Leonard Marcus is the foremost authority on children’s book history, having published about 30 books around the subject. They include titles about how children’s books are made (The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth and others), a children’s-book walking tour guide to New York City and, very recently, a young reader’s biography of Abraham Lincoln.
“I think that Lincoln was as much of a creative artist and visionary as the author of Goodnight Moon or his own near-contemporary, Lewis Carroll,” Marcus says.
He has also authored biographies about Margaret Wise Brown, Ursula Nordstrom, Maurice Sendak, Randolph Caldecott, Madeleine L’Engle and others; histories of Golden Books, the Children’s Book Week poster series, the American children’s book publishing industry from colonial times to the present, and now Pictured Worlds: Masterpieces of Children’s Book Art By 101 Essential Illustrators From Around The World (Abrams Books).
It is this delightful-yet-hot-button compendium (at least in the children’s book world) that I’ve asked Marcus to discuss in this interview. Shall we begin …?
How did you become an expert, historian and critic of illustrated children’s books past and present?
I was an American history major in college, and when it came time to choose a topic for the dreaded senior honors thesis that stood between me and graduation, I remembered an observation made in the 1830s by the era’s famous French visitor to America, Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville had written that American children were more free-spirited than their European counterparts. That comment left me wondering about the impact of large-scale historical events like the American Revolution on the lives of ordinary people—how, for instance, the revolution might have influenced the way parents raised their children and children behaved. It occurred to me that if American children’s books existed back then and I could find some examples, they might give a glimpse of how democratic ideals had been passed on to the first generation of young people growing up in a nation free of the rule of kings. Luckily, I was able to track down quite a few such books at the rare book library. They had not exactly aged well as literature or art but they were fascinating as x-rays of a society’s changing values.
So children’s books were your gateway to history, but from a unique perspective, can you say more?
Having discovered children’s books as a subject to write about, I began to pay closer attention to the ones I came across in stores. I was especially drawn to the illustrations, some of which I thought amazing. That in turn led me to wonder why art museums never seemed to show or collect them. It took me a while to realize that the art world had a pecking order within which narrative art ranked at or near the bottom of the barrel, especially if the art had been created for children. That discovery made me want to champion children’s book illustration as an artform deserving of greater recognition. I wanted to open people’s eyes! At the very least, it seemed I had stumbled onto a subject about which there would be a lot to say. After writing a lot of freelance book reviews, I felt ready to write a book myself. And that’s when, while browsing in a Greenwich Village bookstore, I came across an old picture book I had never heard of before called Goodnight Moon and decided to explore the possibility of writing a biography of its author, who I felt was a real poet with the astonishing ability to speak to 2-year-olds as well as to a reader like me.
Is there a favorite period, illustrator or designer that you lean toward? (Knowing, of course, your deep kinship with Maurice Sendak?)
Well, I have a number of favorites. You’re right about Maurice Sendak. It’s not just that he was such a virtuoso artist. He had an aesthetic and moral vision that went well beyond mere style and informed everything he did. It was rooted in his sense of children as simultaneously resilient and vulnerable beings, and as such capable of appreciating a much more intense and nuanced kind of art than was typically offered to them.
Another illustrator whose work I treasure is the late Japanese picture book artist Mitsumasa Anno, who once said that his goal was to make picture books that “teach without teaching.” I love that. His wordless books allow every viewer to make their own story from the images provided. Each reader enters the world of Anno’s Journey in his or her own way. Come back in five years and the book is likely to look very different to you.
Midcentury picture books tended to have an intimate, made-for-you feel that I find very appealing—and often find missing now that books have to jostle for attention in big-box stores and on flickering screens. William Nicholson’s Clever Bill, Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon, Marie Hall Ets’ Play With Me and Don Freeman’s Corduroy all share that intimate quality.
Graphically, some of the most exciting picture books came from 1920s Soviet Russia. One day while researching an exhibition at the New York Public Library, I came across a few boxloads of them in the stacks. The artists who made them wanted to excite children about art as well as about the revolution their parents had just lived through, and my guess is that the books must have worked pretty well.
What goes into the critical process of selecting 101 books? How did you whittle down the list?
It was a very challenging process. I started from the idea that I was not trying to make THE once-and-forever list of bests but was rather making a substantial number of carefully considered choices that I was prepared to stand behind, and which I thought might collectively lay the groundwork for a lively, informed discussion. As a reviewer, I have always tried to be clear about the thinking behind my opinions, with a view to helping readers develop the ability to form their own opinions, whether in line with mine or not. So, even in the case of an illustrator and book that some reader might think does not belong in a book like mine, my hope is that the essay I wrote will be useful in sharpening that reader’s critical arsenal.
