[Editors' note: PW found it hard to choose just three of the many fascinating figures profiled in Leonard S. Marcus's new history of American children's book publishing, Minders of Make-Believe, to excerpt in the magazine. For that reason, in addition to the three portraits that appear in the print edition, we here present the stories of three additional industry pioneers who helped transform children's book publishing from a sleepy backwater to big business.]
It was not that long ago that children's book publishing—now so widely appreciated as an industry profit center and creative hub—was accorded considerably less respect, carrying second-class status in the world of books. The past 75 years have witnessed spectacular growth in the field in tandem with a dramatic reappraisal of this sector of publishing—changes that, as Leonard S. Marcus shows in his new history, Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature (Houghton Mifflin, May), mirror fundamental changes in our nation's cultural and social life.
In the profiles excerpted from Minders here, the stories of three industry pioneers serve to highlight the tough-mindedness, vision and raw nerve that was often required of them as they struggled to persuade their employers to give “juveniles” their due.
Louise Seaman Bechtel
Louise Seaman Bechtel. Photo: Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries.
In the summer of 1919, with the War to End All Wars finally over, America's largest publisher, Macmillan, established the world's first editorial division specializing in books for young readers. Recalling his decision to do so, Macmillan's president, George P. Brett, would write: “It had occurred to me [that children's] books would benefit more than any others, perhaps, from separate editorial supervision.”
Publishing books in which illustration figured prominently required special skills, of course. But Brett had not acted on that basis alone. “Also,” he recalled, “I believed that children's books are perhaps more important than any other kind. Through these books one reaches young minds at the plastic age when moral character is being formed.”
To lead Macmillan's Department of Books for Boys and Girls, Brett chose an ambitious 24-year-old staff member from Brooklyn with a Vassar degree and a background in teaching, Louise Seaman. The new arrival quickly made her mark by the elegant stunt of composing a “Sonnet to the Catalogue,” inspired by the advertising copy that she had originally been hired to write.
It was not by chance that Brett had chosen a woman for the new job. In elevating Seaman, he had acted on the belief—gospel to many employers of the day—that women knew more than men about children and were thus better equipped for work that ministered to children's needs. At least some progressive-minded women were of the same opinion. Bertha Mahony, writing in The Horn Book in 1928, commented: “There seems every natural reason why women, properly qualified, should be particularly successful in the selection of children's books to publish and their publishing.” Employing an analogy that she may have lived to regret, Mahony continued: “When it comes to deciding upon the format of a book, it is more like dressing a little girl than anything else. One chooses every detail of her wardrobe in harmony with herself. To this delightful task women would seem to bring particular interest and ability.”
Publishers immediately recognized the creation of Macmillan's new Department of Books for Boys and Girls as something far from frivolous. Other trade houses quickly followed suit. The new attention lavished on juveniles did little, however, to ensure that their editors would be treated on equal terms with their colleagues. Deferring to their expertise in editorial matters, the heads of houses gave the women an enviable freedom to develop their departments as they thought best. But their status within the office and industry hierarchy remained anomalous. Brett expected Seaman to continue to produce advertising copy on top of all her new responsibilities. Enduring the patronizing slights of the men came to seem the price to be paid for the privilege of holding such a job.
Seaman inherited a rich backlist of 250 children's titles that included the standard American editions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; Charles Kingsley's Water Babies; Mrs. Molesworth's The Cuckoo Clock; and a long shelf of Arthur Rackham gift editions. Although her first task was to cull the list, Seaman's 1920 inaugural catalogue, which ran to 88 pages, made it clear that the editor did not simply intend to play caretaker. A “gay, informal picture book about books,” it artfully combined illustrations, promotional copy, and apt literary quotations to give a window onto the editor's publishing philosophy.
Satisfied with Seaman's progress during her first year, Brett gave his editor a raise. Writing from France in the summer of 1920, her best friend from college and her future author, Elizabeth Coatsworth, congratulated her on having been granted a “decenter wage.” But mindful that the dream job had come with considerable baggage, Coatsworth counseled the classmate she affectionately called “Bob-olinks”: “You're both brave and strong, but don't be too eager at the bit.”
