Happy Children’s Book Week! This year marks its 100th anniversary.
This week doesn’t mark its anniversary, though—the 1919 Children’s Book week was held in November, as were all subsequent ones until 2008, when new management took over and the celebrations were moved to May. So I can’t tell you (yet) about the new children’s books the New York Times recommended in connection with the 1919 celebration.
I can tell you, though, about Anne Carroll Moore, who was one of the founders of Children’s Book Week, and of children’s libraries as we know them. If you have fond memories of going to the library as a child—and if you don’t, you’re probably not a reader of this blog—then you have Anne Carroll Moore to thank.
I first came across Moore as the innovative critic for the Bookman who, facing a pile of children’s books to review for a December 1918 Christmas roundup, invited an actual child, Edouard, to look them over. Edouard didn’t pull any punches. “I think my teacher would like that book because it seems like a geography trying to be a story,” he said of Mary H. Wade’s Twin Travellers in South America. I checked it out, and he was right.
Moore was born in 1871, the eighth child and only surviving daughter of a Maine lawyer and his wife.* She dreamed of following in her father’s footsteps, and is the only person I’ve ever heard of to have been home-schooled in law. Her legal ambitions came to an end, though, when both of her parents died of influenza when she was twenty. She spent a few years helping to raise her brother Henry’s children after his wife died in childbirth. At his suggestion, she decided to become a librarian, and she studied at the Pratt Institute in New York. After graduating, she was given the job of setting up a children’s room at the institute’s library.
Children’s rooms in libraries are such a fact of now life that I never thought about anyone inventing them. It turns out, though, that until the early 20th century children were discouraged from using libraries, most of which, until Andrew Carnegie came along, were private. Often, you had to be 14 to use a library. Sometimes, you had to be a boy. When children’s rooms existed, they were generally little more than holding pens to ensure peace and quiet in the rest of the library.
Moore changed all that. At Pratt, and later in the New York public library system, where she served as the head children’s librarian for 35 years, she reinvented the children’s room. She installed open stacks, child-sized furniture, plants, and seasonal exhibits and scheduled story hours, puppet shows, and readings for children by famous writers (including W.B. Yeats). Moore was particularly passionate about making African-American children and children of immigrants feel welcome in libraries. In an era of “Americanization,” she insisted on stocking books in the foreign languages that many of New York’s children spoke at home. Dissatisfied with the quality of children’s literature, she championed talented writers. She was the first regular columnist on children’s books, writing first in The Bookman and later in the New York Herald Tribune and Horn Book.
With many 100-years-ago personalities I come across, I end up with more or less a monopoly on them. If you Google alleged German spy/femme fatale Despina Storch, for example, you get Wikipedia, then me.** (I do, at least.) Moore, though, has been in the news quite a bit in recent years. New Yorker writer/Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote an article in 2008 about Moore’s persistent-bordering-on-stalkerish attempts to get E.B. White to finish Stuart Little, followed by her efforts to make sure the finished product, which she hated, never saw the light of day. (She failed, obviously, but managed to keep Stuart Little out of contention for the Newbery Award, which is bestowed by the American Library Association.)
Lepore and others have highlighted Moore’s eccentricities, which, to be fair, were considerable. She had a wooden puppet named Nicholas that she took everywhere and often held conversations with, including in professional meetings. (When Harper editor Virginia Kirkus stopped by Moore’s office to ask why she was ignoring Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, Moore kept turning to Nicholas and saying, “Nicholas, Miss Kirkus wants to know…”) Moore also wrote two children’s books about Nicholas. The first one, Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas, was a runner-up for the 1925 Newbery Award, but this may have had more to do with Moore’s home-field advantage as a librarian than with its quality. It’s still under copyright so I couldn’t check it out myself (UPDATE 12/19/2021: you can now find it here), but here are excerpts from some Goodreads reviews (average rating: two stars):
“An oddly off-putting little book.”
“One of the worst books I’ve ever read.”
“Maybe it would be better reading at Christmas time, but I really don’t think so.”
“Very few people will live through the story unless it is an assignment.”
Eventually, Nicholas was lost in a taxi, to the delight of Moore’s colleagues.
Slate book critic Laura Miller came to Moore’s defense in 2016, highlighting her efforts on behalf of underprivileged children and saying that she “changed the world of children’s books for the immeasurable better. She deserves to be remembered for that, and not just for her aversion to a certain nattily dressed mouse.”
The controversies surrounding Moore’s later career were far in the future in 1919, though. So let’s leave Moore with her friend Edouard as they go through the pile of review copies for her December 1918 Bookman column.***
On Thornton Burgess:
“Is there a book here by Thornton Burgess?”
Without waiting for an answer he instinctively put his hand under a great pile of Boy Scout and war books and drew forth “Mother West Wind Where Stories” and clasped it to his heart.
“If I had a million dollars I would engage Thornton Burgess to write all the stories I could read.”
On Mother’s Nursery Tales, by Katharine Pyle:
The picture of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is the only satisfying one I have seen. “She knows how to draw bears in a family”, was Edouard’s comment as he compared it with an illustration for the same story by another artist of which he said, “These bears are not a family, they are just colored to match the rest of the picture”.****
On Dream Boats by Dugald Stewart:
Its delicate illustrations in color and in black and white made no appeal to him. Both in conception and in rendering this book seems to have been planned for an audience of somewhat sophisticated children.
On Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth:
Edouard wishes to own it for the sake of having “such a good picture of Captain Nemo”. He likes it better than the ones he has seen in the movies.
For writing like that—and for the many happy hours I spent in the library as a child—I’m willing to forgive some tone-deaf literary choices and a talking puppet. Thank you, Anne Carroll Moore!
*In 1919, Moore was still known as Annie Carroll Moore. Annie was the name on her birth certificate, but she had it legally changed in her fifties because—what are the odds?—there was another woman named Annie Moore who was writing about children’s libraries at the time.
**Unfortunately, you only get my post on her death on Ellis Island at age 23 and not the earlier one about her (alleged) career as a German spy.
***Her column didn’t become a regular feature until September 1919.
****I’m pretty sure the “Three Bears” illustrations Edouard panned were Arthur Rackham’s from Flora Annie Steele’s 1918 book English Fairy Tales. It’s just like Edouard said: the bears go better with the room’s decor than with each other. (On the other hand, I like the idea of a family of bears with a Van Dyck-style painting on their wall.)