Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The new age of innocense

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, books for children, history

I tried and I tried, but when I saw that in a week of reading I hadn't made it more than one-third of the way through the book, I threw in the towel. I sadly have to declare that it is a reference work disguised as a popular historical survey. The book is Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature by Leonard S. Marcus.

Books written specially for children, other than texts, have a history in America dating almost from the landing of the Mayflower. The key idea I gleaned from the opening chapters and a skimming of the last chapter is that, of course, the writers, editors, publishers, and booksellers are all adults who produce books for one of two markets: firstly, the adults who buy books for the children they care about; and secondly, those children who can be reached by mass advertising, and whose families are sufficiently prosperous, that the children will nag parents and other familial adults to buy them the book.

There is a third market, libraries, which buy books the librarians think will appeal to children (Modern libraries' circulation records give them instant feedback how they're doing). With nearly 3,000 new titles published yearly, competition is now intense.

While the author traces primarily the trend in book publishing, there is a fascinating development of public libraries and their increasing focus on their children's sections.

Throughout American history, children's books have been written to be entertaining to the greatest extent the adult public is comfortable with, and with the minimum of "wholesome instruction" they can get away with. In Puritan America, the former was nearly absent and the latter paramount. Nowadays, wholly magical entertainments are the rule, which have no discernible pedagogical intent.

Considering what my son preferred to read while growing up, I see—once he was able to read textual books rather than "picture books"—three trends:
  1. Adventure series such as the new Hardy Boys books (not the older ones). He cared much less about Tom Swift, upon which I'd doted. I am bemused that the Hardys could solve some three hundred mysteries during a single year in which one was 17 and the other 18.
  2. Comic collections, primarily Garfield, Foxtrot, and Calvin.
  3. Magical epics such as the Redwall and Harry Potter books—two very different occupants of a similar landscape. More recently, the Xanth and Star Trek series (the latter being semi-magical in my view). He totally eschews nonfiction: "I get enough of that in my textbooks."
Had he been a dreamier child, I'd have been more concerned about his connection to reality than I am. He knows magical reality when he sees it, and wasn't influenced to think he could get away in the real world with the shenanigans his storybook heroes accomplished. So I see the largest trend in the subject of children's books over the past four hundred years is the gradual disspation of adult fears, though a large part of this in recent decades has been an increasing self-absorption among those adults. Most of 'em aren't paying attention any more.

Back to Minders: It is well-written. I simply succumbed to a flood of facts. I'll pace myself as I read the rest of it in tandem with other books that I can zip through with more of a sense of escape or engrossment.

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