Not quite three years into her editorship, Seaman let friends know that the work still agreed with her. As Coats-worth wrote in reply in May 1922: “I think you'd like to know that Mary Mallon [a Vassar classmate] said that of all the people she knew you seemed most right in your life—for which you might thank heaven and yourself.”
Frederic Melcher, at his desk
at The Publishers' Weekly.
The Pulitzer Prizes were launched at Columbia University in 1917 as annual awards for excellence in journalism, fiction, poetry and other cultural pursuits. Frederic G. Melcher, a young bookseller with New England roots who was soon to become editor of The Publishers' Weekly, thought it regrettable, though hardly surprising, that children's literature had not been included as a category. By 1918, Melcher, in addition to the editorial post that had brought him to New York, had also assumed an industry-wide role as secretary of the American Booksellers Association.
Three years later, representing yet another organization in which he stood at the forefront, the National Association of Book Publishers, he attended his first American Library Association convention, in Swampscott, Mass., and took part in a program promoting Children's Book Week. Melcher had been casting about for fresh ways to build on the early successes of the weeklong celebration that he had helped create. On the day after his scheduled talk, he asked for the chance to address the children's librarians a second time. Melcher told a rapt crowd that the time had come for children's literature to have its own Pulitzer Prize as a vehicle for encouraging—and publicizing—high achievement in writing for the young, and that librarians, having no commercial stake in the fate of any particular book, should be the ones to chooose the winners.
Melcher proposed that the new award be named the John Newbery Medal, in commemoration of the 18th-century English bookseller-printer-publisher who had popularized the notion that children's books should offer their readers delight and instruction in equal measure. The librarians' response was wildly enthusiastic. The feeling in the room was that history had just been made—that this was the genesis of the world's first literary prize for a children's book.
When the American Library Association's executive committee met later that same day, they voted to authorize the awarding of the first Newbery Medal at the next year's conference. Librarians seeking relief that June afternoon from the sweltering heat gathered on the hotel's oceanfront veranda and immediately fell into speculating about what book might have received the Newbery Medal in the current year had there already been a Newbery Medal to win. As the Brooklyn Public Library's Clara Whitehill Hunt recalled, Hugh Lofting's The Story of Doctor Dolittle swept the field, leaving those who played the game that afternoon feeling pleasantly satisfied that they and their colleagues did indeed know a superior book for boys and girls when they saw one. The librarians returned home exhilarated. “Never was there such a conference as this,” Library Journal reported breathlessly.
In a September 1921 letter to Hunt, Melcher offered to raise the money needed to pay for the design and striking of the medal (in the end he paid for it all himself) and to stand ready to advise the librarians, provided that he could remain out of the limelight. Melcher feared that if his role were to become better known, his longtime association with the business side of the book world might somehow tarnish the medal's credibility. As to the mechanism for selecting the winners, he was adamant that the librarians should work the procedure out among themselves. A committee, with Hunt as chair, wrote the guidelines, which stipulated that any librarian engaged in at least part-time work with children—a 1921 survey found that 472 librarians met this standard—should be eligible to nominate a book. “To give everyone this chance,” Hunt noted, echoing Melcher's sentiments, “will create interest and induce good feeling.” Hunt, however, had no desire to leave the final decision to majority rule: “It is most important that the final judges of the award be a few of the people of recognized high standards and experience. If a majority vote of all so-called children's librarians determine the award it is entirely possible for a mediocre book to get the medal.”
The outcome of the hastily organized first-round ballot for the 1922 Newbery all but mooted Hunt's concern. When the 212 nominating votes cast were tallied on March 8, 1922, it was found that 163 votes had gone to a single book—Dr. Hendrik Willem van Loon's The Story of Mankind. So overwhelming had been the vote—the first runner-up, The Great Quest by Charles Boardman Hawes, received 22 votes—that Hunt and her inner circle felt no need to deliberate further.
