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Remembering Children’s Books of Yesteryear during National Library Week

April 17, 2014
The Pratt Library as seen on a vintage postcard from around 1933.

The Pratt Library as seen on a vintage postcard from around 1933.

Feeling rebellious over our dizzying speed-mad era of e-books, e-readers, digital and virtual realities, I want to advocate for the practice of borrowing a good old-fashioned book from the library—especially now, during National Library Week. I want to remind everyone of the simple joy of settling down in a cozy nook, turning well-worn pages, and reading aloud to a child.

To read a book we once loved as a child to a child today is like soldering silver chains between the generations. Why silver? Because silver is just as beautiful as gold, but if you want to see it gleam, you must polish it. Besides, it is not intergenerational bonds alone that are being polished when you do this but links between actual childhoods. To read a book you once loved is to connect a 21st century child with worlds gone by. Recall how milk was delivered in clanking metal cans or later in bowling pin-shaped bottles of stamped glass with wired paper tops; how dresses with scratchy layers of tulle crinoline had to be pulled over little girls’ cringing heads; how children hid with pounding hearts behind parterre drapes when the dreaded tutor or sitter arrived. By ambience and innuendo, the books of yesteryear expose today’s children to bygone worlds of sensibility. They enlarge the scope of what it means to be a child today. They foster a sense of self that expands through historical imagination.

Of course, like blown soap bubbles, all aesthetic criteria dissipate moments after taking shape, but cultivating taste in childhood matters. And every book encountered in childhood fosters an awareness of visual design and language. The finest old books enchant our eyes with subtle palettes and artful, uncrowded designs. Rarely busy, loud, or frenetic; never garish or slick, they can however be spontaneous and quirky. Take Dorothy Kunhardt’s Now Open the Box of 1934, where an upside down circus lady balances on an umbrella with a teacup on one foot and scissors on the other, and not without plenty of room left blank on the page for curious eyes to tarry. Notice that when artists leave room on the page this way an invisible door swings wide to welcome children’s own projections. Such pages spark silent dialogues instead of enforcing passivity. They offer trust and also a bit of a dare. They go deep without our even noticing. Whimsy and surprise, after all, attract the eye, but children’s hearts are held by feeling. In Kunhardt’s Now Open the Box, a curled snake rolls itself as it climbs upstairs. Circus performers weep short vertical dashes. “Big” is a double-page spread; “little” fits under your fingernail. With psychological brilliance, this simple story taps into widespread secret fears of losing the unconditional love accorded to you when you are a tiny baby, fears of growing up bigger and bigger into a world of adult demands, where everyone must “perform tricks.”

The old books often spring from linear plots. (Look: Aristotle is winking his approval.) This matters because young children’s own first stories are post hoc and paratactic; which means, they narrate by saying: “and,” “and,” “and”). But careful books foster an awareness of propter hoc, that is, of causality. And since causality is the ground of ethics, it matters that it be modeled in what we offer children. Even as beguiling and zany a tale as Three Ladies beside the Sea of 1963 by Rhoda Levine and Edward Gorey, which foregrounds the enduring power of childhood wishes, presents its story line as causal.

Which brings up the question of “message.” Rarely do older books spell entertainment pure and simple. Children, after all, are constructing worlds! No matter how piously we rail against didacticism and say “we shouldn’t tell kids what to do,” young children take in and learn from everything we make available: “Children will listen.” Unburdened by publishing guidelines as to “age-appropriate” vocabulary, many older books afford chances to reach.  They tantalize, judiciously withholding their rewards, drawing children back again and again to their pages. Take Ounce, Dice, Trice of 1958 by Alastair Reid, with its merriment augmented by edgy artist Ben Shahn. This book teaches a poet’s love for language. It catches the way children play with musicality, repetition, and unpredictability, and how much children love the haunting, slippery behavior of words. Busily acquiring language, young children treat words like balls, toys, and magic wands. Their pleasure skips right along with an initiation into what is supremely valuable.

