December 2012 | Rebecca Rego Barry

One Hundred Famous Children's Books, Vol. 3

This is 'volume three' in a series of posts following the progress of the upcoming Grolier Club exhibition on children's literature. In previous posts, we have discussed how the project got started and how the Club's list compared to the Library of Congress' Books That Shaped America list. Today, I'm posting a Q&A between the curator, Chris Loker, and I, in which we focus on the genre of picture books and how they fit into the overall exhibition. She also shares some neat news about a never-before-seen manuscript from the author of the classic Goodnight Moon that will be printed next year by Ken Shure of Two Ponds Press.
RRB: I suspect that when most people hear the phrase "children's books," they think of the picture book. Tell us about how your exhibition will deal with the picture book genre.
CL: The picture book genre is one of the most exciting and colorful parts of One Hundred Books Famous in Children's Literature, the Grolier Club's 2014 children's book exhibition. Of the 100 famous books in the show, nearly 20 are considered picture books. The traditional children's picture book generally has an emphasis on illustration over text, and typically is presented in the "few words, more pictures" format of 24 to 32 pages.

As you know, Rebecca, I'm trying to keep the list of books in the Grolier exhibition close to the vest. But I'll select one wonderful picture book from the list to talk about with you today ~ the famous Goodnight Moon, written by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd.
Goodnightmoon.jpgRRB: I'm so glad to hear that Goodnight Moon made the list! If I were to pick one  "peerless" book for younger children, that would be it. Why is it important historically?
CL: Historically, the seeds of the picture book were sown in England in the late 19th century by exceptional illustrators such as Walter Crane and Randolph Caldecott (after whom the Caldecott Medal for most distinguished picture book is named.) But the picture book as we know it today began to flourish in the United States in the 1920's ~ some say with the publication of Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag in 1928. The following 30 years are often considered "the Golden Age of the American picture book," and Goodnight Moon, published in 1947, is firmly of this era.

Wanda_Gag_Millions_of_Cats-book_cover.jpgGoodnight Moon is important because, at the time of its publication, it offered something new ~ a child-centered "here and now" story based on the realistic world of a child, rather than a fairy tale about a make-believe world of fantasy characters. Specifically, Goodnight Moon provided toddlers and young children with an every-day ritual for a pivotal, and sometimes challenging, part of childhood ~ going to sleep. The bunny in the story simply says goodnight to many of the physical objects in his bedroom, and in so doing he (as well as the child) slowly becomes ready and willing to go to sleep.

Well known literary critic (and FB&C contributor) Leonard Marcus, who is also the biographer of Margaret Wise Brown (Awakened by the Moon), writes in his entertaining 2010 article, "Over the Moon ~ An Imaginary Interview with Margaret Wise Brown," that when working with very young children, Brown believed in the importance of "drawing them into the story by....rhythms and repetitions." We know today that rhythm and repetition, coupled with enjoyment, are key elements for young children when starting to learn and retain information.

Goodnight Moon's illustrations are filled with quiet but complex details for the observant (and not yet sleepy!) child, while its text offers gentle "rhythms and repetitions" that move the child toward calmness, and finally drowsiness. As the light in the bunny's bedroom slowly grows dimmer from page to page, the child's energy wanes, bringing him slowly to the edge of slumber. Besides being continuously in print since its publication, and published in six different languages in both traditional oblong folio and board book formats, Goodnight Moon is a landmark commercial and cultural success, having sold over eight million copies and inspired many film, television, musical and theatrical adaptations. It also has inspired a number of parodies, including the humorous Goodnight iPad, published in 2011 by Ann Droyd (the entertaining pseudonym of writer and illustrator David Milgrim.)
RRB: Tell me about Margaret Wise Brown's other work.
CL: Margaret Wise Brown was a prolific author who wrote dozens of children's books besides Goodnight Moon, including the famous The Runaway Bunny, published in 1942 (and slyly pictured on several pages of the later published Goodnight Moon). As well as a successful author, Brown also was a children's book editor, a progressive proponent of children's education as part of the Bank Street School of Education, and a social denizen of upper East Side New York and Vinalhaven, Maine. Often called "Brownie" by children and friends, she had a creative drive that brought so many books and poems into the world that she used a variety of literary aliases to publish her work; aliases like Golden MacDonald, Juniper Sage, Kaintuck Brown, and Timothy Hay. In addition to writing under her own and adopted names, Brown wrote a number of uncredited stories that were published in the then-emerging Little Golden Books series, at that time loosely connected with the Bank Street School of Education and now a publishing legend in American children's literature.

Happily, Brown's long list of published titles will be expanded in 2013, when a never-before-seen manuscript will be published as a fine artist's book. The story, called The Little River, will be printed by Ken Shure, founder of Two Ponds Press, located in Camden, Maine, and dedicated to fine art press printing. Artist Michael Kuch has illustrated this unseen Brown manuscript in 22 soft ground color etchings that incorporate botanical and found materials. The book has the same simple yet lyrical wording as Goodnight Moon, and tells the story of how a small spring of fresh water, flowing up from the ground in the mountains, ultimately becomes a powerful river that surges its way to the sea.
RRB: What other genres will the Grolier exhibition cover?
CL: One Hundred Books Famous in Children's Literature will present many other wonderful literary genres. Besides the iconic children's picture book genre that we've been talking about, the exhibition will showcase books that are categorized thematically as fairy tales, nursery rhymes, poetry, books of education and piety, fantasy books, adventure books, illustrated books, controversial books, and books of legendary cultural influence, to name just a few. It's such an exciting line up of books ~ we believe the genres presented will have visual and scholarly appeal for just about every viewer. We are exceptionally enthusiastic about how the exhibition is shaping up.

Rebecca, you and I started our conversation today focusing on the picture book. One of the things that excites me most about the Grolier Club's children's book exhibition is the number of iconic picture books that it will present. As you may know, there was an article in the New York Times in 2010 called "Picture Books No Longer A Staple for Children," which more or less suggested the death of the picture book. I'm happy to say that this exhibition will remind viewers about the enduring magic of the picture book, and will show that children still respond in heartfelt measure to picture books of great literary and artistic merit.
The exhibit is scheduled to open in December of 2014. We'll be following along till then, checking back in with Chris every now and again to watch this major exhibition and catalogue take shape.