At the ALA annual meeting that June, Melcher took to the podium to introduce Hunt at a festive afternoon ceremony attended by an overflow crowd of hundreds of librarians. First Hunt formally accepted the gift of the Newbery Medal from Melcher. Then the librarian from Brooklyn presented the first medal to van Loon. Finally, the author made a “very appreciative speech” before being whisked away for a round of press photographs and a newsreel recording. For those in attendance, it was a moment to be savored, the culmination of more than 20 years of unprecedented nationwide community service, much of it unsung.
Melcher was himself one of the field's unsung heroes. He regarded the Newbery and Caldecott Medals (the latter of which he proposed and donated in the same way, 16 years later) as two of his proudest achievements. In editorials in The Publishers' Weekly and in speeches delivered throughout the country, he continued for the next four decades to affirm his belief that children's books were of pivotal importance to the cultural vibrancy and political well-being of a modern, democratic society.
By the 1930s, even a house with as solid a reputation in the children’s book field as Charles Scribner’s Sons needed a full-time juvenile editor if it hoped to succeed in the specialized library-dominated market for children’s books. In a classic expression of trade publishers’ ambivalence toward the genre, the firm’s new department head, Alice Dalgliesh, soon found herself parrying the offhand suggestion of the firm’s president, Charles Scribner III, that she might wish to carry out her duties from home. Dalgliesh began her long tenure at a desk set up for her in a hallway. Later, as the editor dryly recalled, a more suitable place was found in a railed-off portion of the house’s prestigious fifth floor: “It had the advantage of being almost at the entrance to Maxwell Perkins’s office, where the great ones of the adult writing world came and went.”
Dalgliesh had come to publishing with a background in the education world’s equivalent of the avant-garde: 17 years’ experience as a teacher at the progressive Horace Mann School and instructor in children’s literature at Teachers College, Columbia. Her impeccable credentials also included the authorship of several children’s books, most of them published by Louise Seaman Bechtel at Macmillan. It was Bechtel who had first urged Dalgliesh to try her hand at writing for young people and who continued, even after the younger woman took the Scribner job, to play the mentor’s role for her. Neither woman suffered from false modesty, as Dalgliesh’s account of their first encounter confirms. In the exclusive male preserve in which both women operated, absolute self-confidence, or at any rate the appearance of it, seemed a quality worth countenancing in one another:
“As a teacher and a reviewer of children’s books, I felt I knew almost all there was to know about books for small children. I would, I decided, write to the Macmillan editor and give her suggestions. I did—brashly enough. Louise Seaman invited me to tea at her apartment, defended her books ably, charmed me by her personality, and that was the end of that. The beginning for me, however, for she asked me to try out some picture-book manuscripts with the Horace Mann children, notably Helen Sewell’s Blue Barns. Soon I found myself walking into Louise Seaman’s office with The Little Wooden Farmer.”
As the editor at a house with a long history of success in the field, Dalgliesh felt—like Bechtel—she could afford on occasion to experiment. Science fiction became a hallmark of her list. In later years, once Scribner updated its antiquated printing facilities, Dalgliesh made her department a contender in the picture-book arena as well. Among the perennial bestsellers she held in her quiver were the Scribner’s Illustrated Classics series featuring principally the artwork of N.C. Wyeth; the adventure stories by Wyeth’s mentor Howard Pyle; and The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Hans Brinker, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and the 1927 Newbery Medal winner, Smoky by Will James. Smoky had originated on the general trade list under the editorial supervision of Maxwell Perkins, the daring editor best known for having championed the work of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe. In Along Janet’s Road, Dalgliesh offered a thinly veiled portrait of James as the “cowboy writer” who regaled his editor with quaintly homespun illustrated letters. “He had always dealt with men editors, however, and was not a little doubtful about trusting his book to ‘a lady editor.’ ”
On the whole, she had found her inherited Scribner list an “astonishingly masculine” one, not surprising perhaps for a house whose most important authors—the troika of greats in Perkins’s stable—were nearly as renowned for their explosive, bad-boyish behavior as they were for their path-finding work.
A letter from Maxwell Perkins to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, written as the latter was struggling with an early draft of The Yearling, confirms Dalgliesh’s appraisal: “A book about a boy and the life of the scrub is the thing we want.... It is those wonderful river trips, and the hunting, and the dogs and the guns, and the companionship of simple people who care about the same things which were included in South Moon Under [her first novel, published by Scribner in 1933] that we are thinking about.”