With no slight intended but rather my sincere appreciation to the wonderful children’s book authors of today, I urge you to check out the classics of the past. Borrow them from your library. Share them with the children in your life.  Their quality rewards sustained attention—hushed, absorbed hours. Read alone or with an adult, they allow today’s children to slow down, to turn away from trivial distractions, and to expand inwardly in historic time, from generation to generation…

Note: For those readers who wish not only to borrow the old books but to own and gift them, The Children’s Collection imprint of The New York Review of Books is dedicated to republishing the finest of out-of-print children’s classics.

About the author: Ellen Handler Spitz has been serving as Honors College Professor at UMBC since 2001. She is the author of Inside Picture Books, The Brightening Glance: Imagination and Childhood, and Illuminating Childhood, among other books; her signature seminars are titled Great Books and Cultures of Childhood. She reviews children’s books from time to time for The New Republic and The New York Times Book Review.

  • A Reader and Writer

    The magic of childhood books lingers in the backs of our minds, enriching us perhaps forever. Not always, however, is that lingering presence uncomplicated. As a child I loved “The Adventures of K’ton Ton,” a Hebrew Tom Thumb. Unfortunately, I have a keen sense that I never returned it to the library, and even now, several hundred years later, I await the knock on the door.

    Still, I do know with certainty the central importance of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in my growing up. We had lived in a lower class Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore, our row house only a block away from Branch 16. My earliest recollection of the library comes from the childhood eagerness with which I anticipated Tuesday afternoons, the time the librarian would read stories to a cluster of children as we sat on the floor around her feet. I had my own librarian (didn’t everybody, like their own teacher or own doctor?), and I kept my librarian until the end of my teens.

    Endless experiences come back to mind, but I repeat only one from the summer of my 14th or 15th year. When my librarian returned from her summer vacation, I told her I had discovered a “new” poet whom I liked a lot, Edna St Vincent Millay. She looked at me and replied, “How adolescent.” I felt crushed, because I don’t think she had ever been critical of any choice I had made. It took me many years to realize that I might have mattered to her a bit as much as she mattered to me, that her reaction was not to the book but to my early making of my own discoveries, that is, without her.

    There is more, so very much more of how the library shaped my unfolding life, from the time I looked at the picture books for very young children until now that I read and newly appreciate stories of aging. All of this is merely a suggestion of the evocative power of this article, its power to call forth what is, now as my mind proceeds, a growing stream that had its origin in childhood books, from “The Five Chinese Brothers” on.

    What a lovely posting this is, lovely writing, and lovely to see the postcard image of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in the very year I was born.

  • Old friend

    “Reader and Writer’s” comment about having one’s own librarian is quite wonderful – and brought back memories of my very “own” librarian – actually, I had several – during my childhood. I was always amazed that they knew just what I would like to read! As for the article itself, I found it completely charming. I love the idea of having Ellen Handler Spitz looking over my shoulder and guiding me as I choose books to read to my grandchildren – and hereby suggest that she compile her articles into a book so that we can all take pleasure in her wisdom and make sure that our children benefit from the significant children’s books of yesteryear. A kind of follow up to “Inside Picture Books.”

  • Anonymous

    As a teacher for 45 years and as a father who delighted in
    reading to his children, I find the observations of Professor Spitz both
    inspiring and corroborative…inspiring because I can imagine how those observations
    may encourage a parent who has not done so previously to read his/her children
    into a world of wonder and to find the delight in doing so which I
    found…corroborative because I like to think that being read to played no small
    part in the development of my children’s verbal abilities which saw them
    through college and law school and into professional/career pursuits in which
    verbal ability is crucial, not to mention the cultural opportunities of which that
    verbal ability has enabled them to take advantage. I may have been pronouncing
    the words to them, but it was a joint activity because they shared with me
    looking at the text and illustrations in book being read, an experience not
    possible had the text been captive to an electronic device. The other day, when
    the news presented a story about President Obama’s reading his favorite
    children’s book to young guests on the White House lawn, he was shown holding
    and showing to his audience a hard copy of Maurice Sendak’s Where
    the Wild Things Are, not an electronic tablet!