What Are Children’s Books For?

What Are Children’s Books For?

A new exhibit, The ABC of It, asks grown-up questions about literature for kids.


(AP Photo)

Several years ago, not long after my son was born, I developed an insistent, almost religious habit of reading Goodnight Moon to him every night before bed. I hadn’t actually loved the book as a child—something about the darkening room spooked me—but as an adult, I found it soothing, a cozy throwback to the days before educational apps, brain games, flash cards, attachment gurus and the whole vast library of kid-genius books had all but destroyed the promise of the great green room. Childhood had been enriched to a state of radioactive intensity, turned into a nuclear achievement race that not only struck me as a bummer for kids but bad for society. As at least one study I read suggested, the cult of constant enrichment has seriously exacerbated the education gap; in the age of rising inequality, this is one way elites reproduce themselves. As I flipped through stacks of ABC books we’d been given (and, yes, bought), I mourned the loss of the pure, egalitarian times when a book like Goodnight Moon could be written.

Of course, if I had paused to think about it, I would have realized that Goodnight Moon was also a fabrication, as much a projection of its time and place as today’s brain-stimulating baby books. Published in 1947, Goodnight Moon was at once a groundbreaking work of progressive educational philosophy and a rather conventional ode to postwar middle-class stability, with a distinct vision of what children want and need. After all, this is what children’s books do. They distill the dreams and distortions of older generations, boil them down into bold-colored allegories that entertain, yes, but also edify, indoctrinate, guide, mold and nurture. The ultimate in loco parentis.

“What you’re seeing is, in a way, how culture is made,” said Leonard Marcus, a well-known children’s historian, during a recent phone conversation about the long-running role of children’s books. “It’s each generation setting down its hopes and dreams for the next generation. That’s what children’s books do.”

Such generational hopes and dreams—as well as a few nightmares—are at the heart of a fascinating exhibit that runs through March 2014 at the New York Public Library called “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.” Curated by Marcus, the exhibit was commissioned by the library as a kind of declaration of children’s books’ artistic and historical merit, both of which have tended to be overlooked. The fact that children’s programming has become such a solid bet in today’s kid-obsessed culture—more enrichment!—couldn’t have hurt either.

The exhibit unfolds much like a children’s tale. Visitors begin by walking through an enchanting door—this one draped in stripy, white-and-yellow bunting—on the other side of which there is a winding path full of twists, turns and lots of discoveries. There are titillating artifacts, like the Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee figurines that a still-enthralled Lewis Carroll gave to an adult (and married) Alice years after he penned his tales for her. There are delightful relics, like the pine-green umbrella, its handle shaped like a parrot’s head, which served as P.L. Travers’s inspiration for the one Mary Poppins carried. Mostly though, there are the hopes and perversions of centuries of elders, each doing their part to shape the next generation.

Consider The New-England Primer, the first book featured in The ABC of It. Originally published in 1690, the primer was the most prominent young-person’s book in America during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, though it’s hard to see the appeal today. A downer if there ever was one, the book is filled with the sour warnings and moral reprimands of a culture that viewed children as wayward souls in need of salvation—and salvation’s favorite sidekick, discipline. “In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned all” reads a typically cheerless line from the primer. “The Idle Fool, Is whipt at School” reads another, while on the verso page, vocabulary words like “fornication” and “fidelity” serve as their own kinds of warnings.

Happily, the Puritan ethos didn’t last forever (though Marcus reports that the New England Primer is still available online for purchase by homeschoolers). As The ABC of It explores, changing currents in philosophy, psychology, nationalism, communism, capitalism—all have tracked their inky prints across the pages of children’s books, giving rise to new themes and characters, to say nothing of wildly different visions of children: the “rational child” of the Enlightenment, the “natural child” of the Romantics, and, in the twentieth century, the “progressive child,” who was cooked up by educators like Lucy Sprague Mitchell and strutted confidently through the pages of books like Goodnight Moon and Harold and the Purple Crayon. More recently, the big business of publishing has set its sights on the “consumer child” with all her profitable potential.