Perkins grandly suggested that Rawlings’s new book might take its place beside such acknowledged classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Kipling’s Kim, Davy Crockett’s memoirs, Treasure Island, and Edward Eggleston’s The Hoosier School-Boy: “All of these books are primarily for boys. All of them are read by men, and they are the favorite books of some men. The truth is the best part of a man is a boy.” To which Rawlings replied: “Do you realize how calmly you sit in your office and tell me to write a classic?”
It seems never to have occurred to Perkins to turn the project over to Scribner’s new juvenile editor, and it was perhaps only a matter of circumstance that Perkins, over the course of his career, did not earn a greater portion of his fame as an editor of “boys’ books.” In one important instance, an author’s resistance conspired against such an outcome. Early on in their relationship, Perkins, it seems, had told Hemingway that if he would be willing to delete the occasional obscenity from his work, older boys might read the books by the thousands. Hemingway had declined to make the necessary accommodations; Perkins recounted the episode to Rawlings, who enjoyed salting her own draft manuscripts with expletives, in a sort of cautionary aside that the author heeded.
The Yearling was finally published in 1938. The following year it won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Dalgliesh in the meantime had carved out a place for herself among the Scribner men, building what one assistant would later recall as a “peaceful, profitable outpost.”
In 1940, Houghton Mifflin belatedly established a children’s trade book department comparable to those set up by the major New York houses during the decade following World War I. Houghton was hardly a newcomer to the juvenile field, having published in one or another of its earlier incarnations two of 19th-century America’s legendary children’s magazines, Our Young Folks and the Riverside Magazine, and built up an impressive list of books that included the authorized U.S. edition of the writings of Hans Christian Andersen, and such American classics as Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Lucy Fitch Perkins’s The Dutch Twins.
The firm had always handled children’s books strictly as an adjunct of its longstanding and highly profitable educational publishing division. But by 1940, the rationale for doing so had come to seem increasingly out of step with the specialized nature of juvenile publishing. The decision to elevate the status of the children’s list owed considerably to Houghton’s general trade department manger, Lovell Thompson, who had an intense personal interest in the genre. And it was Thompson saw who tapped Grace Allen Hogarth as founding director of the new department.
Hogarth had made her reputation as director of the juvenile department at New York’s Oxford University Press before marrying an Englishman and moving to London, where she had continued her career as an editor at Chatto & Windus. By early 1940, with children’s book publishing in England to a standstill and with her husband away in the military, Hogarth had decided that the time had come to flee Britain with her children and return to the United States.
Hogarth arrived at Houghton with a thorough knowledge of printing technology, experience as an illustrator and book designer as well as in editorial work, and with a host of industry connections. She easily settled into her new job, choosing to make the best of the dingy workspace assigned to her in Houghton Mifflin’s clublike offices at 2 Park Street, less than a block from Charles Bulfinch’s gold-domed Massachusetts State House and across the way from the graveyard where Elizabeth Goose—by legend the Mother Goose of the old children’s rhymes—was buried. But as no space at 2 Park could be spared, the new editor and her secretary were dispatched to a windowless expanse on an open loft floor in the spillover quarters at number 4, where, as if in a recapitulation of the company’s history in regard to children’s literature, the Education Department was already encamped. “We arrived,” Hogarth later recalled, “with two desks, wastepaper basket, file, and a work table, so arranged that they made me think of the houses of overturned chairs and tables that were the delight of my childhood. We caused a considerable stir and soon discovered that we were to provide a certain amount of colour that had possibly been lacking in the life that went on around us. Eleanor Kilgour, who was then my right-hand woman, seemed to delight in being on the stage to these unacknowledged onlookers. They, of course, had all the windows so that we worked by electric light and were as visible as though illuminated by footlights.”
