“A generation ago, there was no general conspiracy among writers to protect children.”

January 6, 2013 @ 8:00 pm | Filed under:

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Books, The New Yorker, December 7, 1946, p. 127

Katharine S. White on Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece (Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library):

Of course, much of it is strong medicine and not for young children. But after many weeks of my reading, or at least looking into, several hundred careful, loving, protective, prettily illustrated juveniles, this book of gods and heroes at last seems the real thing.

It is common gossip among the experts in children’s reading—the teachers, the librarians, the critics—that the child of today is a lucky little fellow. Children, say these experts, no longer need be frightened, as their parents were, by grim and brutal fairy tales and by generally unsuitable reading matter. And there is great rejoicing over the abundance of well-illustrated, well-printed books that appear each season. The flowering of children’s literature and graphic art is usually attributed ot the influence of the children’s-book departments in the great city libraries. It is certainly true that there are scores of beautiful, innocuous books, but I’ve begun to wonder whether the sheer quantity of them does not divert children from adult books they otherwise would be reading. I wonder, too, whether our children, immersed in the protective bath of modern psychology, may not be worse off than were their elders without it. The child has become sacrosanct, and, by extension, so has the children’s book. This was made clear to me some time ago at a candlelit meeting at which children’s books were discussed in a spirit of reverent dedication. Like the experts at that gathering, many writers are careful never to approach the child except in a childlike manner. Let us not overstimulate his mind, or scare him, or leave him in doubt, these authors and their books seem to be saying; let us affirm. Somehow, this modern sentimentality seems to me far more insidious than the simpleminded sentimentality of the Victorians. At any rate, the Pantheon book of myth is a good antidote.

That was in 1946. Sendak hadn’t come along yet. (His first published illustrations appeared in a textbook in 1947; his first children’s book, Kenny’s Window, came along in 1956, and the deliciously dark Pierre: A Cautionary Tale, part of the Nutshell Library, in 1962.) Ursula Nordstrom was busily changing the shape of children’s lit in a way I gather Mrs. White approved of—veering away from saccharine morality tales toward immersive, imaginative adventures. What would be fun to see is Katharine White’s take on the prevalence of edgy, black-humor-based books in today’s market: creators like Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen come to mind. I suspect she’d enjoy their work.

Mrs. White goes on to wax nostalgic about her own childhood encounters with Ivanhoe, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield (“I made my first inquiry into the mystery of birth because of the puzzling phrase on the first page: ‘I was born with a caul.'”) and then remarks that publishers seemed afflicted with the same nostalgia, given the number of classic reprints on their lists. Alas, she reports,

“No publisher has thus far reissued the set of books I read oftenest—the Andrew Lang collections of folk and fairy tales known to my generation as ‘the colored fairy books.’ I owned the Blue, the Red, the Green, the Yellow, the Pink, the Grey, and the Violet.”

Originally published in the late 1800s/early 1900s, these collections were back in print during my own 1970s/80s childhood, and I hunted the various shades of the rainbow in every Aurora, Colorado library branch within biking distance of my parents’ house. I still have my treasured paperback copies of the Blue Fairy Book and the Green Fairy Book, which have made their dogeared way through my children. Nowadays, the Lang fairy books have reappeared as mainstays of legions of Charlotte Mason-inspired homeschoolers, and just last week I uploaded a copy to my Kindle, the better to enjoy its charms (augmented by enlargeable font) with Rilla.

A handful of the new books Mrs. White reviews in this 1946 column are still with us, prized among the kidlit enthusiasts and living-books homeschoolers—Miss Hickory, Justin Morgan Had a Horse, d’Aulaire’s Pocahontas (“an unqualified delight,” she says, unaware of the many qualifications a 21st-century audience would pile onto it—though not nearly as many as necessitated by d’Aulaire’s Leif the Lucky, whose ending recently made me wince and end the read-aloud a couple of pages early)—but most of the season’s new offerings are titles unfamiliar to me, including books by Lois Lenski and Garth Williams.

Katharine White’s children’s-book reviews are almost as much fun as her gardening columns, and if you have access to the New Yorker digital archive, it’s worth your time to pop in and read her take on a selection of books that have, for the most part, come and gone.

Related: Dear Genius: the letters of Ursula Nordstrom

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11 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Penny says:

    Oh yum. Thanks for the links!

  2. mamacrow says:

    Andrew Lang fairy books – I was lucky enough to get quite a few from our library when they were clearing out old stock, and got a HUGE bundle (for not much, that i recall) on my kindle which I think is the complete collection – certainly there were several books that were new to me!

  3. Joann says:

    Fairy tales are the most necessary of all children’s literature. Just mho.

  4. selvi says:

    This is something I think about a lot and I would be happy to know more of your perspective. I find myself being very protective of my children’s innocence. I can see the importance of having books that deal with difficult/dark topics in order to help children process things and understand the world, but I don’t want to introduce things with books that are not already an issue. This is not exactly the same category as the violence in the old fairy tales. I find the violence difficult myself. Maybe I am particularly squeamish. I do feel that they have to develop an understanding of evil in the world if they are to appreciate good. At the same time, I don’t want to let dark notions of human nature shape their understanding in ways that I do not agree with. How do you handle it?

  5. Jeff Rivera says:

    Thank you , Katharine, for this amazing post.
    I liked Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece myself. I found it to be a great translation of the Greek myths. The tales of Troy and the epics are written woderfully in a easy to understand and interesting way. As well this book provides a grove of information on some lesser known myths as well as contains an abridged version of both the Illiad and the Oddyssey. This book provides many tales of which to entice as well as to ensnare the mind and does a proficient job of putting most of the well known myths into perspective as well as providing certain areas with more explanation and vivid translation.

  6. Sylvia Liu says:

    Such an interesting post, and a topic I’ve thought about. In some ways, children’s and YA literature is less “protective” than in the past. For example, the fractured fairy tales, subversive stories, and in YA-land, the dystopia, child-killing, etc. On the other hand, when I was growing up, an avid child reader read everything on her parents’ shelves, including completely inappropriate, violent, and twisted fare. As that child, I don’t regret my education by books, but as a parent, I don’t want my 10 year old reading Flowers in the Attic as I did at that age. I’d love to check out some of the titles you mentioned.

  7. Storied Cities says:

    I loved the Andrew Lang books when I was a kid. Truthfully, I think there will always be things in picture books that kids find scary, even if they seem saccharine to adults. We have a few books that my 4 year old tells me are scary and they seem extremely tame to me. Then again, he also won’t let me read Sendak’s WTWTA to him.

  8. Stephanie Lynn Stevens says:

    This is so interesting. I have always loved the innocence and happiness of children’s books from the 40’s and 50’s. My theory is that the parents of that generation had been through one world war and the Great Depression, and were in the midst of WWII, and therefore saw the need to keep some cheery entertainment available for their children. Surely children of that era also read fairy tales though–right?

  9. Fanny Harville says:

    A fascinating glimpse of the ways our ideas about what is “appropriate” for children is always evolving…

  10. Fanny Harville says:

    ARE evolving, not IS!!!

  11. Stacy Mozer says:

    I found this very interesting. Thanks so much for sharing it.