Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Children's Literature: Not Just for Children

While the popular media's attention has been focused on “The Politics of Fear” cover of the July 21, 2008 issue of The New Yorker and on Ryan Lizza’s article in the same issue about Barack Obama’s political history in Chicago, there is another article of interest in that issue – particularly to those of us with a particular interest in “all things reading”. Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard and chair of the History and Literature Program. Her article in this issue, “The Lion and the Mouse”, describes the early history of children’s libraries and the battle over the publication of Stuart Little by E. B. White.

To most of us a children’s room is an integral part of every library. But it was not always so. There was a time when libraries were restricted to those over 14 or 16 and also to boys. But that changed thanks in large part to the efforts of Anne Carroll Moore, the first children’s librarian at the New York Public Library when it opened in 1911. She introduced tables and window seats low to the floor, story-tellers and story hours, borrowing privileges for children, and removed “Silence” signs. Ms. Moore contributed serious books reviews of children’s literature and organized Children’s Book Weeks. We take all of these things for granted now.

But for all of these contributions, and for reasons explored in the article, Ms. Moore took a dislike to Stuart Little when it was published in 1945 and tried to get it banned from schools and libraries. For a time she was partly successful. The author seems to think that Ms. Moore may have been responsible for denying E. B. White the Newbery Medal.

Of course I had to see what all the controversy was about by reading Stuart Little myself. Although there was a copy on my own children’s bookshelf I cannot honestly say that I remember their reading it. Certainly I did not read it to them.

The detailed black-and-white illustrations by Garth Williams are a treasure of careful lines, detail and shading. I happened to notice that in the illustration of George Little’s bedroom there is a banner from Cornell. Why, of all the colleges, would it be Cornell? It turns out that E. B. White graduated from Cornell. A nice touch! No doubt there are many more like that throughout the book if one were to take time to study them.

I have to say I was startled by a passage in the chapter “The Schoolroom.” Stuart Little has offered to be a substitute teacher for a day. After dispensing rather quickly with arithmetic, spelling, writing and social studies, he poses to the “scholars” (children of unspecified age), “…why wouldn’t it be a good idea if we just talked about something.” There are the typical all-boy responses: a snake winding itself around your wrist, the fat lady in the circus with hair on her chin. And then Lydia Lacey speaks up: “Could we talk about sin and vice?” I’m thinking: what do the children of 1945 think of this? Do they read right past it? Do they go to the nearest adult for clarification? (If I were that adult, how would I respond?) Do they need no clarification? Is it any different for children of today, 53 years later? What was White’s intention? Humor?

This is a book which, like the television show Sesame Street, appeals to the children in its audience on one level and to its adult audience on an entirely different level. It is by turns very funny and poignantly sad. Perhaps that is why Stuart Little has now sold more than four million copies.

A interview with Jill Lepore and Roger Angell, E.B. White’s stepson, can be found at

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