Issue 9 Childhood Winter 2002/03
Where the Wild Things Were: An Interview with Leonard S. Marcus
Brian Selznick, David Serlin and Leonard S. Marcus
Children's literature—or more specifically, writing categorized as children's literature—is often described as a benign (if often commercially aggressive, as in the case of the Harry Potter phenomenon) enterprise that revels in escapism and fuzzy feelings, offering a comfortable buffer zone between innocence and experience. But as Leonard S. Marcus, a leading authority on the history of children's literature, describes, the history of children's literature is complex and often contradictory, full of misanthropic philologists, modernist image-makers, and fanatical librarians.
The work often cited as the first book written deliberately for children is a non-fiction book by Johannes Amos Comenius called Orbis Pictus, which was published in Nuremberg in 1662. It was a cross between a picture dictionary and a picture encyclopedia. There were little illustrations of things to be recognized, like a key or a dog, and the word that corresponded to the picture was printed along side it in both German and Latin. Thirty years later, in his Thoughts Concerning Education, John Locke wrote that children respond more readily to illustrated texts than to unbroken blocks of type. That observation became one of the basic principles for children's literature. Orbis Pictus was a very popular book, and was published in the English-speaking world in the 18th century. In London in the 1740s, John Newbery was the first person to make children's books a viable commercial enterprise aimed at the entertainment as well as the education of young people. Newbery was a printer, bookseller, publisher, sometime writer, as well as a seller of patent medicines, which was not unusual for the time since merchants very often had two or more trades. Newbery printed, published, and sold his own books, and commissioned writers like Oliver Goldsmith to write for him. More than Germany, England is where children's literature as we know it got started. As the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution, England had the largest numbers of new middle-class parents who were eager for their children to be educated and get ahead in the world.
It's interesting because we see a splitting off between what was considered "children's literature" and what were considered appropriate kinds of storytelling for adults. For example, at the beginning of the 19th century in Germany, the Grimm brothers collected their very well known fairy tales. But the first edition was not published as a children's book. The Grimms were not thinking of children as their audience; they were scholars. One of them was a philologist; the other was a librarian. They were interested in delving into the origins of Germanic culture, of recording it and capturing the part of it that was disappearing as Germany turned into a literate society. As sometimes happens, you publish a book with one audience in mind but it finds a different audience instead, and the Grimms' fairy tales were received by the German middle class as a work primarily for children. The adults were not all that interested in reading about things that could never be, because they were very focused on succeeding in the modern world.
Scholars who study 19th-century literature often describe it as the "golden" period of the novel. Is there an equivalent "golden" or "classical" period of children's literature among people who study children's literature, or among children's writers and illustrators themselves?
You can talk about different periods that were particularly good for the different kinds of books that fall within the larger category of children's literature. In England, for example, Edward Lear published his Book of Nonsense Verse in 1845; in that same year, in Germany, the book known in English as Slovenly Peter, by Heinrich Hoffmann, was published as well. Lewis Carroll published Alice's Adventures in Wonderland 20 years later, in 1865. What those three authors had in common is that they were reacting to the didactic "how to be a good little boy or girl" kind of literature which was dominant at the time. They believed that children were reasonable beings and that perhaps what people most wanted at that time in their lives was a chance to laugh at and question authority, including their parents, teachers, and all of the people who stood over them. So the middle of the 19th century was a golden time for what is often called nonsense literature. For a variety of reasons, the mid- to late 20th century, in the US, turned out to be golden age of realistic fiction for children, and of the picture book.
You can trace a connection, all the way back to Comenius, between theories of education and the kinds of children's books that were being published. In the early 1800s, Louisa May Alcott's father, Bronson, ran an experimental school in Boston—until he was closed down for bringing in a black girl. Alcott was aware of the European theorists of education of his own and earlier times, and their ideas found their way into children's magazines of the day with which the Alcotts were associated. You can trace the influence of those ideas directly to what happened in New York City starting in the 1910s at the Bank Street College of Education, which is where, among others, Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon and many other picture books, got her training as a writer for children.
That's true. Steichen would photograph a seashell in order to reveal a universe in the swirls of the shell. Edward Weston would do a close-up of a machine to show that traces of the infinite could also be found in man and in the things of man. Of course, it's also a major theme of 20th-century experimental art that the child is a kind of touchstone for seeing the world as it really is. The child as "primitive," and the dream life of children, were ideas that mixed and merged in the minds of some of these artists. André Breton talks directly about children in his Manifesto, and claimed Lewis Carroll as one of the proto-Surrealists. Quite a few Magritte paintings appear to be based on scenes from Alice. When I taught children's literature at the School of Visual Arts here in New York, I gave a slide lecture in which I "illustrated" Alice entirely with paintings by Magritte and Dali, M. C. Escher graphics, and collages by Max Ernst.
By the 20th century, there seems to be a split between those who want to create art to empower children's imaginations and those who prefer to sentimentalize children as vulnerable beings who need protection from their own desires. Do you think that those two attitudes are in some kind of dialogue with each other?