With a ritual nod to the firm’s past, Hogarth was given the antique desk where, 70 years before, Houghton Mifflin author and Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Bailey Aldrich had penned his classic novel for young people, The Story of a Bad Boy. Now, as she adjusted to the more hectic rhythms and routines of American publishing, Hogarth was astonished at the sheer number of submissions that piled up on a desk too small to accommodate the volume. Working after hours one evening, she remarked casually to the janitor that a stack of rejected manuscripts she had placed on the floor beside her were “trash.” A day or so later, when she could not find the manuscripts and realized that the janitor must have taken her words literally, she and Kilgour just managed to retrieve the missing papers from the basement, where they had already been bagged for transport to a wartime reprocessing plant.
Among the last items of business Hogarth had attended to before sailing for New York had been to contact Hans Augusto Rey, a German Jewish artist whom she had published at Chatto. As Hogarth was aware, Rey and his wife, Margret, who were then living in Paris, intended to leave Europe for the U.S. sometime soon. She won from the Reys the promise of right of first refusal for whatever children’s book manuscripts they brought with them.
Bicycling out of Paris on June 14, 1940, the day the German army of occupation entered the city, the Reys reached the United States via Brazil that October. On settling into temporary quarters in an Upper West Side Manhattan hotel, they wrote Hogarth in Boston, who was indeed anxious to call on them. Concerned that some enterprising New York publisher might see Rey’s portfolio first, Hogarth arranged to meet the couple in Manhattan a short time later. On November 4, following their cordial reunion, the editor wrote Rey to say that she was “setting the stage to get your books accepted…. I shall bend every effort to get the decision through this week.”
In the meantime, she urged the artist, with whom she had discussed plans for some novelty “lift-the-flap” books aimed at very young children, “if you have the time it would be nice for you and Mrs. Rey to look in on Miss Barksdale, who is in charge of the Children’s Books section of the Doubleday Doran book shop next door to Lord and Taylor’s on Fifth Avenue just above 38th Street. She is a good friend of mine and will show you many of the new books which may interest you. Will you ask her to show you especially Pat the Bunny which has a mirror in it?”
A tenacious negotiator on behalf of her mild-mannered husband, Margret Rey demanded, and won, a four-book contract from Houghton Mifflin, an arrangement that would have been highly unusual for the time even had Rey not been a complete unknown to the American market. Two books were planned for the next year, including the one originally called Fifi, which Hogarth, her boss Lovell Thompson, or one of their colleagues wisely renamed Curious George.
Photo: Paul Wilkes.
As the first post—World War I generation of editors and librarians prepared to retire, the younger people who would soon fill their positions began to arrive on the scene. The most notable new editor of the early 1940s had a colorful personal history as the only child of famous vaudeville comedians. Born in Manhattan in 1910 to the aging heartthrob Harry Dixie and the glamorous young Marie Nordstrom, Ursula Nordstrom by the age of seven had also become a child of divorce and an unhappy boarding-school castaway—much like the girl she would later describe in her only published novel for children, The Secret Language. In 1940, as the newly appointed third director of Harper & Brothers' Department of Books for Boys and Girls, Nordstrom brought to the job both her parents' high sense of drama and an acute awareness of the bad breaks that can befall a child.
Nordstrom started at Harper & Brothers in 1936, with a clerical job in the college department. Louise Raymond, the director of the three-person Department of Books for Boys and Girls, took notice of the young woman, and when Raymond’s assistant left, she asked Nordstrom to take the position.
In 1940 when Raymond announced her retirement, Harper’s president responded casually to the news by asking: “Well, do you think your assistant could take over?” Nordstrom recalled the exchange as evidence of the low regard in which Harper’s managers held the “tiny department” that she inherited. “Louise said she was sure I could handle it, and I said to them: ‘I will take the job and be very happy about it, but give me enough rope. If I hang myself, I hang myself.’ ”
Not long afterward, Nordstrom headed for a newsstand to purchase copies of Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie. “I thought, ‘I’d better get some comic books and find out what the children like so much in them.’ ” It did not take the inquiring editor, whose after-hours reading ran the gamut from Shakespeare to Confidential, very long to realize the comics’ appeal. “I got hooked myself,” she recalled years later. “They have strong characters, funny names and a lot of action. Some of the comic strips are very well drawn.”
