Monday, July 21, 2008

The Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard S. Marcus

I work in a library, and I only rarely wonder how any book makes it to the shelf. Last year, I read a book about books and why children read them where the author wonders why children no longer find reading "fun" any more, then comes to the conclusion that too many of the required reading books are less about escapism... the kind of things the author herself read when she was a child and which she looks back on fondly, and more about characters with problems. And not solving the problems, but dealing with the problems of being a teen in the modern world.

She made the point that these depressing sorts of stories are not ones that teens find interesting to read. Or perhaps because they are required to read them, what could have been an enjoyable experience for some becomes instead a chore. And it begs the question: How are children's books selected? What goes into the making of a book list. How did books for children even come about?

"The Minders of Make-Believe" answers all these questions, tracking children's books from the first days of the Puritans in this country, who believed any books of fiction were, in point of fact, lies and therefore the works of Satan, to the time when parents decided that Children needed edifying stories and works to guide them into being "proper" adults who grew up to become not only a credit to their family, but to their country as well.

Then, the struggle between houses that published books mainly for schools and libraries and those that published books for the home. It details how, although men usually controlled the adult books realm of publishing, women ended up in control of the Juvenile, or Children's book lines. partly from the belief that women knew best what children wanted and were interested in (as they were usually mothers), but also from pragmatism: most book publishers were not truly interested in publishing works for children at first, and women could be paid less than a man for the same sort of position.

The struggles these female editors went through to find truly excellent and engaging books for children make up the bulk of the book, along the the stories of the Newberry and Caldecott medals for Children's books. Later, in the 1960s and 70's the scandals and tempests that covered the world of children's books, mainly, the charge that most books depicted white protagonists, leaving children of color or other ethnicities out of the picture created a tempest in the publishing world, along with the slow replacement of female editors by males for the same positions, and the downturn in book sales that have replaced small or large publishing houses with huge conglomerates that seem to care more about the bottom line than crafting beautiful, well-beloved books for children.

The last chapter shows that these huge companies can still be outdone by the children's enthusiasm for books they love. In short, the Harry Potter story trumps all stories of corporately-produced books, raised to success by the love of children worldwide, so, while the companies may think they know everything about kids by the years of experience on their side, in the end, the kids are the ones who really control the market. Not parents, librarians or educators. The children, and that is really as it should be.

As an explanation of the reasoning behind the modern and even past publishing of children's books, "The Minders of Make-Believe" really excels. But it is also a history of children's book publishing in America, and some related stories are brought in from Britain, too. The amount of interesting and previously unknown facts, like how the McCarthy Era affected the publishing of various children's books, such as a book called "The Two Reds", about a red-headed boy and his ginger-colored cat, are profiled.

This book could have been told in a dead, dry manner that would put off any sane reader. But instead, it manages to be fascinating as well as informative, full of insights on both the publishing world and children's books and the personalities behind both as well, from Ezra Keats to Robert Cormier. This is a treasure-trove of facts and history that anyone interested in the publishing of books, or the history of children's fiction and non-fiction, will find invaluable. A stellar read.

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