Books for Children
To the Editor:
I don’t know whether I qualify as one of the “experts” that Jason Epstein writes about in his article [“Books for American Children,” February]. . . . But since I spend a considerable number of my working hours reading and evaluating a substantial proportion of the 2,000 new children’s books published every year, I may belong to that fraternity Mr. Epstein scorns. . . .
So much Mr. Epstein says is correct, that one feels churlish arguing with his unfortunate and unfair point of view. People like Josette Frank have done enormous good and have helped to inspire many children with the rewards of reading. Mr. Epstein calls the emphasis on the child’s education a “prissy rationalization of the children’s book experts,” but the fact is that such a concern is imperative today. Children are growing up in a far more dreadful, complicated, and treacherous world than the children of the 19th century, of whose literature Mr. Epstein is so enamored. Because of this, the books of the 19th century appear to them remote and disconnected from the emotions that overwhelm them. How do our children live with the threat of nuclear war? What kind of books do they pick up having returned from first-grade after one of those under-the-desk air raid drills? Does one read Peter Rabbit to them—even Beatrix Potter’s original version? Or, if they are older, perhaps even Ivanhoe?. . . Children today stay away in droves from the so-called classics, and not because they are reading pallid modern literature, not because they are intellectually less endowed than children of earlier generations, not because they read comics—but because these older books do not help them come to terms with themselves and do not help them perceive the world in which they live. . . .
(I am not suggesting that the world in which children live should necessarily be the one in which they will continue to live. Hopefully, the world will change for the better, and the children of today will take part in shaping this change. Am I naive in believing that the books they read can help them develop a point of view and strengthen their resolve?)
. . . The current crop of children’s titles leaves much to be desired, but not for the reasons Mr. Epstein cites. It is not the “experts” who have created this situation. It is simply that editors and publishers are out to make money, and they look for titles that seem safe and salable. Books are beautifully illustrated and well-designed . . . often covering up poor and even silly texts. As one searches through the titles of the past ten years . . . there is almost nothing that reflects the problems of race relations in our country, very little that describes poverty, war, and other such realities. . . . The few books that have attempted to deal with these realities are, on the whole, weak and unconvincing, and any child worth his salt knows that they are “fakes.”
Many books about Negroes have appeared—the majority of them about the Civil War period. It is as if the authors took cognizance of the Supreme Court decision and its aftermath, but could not quite bring themselves to deal with it, and so they tip their hats in the direction of an historical past. . . . One searches for books that might illuminate the problems of the Puerto Rican leaving his home and taking up residence in an environment frequently hostile. . . .
For years some of the “experts” have been trying to influence publishers and editors to consider subjects of this sort. This is what is needed—more reality, not less.
(Mrs.) Ann G. Wolfe
American Jewish Committee
New York City
To the Editor:
I read Jason Epstein’s article with interest and some exasperation. He is right in pointing out the triviality, didacticism, and dreariness of many books for children being published today . . . [and] in reminding us of the qualities of imagination and the anti-conventional attitudes reflected in some of the books children have long cherished. . . .
But when Mr. Epstein of Random House takes off after the professional critics of children’s literature, he loses me. Who is responsible for the flood of mediocrity he complains of, the nearly two thousand books for children published annually? . . . Certainly there are critics in the service of publishers and critics alarmed by the sight of polysyllables in a book designed for children. Like children’s book editors and librarians, they represent all degrees of competence. No one seriously concerned with children’s literature would have anything but contempt for the “‘revision” of Beatrix Potter quoted by Mr. Epstein. . . .
The outlook is probably not so grim as Mr. Epstein thinks. Children are selective. The few titles listed in this article do not reflect the true extent of the modern literature of quality to which children respond. . . . Mr. Epstein makes no mention, for example, of the tales of Walter de la Mare, Eleanor Farjeon, James Thurber, of beloved books like Charlotte’s Web or The Little Prince. Children should be directed to these and books of similar quality, just as they must be to the work of older writers like Kenneth Grahame, George MacDonald, E. Nesbit, Howard Pyle. . . . What the classics require is re-evaluation as well as rediscovery—not mere piety. A vote against Ivanhoe is not an act of heresy. The question is not, as Mr. Epstein implies, “Are we abandoning the good-but-difficult classics in favor of the mediocre-but-easy moderns?” The question is simply. . . . “Which among the old books and the new are the best?”
