This week marks the centennial celebration of Children’s Book Week, the nation’s longest running literacy initiative. Spearheaded by the Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader, Book Week will be commemorated in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, with more than 5,000 events at 1,300 participating schools, libraries, and bookstores. We spoke with historian Leonard S. Marcus, author of 100 Years of Children’s Book Week Posters, about the history and evolution of Book Week, and its impact on the children’s publishing landscape.
In your introduction, you situate the creation of Children’s Book Week against the social and political backdrop of the turn of the 20th century. What was the impetus for the launch of the literacy initiative in 1919?
The U.S. was becoming an important industrial and military power in the world, and there was this feeling that the country should also become a cultural leader. Literature was seen as a key to achieving that goal. The library world organized itself to provide books for children, and librarians became the guides for the publishing industry as publishers began to seek out writers and artists. Book Week was part of the bigger effort to not only bring books to children but to make sure that their parents knew about them.
Can you recount how the “three Ms”—Franklin Mathiews, Frederic Melcher, and Anne Carroll Moore—came together from different areas of the children’s book industry to pioneer Book Week?
Mathiews had begun focusing through his work [as staff librarian] for the Boy Scouts of America on literacy, issuing annual lists of best books, but always in the boundaries of that organization—which was only a few years old in 1919. He saw an annual event like Book Week as a way to galvanize public interest. It was really an enlargement of an idea that Mathiews had already had within his own organization.
While attending the ALA conventions, Mathiews and Melcher would have met up early on and seen they had interests and goals in common. Melcher was [the editor-in-chief] of Publishers’ Weekly, and he’d been a bookseller before that. He always had a special interest in children’s books. Melcher was interested in reaching all children. He was a visionary. He understood that children’s books were culturally important for the future of society and he attributed great value to them, even at a time when many publishers thought they were mysterious and of little importance. He urged publishers to take children’s literature seriously. He understood that it wasn’t enough to publish good books; you also had to bring the community in—parents and civic leaders committed to the work of literacy.
It was natural for Melcher to know and to contact for this purpose Anne Carroll Moore, because she was the first head of children’s services at the New York Public Library, which was located at the epicenter of the book publishing world in America. She was taking a leading role in attempting to influence publishers in terms of their standards for children’s books, and she was also already engaged in book reviewing and other activities that helped to make the good books that were coming along better known to the world. She was also a visionary, always thinking of new ways to enlarge the field of children’s literature and raise its standards. She and Melcher were natural allies.
What were some of the challenges the founders faced in establishing and promoting the celebration?
Publishers in America were only beginning to focus on children’s literature in 1919. That was the year that Louise Seaman was hired at Macmillan to head its new children’s book department [the first in the country]. It was a department of two people, she and her secretary. And even for Seaman, it was a part-time job, because she was still required to write publicity materials for Macmillan’s adult books. The culture of publishing was not all that favorable to an expansion of activity within the children’s book world. A lot of the books that were then available were very commercial in nature; they were potboiler series fiction. So, people had good reason not to take children’s literature that seriously.
The “Three Ms” and the people around them represented a big change in American attitudes. They were trying to make the point that children’s books could have literary and artistic merit, and they could be formative influences in the lives of entire generations of children. That notion had yet to become widely accepted.
How, then, did Book Week help shape the country’s attitudes toward young people’s literature and support the growth of the children’s industry?
It became a rallying point. In November every year, in the run-up to the holiday gift-giving season, communities would have programs. Churches, synagogues, garden clubs, and Elks Clubs, all these organizations would invite librarians, publishers, or writers and illustrators to come and speak, and that message would filter out into the community. In theory, more parents would become committed to the idea that it’s important to read to their young children and to have books at home for them to learn from and enjoy.
I think it had some impact; it’s very hard to measure how much. It seems that at a certain point, maybe 10 or 15 years into Book Week, the emphasis shifted away from getting parents directly involved and toward reaching teachers and librarians, allowing some of the experts to do the work of spreading the word about books and literacy.
The first official Book Week poster was designed by the artist Jessie Willcox Smith. What does her illustration suggest about that time period and its values?
It suggests that children’s books were for middle class white children. The publishing industry was populated entirely by white people. Soon there would be some African-American librarians. The library world became integrated long before the publishing world did. Even then, it didn’t have a huge impact on what was published or for whom. It’s true that the libraries saw their mission as serving everyone. The libraries were free and open to all; they had no requirements for access to services. The librarians were tuned in much earlier than publishers to the fact that in the big American cities there were immigrants, including many poor people, from Europe and also African-American children and their families who had come north from southern states during the Great Migration later on, in the ’30s and ’40s.
