From Wild Things to Happy Readers
The story of the adults behind the stories that children follow avidly.

Reviewed by Michael Sims
Sunday, May 11, 2008


A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter

By Seth Lerer | Univ. of Chicago. 385 pp. $30


Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature

By Leonard S. Marcus | Houghton Mifflin. 402 pp. $28

Children are Strangers in the World," wrote the 18th-century educator John Clarke. These foreigners arrive among adults, he insists, eager to "store the yet empty Cabinet of the Mind with a variety of Ideas." The history of children's literature is blessed and plagued by adults debating the extent of their responsibility to these small strangers. Two excellent new books explore the history of children's literature from different perspectives -- the last few thousand years and the last few hundred. They bring to life the saga of a crucial but always divisive question: How best can we fill these supposedly empty minds?

Seth Lerer quotes Clarke in his elegant survey, Children's Literature. He emphasizes that, in each period, which books children were required to read for instruction and permitted to read for entertainment depended upon how their society regarded offspring. Beginning with works from ancient Greece and Rome, Lerer closely reads fables, riddle books, prayer collections, biographies of saints and generals, novels by authors from Robert Louis Stevenson to J.K. Rowling, even the seemingly innocent lists of abecedaries. "A narrative," he writes, "can inhere in any juxtaposition of recorded events or items." Not only narrative but values and expectations reveal themselves under Lerer's scrutiny. He explores the influence of Darwin on perceptions of nature and culture in adventure books. In a particularly useful chapter, "Theaters of Girlhood," he examines the evolving representations of femininity in books written for young female readers. Lerer's conclusions are often surprising. Of Edward Lear's limericks, he writes, "Lear imagines . . . a vision of the old through childish eyes: as if what children see in their elders are patterns of behavior so unique or obsessive that it makes their own mischief small by comparison."

Lerer's Olympian survey of more than 2,000 years leaves the reader with a stimulating vision of history. The book feels unhurried, but somehow he recounts those busy millennia in only 300-plus pages of text. His narrative swells and ebbs like a symphony. Themes are stated early in a chapter; they build and intertwine to end satisfyingly in a return to the opening chord. Concentrating on Western traditions, he ranges from Aesop's sly anti-authority bias to the definition of a "real boy" in Pinocchio to Czech pop-up books after World War II. To find Pilgrim's Progress and Weetzie Bat in a single volume is itself a pleasure.

One of the virtues of Lerer's narrative is its exploration of the role of children in each era. For example, he reminds us that many kings and queens during the Middle Ages were crowned in childhood. Henry III was 9 when his father was killed. Pages, maids, apprentices -- children played important roles at every level of society. Art and religion were populated with children from the iconic infant Jesus to youthful Arthur pulling a sword from a stone to become king. As a medievalist who has written books about Chaucer and Boethius, Lerer also nonchalantly erases the Connecticut Yankee caricature of pre-Renaissance adults as childish buffoons.

In contrast to Lerer's spacious time span, Leonard Marcus covers a much smaller period of history in his Minders of Make-Believe. Therefore, he can pause to provide more detail and make individuals more vivid, resulting in a story entertainingly populated with colorful characters from Benjamin Franklin to E.B. White. Marcus sketches the early U.S. history of children's books in his first chapter and in the next surveys the Reconstruction era. Starting with the third, he devotes a chapter to every decade of the 20th century. At first this approach seems an unimaginative system rather than a narrative, but Marcus keeps it lively and engaging. He is a master of the brief, revealing anecdote. Consider one New York editor's response to complaints in the early 1980s from the African American community that books with "positive images" of black children were disappearing from lists: "You're only 20% of the population. How can I be concerned with you?"

In writing, as in photography, a close-up can result in shallow depth-of-field. Marcus avoids such blurring by highlighting children's publishing against the background of the rest of American literature. He is an encyclopedia on this vast topic. His many books include a biography of Margaret Wise Brown and a history of Little Golden Books, as well as the collected letters of legendary Harper editor Ursula Nordstrom.

It's a lively spectacle, this parade down the long and winding road from the New-England Primer to Heather Has Two Mommies. In Marcus's account, the march of writers and artists on this path has been besieged by meddling bureaucrats and misguided educators as much as steered by visionary writers and editors. Yet the latter have triumphed often enough to produce books that affected generations of children. "To hold one of these books in our modern hands," says Lerer of 18th-century American primers, "is to realize not that old texts were lost, but that they were so used and handled, pocketed and plucked out, that they must have fallen apart. Worn away by countless children, these books were, quite simply, read to death."

Both Lerer and Marcus emphasize that these works -- from picture books marinated in biblical ethics to, yes, the Harry Potter novels -- were created by human beings with diverse and often contradictory motives. What a story these authors tell, of piratical moralists stealing each other's ethical axioms and presenting them as their own, of librarians shouting that Nancy Drew mysteries were bad for education and morality. Despite this cacophony, writers have managed to produce such cherished feats of imagination as Alice and Huckleberry Finn, Charlotte's Web and Little Women, a magical train station that rescues an orphaned boy and a secret garden in which a girl learns what it means to grow up. These new books remind us that children's literature, which at the moment is flourishing and hugely influential, grows from as rich and ancient a heritage as any strand of world culture. ยท

Michael Sims, author most recently of "Apollo's Fire," is writing a natural history of children's animal stories.

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