Since the Republic began, adults have been arguing over what children should read.
The debate continues in Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature. Here, in one mind-bendingly detailed volume, is the attic of critic Leonard S. Marcus' illustrious career.
Among librarians and children's publishers, Marcus is a star. He is a contributing editor for Parenting magazine and contributes frequently to the Horn Book and the New York Times Book Review. He has written and edited many books, including Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children's Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way. If that book was a lovely jaunt across the hills of children's literature, Marcus' latest effort is a trek up Everest.
His story begins with the Puritans and ends with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter. There's a nice symmetry in that; after the Bible, Harry Potter books are the bestselling books in history.
Librarians like Minerva Sanders of Pawtucket, R.I., emerge as unsung heroes. Around the turn of the last century, in an age where children were often seen as "noisy nuisances better left to their own, their parents', or their teachers' devices," she opened her library's doors to children. Neighbors regarded her as a dangerous radical.
There were endless arguments about the appropriateness of age-graded books for children. One side carefully measured word length, rhythm and colors, while the other defended every phrase.
Perhaps the earliest whole-language advocates could be found in the likes of novelist John Hersey, who blasted "Dick and Jane" textbooks in the 1950s. Hersey faulted the books, used in most schools around the country, for their repetition and "abnormally courteous, unnaturally clean boys and girls."
Some authors, thank goodness, ignored the advice of critics. Marcus writes that E.B. White's Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web both received low marks from critics: Stuart Little was "unfit for children" and would "harm its author if published," and Charlotte's Web lacked development of Fern's character.
Reading Minders of Make-Believe is a bit like sitting down with a critical history of cinema. Plenty of big ideas, but one keeps wishing for a little popcorn. For a bookish few inclined to ponder the meaning of American kid lit, here is the definitive work. For everyone else, get thee to the children's section for the real thing.
Shary Lyssy Marshall is a former elementary school teacher and administrator. She lives and writes in the Tampa Bay area.