Transcript from an interview with Leonard Marcus

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Leonard Marcus. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Leonard Marcus



Hopes and dreams

Well, I think every generation makes the books that contain the hopes and dreams it wants to pass onto the next generation. And you can see that going back to the beginning, which would be the end of the 17th century, when colonists in New England produced books which were designed to train their children to read the Bible at the youngest possible age so they would be able to prepare themselves for the afterlife.

That was a religious perspective and that was one of the dominant concerns of children's books for the next hundred or so years. Of course, not everyone shared that religious emphasis and many books began to appear in the colonies in the 18th century which were for the most part, appointed from England and which focused on the here and now.

But through the philosophy of John Locke, who had said that it was important to view children as rational beings, not children who were born with original sin — which was what the Puritans had said. But that these were children who were going to go out into the world — if they survived their first years — and perhaps have a life different from that which their parents had lived.

And so they needed to become literate and they needed to have books which were geared to their abilities as children. Books with pictures…books with a little bit of humor…sometimes books that were as much for fun as they were about learning. So those books reflected a very different philosophy of childhood from the ones that the Puritans had had.

On into the 19th century, when America was a new nation… By the 1820s, Americans began to feel that they should be producing their own children's books, no longer just importing them from England. And you start to see something like Manifest Destiny expressing itself in non-fiction books which are all about the rest of the world — all the things that a child might want to know who someday would grow up to inherit them. You know, what is Europe like? What is America like? What is the sun, the moon and the stars like?

There was a man named Peter Parley who wrote something like 200 books on all these different subjects. You wonder how he knew so much and, in fact, I think he made up some of what he said. But he presented it as non-fiction and then to just add one more layer to this, since this is, you know, a big question…after the Civil War, there was a big shift because up until that time, there was always a moral layer to these books. There was “this is what a good child should know” or “this is how a good child should behave.”

And often there'd be a story in which a good child was opposed to a naughty child. And it was very clear which was which. After the Civil War when Americans had experienced such horror and had been forced to question everything they knew about morality, I think the writers for children felt less sure of themselves and they became more open to fiction in which characters behaved in more ambiguous ways that we associate with literature as opposed to morality tales.

And so you would then begin to find stories… The epitome of which might be considered to be Tom Sawyer where you have a mischievous child, you know, a quote “bad child” who is the hero because, not because everything he does is what we might approve of, but because everything he does is what we recognized as part of human behavior as it really is.

So that gives you a flavor for how, from one generation to another, the assumptions and the philosophy and the ideas underline children's books can change and reflect the experiences of the larger culture.

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Images of children: from idealism to realism

I think most illustration in children's books was derivative of art styles from England and elsewhere up until the early 20th century, I think that's probably an accurate statement. In the early 19th century and before, it was common for illustrators here literally to copy images that they found in books in England. And because there were no copyright laws in those days, they were free to do so. The term for that was pirating, you know, but it was a kind of Wild West in terms of intellectual property and how images moved around.

In the 1920s, we came to a period following World War I. It's interesting how wars are often the points of demarcation for big changes in the children's book world. After World War I, Americans felt that they had saved England and France and that it was time for American culture to move on and take its place on the world stage, too.

And whereas in the past, Americans had been importing the English illustrated books by Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway and others. Now there was a big push to find illustrators here who could do just as well. One of the first picture books that was notable in that regard was an alphabet book, The Animal ABC by C.B. Falls, who was a Chicago poster designer, who happened to meet the editor for children's book at Doubleday. And they decided to do a kind of art book together.

There weren't pictures of children in that book — they were pictures of animals. But this was a book for children which said something about the quality of art that children should be exposed to. Within a few years Wanda Gag, a printmaker to begin with, created Millions of Cats, which also a landmark in the sense that it set a high watermark for the quality of graphic design and illustration in a book for young children.

I would say that one of the landmarks in the depiction of children came later in probably the '50s when Maurice Sendak emerged on the scene and turned away from the beautiful children that had been characteristic of illustration — both in England and the U.S., images of perfect children.

