Graduate student Lia New receives Leila Christenbury Literacy Fund award

March 31, 2023
Lia New sitting on a bench on Monroe Park Campus.

Lia New (pronouns they/them/theirs), a first-year master’s of art education graduate student, is  the 2023 recipient of the Leila Christenbury Literacy Fund award. Christenbury, an emeritus educator in the VCU School of Education, is an expert in children’s literature.  

In June, the fund will send New to the American Library Association conference in Chicago. New was selected by a panel of judges for a proven interest in literacy, libraries and children’s literature. The honor carries with it an associate membership in ALA.  

The ALA awards the United States’ most respected prizes in children’s literature including Newbery, Caldecott and the Coretta Scott King Awards. Medalists and honorees, authors and illustrators of the year’s honored books for children and young adults appear at talks, signings and at other gala events during the conference–which will provide the VCU student a rich experience in exploring a panorama of literature for young people.   

For New, the experience of attending the conference aligns their studies, aspirations and a love of libraries. 

Growing up in Florida and the Midwest, New earned a bachelor’s in fine arts in art and design at the University of Michigan in 2022. “I came to VCU to study Art Education because I realized how much of my creative practice had educational goals. Some of my professors recommended VCU, and I quickly became inspired by the work of those in my department, and the creativity of Richmond and the VCU community.”

“When I was a child I spent a lot of time in libraries. My mom would take me to our main library, and let me pick out books to hold me over for the next week. I’ve always loved drawing and naturally gravitated to books with many illustrations, so my mom felt it was important that I have access to books that would inspire me.”  

Some favorite books were The Snowy Day, Corduroy, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. “Each of these books have beautiful colors and textures that I wanted to emulate. I was also captured  by fantasy and imagination elements in each of these. I loved picturing myself in these books, traveling through a giant mall in the night in order to come home, or exploring my home transformed by the snow. Although I wouldn’t experience snowy landscapes until middle school, I experienced wonder for the world around me because of these books.”

New hopes to teach in museums, libraries, or other community centers where they can use children’s books to inspire children’s creativity and imagination.

“I’m currently researching the impact of storytelling in the art classroom and how children’s literature can be used as a tool for students’ artistic making and growth. I came to VCU from a  studio arts program where I developed skills in making illustrations and comics for children. Through my undergraduate experience, I realized the impact that children’s books have on a child’s relationships to themselves and others.”

The recipient’s essay applying for the funding offered in-depth thinking about the impact of storytelling on children. New wrote: 

“When I was growing up, there was a severe shortage of stories representing children of color. And of those stories, our identities were represented through a narrow lens. This lack of representation often made me doubt what I was capable of, and if I would ever feel comfortable being who I am. Over time, these stories became more available and although I was no longer a child I spent time with works like Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, My Rainbow by Trinity and Deshanna Neal and You Matter by Christian Robinson. These works represent children who have been historically underrepresented in children’s literature, and provide messages of joy, self-love, and care for others. 

“They influenced the kind of art I wanted to create and provided a space for me to imagine the kinds of stories I wish I had as a child. Narrative works such as those would also influence the kind of teacher I wanted to become. 

“During the COVID-19 lockdown, many people shared diverse curations of children’s literature that should be present in our homes, classrooms and communities. With people sharing works like Hair Love, they weren’t just describing the impact this work had on young Black girls. They were sharing how the work’s message could be incorporated into lessons and activities for a diverse group of children. This moment was significant for me, because while I understood children’s literature had educational intentions, I didn’t fully understand the ways that educators and artists could be in conversation with each other when it came to teaching children with these books. As I approached the end of my undergraduate program, my creative process evolved into an interest in education. I wanted to know how educators incorporate illustrated books into their curriculum. I was also curious if there were any overlaps with how art educators use illustrated books in their classrooms. Could these objects be used as both a literacy tool and a making tool? This investigation is what led me to Art Education at VCU. 

"Through my program, I am investigating the themes artists and educators are most inspired by when it comes to the stories they share with children, and what they believe are the most important takeaways from using illustrated narratives in the classroom. I plan to use this research to inform my own creation of illustrated books and use of them in the classroom. 

“When it comes to the art classroom, storytelling is a crucial tool that can provide students with an understanding of how their own experiences can influence their values and interactions with others. I believe that I can use illustrated books as an inspirational tool in my art educational practice as a way of developing the creative practice of my students. With access to diverse illustrated narratives and the artists that create them, students would have the tools to express themselves and create works more personal to them.”

New said that the award opportunity would provide the chance to learn more about how publishers, creators, and librarians work together to provide impactful stories to children.  I would connect with them to understand the current scope of children’s literature and how needs from marginalized communities can be incorporated into those goals of publishing and illustration. It would also provide me with the resources to get more involved in library research and community education.”

About the Leila Christenbury Literacy Fund

The Leila Christenbury Literacy Fund was established in 2007 with gifts from Leila Christenbury, Commonwealth Professor Emerita in the VCU School of Education. 

Well-known in national education circles, Christenbury taught English Education at VCU for 32 years, serving as professor, department chair and interim dean. She is a 45-year veteran teacher in secondary English and higher education, former editor of English Journal and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is the recipient of both the David H. Russell Award for Distinguished Research in Teaching and the James N. Britton Award for Educational Research. The focus of her teaching and research is how to teach secondary English and she has a special interest in young adult literature. 

To make a gift to the fund, search for Leila Christenbury Fund on this secure page.


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