Children’s Books and the Future of Publishing

September 2nd, 2008

I’m still catching up on my old New Yorker magazines. Such a pleasure!

Today I have to share with you a marvelous article from the July 21st issue, thankfully online.

It’s called “The Lion and the Mouse: The battle that reshaped children’s literature,” and written beautifully by Jill Lepore.

“The Lion and the Mouse” was the title of an old Aesop’s fable, and as such a very suitable title to the article, but not necessarily revealing of its content.

I have to call this entry “Children’s Books and the Future of Publishing,” because that is the theme of this site, but you will find that the article is mainly concerned with the history of the publication of children’s books, rather than their future. I’m justifying the entry on the basis that if you don’t understand history, you can’t understand the future. But mainly it’s just a marvelous tale, well-told.

It’s an historical chronicle in two parts. The first part, for me the most enthralling, is the story of how children’s books were dragged into the American library system so late in the game, and with so much effort. The story is of the heroic efforts of a certain Anne Carroll Moore to allow children access to books that they could read and enjoy. As the article points out when Ms. Moore moved to New York City in 1895, “you had to be fourteen, and a boy, to get into the Astor Library, which opened in 1854, the same year as the Boston Public Library, the country’s first publicly funded city library, where you had to be sixteen. Even if you got inside, the librarians would shush you, carping about how the “young fry” read nothing but “the trashy”: Scott, Cooper, and Dickens (one century’s garbage being, as ever, another century’s Great Books).”

Anne Carroll Moore was a dynamo, and got her start as a children’s librarian in 1896 at the Children’s Library of the Pratt Institute, before being hired by the New York Public Library in 1902. The article reveals that she was both a groundbreaker and an autocrat, though her work as a groundbreaker appears to outweigh her efforts as an autocrat.

I’ll leave it to you to glean all of the details, but I was thoroughly enthralled by the quote: “She never lacked for an opinion. ‘Dull in a new way,’ she labelled books that she despised.” How useful a comment is that!

The article then moves into an relatively different (though related) episode: her relationship with E.B. White, who would go on to write “Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web”, and what became a battle between them.

A highly recommended read.