Leonard S. Marcus: Children's-book historian writes history of children's books





From the publication of the lesson-filled "New-England Primer" to the midnight bookstore parties for the latest "Harry Potter" volume, children's books have provided a valuable -- and fascinating -- window into American culture.

That's the premise of "Minders of Make-Believe" (Houghton Mifflin, $28), the newest book by children's-book historian Leonard S. Marcus. In this highly readable book aimed at adults, Marcus details the rise (and, often, the fall) of major U.S. children's-book publishers, as well as the key role played by librarians in the 20th century in determining what American children should read.

A book focused on the history of American children's-book publishing might seem as dull as dishwater to some readers. Nothing could be further from the truth in this book, where Marcus -- drawing on years of research -- masterfully pulls together strands of history and literature to show how the answer to the question of "What should children read?" has changed radically over the past couple of centuries.

Along the way, Marcus introduces readers to characters like Colonial-era-publishing "impresario" Mason Locke Weems, who wrote the first biography of George Washington, and Edward Stratemeyer, whose publishing syndicate used assembly-line techniques to churn out the "Nancy Drew" and "Hardy Boys" series, among many others.

Marcus provides sketches of such famous children's-book creators as Robert McCloskey, Margaret Wise Brown and Maurice Sendak. Readers also make the acquaintance of the many grande dames of children's books during the middle of the 20th century, especially Anne Carroll Moore, the imperious head of the New York Public Library, and her nemesis, Ursula Nordstrom, whose career coups as a noted children's-book editor included "Where the Wild Things Are," "Charlotte's Web" and "Harriet the Spy."

In an example of how Marcus skillfully weaves in memorable details, he notes how Moore once asked Nordstrom what qualified her -- someone who wasn't a librarian, teacher or parent -- to publish children's books. Nordstrom replied: "I am a former child, and I haven't forgotten a thing."...


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