Did you want a balance or certain percentage of classics to contemporaries, or first books to later editions?
Yes, I had a number of broadly based goals in mind that I tried to balance. I wanted to show that much of what is most exciting in the field has originated beyond American borders, and that the picture book is far from an exclusively Western artform. My first time at the Bologna Book Fair—now maybe 15 or more years ago—was a revelation in that regard.
I also wanted to trace key cross-cultural parallels and connections. As I note in the introduction, for example, the picture book appeared for the first time in more or less the form we know it both in Edo-period Japan and in mid-18th century England—two places half a world apart where a thriving commercial middle class was excited for its children’s future and made a priority of childhood literacy.
It’s because I thought it would be valuable to trace the development and spread of key genres and artistic traditions that, overall, Pictured Worlds is more focused on books from the past than the present. When and where were the first movable books for children created, and by whom? The first books for toddlers and preschoolers? The first truly irreverent books for the young? The first books that show the influence of modern psychology? American books—and the precedent-setting system of libraries, awards and review journals that grew up around them—have had a major impact internationally over the last century, and it was important to document their impact too, along with the fact that many American illustrators were immigrants who brought with them aspects of their own home cultures, thereby redefining the “American” picture book again and again.
The question I’m sure that you are sick of is not who is in, but who is out and why?
There were a very few artists from whose estates my publisher and I could not get needed permissions. The two I’m most sorry about are the Soviet Russian illustrator Vladimir Lebedev and the Polish-born French artist André François. We tried our best. There are many contemporary artists I would have liked very much to write about but there had to be limits on what became a very big book, and I’ll hope to have the chance to do so another time.
What defines or determines an essential book?
I would say that an essential book is one that presents readers with a fully realized world that exists nowhere other than between its two covers. Paradoxically, it is also a book that leaves just enough unsaid and unseen for the reader to become a kind of third collaborator.
I must say that there are a good number of books I’ve forgotten about, and unlike the evergreen Goodnight Moon, I never read to my own kid. It was good to be reacquainted with Mike Mulligan, A Child’s Good Night Book, See and Say. A few that I didn’t know include The Great Big Fire Engine Book; Petit, the Monster. I was so glad to see Roberto Innocenti, Crockett Johnson and Bruno Munari. Each of the artists in the book have multiple books out—what were your criteria for which to highlight?
Again, I made choices with multiple criteria in mind, including the highly subjective one of which book I loved the most by a given artist. For instance, Isol’s picture book Petit, the Monster, written in the voice of a child and with illustrations that might have been drawn by a child, is a sly and provocative reflection on one of the biggest of life’s Big Questions: What does it mean to be a “good” or “bad” child? It’s done so artfully, and I have never come across another picture book like it. Wallace Stevens once described art as a kind of “unprecedented experience” and Petit, the Monster fits the bill to a T.
Incidentally, seeing the sketches in most cases was a joy. Where’d they come from?
It took a lot of doing. Many living illustrators and keepers of artists’ estates were kind enough to make preliminary art available. The major university archives like the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota and the deGrummond Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi pride themselves on making their vast holdings accessible to historians and others and were also extremely helpful. Online searches of the British Library and other archives outside the U.S. sometimes proved fruitful. The Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers, which has a collection of art by New Jersey illustrators, was the place to go for work by Roger Duvoisin. Robert McCloskey’s sketchbooks were at the Boston Public Library. It was a pretty labor-intensive process to track down hundreds of images but it was also rewarding and I feel these preliminaries, which catch the artists in the act of becoming themselves, gave the book its heart and soul.
It is an international book, but were there some countries that were left out? Were there once-popular books that could no longer be considered popular? Did contemporary sensitivities play a part in your decisions?
Yes, of course, to the question of whether some countries were left out. I wrote about artists from 24 countries, which leaves quite a few that are not represented, or represented less fully than they might have been. I can only hope that readers will find value in those that I have written about and be moved to look beyond those books and artists and make more discoveries on their own. One of the book’s major subtexts is: There is much more to the history of children’s books and their illustration than you probably realized.
Are you totally content with all your choices? In your role as historian, you are building the canon. Canonical declarations are always subject to review or addition—do you see that happening? Or is your word, the word (for now)?
When I was in my 20s and 30s, I think I did want to have the last word about the books, artists and writers I felt drawn to write about. Now I don’t believe that it is possible to have the last word, or even the next-to-last word, and I see my role not as a “canonizer” but rather as a kind of pointer, as someone who says to the reader: Look at this. I think you will be interested and perhaps even amazed—and here’s why I think so.