Sendak was much more interested in pictures of the kinds of children you'd meet in the street, like himself, short, you know, overweight, not particularly handsome, dark haired, not blond, not, you know, picture perfect. So certainly one of the landmarks in the depiction of children came then and a new realism informed by modern psychology appeared on the scene.

And that has cast a long shadow on into the present I think and given illustrators license to show a range of children. Another aspect to this is that up until the '60s, it was very rare to find children of color in books in the illustrations of books for children.

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Good Night, Moon: A new kind of children's book

In the 1920s, library service to children was a relatively new thing, and the leaders of the public library movement, including Anne Caroll Moore at New York Public Library and others, set themselves up as the arbiters of children's literature. They were convinced that they knew what was good for children and what wasn't.

And they became involved in the… And they became involved in making their views known in many different ways by giving out awards, by publishing lists, by publishing reviews in major newspapers, and on and on. But at the same time, another group of people came along who also thought they knew what was good for children and they disagreed with the librarians and they were the Progressive Educators, lead by Lucy Sprague Mitchell, who was the founder of the Bank Street College of Education, also in New York. And they went head-to-head, and probably on some level, had a lot of fun arguing with each other over these matters.

Anne Caroll Moore saw books for young children as a kind of oasis in life, a chance for children to live outside of the daily cares of modern life and to develop and stretch their imaginations. And so she favored 'Once Upon a Time' kinds of stories which were so well-suited to library story hours, whereas Lucy Mitchell thought that children were all about learning from their own experience and even from the age of two and three, they were fascinated by the things in their immediate surroundings and the cities that they were living in, the neighborhoods they were living in, airplanes, trains. She thought there was plenty of magic in that for children. They didn't need to read about castles and kings which they would probably find confusing anyway.

So that was kind of where the battle lines were drawn. And Lucy Mitchell was very systematic in the way she developed her ideas. First in the form of a new kind of storybook that she wrote herself set in the city, for the most part, and based on various observations that she and her colleagues had made at the Bank Street Nursery School.

And then she began to train younger people to write stories in the same vein, and her star protégé was Margaret Wise Brown starting in the mid-1930s. And Brown was instrumental because she was a true writer, whereas Lucy Mitchell was more of a theorist. Brown was able to bring poetry to, what Lucy Mitchell called the “here-and-now approach” to writing for young children and in books like Good Night, Moon and The Noisy Book and others to create a new kind of literature for very young children.

With time, there came to be more acceptance of these books, and as more and more Americans sent their children to preschool and/or to daycare centers or to programs like Head Start, there was a larger and larger demand for books for the very youngest ages of children and so books that grew out of Margaret Wise Brown's model, you know, the sort of, the standard that she set began to have a bigger and bigger place in the literature for young children.

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The golden days of Golden Book

Golden Books democratized publishing for young children in America. They were a line of books that sold for a quarter at a time when most picture books sold for $2. Most cities and towns had no bookstores, and it was relatively hard in America to find books for children if you wanted to buy them and bring them home, but Golden Books was unique in selling their books where parents shop for other things like five and dime stores and drug stores and supermarkets.

And so they brought the books to where the people were, and they made them affordable as they had not been before. The way they were able to do that was that they were created as a partnership between a big printing company in the Midwest, the Western Printing Company, which had giant presses which were capable of achieving economies of scale.

And an upstart New York publisher, Simon and Schuster, which had tremendous marketing savvy. They had been the creators of pocket books, paperback books for adults in the '30s, which also sold for a quarter a piece and which made literature both modern and classics available to a much, much larger range of consumers and readers than had been the case in the past.

So, everything about this was geared toward the notion of making books of pretty high quality available to the largest number of people. Now the Golden Books were illustrated by some of the best illustrators of the day. Some of them came from Europe because of the war like Theodore Rosenkovski, who was a Russian émigré, and T. Burt Gerkley, who was a Hungarian Jew who had to get out of town really quickly and came to New York from Budapest.

Others were in exile from the Walt Disney studio. Instead of coming West across the Atlantic, they came East across the United States because they couldn't stand the pressures of working for an autocrat, Walt Disney, and they wanted to have their names on their work.