Nordstrom’s unorthodox outlook—she once summed up her publishing philosophy in the motto “good books for bad children”—would often serve to set her apart from her less venturesome colleagues in both the library and publishing communities. For the next 33 years, Nordstrom published many of the literatures most groundbreaking books and championed the careers of an astonishing roster of authors and illustrators that included Margaret Wise Brown, E.B. White, Ruth Krauss, Crockett Johnson, Meindert DeJong, and a young Brooklyn artist she had met at the F.A.O. Schwarz toy store in the early 1950s named Maurice Sendak.
In February of 1963, from the battle station of her Smith-Corona manual typewriter, Ursula Nordstrom pounded out the sort of delicately worded note she reserved for Harper authors she secretly feared might be about to desert her. Nordstrom had noticed that the prolific, self-starting Maurice Sendak had of late been accepting more than the usual number of projects from other houses in addition to the steady stream of work that Harper offered him. Greatly complicating their relations was the editor's recent decision to engage another artist, Hilary Knight of Eloise fame, to produce a companion work to Sendak's commercially successful Nutshell Library after Sendak himself had declined to follow up with a sequel of his own. Nordstrom wanted nothing more than to concentrate Sendak's efforts on an all-consuming project that would help to repair, and further cement, her relationship with him and with Harper as his creative “home.”
“I was glad to hear the other day, when you were in the office,” Nordstrom began her February 19 note, affecting her breeziest manner, “that you're hoping to write and illustrate your own beautiful picture book next—instead of doing a lot of illustrating for other people. That will be wonderful. You can do something beautiful and I hope you will soon.”
Nordstrom's gentle nudge of encouragement accomplished all that she might have hoped it would. By April Sendak had launched himself on an intensive effort to complete a story that he tentatively called “Where the Wild Horses Are,” with a new draft appearing in his notebook every few days. The first drawings followed in late May, by which time the manuscript was nearing final form.
Fueling the furious pace of creation of a book that traced the trajectory of a small child's rage against his mother was the ongoing, increasingly bitter dispute between Sendak and Nordstrom over the Nutshell Library sequel. Feeling betrayed by his mentor, Sendak that summer bogged down over the last remaining bit of text of the story he now called Where the Wild Things Are. Still missing were the words needed to ease Max out of the story's wordless “rumpus” interlude, words to explain why that brash little boy, or anyone, might choose to leave a place as unfettered and pleasure-driven as Wild Things Island.
As September rolled around, Nordstrom grew increasingly anxious about the chances of fall publication. While assuring the artist that she would, if need be, gladly postpone publication until the following year, she reeled inwardly at the prospect. On September 23, in an ultimately successful bid to ensure a place on the New York Times Book Review's prestigious Ten Best Illustrated Books of the Year awards list, Nordstrom had a mockup of Where the Wild Things Are prepared and dispatched by messenger to the Times' offices.
Then there was the ultimate prize. After five near-misses in the form of Caldecott runners-up, Sendak and Nordstrom once again braced themselves for disappointment. As it happened, both inveterate pessimists were to be robbed that year of the chance to grumble and grouse. Sendak's victory, more than most Caldecott Medal selections, crystallized a reputation and in one stroke transformed the increasingly self-assured and immensely articulate 35-year-old into a public figure.
In 1964, Nordstrom, too, ascended to greater glory on becoming only the second editor (after Margaret K. McElderry) to have published the winners of both medals in the same year. Harper's first Newbery winner, It's Like This, Cat by Emily Cheney Neville, was a novel in the J.D. Salinger mold about preteen upper-middle-class alienation. set against the backdrop of New York City. Nordstrom's double success seemed all the more remarkable to her colleagues for the fact that in the turbulent times in which they lived—the Kennedy assassination had occurred within weeks of the publication of Where the Wild Things Are; American “advisers” were dying in increasing numbers in Vietnam; and the civil rights movement was stirring up a backlash of often horrific violence—it was far from clear where children's literature was headed. Nordstrom, more than anyone, always seemed to know the answer.
