January 6, 2013 @ 8:00 pm | Filed under: Books
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
A book of letters I ought to have included in my ode to epistles and epistolaries the other day: Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Miss Nordstrom, the pioneering editor behind Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, was something of a genius herself. The list of children’s classics she was responsible for publishing is staggeringly long and awesome: Little Bear, Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, Danny and the Dinosaur, Where the Sidewalk ends, Harold and the Purple Crayon, oh and a little thing called Charlotte’s Web—to name a very few.
Dear Genius is a collection of letters she wrote to authors, illustrators, reviewers, even parents and children who had written with responses to her books. She is unfailingly poised, charming, and insightful, even when responding to criticism. And her voice, oh her wonderful voice! Her letters are simply crammed with personality—she is wry, teasing, incisive, direct, and altogether brilliant.
Her editorial letters provide a fascinating look at the history of children’s publishing in America, both on the grand scale of publishing trends and literary vision, and on the micro scale of word choices for a single line of a specific book. For instance, in a 1957 letter to Syd Hoff about Danny and the Dinosaur, an early “I Can Read” book for beginning readers:
I think you should just say “One day Danny went to the museum.” (He didn’t actually want to “see how the world looked a long, long time ago,” as you put it, do you think? Very unchildlike. He might have wanted to go to see the dead mummies, or other specific things in a museum, but I wouldn’t mention that here because you mention it on following pages. So just have a simple statement on this first page. “One day Danny went to the museum.”) It is pretty short and if you can think of one more short sentence for this page by all means add it. I can’t come up with any suggestion myself. Page 8: You’ll have to simplify what he saw on this page. NOT THAT I WANT YOU TO GET SELF-CONSCIOUS ABOUT “I CAN READ.” I told you I wanted you to let me worry about that aspect and that’s all I’m doing now. You could just say “He saw Indians. He saw bears. He saw…” I haven’t been in a museum in 150 years and can’t think of anything else, but you can.
Or, in September 1963:
Maurice, before I sent the paste-up I went through it, rereading the words, and looking at the pictures again. It is MOST MAGNIFICENT, and we’re so proud to have it on our list. When you were much younger, and had done only a couple of books, I remember I used to write you letters when the books were finished, and thank you for “another beautiful” job—or some such dopiness. Now you’re rich and famous and need no words of wonder from me. But I must send them, anyhow, when I look through Where the Wild Things Are. I think it is utterly magnificent, and the words are beautiful and meaningful, and it does just want you wanted it to do. And you did just what you wanted to do.
Or, from a reply to a reader of Little House on the Prairie in 1952:
Your letter to Mrs. Wilder…came several weeks ago. We took the liberty of opening it as we do many of the letters that are addressed to Mrs. Wilder…[she] is now in her late eighties and we try to handle much of her correspondence here.
We were indeed disturbed by your letter. We knew that Mrs. Wilder had not meant to imply that Indians were not people and we did not want to distress her if we could possibly avoid it. I must admit to you that no one here realized that those words read as they did. Reading them now it seems unbelievable to me that you are the only person who has picked them up and written to us about them in the twenty years since the book was published. We were particularly disturbed because all of us here feel just as strongly as you apparently feel about such subjects, and we are proud that many of the books on the Harper list prove that. Perhaps it is a hopeful sign that though such a statement could have passed unquestioned twenty years ago it would never have appeared in anything published in recent years.
Instead of forwarding your letter to Mrs. Wilder I wrote her about the passage and said that in reprinting we hoped that she would allow us to change it. I have just received her answer. She says: “You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction you suggest. It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not mean to imply they were not.” We are changing the next printing to read “There were no settlers.”
Fascinating. I could quote from this book all day but you’re much better off scrounging up a copy yourself.