And after the War, five or six of the best Disney artists came to New York and one introduced the other to the next to the next to the editors of Golden Books. Gustaf Tenggren was the first. He was responsible for illustrating The Poky Little Puppy among many other books. That was always the most popular Golden Book of all. He, in his former life as a Disney artist, had created the seven dwarfs and Snow White. There's a kind of kinship between those characters. But he was also capable of doing much grander things. His Arabian Nights is really a stunning book.

His friends were Alice and Martin Provensen, and they joined the Golden list in the late '40s, so did J.P. Miller who was responsible for the Gepetto character in Pinocchio and many other things in the Disney films and on and on. Mary Blair was another one. She became well known for, later on, for designing the World's Fair Pavilion in New York — It's a Small, Small World.

She had a keen sense of design and decoration and, for many years, had been Disney's artistic conscience — the artist who guided the overall design of his films. So there was a lot of talent and there was talent on the writing side, too. Margaret Wise Brown became one of their star writers and there were others.

So, the librarians did not embrace these books because they thought they were not grandly enough produced. They didn't provide the exquisite aesthetic experience that the librarians hoped that a children's book would give a child, and yet they were very good quality and American parents accepted them and didn't pay any attention to the reviews that the librarians might have written about these books. They just went to the supermarket and bought them off the rack for a quarter.

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Books for a multiracial society

There was a real blind eye turned to the fact that America was a multiracial society and earlier attempts had made in the post-World War I years. For example, there was a magazine for children called The Brownies' Book and it was created by W.E.B. Dubois as an extension of the magazine he was publishing for grown-ups at the NAACP called The Crisis.

And it was meant to be a kind of “black is beautiful” statement that children would receive in the mail once a month with poetry and stories and photography and illustration — all intended to create a sense of pride in the culture and ethnicity of being African-American, but it didn't find a place in the commercial world and went out of business after a couple of years.

And again after World War II when the American military was integrated for the first time, there was another small effort, and it was small in a sense that not too many people bought into it, but one or two editors attempted to publish books of African American interest for children. And they, too, just didn't find a place in the commercial world. Southern bookstores would threaten publishers and say that if you do things like this, “we won't buy your books” and publishers caved into that. It was only during the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s that that effort had enough momentum behind it that it succeeded with books like Ezra Jack Keats' The Snowy Day and Stevie by John Steptoe — both books of the 1960s.

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The radicalism of The Snowy Day and Stevie

Ezra Jack Keats published a picture book in 1962 called The Snowy Day in which he told a simple story about a little boy in an urban snowstorm who happened to be black. You could see that in the pictures — it's never mentioned in the text itself. And he won the Caldecott Medal for that book the following year in 1963.

It was clearly a landmark book because so little had been published for young children with children of color as the protagonist, or in fact, as any sort of character at all except for the racial stereotypes which would appear every so often in books. And then maybe seven years later, Stevie appeared which was by John Steptoe.

Now, a lot of people thought that Ezra Jack Keats was African American himself, and, as a matter of fact, his real name was Jacob Ezra Katz. He was Jewish, and he was not. He was just sympathetic to the plight of minorities, and, being Jewish, he considered himself a minority, too.

So there was a point of identification there. During that very charged period of the 1960s, Keats took some heat for attempting — as a white person — to make a picture book about African Americans. Just as William Styron, a few years later, as the author of The Confessions of Nat Turner was criticized in some quarters for writing a book in the voice of a former slave even though he himself was white. Now, was that appropriating another person's culture or wasn't it?

This was an issue that was not settled quickly, and Keats, I think rather…yeah, Keats was somewhat bitter about the reaction to what he had done though he kept going and produced many more books — the same kind — for the next probably 30 years.

I think it must be true that the success of The Snowy Day made it more likely that a book like Stevie could be published a few years later. Stevie differed from The Snowy Day in a few important respects. One was that it was written in urban street vernacular — something that I don't think had ever been done before in a picture book.

It was not standard English. It was not what librarians and teachers and parents expected to find in a children's book. But it had an authenticity that gave it a special power. And that, of course, is why the publisher, Ursula Nordstrom at Harper, wanted it to be published that way. She wanted it to be in the author's own voice.

