The Lion and the Mouse
The battle that reshaped children’s literature.
by Jill Lepore
July 21, 2008 The New Yorker
Jill Lepore writes about how she got to the bottom of the “Stuart Little” battle
Anne Carroll Moore was born long ago but not so far away, in Limerick, Maine, in 1871. She had a horse named Pocahontas, a father who read to her from Aesop’s Fables, and a grandmother with no small fondness for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Annie, whose taste ran to “Little Women,” was a reader and a runt. Her seven older brothers called her Shrimp. In 1895, when she was twenty-four, she moved to New York, where she more or less invented the children’s library.
At the time, you had to be fourteen, and a boy, to get into the Astor Library, which opened in 1854, the same year as the Boston Public Library, the country’s first publicly funded city library, where you had to be sixteen. Even if you got inside, the librarians would shush you, carping about how the “young fry” read nothing but “the trashy”: Scott, Cooper, and Dickens (one century’s garbage being, as ever, another century’s Great Books). Samuel Tilden, who left $2.4 million to establish a free library in New York, nearly changed his mind when he found out that ninety per cent of the books checked out of the Boston Public Library were fiction. Meanwhile, libraries were popping up in American cities and towns like crocuses at first melt. Between 1881 and 1917, Andrew Carnegie underwrote the construction of more than sixteen hundred public libraries in the United States, buildings from which children were routinely turned away, because they needed to be protected from morally corrupting books, especially novels. In 1894, at the annual meeting of the American Library Association, the Milwaukee Public Library’s Lutie Stearns read a “Report on the Reading of the Young.” What if libraries were to set aside special books for children, Stearns wondered, shelved in separate rooms for children, staffed by librarians who actually liked children?
In 1896, Anne Carroll Moore was given the task of running just such an experiment, the Children’s Library of the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, built at a time when the Brooklyn schools had a policy that “children below the third grade do not read well enough to profit from the use of library books.” Moore toured settlement houses and kindergartens (also a new thing), and made a list of what she needed: tables and chairs sized for children; plants, especially ones with flowers; art work; and very good books. The kids lined up around the block.
The cornerstone of the New York Public Library was laid in 1902, at Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue. Four years later, after the library’s directors established a Department of Work with Children, they hired Moore to serve as its superintendent, a position in which she not only oversaw the children’s programs at all the branch libraries but also planned the Central Children’s Room. After the library opened, in 1911, its Children’s Room became a pint-sized paradise, with its pots of pansies and pussy willows and oak tables and coveted window seats, so low to the floor that even the shortest legs didn’t dangle.
from the issuecartoon banke-mail thisMuch of what Moore did in that room had never been done before, or half as well. She brought in storytellers and, in her first year, organized two hundred story hours (and ten times as many two years later). She compiled a list of twenty-five hundred standard titles in children’s literature. She won the right to grant borrowing privileges to children; by 1913, children’s books accounted for a third of all the volumes borrowed from New York’s branch libraries. Against the prevailing sentiment of the day, she believed that her job was to give “to the child of foreign parentage a feeling of pride in the beautiful things of the country his parents have left.” She celebrated the holidays of immigrants (reading Irish poetry aloud, for instance, on St. Patrick’s Day) and stocked the shelves with books in French, German, Russian, and Swedish. In 1924, she hired the African-American writer Nella Larsen to head the Children’s Room in Harlem. In each of the library’s branches, Moore abolished age restrictions. Down came the “Silence” signs, up went framed prints of the work of children’s-book illustrators. “Do not expect or demand perfect quiet,” she instructed her staff. “The education of children begins at the open shelves.” In place of locked cabinets, she provided every library with a big black ledger; if you could sign your name, you could borrow a book. Moore considered signing the ledger something between an act of citizenship and a sacrament, to be undertaken only after reading a pledge: “When I write my name in this book I promise to take good care of the books I use in the Library and at home, and to obey the rules of the Library.” During both the First and Second World Wars, soldiers on leave in the city climbed the steps past Patience and Fortitude, walked into the Children’s Room, and asked to see the black books from years past. They wanted to look up their names, to trace the record of a childhood lost, an inky, smudged once-upon-a-time.
In the first half of the twentieth century, no one wielded more power in the field of children’s literature than Moore, a librarian in a city of publishers. She never lacked for an opinion. “Dull in a new way,” she labelled books that she despised. When, in 1938, William R. Scott brought her copies of his press’s new books, tricked out with pop-ups and bells and buttons, Moore snapped, “Truck! Mr. Scott. They are truck!” Her verdict, not any editor’s, not any bookseller’s, sealed a book’s fate. She kept a rubber stamp at her desk that she used, liberally, while paging through publishers’ catalogues: “Not recommended for purchase by expert.”
7 years ago