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Leonard Marcus

May 4 2012

Dear Genius

by Patricia D

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.

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Dec 2 2011

Are you on the same page?

by Patricia D

We are.  We’re laughing our way through Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth at my house in preparation of meeting the author a week from Friday at the final event of the On the Same Page campaign, sponsored by Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, the Decatur Book Festival, the DeKalb Rotary and the Decatur Education Foundation.

We’re a little late to the game because my childhood copy of the Tollbooth, which survived two camping trips, a great Dane, and my brothers,  is stashed in my parents’ attic.  We had to wait for our copy from the library, but it’s been worth the wait.  It’s great fun to visit with Milo and Tock again.  The things I loved as a child are hilarious to me as an adult and I now have the added bonus of shushing Junior’s giggles as we read.  The word play mostly goes over her head but there’s a good solid story under the silliness, plenty of slapstick and Jules Feiffer’s amazing illustrations.   Nothing sounds better to me (and is accompanied by Puss-in-Boots eyes)  than, “Please, Mama, just one more chapter?”  I almost never say no, hoping that I am nurturing a love of reading and not just aiding and abetting in prolonging bedtime.

There is a 50th anniversary edition now out, but what has me twitching with excitement is the Annotated Phantom Tollbooth.  Leonard Marcus based his comments on interviews with Juster and careful perusal of early drafts.  He takes the story to a whole new level,  giving incredible insight into the process of creating and showing the goofy everyday stuff that happens along the way.  If you ever said, “I’m going to write a children’s book, how hard could it be?” you need to read this book.  It will give you perspective and (I hope) a great deal of respect for children’s authors.

Leonard Marcus is a rock star in his field and if you are a children’s literature geek like me you must, must, must read not only Dear Genius: the Letters of Ursula Nordstrom but also The Minders of Make-Believe.   Genius is not a sit down and read in one setting kind of book, it’s more for dipping into during those random moments when you need something to read but don’t have a lot of time, say, before bedtime.   Ms. Nordstrom was a mover and shaker in children’s publishing during the heyday of the four martini business lunch and an inveterate letter writer who, lucky for us, kept copies of every letter she wrote.  She had a lot to say about a lot of things, including sniping at Anne Carroll Moore, Queen of Children’s Services for the New York Public Library  and praising the Library Services and Construction Act (LSCA) which provided monies to public libraries for books.  Minders of Make-Believe is a solid and entertaining history of children’s publishing in the United States and the scholarship is impeccable.   Of course these aren’t the only two books we’ve got by Mr. Marcus, but they are two of my favorites.  Look him up and give the others a try as well.

Mr. Marcus will be interviewing Mr. Juster on stage at Agnes Scott on Friday, December 9.  If you’ve been lucky enough to get a ticket perhaps I’ll see you there.

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