Now, the author, John Steptoe, was a teenager when he showed up at Harper's offices with his portfolio, and Ursula Nordstrom, who had prior to that discovery of Maurice Sendak and published Margaret Wise Brown, E.B. White, and many other greats, was very keen on finding someone from the African American community who could speak to the children of his time.

And in John Steptoe, she felt that she, perhaps, had found that person. And so she cultivated his talent and helped him shape a story to suit the images — the artwork that he had shown her on their first meeting. And so that book grew out of intense conversations. And she said her effort to get out of his head onto paper all the things that were there. So it was another landmark book and a landmark in this slow awakening of American children's literature to the multiracial nature of American society.

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"The All-White World of American Children's Books"

In 1965, Nancy Larrick, who was the president of the International Reading Association, published an article in the Saturday Review called "The All-White World of American Children's Books," and it was a severe criticism of the children's publishing world as a whole, pointing out that editors up until that time had shirked their responsibility in as much as the books that they published, gave the impression that America was populated entirely by middle-class white people.

By the time the article appeared, The Snowy Day had already won the Caldecott Medal, which seems like a surprising chronology because you would have thought that that book would have been taken by her as a sign of changing times, but she really laced into Keats on a couple of counts. For one thing, because he never specified in the text that Peter was an African American child, and somehow that was important to her. And then she also felt that his portrayal of the mother was stereotypical — sort of a 'mammy' kind of character. I think she was a little harsh on Keats, but she wasn't going to let anybody get away with anything, and her larger point was, of course, correct.

Some publishers felt that, well, you know, we gave the Medal to one book, so we've done that, you know, and her real point was that tokenism was not the answer, and it was really a systemic problem and I think her article did force people to really search their souls and think more deeply about all the assumptions they had made about their work.

In the '50s, the prior decade, publishing was very self-satisfied. There was a lot of money around because the baby boom had produced so many new children. School libraries were flourishing, the federal government was handing out tremendous amounts of money for the purchase of science books, and people generally were prosperous, you know.

So, for all these different reasons, the children's book world was flourishing, and publishers didn't really have to think too much about what they were doing. They thought they were doing things right, you know. Then along came the '60s and showed them that they had still a lot to learn.

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The emergence of books for teens

Psychologists around the turn of the century — Stanley Hall in particular — studied adolescence as a phase of life to an extent that had not been done before. And that had ramifications throughout the culture and eventually led some writers to focus on the teen years in a serious way.

There were a few writers of that kind in the '30s and '40s. Some librarians were beginning to pay attention to specific reading needs of teens. During World War II, there wasn't so much of that, but you had an effort to choose books published for adults that would satisfy the needs and yearnings of teenagers during that difficult period in the nation's history.

Catcher in the Rye, which appeared at the beginning of the '50s, though written as a book for adults, became an anthem, in a way, for teenagers and for the writers who followed who wrote for teenagers — people like Robert Cormier and S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume.

You know, here was a book about a teenager who was in real distress writing in his own voice, and, you know, with a compelling feeling of honesty about it. He was, you know, very much the expression of the post-war years when Americans were materially well-off, but were just feeling kind of lost and worried about the future.

And the success of that book as a best seller that reached probably hundreds of thousands of people early on, became a kind of starting point for a new genre — what was essentially a new genre in books for young people.

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Does quality matter?

I think the question of quality in children's books matters a great deal, but it's been looked at in different ways over time. In the 1920s and '30s when certain powerful librarians ruled the roost and had a great deal to say about what was considered an excellent book and what was considered a bad book for children, the idea was that children's books had the potential to elevate children in terms of their appreciation of art and literature and just in culture in general. They were meant to be a kind of up there… meant to provide an uplifting experience.

And the librarians saw it as their duty to put as many of these experiences in the hands of the child to give them a better experience than they were apt to have if they went to the Saturday movies or bought comic books or any of the other things that the librarians were less approving of in terms of American culture.

In more recent times when literature has become more marginal to the culture as a whole, I think that the emphasis has changed and librarians and teachers now see that books, which children enjoy reading — however high or low they may be on the ladder of, you know, literary excellence — can be viewed as gateways to literacy and, perhaps, to a lifetime of future reading.

