Libraries, Library Cards and Kids Books

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As the youngest of four children I had a couple years one-on-one with my mom before hitting kindergarten. We spent lots of time with books, and afternoons in the Clayton branch of the St. Louis County Library involved me, cross-legged on a thickly varnished wood floor, working my way down a seemingly endless bottom-shelf of picture books. My mom handed down a love of libraries and of literature, and pretty much everywhere I’ve lived since then — even briefly — I’ve gotten a library card.

During the SCBWI 2014 Annual Winter Conference in February I wandered over to the New York Public Library to check out the exhibit, The ABC’s of it: Why Children’s Books Matter (curated by Leonard Marcus and up just until this Sunday, March 23, 2014).

This survey exhibit, drawing on the NYPL’s collections, touches briefly on the relationship between the creation of Children’s Rooms in libraries and the growth of the children’s book publishing industry in the United States in the early twentieth century. Despite my repeat affairs with libraries and my parallel love of children’s literature, it is not a piece of history that I know much about.

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Trolling for more information, I found an article by Jill Lepore — lately in the public eye because of her new Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin — which offers a glimpse into the period at the turn of the lst century when Children’s Libraries came to be in the United States. Published in the July 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker and titled “The Lion and the Mouse“, the piece examines the stir between Anne Carroll Moore, the first Superintendent of the NYPL’s Department of Work with Children, and writer E.B. White — around the publication of White’s first book for children, Stuart Little.

(Though the NYPL show mentioned White’s ever-popular Charlotte’s Web, and also Anne Carroll Moore, I didn’t notice anything on Stuart Little or the scuffle between the two.

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The conflict and the book — which Lapore’s read as “an indictment both of the childishness of children’s literature and the juvenalization of American culture” — would have been a complicated addition to the exhibit in any case!)

“The Lion and the Mouse” provided a nice introduction to this piece of history.

Curator Leonard Marcus is also author/biographer/historian Leonard Marcus. I loved his biography of Margaret Wise Brown, Awakened by the Moon. And I have lately been meandering through another book he edited: Dear Genius, a collection of the letters of Ursula Norstrom, the legendary director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to the mid 1970’s. Nordstrom’s epistles — full of force and character — are a great window onto of an exciting era in children’s book publishing.

On my quest I came across another of Marcus’s books which I haven’t read: Minders of Make Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature. This one is a historical survey of Children’s Literature on these soils from colonial times forward. I’m hoping that Minders of Make Believe gives a fuller picture of the co-development of children’s libraries and the beginnings of the modern children’s book publishing industry; a quick review of the contents suggests it will. In any case, I’ve now got a HOLD on it at The Free Library of Philadelphia.

2 comments

  1. Minders of Make Believe is a very interesting read. Reading it helped me understand why my mother who grew up in the 1930s had access to mostly folktales, and very little fantasy other than The Wizard of Oz series, in the progressive library she had access to.

    1. I went to Bank Street for my Masters in Early Childhood, and taught — during my formative years — at a school in NYC called The City and Country School. At both (though at City and Country more consistently than at Bank Street) there was a distinct shying away from fantasy and a leaning towards ‘the here and now’. It probably originated in the same era you’re refering to or just before, given the schools’ histories and connections to Progressivism. I’m looking forwards to reading the book!

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