The National Book Critics Circle or Was Lillian Gerhardt Right?
As some of you know I am currently in the process of co-writing a book for Candlewick about the true stories that lurk behind your favorite children’s books and their creators. My two co-authors (Jules Danielson from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and Peter Sieruta from Collecting Children’s Books) and I have been doing painstaking research over the year, determining what tales are true, which ones are false, and which ones are true but we can’t use them until certain parties quit this sweet green earth for the choir invisible.
In the course of my most recent research I decided I wanted to get at the truth behind a story that has circulated amongst the children’s literary enthusiasts for a number of years but that I’ve never seen recorded for posterity. Mainly: Did the editor of School Library Journal really threaten to hit the editor of Horn Book Magazine over the head with a chair?
Short Answer: Yes.
Long Answer: Yes, but she had a sense of humor about it.
You see, if you’re ever able to get your grubby little paws on Robert Bator’s Signposts to Criticism of Children’s Literature (and full credit to Peter for discovering it in the first place) you can see the epistolary exchange between two editorial heavyweights, Lillian N. Gerhardt (the chair-er) and Ethel Heins (the chair-ee). Essentially what it boils down to is that Lillian wrote an editorial in SLJ about how children’s books have failed to become part of the mainstream of American literature. Heins wrote her own editorial disagreeing, and it just sort of got more and more heated from there until Gerhardt ended up finishing off one piece with, “On second thought, I may fly up to Boston and hit you over the head with a chair after all.” This, I should note, after mentioning earlier that when she was a child it was her preferred method of convincing her Kindergarten playmates that she was correct. She notes that it did often get her in trouble.
Those were the days, eh? When strong personalities could invoke World Wide Wrestling Federation techniques (nowadays it’s referred to as the Steel Chair) in the heat of their passion about books.
Let’s stop a moment, though, and see whether or not Gerhardt’s argument bears any significant merit today. Essentially she was arguing that children’s books (and she was lumping YA in there since this was 1974 and all) are influenced by adult literature but it never goes the other way around. Moreover, when children’s books do adapt to some cool adult technique (episodic novels, first-person narration, unresolved plots, etc.) it’s 20 years after adult literature has already blazed a path. “The Mainstreamers would be hard pressed to name one, let alone two, children’s books that ever turned around writing for adults.”
FYI: We won’t get into the whole is-Catcher-In-the-Rye-for-teens-or-adults debate since that’s an entirely different post right there.
When Heins responded to Gerhardt she pointed out that it was always the goal of folks like Anne Carroll Moore and Bertha Mahony Miller to tie in children’s books to the general literature at large. After all, they were making a case for tending them in the first place. But Heins concluded that the adult novel in the 20th century was relatively weak, hence authors like Isaac Bashevis Singer making their way over to the children’s side of things.
After that Gerhardt got a little nasty. I’ll avoid the oh-no-she-didn’t moments (gotta make you want to read this upcoming Candlewick book somehow, right?) but here’s the interesting part as I see it. Gerhardt says that children’s literature is clearly not a part of the mainstream since “it is still doubtful that the new sponsors of the National Book Awards will agree to restore the award in the category of children’s books.” We know today that they did indeed restore that category though I admit to being a little baffled. If Gerhardt’s letter was written in September of 1975, then the editor was raising the alarm far too early. It wasn’t until 1984 that children’s books were stricken from the National Book Awards, and not until 1996 that they were restored.
Gerhardt follows up the National Book Award scare with, “And then, please consider the implications of the actions of the newly established National Book Critics Circle. At its first general membership meeting last spring, its board of directors announced that the National Book Critics Circle would select the best essays on literary criticism each year and publish them in an anthology . . . Now, grab for one of your horns, Ethel – essays on the criticism of children’s books were specifically excluded!”
As I read this I figured it must have been another outdated statement. Surely children’s books were no longer specifically singled out as “beyond the pale”, as Gerhardt puts it, in critical literary circles. So I visited the National Book Critics Circle FAQ section and discovered the section on What books are eligible for the award? And I quote:
“We grant awards in six categories: Autobiography, Biography, Criticism, Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry. The nonfiction category is perhaps the most complicated: We do not give awards for titles that have been previously published in English (re-issues, paperback editions, etc.), and we generally do not consider cookbooks, self help books (including inspirational literature), reference books, picture books or children’s books. But we do consider translations, short story and essay collections, self published books, and any titles that fall under the general categories above.”
A couple rereadings later I see that children’s books are today only specifically mentioned in the context of nonfiction. After all, did not Seth Lerer’s Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter win in the Criticism category in 2009? That said, there is no specific children’s book category. It seems that insofar as you critique children’s books, you are allowed to be recognized by the National Book Critics Circle, but heaven forefend if you write a book for children specifically.
To get back to my point, though, was Lillian Gerhardt right when she said that children’s literature was not adequately appreciated by the literary mainstream? Since the time of her writing we have seen the rise of the children’s book phenomenon on a scope not seen since the days of Oz. Harry Potter, Twilight, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, ALL of these have changed the very face of literature as a whole. Or are they simply blockbuster bestsellers without any cache apart from the money they make?
Food for thought for your Thursday.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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