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Taking Children's Lit Seriously
September 19, 2008 - 4:07pm


We went to a lecture last night by Leonard S. Marcus, author, critic, and children’s book historian, who’d told a group in an earlier session with quiet amusement that “independent scholar” finally offered a title for what he’d been doing all along. His books include a biography of Margaret Wise Brown (author of Goodnight Moon) and most recently Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature. The head of the Center for Children’s Books, which co-hosted the lecture, said Marcus's work is one of the main reasons children’s literature is being taken seriously in academe.

Marcus’s talk, “A New Deal for the Nursery,” was on one of his previous books, Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children's Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became An American Icon Along the Way. In it he tells a great story about how the Western Printing Company of Racine, Wisconsin, changed the way American children read.

Children’s books had never been given much attention by mainstream publishers or critics. Western eventually went into business with Simon & Schuster, Disney, and others to produce various Golden Books, and had offices in New York. Their innovation was making beautiful little books to be sold in dimestores to the masses. The books, starting with Poky Little Puppy, the best-selling picture book of all time, cost only a quarter when other children’s books, such as Make Way for Ducklings, sold for two dollars in bookstores, which could be intimidating for some consumers and didn't exist in many towns.

Many American fathers were away from home when Golden Books started in 1942, the first full year of American involvement in the war. Eleanor Roosevelt had told parents to read to their kids as way to comfort them and help them learn, and readily-available, cheap books made that possible. Golden gathered a group of writers and artists that included Russian and Eastern European émigrés (such as Feodor Rojankovsky), progressive educators (such as Lucy Sprague Mitchell, friend of John Dewey and student of William James), and enough defectors from Walt Disney’s shop that Golden began to be called the East Coast “Disney Studios in exile.” Many of the books were about the modern world and showed modern families and working people at their jobs, as in The Taxi That Hurried.

A battle for the hearts and minds of American kids occurred along the way. Anne Carol Moore, for instance, the New York Public Library’s first children’s librarian and an important critic who helped initiate the Newbery and Caldecott awards, disliked and distrusted Golden books for their popularity and populism, and thought them more like despicable comic books than appropriate children’s literature. But Golden had found a way to bypass critics with attractive displays and affordability, and the company thrived. Eventually they made so much money that when Walt Disney, who had put most of his money into his films, wanted to build a theme park in Southern California, he got startup funds from Western/Golden and ABC, who’d been televising his shows. By the mid-'70s, other publishers had figured out how to do what Golden did--mostly with paperbacks, not hardcovers--and Golden's influence began to wane.

I’ve bought a lot of Golden books over the years and still have many of them here in the house, from Bugs Bunny in Double Trouble on Diamond Island, a Big Little Book that cost 39 cents in 1967 (how cool were those things, with their hard covers and perfect size for little hands?), to the Richard Scarry books, to a recent Golden Guide on birds that Starbuck picked out for himself. (O! Where are the supermarket volumes of the Golden Book Encyclopedia of my youth?) I still love their pacing, layout (as in Scarry, where the words of “Mealtime” are shown associatively, not alphabetically) and gorgeous illustrations that sparked an early interest in fine art.

Children’s literature clearly has an effect on its readers, and more scholars and writers are looking into it. More than a decade ago, Herbert Kohl wrote Should We Burn Babar?: Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories, which asks if most children’s lit ignores stories of cooperative action and implicitly reinforces systems such as colonialism. The latest issue of The New Yorker has a piece by Adam Gopnick that revisits (and refutes) that argument. And Mark Sarvas, blogger and novelist, had a hand in bringing to an American publisher Tintin and the Secret of Literature, by Tom McCarthy, about which one reader wrote, “What have Foucault, Derrida, Sartre, Barthes, Baudelaire, Freud, Bataille and Bachelard got in common? Give up? They all appear in this book.”

I too take the power of children’s literature very seriously. My wife and I shape our sons without them knowing it by filling the house with books we’ve loved since childhood, new books chosen to our sensibilities, and books our sons pick excitedly for themselves. I even allow Crazy Larry’s gifts to find their way on to the shelves, knowing he picked them because they disturbed him as a child and he’s never gotten past that. Starbuck has the most curious expression as he leafs through a book Larry sent him as an exercise in consciousness: One Monster After Another, Mercer Mayer’s classic full of Wild-‘n-Windy Typhoonigators sucking up whole Blue Oceans of Bubbly-Goo. At least, that’s what Starbuck says the book is about. I’m too scared to look.


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