If, like me, you don’t read a lot of the children’s publishing blogs and newsgroups, you might miss a fascinating New Yorker article by Jill Lepore called “The Lion and the Mouse.” It’s about the almighty Anne Carroll Moore of a bygone era, the original grande dame of children’s librarianship, who from her post “behind the lions” of the New York Public Library’s big main building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, established children’s librarianship, but also, for better or worse, passed judgment on children’s books published during much of the first half of the 20th century.

If you’ve never heard Moore’s story but work with kids in libraries, you should read this piece, because Moore had a big influence on how children’s books were written, illustrated, and promoted, and her influence continues. You can see a lot of the beginnings of children’s literature criticism in the article, too. Here also is the story of E.B. White, his wife Katharine – an early children’s book critic – and his first children’s book, the immortal Stuart Little.

Moore encouraged White to write it, but then ended up offended by the way White had mixed up fantasy and reality. A woman giving birth to an anthropomorphic mouse? Moore asked Harper, its publisher, and White’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, not to release it. “I never was so disappointed in a book in my life,” Moore said.

It’s definitely worth your time. And there was a quote that caught my eye and drew me away for a few moments on a completely different path. Lepore writes:

Children’s literature, at least in the West, is utterly bound up in the medieval, as Seth Lerer, a Stanford literature professor, argues in “Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter.” Lots of books for kids are about the Middle Ages (everything from “The Hobbit” to “Robin Hood” and “Redwall”), but the conventions of the genre (allegory, moral fable, romance, and heavy-handed symbolism) are also themselves distinctly premodern. It’s not only that many books we shelve as “children’s literature”—Grimms’ Fairy Tales or “Gulliver’s Travels” or “Huck Finn”—were born as biting political satire, for adults; it’s also that books written for children in the twentieth century tend to be distinctly, willfully, and often delightfully antimodern. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has more in common with “The Pilgrim’s Progress” than it does with “On the Road.”

As I wandered around the publisher’s booths at the ALA Conference, I noticed that so many new books are fantasies – and I mean books for children, teens, and adults. (Have you noticed how many vampire romances appeared in the wake of Anne Rice? The Twilight series brought them to kids and teens, but now it seems as if there are hundreds, for all ages.) And have you noticed how little science fiction is being published and read these days? I feel that there’s something in so many modern middle-class Americans these days that longs for a good king who can command something and everyone must obey, or wizards who can wave wands and make wishes come true, and even vampires who can love us and protect us in this raggedy world. Science fiction reminds us too much of the pervasive technology that seems to be slowly strangling us as it daily transforms the world, and that so many people feel they can’t keep up with.

This is why I keep going on about the importance of libraries supporting literacy and the printed word. No medium develops our imaginations and stretches us the way the printed word can, whether we want to escape to a vampire romance or an article about global warming. But I digress.

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