Beyond that, the poster indicated, or was meant to indicate, that it was a good thing for families to have home libraries for their children. In 1919, there weren’t very many bookstores in America, certainly if you didn’t live in a big city. You could perhaps order some children’s books from the Sears, Roebuck catalogue, but it was not that easy to have a home library. The [Andrew] Carnegie gift consisted of more than 1,600 public libraries that were built from the 1880s into the early 1900s all across America, including in some relatively small towns and cities. That increased the access for millions of children to quality children’s books—the ones the librarians were promoting. But part of the Book Week idea was that if you really wanted children to love books, the ideal situation would be for them to have some they could call their own and look at over and over again in their leisure.
Also, Jessie Willcox Smith was well-known to middle class white women for her covers for Good Housekeeping magazine, which was one of the premier service magazines of its day with advice for young mothers. They would have seen the Book Week project as an extension of the values and activities and practices that were recommended by Good Housekeeping.
How do you think the centennial poster by Yuyi Morales and this year’s slogan, “Read Now. Read Forever,” speak to our current moment and the evolution of Book Week?
The world has changed so much in these 100 years. The American publishing industry embraced children’s literature in a big way during that time at some of the major houses. Today, the children’s books are what keep the company going. That’s one change. Another is that whereas up until about the ’70s, libraries were the major market for children’s books, the business has opened up quite a bit to the retail side. And now, you may have two generations of parents who have gone to college and learned about the importance of books in their own lives, and are very focused on providing books for their children at home. To that extent, the original goal of Book Week has been achieved.
The other change is that it’s no longer an all-white literature. That’s been a big struggle, and it does feel as if some progress is being made now. There were waves of effort to make progress, going back to 1920, when the Brownies’ Book magazine published by the NAACP [the first magazine published for African-American youth] debuted; it only lasted two years. And every 20 years or so, there was another attempt by some members of the publishing community to produce books for children of color and children of minority groups. But, speaking of the country as a national market, America wasn’t really very receptive to that at the time. Sad to say, the values of this country weren’t in line with that goal. Now I think what’s happening is there’s a systemic change, and it’s not just in the books that are being published, but also in who’s publishing the books, and at least the industry is a lot more aware that it needs to be more integrated and diverse. So Yuyi Morales’s poster, among other things, is an expression of that change. To have an artist who comes from Mexico making a poster for Book Week in the U.S. is a pretty big statement.
What do you think has allowed for the longevity of Children’s Book Week?
Book Week was part of a system that was set up after the First World War. You had the specialized editorial department that started with Macmillan and proliferated during the ’20s, suffered a setback during the Great Depression, but then recouped during the baby boom. Publishing became committed to children’s books during those years. The awards system was part of this larger growth, with the Newbery starting in the ’20s and the Caldecott starting in the ’30s and other awards that came afterwards. They became ways of highlighting the best books in the librarians’ eyes. The awards also became incentives for writers and artists to become involved in the field, adding momentum.
Then in the 1920s, the Horn Book started as a review journal, which provided an opportunity for people to think in serious ways about the criteria for children’s books, and also to spread the word about the ones that the editors felt were the best. Book Week was part of all of this, putting a spotlight on the public and attempting to bring everyone into the discussion.
There was a period, I believe in the 1940s and ’50s, when major cities would have a book festival tied to Children’s Book Week, usually held at a museum in town—in New York, it was the Museum of Natural History—with the major newspaper as a partner. They would invite authors and illustrators in, and it would be a chance for publishers to show off the new books people might want to buy for the upcoming holidays. Thousands of people would stream in for two or three days and learn about children’s books.
All of these elements of the system worked well together. Had these other aspects of the industry not existed, Book Week probably would have died an early death, but it fit in very well with the other efforts the professional side of the book world was making.
You write in your new book that this collection of posters provides “insight into children’s literature’s role in our national culture.” Looking ahead, what are some of your predictions for the future state of children’s books and literacy?
I think that books for children are going to continue to flourish in physical form and probably in other forms, too. Recent predicts in the last 10 years that digital publishing would take over were wrong. People love physical books, and children are tactile creatures, not just little children: teen girls wanted Twilight in hardcover because it meant so much to them and they wanted to have it on their shelves. Books for young people are an important part of children’s lives. That’s a well-established fact now, which publishers will build on for the future.
I also think the diversity movement has reached a critical mass, and we will see a more diverse population within the publishing industry, which already exists in the library world. And that will lead to an enrichment of the literature.
Because the illustration and writing of children’s books have risen in status in the cultural world as a whole, I believe we’ll see more examples of the very best artists and writers making books for young people. Of course, there’s been some of that already: people working in some other aspect of art or literature coming into the field. What I imagine will continue to happen is that these individuals who maybe started out as painters or sculptors, or poets or novelists for the adult world, will appreciate that this is a real art form that calls for their deepest attention.
100 Years of Children’s Book Week Posters by Leonard S. Marcus. Knopf, $35 Mar. ISBN 978-0-525-64508-5