That's a good question. Around 1900, in the US, public libraries began to hire specialists in children's literature and to open special reading rooms for children's use. You can think of those rooms as "secret gardens." They were walled off from the rest of the library. One reason why libraries created those rooms was to keep children away from the adult literature that they didn't want them to have access to. If you think of the musical The Music Man, the townsfolk use "Balzac" as if it were a dirty word. The fear is that the children of River City are going to play pool and read Balzac and turn into lecherous, European-style perverts! The River City library was too small to have a children's room, but that's what was happening around the United States at that time. This had the effect of cordoning off children's literature itself from the rest of literature. You find, after the turn of the 20th century, very few major literary publications showing any interest in children's books, whereas in the 19th century The Nation and The Atlantic Monthly reviewed children's books on a regular basis. But this is all a little hard to pin down. You'll find one of the most powerful of the librarians—the New York Public Library's Anne Carroll Moore—showing those protective and very proprietary tendencies some of the time but also loving a new children's book by Gertrude Stein, which in 1939 was pretty far-out.
Publishing was so connected to the library world, up through the 1960s and 1970s, that very often the editors at publishing houses were former librarians, and the largest part of the children's market was the library market. So publishers were making books for the libraries more than for anybody else. There wasn't a whole lot of interest in politically radical literature. In the 1940s, Jerrold and Lorraine Beim wrote picture books about friendship between black and white children, and did so from a consciously political perspective. The Beims' career is pretty much forgotten now (and in fact their books have only an historical interest today, not a literary one). But their work filled a certain void.
The 1960s were a turning point for children's literature. For one thing, it was then that most editors and librarians finally realized that most children's books were about the life of the white middle class. An article in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1965 entitled "The All-White World of Children's Books" caused a lot of people to think about what they had been doing. Until then, the children's book world had been so self-enclosed, with middle-class book publishers selling their books to middle-class librarians. A few years earlier, in 1962, a picture book called The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, had been published for very young children. It was set in Brooklyn and showed a little black boy walking out in the snow and having a great time. It had nothing to do with being black, but the fact that he had dark skin made it unique for its time. Other books followed, and suddenly picture books seemed, to a very limited extent, to become more integrated than before.
Well, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, for one. Having a story about a small child throwing a tantrum for the benefit of his mother was not a story you were going to find in children's literature before the 1960s, because children weren't supposed to yell at their mothers. The idea that children experience rage and that it's a natural part of their psyche was a new idea to children's picture books. This is why some people were afraid of Where the Wild Things Are when it was first published. It was initially quite controversial, a fact many people have forgotten since it was given the Caldecott Medal that year.
How does the collector's market for children's books or the illustrations created for children's books compare to the collector's market for art and books in general?
Until recently there weren't many collectors who took children's books seriously – apart from those books from the more distant past. People didn't attribute value to them, and were generally dismissive of the art and writing in children's books. There was little awareness of a connection to the rest of art and literature. In the 1940s, a medical doctor living in Washington, D.C. named Irwin Kerlan began collecting original art from contemporary picture books and founded the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota. In those days, there was no market for contemporary original art of that kind. An artist who met Dr. Kerlan and got one his fruitcakes for Christmas was very likely to feel like giving him the stuff just because he was someone who really appreciated it.
Well, think about art photography. In the 1950s, the Limelight Gallery in the West Village was the only gallery in New York City that sold photographs. You could buy the best photograph by Edward Weston or Ansel Adams for between 10-25 dollars. And the woman who ran this gallery had trouble paying her rent! So photography is another art form that used to be valued differently than it is now.
Slovenly Peter, published in Germany in 1845, became one of the most popular children's books in history throughout the world. There have been at least 600 editions of the book, as well as numerous parodies; it was translated into English at least three times, including once by Mark Twain. It's a kind of litmus test—or perhaps a Rorschach test—in that about half the people who have read the book or had the book read to them as children think of it as hilarious, and the other half think of it as scary as hell. Slovenly Peter is either a cautionary tale meant to scare you into behaving properly, or it's a send-up of a cautionary tale, and people disagree as to which of those two things it is. For that reason, it's a very controversial book. I don't know outside of Germany how widely read it is read anymore but for many years it was a book that was hotly debated.
Leonard S. Marcus is the author of Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book (Dutton, 2002) and Storied City: A Children’s Book Guide to New York City (Dutton, forthcoming 2003). He lives in New York.
Brian Selznick has written and/or illustrated many books for children, including The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, which was awarded a 2002 Caldecott Honor.
David Serlin is an editor and columnist for Cabinet. He is the co-editor of Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics (NYU Press, 2002).
Cabinet is a non-profit organization supported by the Lambent Foundation, the Orphiflamme Foundation, the New York Council on the Arts, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Katchadourian Family Foundation, Goldman Sachs Gives, the Danielson Foundation, and many generous individuals. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation by visiting here.
© 2003 Cabinet Magazine