“Children always get the books their parents deserve,” Marcus has written, and The ABC of It certainly bears out the theory.

And yet, what about the books children deserve? While The ABC of It is not an expressly political exhibit, one of the more intriguing questions it prods its visitors to consider is what kind of heavy cultural lifting all these parent-penned books are doing. What purposes do they serve? And whose?

The exhibit offers one answer to this question in an early display case filled with two books dredged up from the Dickens era. The first of these books, The Royal Alphabet of Kings and Queens, was published in 1840s England and is thick with the rhymed stories of great royal personages; it most likely served as a kind of aspirational primer for “upwardly mobile, middle-class English children,” according to a curator’s note. The second book, Instructions on Needle-work and Knitting, is an altogether different beast. Despite a playful, pop-up style shirt stitched onto one of its pages gives, it was actually intended as a training guide for children who had almost no time to play: young working-class Brits whose nimble hands would soon be employed in dress shops, haberdasheries and other dreary mills.

“That was put early in the show in order to make a statement,” said Marcus. “Children rarely have equal access to books in the same time and place.” Or to put it more bluntly, children’s books have long trafficked in the politics of class, reflecting the inequities of their age if not reproducing them.

You can see this clearly in early books like The Cries of New York, the first children’s book ever written about New York City, which was published in the early nineteenth century and served as a guide for kids of a certain class to the jingles of the peddlers in their midst. Through the book, children learned not only the songs of the streets and the price of milk and onions but an important social lesson. Explains an editor’s note: “Children who failed to study hard and obey their parents might one day find themselves selling sand or matches on Broadway.”

Decades later, the message is less ham-handed, and more nuanced, but it hasn’t exactly disappeared. It persists in the way some children’s books are marketed, if not conceived, as gateways to the world of intellect and letters—which, in turn, is marketed as the gateway to the world of achievement and success.

And yet: it would be a mistake to dismiss children’s books as mere vessels for grown-up biases, decanting privilege into young kids’ brains. As a walk through the The ABC of It makes clear, the exuberant, centuries-old history of children’s literature is also one of subversion, rebellion, experimentation and inclusion. It’s the story of public libraries creating reading rooms and free programs for children and, in the process, blasting open the gates of literature to young people from all backgrounds. And it’s the story of women like Pura Belpré, the New York Public Library’s first Puerto Rican librarian, who began writing her own Spanish-language picture books in the 1930s to fill the void in culturally resonant literature available to her students. It is even the story of books like The Poky Little Puppy, which was one of the first titles churned out by the mass market children’s imprint Little Golden Books in the 1940s; though the guardians of high culture clucked, the book, which cost just twenty-five cents, was one of the first to be both affordable and available to kids across the country.

Most important, however, the story of children’s books is also the story of children. Kids books may be stuffed with the dreams of older generations, but children have never been mere passive recipients of the tales their elders tell. Once a book is in their hands, there’s no telling what they will do with it: absorb it, twist it, reject it, eat it or, heck, turn it into a four-cornered projectile, which is more or less what one small girl tried to do the first day I visited The ABC of It.

She looked to be about eighteen months old, and she was wandering near the section on comic books (sources of rebellion in their own right). As she stumbled about—dressed in pink and trailed by her mother—she took an interest in a display of oversized library cards featuring quotes by celebrated kids’ book figures like Maira Kalman and Belpré. Excited by the opportunity to further enrich her daughter’s mind, her mother grabbed the card and began reading the sophisticated, grown-up text. “Do you like what that one says?” the mother asked.

But the little girl did not like what the card said: she liked what it looked like or felt like, perhaps what it smelled like. She did not want to listen, she wanted to play, and as her mother read and shushed, she kept grabbing for the card, turning it into a toy, making it her own.

Peter Rothberg discusses Maurice Sendak’s cultural legacy.

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