Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature by Leonard Marcus

Writer Lucy Boston describes editor, Margaret K. McElderry, "...she sailed forth, leaving me feeling like waste paper after royalty had passed." This awestruck comment gives a glimpse of publishing history during the early 1900's that reflects a time when editors had more authority and nurtured fledgling authors to create close relationships that inspired loyalty to each other that lasted throughout their careers. This editorial relationship and the evolution of bookselling is revealed over 300 years by Leonard Marcus. Peppered with funny and eye-opening comments from people in the profession, this is a great read for those interested in the history of publishing. More of a scholarly text than coffee table book, the density might deter some. If you want something more light and humorous then I would recommend, "Letters of a Genius" by Leonard Marcus.

Marcus begins with pioneers in publishing and the focus on moral instruction in children's books. As a young nation, the USA pirated many British books and there were no international copyright laws for foreign authors to take action. When this changed in the 1900's and the middle class emerged reading was seen as a way for self-improvement. The introduction of the Newbery Medal elevated children's literature and close relationships evolved between editors from different publishing houses and new authors. Television triggered the advent of commercialism resulting in the highly successful series and comic books that were pooh-poohed by librarians as being "subliterary."

Being a librarian, I found their place in bookselling interesting even if they usually looked like the dips or villains in the tale. Led by Anne Carroll Moore, Librarian of the New York Public Library, the most colorful quotes Marcus has are from Moore trying to sound literary but coming off as rigid, judgmental, and egotistical. She wrote that "Charlotte's Web" was a mongrel work that failed to adequately develop the main character and was a confusing read. Ouch! While she was a writer who won the Newbery Medal and reviewer with great influence, Marcus shows that she was not a risk-taker and unable to see progressive writing talent. Marcus shows librarians as book critics that influenced the industry to create taboo-riddled storybooks that suited their tastes and if it wasn't for the risk-takers such as Ursula Nordstrom, there would not be "Where the Wild Things Are" or "Stuart Little" or "Charlotte's Web" or "Stevie." Moore intrigued me and I rocketed off into cyberspace searching for more information on her. I would like to read a biography about her.

That, for me, is the strength of this book. Marcus has so much information that I wanted to know more about certain people or publishing houses. This book is a great reference tool and launching point to look more indepth at the evolution of children's books if you want to. I would have liked it if Marcus had continued to the 21st century with a look at digital books and the impact of social networking. Marcus doesn't cover this but I did come across a New York Times article  that discusses Goodreads as a forum for recommending books and its influence on the book industry today.  Good food for thought.

4 out of 5 Smileys

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