When WWII ended, what has since become known as the baby boom began. Certain prescient publishers, seeing big money to be made in children’s books, looked for ways to capitalize. Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House, had been vacationing with his family on Cape Cod during the summer of 1948 when an idea came to him. While at the beach Cerf had asked his son, Christopher, if he realized they were standing within view of the very spot where the Pilgrims had landed more than three hundred years earlier. When the boy replied: “You’re wrong, Dad. They landed at Plymouth Rock,” Cerf suggested that they head over to the local bookstore to settle the question.
The publisher had been right about the Mayflower’s first North American landfall, but what he learned at the bookstore greatly surprised him: that not one first-rate children’s book about the Pilgrims was currently available from any American publisher. “I began thinking about it,” Cerf recalled in his memoir At Random, “and suddenly it struck me that there should be a series of books, each one on some great episode in American history. By the time we left Provincetown, I had made a list of the first 10 titles and had a name for the series: Landmark Books.”
Cerf by then was the proud publisher of Theodor Geisel (one of the “two geniuses,” he boasted, on the Random House list, the other being James Joyce); an admirer of the late French artist Jean de Brunhoff, whose elegant picture books about Babar the Elephant had been published by Random House in the United States since 1934; and the happy beneficiary of the immense popularity of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series. Cerf had never taken much personal interest in children’s books as a genre, however, and had been known at times to heap scorn on “baby books.”
In the beginning, Cerf had left it to his wife Phyllis to attend to whatever juvenile projects came the firm’s way. But in 1936 Cerf appointed a full-time juvenile editor. His choice for the job, Louise Bonino, was a practiced publishing hand. Cerf shelved the scheme for a history series until the following spring, when Bonino reported back to him about a conversation she had just had at the Association for Childhood Education convention. Unbidden, an educator had said: “Why don’t you publish a series of biographies aimed at fifth and sixth graders?” Perhaps, it now seemed to them both, Cerf was on to a timely idea. There followed a period of intensive research. In October 1949, with sample layouts and a list of potential titles in hand, Bonino toured the Midwest to test the material on librarians and “key people in bookstores, department stores, and the schools.”
Only then did Cerf feel ready to embark on the pivotal quest for marquee authors. “I [had] decided,” he later wrote, “not to get authors of children’s books, but the most important authors in the country.” As on so many other occasions, the publisher’s gregarious nature and endless dance card of literary and social connections served the house well. “The keystone of the whole thing,” Cerf recalled in At Random, “was Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who, in addition to being a distinguished novelist, was a noted authority on children and a judge of the Book-of-the-Month Club.... I wanted a book by Mrs. Fisher desperately.” Ignoring the advice of a colleague who was sure the author was far too busy to consider such an offer, Cerf summoned Fisher to lunch. He told her his idea for a series of titles to be called Landmark Books, and then said, “ ‘My dream is, Dorothy, that you would do one of these books for us.’ ” Fisher replied: ‘Do one of these books? You’ve shown me your list of the first 10, and I want to do two of them!’ ”
With Fisher now on board, the roster of Landmark authors quickly filled itself out. By September 1950, all 10 inaugural titles had been commissioned, written, edited, illustrated, and designed and had rolled off the press, each in a huge initial printing of 100,000 copies. Stories about the lightning speed with which Random House had managed to realize the complex project fueled industry anticipation of the risky venture, which Cerf believed had the potential, in terms of its scope and profitability, to become the field’s next Golden Books.
Bonino later recalled a bleary-eyed, end-of-the-day encounter with Cerf just before the official series launch date. Booksellers had responded enthusiastically to the series, and the first warehouse load of Landmark Books had already shipped to stores. Having come through the whirlwind of the last 18 months together, both publishing veterans were feeling guardedly optimistic: “Well,” Cerf said, cracking his familiar corncob grin, “we’ll soon know whether our gamble paid off.” Pay off it did, so rapidly and on a scale so extravagant that Bonino later likened the outcome to a “fairy tale.” Soon and for years to come, Landmark Books were among the gifts of choice for gradeschoolers’ birthday presents. And with writers on the list such as Quentin Reynolds, William Shirer and Bruce Bliven, Jr., the series helped set a new standard of excellence for children’s nonfiction.