Los Angeles, California
To the Editor:
. . . Mr. Epstein is irked by authorities on children’s literature, two of whom he singles out for attack—May Hill Arbuthnot and Nancy Larrick, the author of A Parents Guide to Children’s Reading. Yet surely the author of a guide (not a definitive work) is entitled to limit her selection according to her own criteria. As she explains in the paragraph Mr. Epstein quotes only partially, Miss Larrick has chosen to list books which have been around children’s libraries long enough to have established themselves as solid favorites, but not long enough to have been read by the parents when they were young. Any children’s librarian who has assisted parents in book selection can tell you that this is a valid distinction for guiding parents. . . .
Mr. Epstein challenges Miss Larrick’s statement that books are fun, but just because he preferred going to the movies when he was a boy does not mean that books aren’t fun. With both adults and children, reading fills two needs, that of education and that of recreation. . . . Why is it almost impossible for a public library to have enough circulating copies of Dr. Seuss to fill the demand, if it is not that the children want to read them for fun? On a less lofty plane, what about the Nancy Drews . . . deplorable by all literary standards, yet perennially popular with girls at a certain age level? . . . Or the Hardy Boys or Rich Brants (this generation’s Tom Swifts) ?
A second target . . . is May Arbuthnot, author of Children and Books. . . . To prove that the writing is “drab and abstract, . . . almost illiterate,” he presents two quotes. Lifted from context, the second one does indeed appear to be erroneous word usage, but as for the first, “Prodded on by weary drivers, the camels swayed slowly,” it seems an excellent piece of onomatopoetic writing to this reader.
. . . There are many passages in Miss Arbuthnot’s work, considered by many librarians a classic, with which Mr. Epstein would completely concur, such as in her enthusiasm for Beatrix Potter’s work, but his aggressive attitude seems to indicate that he is not really familiar with her books as a whole . . . [Yet] I feel that Mr. Epstein has more in common with Miss Arbuthnot than he realizes, just as there is much in what he says with which I most heartily concur. Anyone working with children’s books today in anything except merchandising must be somewhat troubled ; but after all, why should we worry? Children are not going to read books they don’t want to read just because book manufacturers are turning them out, and they are going to find those books that appeal to them wherever they are hidden.
Helen H. Shelton
To the Editor:
. . . As a librarian who works with children and their books, I found Mr. Epstein’s article interesting and challenging . . . [but] I would suggest that he be more sure of his facts when submitting critical material of this sort.
The Carey-Thomas Award . . . honors publishing at its best and is not given by the same people who offer the Newbery Medal. It is an award given a publisher, and from 1942 to 1958 appears never to have been given for a juvenile book. . . . There is moreover only one Newbery award annually (not four for 1961, as he states); there are runners-up annually, of which the number varies from year to year.
[Nevertheless] I am sympathetic with Mr. Epstein’s point of view on many counts. His publishing venture the Looking Glass Library is most admirable; parents and librarians alike are grateful for these attractive, inexpensive reprints of classics. . . .
Katherine E. Ashley
To the Editor:
Good criticism of children’s books is overdue and it was a pleasure to read Jason Epstein’s appraisal of the current situation. I can testify to the limited challenges offered young readers from my experience some years ago with textbook publishing. It was the rage then to count words in first- and second-grade arithmetic books to make sure that they contained no more than a certain number of new ones. The editors were afraid that too many new words would interfere with the children’s solving of problems and advertised this limitation of vocabulary as an asset of their books.
Educators, and their editors, seem to have overlooked the fact that children are eclectic, that their vocabulary is nourished at all times and in many ways, and not just when they are reading primers. As Mr. Epstein points out in his comparison of excerpts from Peter Rabbit, the trick is not to hold down the vocabulary level but to make the writing so exciting that children will want to read, and more importantly, that their parents will want to read with them.
. . . Are there some children’s books written since World War II that . . . will survive into the next century, or will our descendants, too, be reading Caldecott and Carroll?
Mrs. Max Frankel
Chevy Chase, Maryland
To the Editor:
. . . As a child I read for fun, with an apple or a cookie in one hand. My parents and teachers surrounded me with books, and I read according to my needs at the moment, good, bad, and indifferent—including the copy on cereal boxes. Children have preferences, just as adults do; a well-written book may be recognized but not necessarily liked. And I still have a warm spot in my heart for The Bobbsey Twins.
Children read for fun today. Hundreds, thousands, and I daresay, millions of them! Mr. Epstein should visit us at our town library any day or evening, and especially during the summer try to push his way through the crowds of children!