The very beginning of children’s literature was based on a need for instruction, not just in reading, though of course that was a great thing to achieve, but for turning out a person of high morals and sound character. Early examples of Good Books for Children are, to my way of thinking, the very best of adults sermonizing. Even my beloved Louisa May, who gave us Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom (and that other book Little Women) can never stop herself from holding forth on the dangers to a young person’s character that come with reading popular books instead of “sweet, simple, wholesome tales.” However, dime novels flourished, French novels (le gasp!) were translated into English and children’s publishing moved forward, leapfrogging from sweet and simple to the here and now concepts pushed forward by writers such as Margaret Wise Brown. From there it gets worse. Shel Silverstein not only contributed to Playboy but also created witty, adult-undermining poetry and pictures for sly ten year olds. Maurice Sendak explored the terrifying emotional landscape of a small boy in Where the Wild Things Are (but remember at the end, Max’s dinner was still hot) and drew a naked kid in In the Night Kitchen. Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy was not a “nice” little girl, and M E Kerr and Robert Cormier were downright depressing and sometimes really mean. Captain Underpants was too much potty humor and in Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet not only does Alanna make a space for herself as a knight in a world that would deny women quite a lot, she also takes three different lovers over the course of the four books. Clutch the pearls, mama, how can that be?
To trace some of this evolution, including the “invention” of young adult literature, one must read Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. I know, I’ve mentioned her before, as well as Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard Marcus, but truly, this bears repeating. Nordstrom’s letters to her authors are whip smart, coy, cajoling and have lots of teeth. She begged for manuscripts from difficult authors, she took chances, sometimes staking her career on something in particular and she made mistakes, which she openly confesses. You could read it in one setting but I wouldn’t. Read a few letters at a time and savor them. She wrote as well as any one of her Dear Geniuses.