In 2008, Jill Lepore published “The Lion and the Mouse,” a captivating essay about a mid-century controversy that helped reshape children’s literature. Lepore describes how the publication of E. B. White’s classic tale “Stuart Little,” about an adventurous “mouse-child” born to a family in Manhattan, created a stir among critics and librarians because of its unconventional (for the period) melding of fantasy and reality. White’s book provoked questions about which adults should decide what is suitable for children (parents? librarians? editors?), or whether that responsibility best lies with children themselves. One way to read “Stuart Little,” Lepore observes, is “as an indictment of both the childishness of children’s literature and the juvenilization of American culture.”
This week, we’re bringing you a selection of pieces about the vibrant world of children’s literature—which, at its best, has always defied the conventions of the genre and the expectations of young readers and their parents. In “Among the Wild Things,” published in 1966, Nat Hentoff explores the radically innovative literary style of the author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. (“The young in Sendak’s books—particularly the books he writes himself—are sometimes troubled and lonely, they slip easily into and out of fantasies, and occasionally they are unruly and stubborn.”) In “The Storyteller,” Cynthia Zarin considers Madeleine L’Engle’s creative vision and examines the lasting influence of her popular novel “A Wrinkle in Time” and its sequels. In “Far from Well,” published in 1928, Dorothy Parker reviews A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh series and offers a biting critique of “The House at Pooh Corner.” In “Beatrix Potter,” the novelist Laurie Colwin writes about the natural style of the author of the classic Peter Rabbit series. (“The book began as a letter to a little boy named Noel Moore, who was recuperating from an illness. ‘My dear Noel,’ the letter begins. ‘I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.’ ”) In “Judy Blume’s Magnificent Girls,” Anna Holmes describes how Blume revolutionized young-adult fiction by vividly rendering the interior lives of her female protagonists. Finally, in “How Gyo Fujikawa Drew Freedom in Children’s Books,” Sarah Larson recounts how the Japanese-American artist, whose parents and brother were sent to internment camps in 1942, became one of the country’s most beloved children’s illustrators. (“Fujikawa’s illustrations depicted children of all kinds, on adventures of all kinds.”) Taken together, these pieces offer singular insights into a remarkable genre; we hope that they add a bit of magic to your weekend.
—Erin Overbey, archive editor
Maurice Sendak’s fantastic imagination.
Fact, fiction, and the books of Madeleine L’Engle.
Our recurrent hero, Winnie-the-Pooh.
How the celebrated children’s-book author revolutionized young-adult fiction.
The battle that reshaped children’s literature.
The artist, whose career flourished even as her family was interned during the Second World War, stayed in tune with a child’s way of seeing the world and found a way to draw a better one.
The “Peter Rabbit” author never wrote down to her young readers and never whitewashed nature on their behalf.