May 2008

Benjamin Jacob Hollars


Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature by Leonard S. Marcus

For the serious children’s literature aficionado, your wait has ended. For everyone else, this might not be the book for you.

Leonard S. Marcus’s Minders of Make-Believe offers a meticulous tour of children’s literature, starting with the Puritans and ending with Harry Potter himself. In the 1600s, the General Court of Massachusetts promoted literacy at an early age, citing that to keep children from reading was to keep them “from the knowledge of the scriptures.” Now 350 years later, as the primary motivation for children’s books shifted to economics, many books managed to maintain a more important role -- to mirror the world of which we are a part.

Rarely do we see a literary history in which The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Where The Wild Things Are, and The Cat and the Hat take precedent over more adult novels. Yet, as Marcus proves, the history of children’s literature is nothing to be taken lightly. Before our eyes, a network of causal relationships develop. We see how children’s books of every era carefully align with issues ranging from World War I, World War II, the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement. Marcus does not explicitly state that children’s books are, perhaps, the country’s best form of propaganda, though he does stress their incalculable importance on shaping the minds of America’s youth.

While a 400-page tome dedicated to the evolution of children’s literature proves of interest for some, more casual readers will certainly find themselves bogged down with the litany of names and publishers over a century old. In many ways, the first half of the book will best serve those attempting to grasp the roots of the medium, while the second half appeals to a wider audience in its focus on more contemporary literature.

Yet Marcus manages to combat the tedium and keep us afloat by integrating anecdotes about the publishing of familiar texts. For instance, critic Anne Carroll Moore initially called E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web a “mongrel work, part realism and part fantasy, that was destined to leave young readers in a state of confusion.” Later, Eudora Welty noted that it was the perfect book “for anyone over eight and under eighty.” Ursula Nordstrom of Harpers reassured White to put little credence in Moore’s initial assessment as she was “a girl of eighty-two” and not within the age-range qualified by Welty.

The book’s force resides in its comprehensiveness. From Dick and Jane readers to Little Golden books, Marcus spares no detail. While the casual reader might not find interest in each author, each publisher, each book, certainly, no history of children’s literature is so complete, so meticulous, and so insistent that the genre matters for all readers -- children or otherwise.

Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature by Leonard S. Marcus
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0395674077
416 Pages