The Quintessential Librarian Stereotype: Wrestling With the Legacy of Anne Carroll Moore
Man, I’ve been a real grump this year. Seriously, you need to steer clear of me. One minute I’m sulking over the improper placement on knitting needles in children’s picture books (I wish I could say that I’m kidding, but I’m starting to keep a tally sheet on them). The next minute I’m harrumphing about fake dialogue in works of picture book nonfiction. But where I am by far the worst, without a smidgen of a doubt, is with books that are set at New York Public Library. And this year I’ve seen an unprecedented number of them published. That means that one minute I’m grumbling about the fact that a book says the Colored Orphan Asylum was located where the Schwarzman Building stands today (it wasn’t), while the next I’m kvetching over the interior images of individual branches and the fact that a drawing of Pura Belpre’s hand puppets of Perez y Martina fame look nothing like the originals. Oh, I’m a mess. You do not want to be sending me any books with Patience and Fortitude in them right now. I will be the only person in the world who points out that there is no bathroom on the ground level of the Schwarzman Building, so putting that in a book tips the scales. Insane, right?
So I was already doing this when into my lap fell Mac Barnett’s first picture book biography, The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown. I read it. I found what I thought was a flaw and told the publisher so. They then, in what has to be the nicest correction of my life, gently showed me how Mac went above and beyond the call of duty with research and, in fact, it was my so-called know-how about the library and history that was in error.
Humbled, I looked at the book again. And looked. And puzzled and puzzed a bit because I came to realize something. Something I’ve sort of been avoiding for years now.
Folks, it’s time to have a reckoning when it comes to Anne Carroll Moore.
A bit of background. ACM (as the editor Ursula Nordstrom, who would have killed on Twitter, called her – not out of affection) was one of the first women to head up children’s collections in a major library system in the United States. She came to prominence just after an era when children weren’t allowed in libraries at all. Have you ever been to the main location of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza? They have an entirely separate side door for the children’s room there. They sort of did at the Schwarzman Building as well, off of 42nd Street. And while working for NYPL, ACM oversaw the children’s rooms and the children’s librarians of that system for decades. Now because this was in the early days of children’s book publishing, she was able to exert quite a bit of sway over the publishing industry and what was considered a good book for kids. For instance, she was a big fan of international children’s literature. With waves of immigrants coming into NYC she wanted to have books for kids in their native languages. Obviously this was with the hope that they would assimilate into the rest of the nation, but she was responsible for the loads and loads of foreign language children’s books that reside to this day in the NYPL collections.
And she was a bit odd. When I was researching Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature with my co-writers Julie Danielson and Peter Sieruta I decided to get to the bottom of a lot of those rumors surrounding ACM.
- Did she actually have a stamp that said, “Not Approved By Expert” that she used on books she didn’t like?
Absolutely. So, naturally, I wanted to find one of those books with the stamp inside, or the stamp itself. Neither was forthcoming, but I hold out hope that there’s one out there somewhere. My plan is to someday turn it into a t-shirt. Or a Twitter banner. Think big, Betsy!
- Did she call the books she didn’t like “truck”?
Yep. Definitely. For example, apparently the Pat the Bunny folks came in one day to show her their wares. She was appalled. She found the line between “toy” and “book” to be too thin where they were concerned. So she called ’em “truck”.
- Did she have a creepy little wooden doll named Nicholas that she carried everywhere?
Did she! Not only did she have that doll, she wrote books where he was the hero. Several of them, in fact. An older editor once told me a story about how ACM refused to stock the Laura Ingalls Wilder books (sorry, folks, it wasn’t because of the portrayal of the indigenous people but because the Little House books were part of a series and that was a no-no) in the library and kept talking to her doll instead of the books’ editor to show her disgust with them. The original Nicholas, by the way, was lost in a taxi cab once. I was able to find a photograph of his replacement, but it never made it into Wild Things. If, however, you’d like to see what may well be the only candid photo of ACM in her later years, taken on the street, somehow or other Peter managed to post it onto his blog back in 2008.
Which brings us to Barnett’s book. The simple fact of the matter, and I’ve mentioned this on my blog before, is that ACM is most interesting when she is played as a villain. In The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown she is strategically placed as the polar opposite of MWB. Margaret bought a flower cart’s worth of flowers when she sold her first book. ACM forced children to talk to a little wooden doll. Margaret had a tea party on the library’s steps when they wouldn’t let her into an event. ACM thought she knew what was best and kept books like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Stuart Little off of library shelves. She had her bun in her hair, she most certainly said “shush” and had comfortable shoes, and she often proves irresistible to writers who like to play up her eccentricities. When we were writing Wild Things, I actually had to edit out a lot of the ACM stuff we originally put in, it was just too mean.
Folks, I’ve been defending ACM for years, no lie. It’s funny. In her day she was the most powerful woman influencing children’s literature. Now it feels like she’s the scapegoat of everything people perceive as wrong with certain powerful women from that era. Contrary to popular opinion, she wasn’t wrong about all the books out there. Yes, she preferred fantasy over reality, and her taste could be questionable. But some of the books she liked were swell. She was very good friends with Beatrix Potter (I once had fun transcribing Potter’s hand-written letters to ACM during the height of WWII) and loved Peter Rabbit. She wanted the Caldecott to be called the “Brooke” after Leslie L. Brooke (Johnny Crow’s Garden is a really fun book, though it’s all but forgotten today). She fought for children’s libraries to be established in every single branch of NYPL. The programming of storytimes and storytelling were set in stone thanks to her. She did annual celebrations of the favorite children’s books of the year. There were guest books at NYPL filled with incredibly fun illustrations by the artists that visited these events. When she had a birthday party, she donated the art she received to the library’s files for posterity. And she even kept a trunk of all of Nicholas’s “gifts”. Artists would hand craft teeny tiny accessories for him. This trunk still exists and is owned by a woman who was named after ACM. It’s incredible. The smallest possible accoutrements, all tucked into a single small trunk.
But . . . . ACM’s legacy hasn’t aged well. She really could be hurtful and difficult and it’s high time I acknowledge that fact. I can’t blame Mac for making her the baddie in his book. Who better to stand in opposition to Brown? Brown was like the Amélie of children’s literature. She literally died doing the can-can. Who can compete with that?
The thing to remember is that ACM helped to make the field of children’s librarianship an important entity in the lives of children. Because of her work, children’s librarians today aren’t considered to be helping “lesser” patrons of any sort. ACM truly believed that children not only belonged in the library but that their books deserved worth and respect because their readers deserved worth and respect.
This past weekend I attended the Center for Teaching Through Children’s Book’s children’s book institute Question, Disrupt, Transform: Challenging the Use of Literary Classics PreK Through YA. One of the speakers Cornelius Minor, educator and author, was talking about what happens in a classroom when a teacher sets itself up as the all-powerful, all-knowing, expert that cannot be trifled with or challenged. As Cornelius put it, simple physics teaches us that when all the power is concentrated in one area, there must be something to balance it out. That’s why you get misbehaving kids. If the teacher fails to share their power in some way, they set themselves up for a fall. ACM never felt it necessary to share her power, and the authors of today are balancing it out for her. In books like Barnett’s. In articles about Stuart Little. And I can rail against it, or I can acknowledge fault. ACM did some great things, but this era is not her era, and it hasn’t been for a while. As we move forward, let’s tip our hat to what she did right, acknowledge what she did wrong, and work to help promote, help, and support the new generation of children’s librarians out there that are facing 21st century challenges, the like of which the world has never seen before.
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