And so there's less judgment, I think, imposed on children when they find books that they really care about. And, I think in our current circumstances, that's a very sensible approach. I think it's been realized in the less, you might say, ideological time that we live in, as compared to the '20s and '30s, that children read books for all kinds of reasons, some of which have to do with literature and some of which don't.

And that there's no better way to involve the vast majority of children who are not, you know, born to read the classics necessarily. There's no better way to get them started than to give them the freedom to enjoy the things that they naturally are drawn toward in the hope that some of them, you know, will then move on to other kinds of literature afterwards.

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Current trends in children's literature

Genres have been merging lately. I think it has to do in part with the fact that children are exposed at an earlier and earlier age to an awareness of culture in general — things that, in the past, the adult world had hoped to shelter children from.

It is awareness of war and violence and drugs and sexuality. All these things have become part of the awareness of children at an earlier age. It was said that the average age of Judy Blume's readers has steadily declined over the last 30 years.

Things that would have been titillating to a 13-year-old now maybe get the attention of a 9-year-old because by the time that person is thirteen, he or she has gotten well beyond that. You know, it's like no big deal anymore. So that has led, I think, to the categories beginning to change.

Young adult fiction and adult fiction are kind of blurring together, and you find more adult writers wanting to write books that are classified as teen books. Picture books, in some cases, have become much more sophisticated graphically than was traditionally the case for picture books and they've begun to merge with the new genre of the graphic novel. So it's to be expected that readers from the age of four on until adulthood will be reading more and more books that are as much visual as they are literary in nature.

And also, I guess, since the time of Margaret Wise Brown in the '40s and '50s, the attention to the needs and interest of the very youngest ages down, you know, to baby-level on into toddlerhood and preschool, have received a lot more attention. So that's another change.

Plus, the multicultural understanding of society, I think, has finally achieved a kind of critical mass, you know, of …a presence in children's literature at every level. I think people take it for granted now that this is how children's books should be, and the battle has, more or less, been won.

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From comic book to graphic novels

Graphic novels exploded four or five years ago, and it seemed that suddenly bookstores and libraries felt an urgent need to make a place for them. This against the background of a real contempt for comic books, going back to when comic books were new in the 1930s.

An attitude that carried over into many parent's homes, you know. Children grew up being told not to read the comics. You know, being forced to read them so the cliché is under the bed sheets with the flashlight after dark. There was a long history of thinking of the comics as not good for children.

And then along comes the graphic novel. And I think it's a really fascinating phenomenon. It opens the possibility of children who don't see themselves as readers in the traditional sense, having a way into books. There's a lot of creativity now going into this art form, which is a kind of hybrid.

It's not picture books because very often they're more sophisticated and yet they recognize that there's such a thing as visual literacy that can thrive and contribute to verbal literacy, and, I mean, to the extent that we live in a visual era; it would seem to be an art form for a time.

So I think that there's a lot of creativity and a lot of promise in the graphic novel. Not too long ago, I met an editor from By Art, one of the publishers of graphic novels in France, and she said that she prefers to call them comics. So she wants to go back to the sort of fun, you know, the unpretentious, old name for these things.

I think having established the graphic novel as a legitimate art form, it may no longer be necessary to have this sort of, you know, serious sounding name for what's being done, and better, I think she was saying, to remember that there's a lot of enjoyment to be had from these books, too.

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Impact of television on storytelling

One impact of television on books for young children, I think, has been probably to limit the attention span that children have for a story because TV has probably created the expectation of things happening rapidly and coming to a conclusion in a fairly, you know, short span of time.

If you consider Make Way for Ducklings, a book of the early 1940s by Robert McCloskey, the story runs on for 64 pages, and you would never find anyone publishing a book that long for children of the picture book age now. So I think one impact of television has been rightly or wrongly to cause editors to create shorter and shorter texts for younger children.

And I think you sometimes see the same perception about pacing in books for older children. And one of the probably many secrets of the success of the Harry Potter books, I think, is the rapid pacing of the storytelling in those books. I remember, you know, when I read them for the first time thinking that these were books that are made for the television age.

"A book is like a garden, carried in the pocket." — Chinese Proverb