet on the ground and was able to launch new programs, nurture young scholars, and deal with the practical issues of university administration—all with a positive spirit and a sense of humor.”
Rutgers has established a scholarship fund for library and information science students in Vandergrift’s honor. Those who are interested can contact Linda Christian, Director of Development for the SCI.