One gem among many, the Mary Kay Varley Collection is accessible to TCU students and faculty from disciplines across campus for research and other academic pursuits.
A teacher’s love for children’s literature grew into a vast collection of personal books, which made its way to a permanent and caring home at the Mary Couts Burnett Library.
The Mary Kay Varley Collection includes works by bestselling authors and some of the most talented and creative illustrators, some of whom are dyslexic, such as Jerry Pinkney, EB Lewis, and Patricia Polacco. The pride of her collection are the works of illustrator Mitsumasa Anno, some in the Japanese original. Ed Young is also a favorite illustrator along with Eric Carle and Steve Jenkins for their ripped paper style picture books.
“My hope is to provide a body of work that students, faculty and the community can access and that can bring fun and enrichment to their classrooms, projects or lives,” said Varley M.Ed. ’89. “Seeing all the books together in the Special Collections vault is a joy for me. I know the library will take care of them in a way that makes me feel relieved.
The Mary Kay Varley Collection currently contains 3,495 volumes. More than a third of the books are signed copies and all are in perfect condition.
“Having a collection like this is pretty special because it’s hard to find children’s books in perfect condition,” said Tracy Hull, Dean of the Library. “Through the efforts of Mary Kay, and now the Special Collections, these titles will be preserved, so that they will be available to researchers in a variety of disciplines, including education, history and art.”
TCU students and faculty from disciplines across campus access the collection for research and other academic activities. It is a gem among the many special collections in the campus library.
“Children’s books have immense research value. They are aimed at social historians, graphic designers, book artists and historians interested in the history of literacy and education, ”said Julie Christenson, Rare Books Librarian. “Thanks to the generosity of Mary Kay Varley, we are able to preserve these important artifacts in their original, pristine form so that they may be permanently available for this type of research.”
Mary Kay Varley began her teaching career 49 years ago in a multi-level classroom of children with learning and behavioral disabilities. During her undergraduate studies, she discovered her passion for children’s literature and found that reading aloud to her students after lunch and recess had a calming effect on them.
She started with Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the chocolate factory, a classic for children, and quickly noticed that all ages in the class seemed to like his writing style. Reading children’s literature aloud had an impact on his students, and this is how Varley’s book collection began.
She couldn’t wait for the library to supply the books she wanted to read to students, so she started buying her own copies, which needed to be bound.
“Books read aloud always had to be bound,” Varley said. “The paperbacks didn’t hold up well, and I knew some editions would be in use for several years.
A San Diego bookseller suggested putting her dust jackets in protective covers, because for a collector, the jacket was considered extremely valuable.
She has an extensive collection of pop-up books, especially those by award-winning American artist and stationer engineer Robert Sabuda. There are samples of his early and late works and everything in between.
Varley’s collection began to grow by the hundreds and his house began to be flooded with books. She was faced with the challenge of knowing where and how to store her books. Her hardcover copies were kept at home and she only took them to school to read them aloud.
“My little townhouse filled with books – the baskets, boxes and shelves were full,” she said.
The signature collection
The collection really took off in the late 90s and early 2000s when a friend of Varley told him that children’s illustrators could perhaps be considered the new artists of fine art and recommended that he d ‘try to complete the collection of a favorite author or illustrator. He also encouraged her to acquire signed original editions as this would add more value to the collection. So his obsession began with collecting signed copies of books.
At first, she attended as many author conferences as she could, met with the authors, and then asked if she could send them a box of books postage paid to sign. They graciously responded to his requests.
When the online world took on a more recognizable shape, Varley found that locating and contacting perpetrators was much easier.
“So that I could easily get in touch with authors and illustrators, that’s how I got so many books signed by Eric Kimmel, Faith Ringgold, Gary Schmidt and Steve Jenkins,” she said. “This connection also allowed me to form special friendships with authors and illustrators.
Pass their house
As Varley neared retirement, she began to wonder who would care as much as she did about her collection of books. TCU immediately occurred to me. One of the reasons she enjoys children’s literature, books and reading is because of Luther Clegg, who taught his children’s literature course at TCU in 1987.
“He loved children’s books more than anyone I had ever known,” she said.
In 2012, she decided to contact the TCU Library to see if she would be interested in their eclectic and quality collection of children’s books. After their acceptance, she began to donate approximately 250 editions per year. The last large donation was made in 2018. His favorite authors and illustrators continue to work and publish, so that every year between 50 and 75 editions are added to the collection.
Although Varley often collects on the basis of art, she also collects chapter books, such as those by one of her favorite young authors for young adults, Gary Schmidt, who particularly impressed her.
“Some books grab you and just stick with you,” she said. “I used to spend my summers reading new editions of children’s books rather than books for myself. Children’s books are never just for children.