The politically incorrect house on the prairie

The New York Times' children's book editor talks about the ideological pressures on kids' books and whether Harry Potter is a classic yet.

Topics: Harry Potter, Author Interviews, Books,

When the third edition of “The New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children” came out earlier this year, parents, teachers, librarians and other aficionados of kids’ books got an updated revision of one of the most useful reader’s guides around. A list of 1,001 titles, the book is cross-referenced in a panoply of creative ways. Plus it’s spangled with illustrations that, for many adult readers, will conjure up memories of many blissful hours spent becoming confirmed bookworms. Salon spoke with Eden Ross Lipson, children’s book editor of the New York Times, about the state of children’s book publishing, its surprising controversies and the crucial question of whether the Harry Potter books can be considered classics yet.

What’s the organizing principle of your guide?

The theory behind it comes from Neil, my husband. He said a book like this needs to be organized so that it can be easily used to find a lot of different things. The titles are organized developmentally, from wordless books to young adult books. Each book is assigned a number, and there are 60 different indexes, so they’re completely cross-referenced. You can find books by author, by illustrator; you can find anthologies; you can find books about cats, bedtime, bears, death, grandparents. That’s where you get to change the canon and be as politically adventurous as you want to be. You can talk about books in lots of different ways without making a fuss about it.

People use the guide to track down childhood favorites, don’t they?

There’s a wonderful passage in one of Graham Greene’s essays that says the books you really remember are the ones that you read as a child. There’s a tremendous urge to share with children the books that you have loved, but a lot of people can’t remember the title or maybe the illustrator of some of their favorites. Everybody has these dim memories of some long-lost book they loved — maybe you can recognize the style of the illustrations when you see them in this book. That can help you recall what the book was. And by and large people have pretty good taste. If you’re a boomer you’ve been exposed to some pretty good books.

I’ve got the impression that most parents aren’t as involved with sharing books with their kids as they used to be.

Children who are read to are the lucky minority. Not that there aren’t aggravations to doing it. They’ll have a book that they have to have read to them every single night until you want to throw it out the window. Our son had a picture book of nursery rhymes illustrated by William Joyce, and he was fixated on one particular spread — Wee Willie Winkie. The book was recently reissued, so we took a look at it to try to figure out what so fascinated a 14-month-old about it, but he couldn’t remember.

Have children’s books changed much since the first edition of the guide?

What concerns me with children’s books today is the phenomenon of marketing. Children are being sold all the time, even the little bitty ones. Imagine being manipulated not just by the page but by all the media and market forces. I worry for them. And their choices are being limited in a troubling way.

When people go into a bookstore, there are a couple of areas where they feel helpless: One is the computer section and the other is the children’s section. We also have a diminishing number of trained children’s librarians. They’ve become harder to find, with fewer places even to look for them, at the same time that there are increasing numbers of children’s books. We need experts to help people find what they want, not just what they’re being sold.

Do you see any trends happening now in kids’ books?

The question of history concerns me a lot. Political correctness and history have posed tremendously complicated problems. I’m damned if I know how children will learn history. We’ve seen rising specialization and there’s good nonfiction for children — smart and intelligent books. The Eyewitness series of books serves a great purpose; they’ve got images, captions, factoids. And some specialized narrative histories have come along for middle- and upper-grade children. There’s Mark Aaronson’s “Art Attack,” a history of the avant-garde, which even some adults would find helpful. It’s addressed to high school kids who are a bit edgy and curious. There are some storybook biographies that are particularly great for boys who are reluctant readers. Diane Stanley has written books on Shaka, the King of the Zulus, Peter the Great, Michelangelo. These are lavishly illustrated biographies, terrific introductions to historical individuals for kids who aren’t good readers. But the narrative of history and the great fiction based on history are being lost to p.c.

Can you give me some examples?

Well, I’m a great fan of Little House books, and I recommended them when we did a chat on the Times Web site. I got blasted for that, by people who told me Laura Ingalls Wilder was a Nazi incarnate, that the books were about genocide, that there’s no difference between giving children Little House books and the people who gave German children Nazi propaganda in the ’30s. This stuff comes from people who are fearful. How are we supposed to talk about what happened in this country after the Civil War, or as the Industrial Revolution began? How are we supposed to explain how this country got settled? You can criticize some of these things, but to ban the books seems wildly inappropriate.

I didn’t realize the Little House books were such a flash point.

Neither did I, but I do now. I’ve been told by a lot of people in the Midwest that they’re very controversial. I have to ask: Are we tossing babies out with the bath water? This is one serious example of the kind of book that’s easily dismissed. There are also distortions of the curriculum. Children don’t know there are other ways to look at things or other things to learn about. My son said that in school he learned about the civil rights movement every year and, at a certain point, he said, “I think there are other things I could be learning about.”

Are there market pressures on children’s books?

We now have the abuse of the much-loved book — prequels and sequels to the Little House books; they’re taking “Mrs. Pigglewiggle” apart and selling the individual chapters as picture books. Don’t do it; just don’t do it. That makes me absolutely wild. Everything is merchandising. Some things do lend themselves to that — “Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse” is an example. Great book, and there are lots of purple plastic purses around, which is fine. I’m not a purist, but restraint is a good thing. “Olivia” is another one: The marketing has been spectacular. They knew they had something appealing and they were out to sell it and boy did they sell it. I can’t blame them, they’re smart businesspeople, but it is unnerving.

Are you worried about how much Harry Potter marketing there will be, especially when the movie comes out?

Everyone is in dread of the Harry Potter movie. Every stomach heaves, just heaves. Start wherever you want: When I was clearing the permissions for the illustrations we use in the guide, [I found that] Warner Bros. is now the one who clears them.

What are your own feelings about the Harry Potter books?

Is J.K. Rowling ambitious? Yes. Does she deserve praise? Yes. Is it great that she’s the second or third richest woman in England? It’s fabulous. Is the book a classic? That depends on what you mean by classic.

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What do you mean by “classic”?

I think it takes a minimum of 20 years for a book to truly become a classic. Time needs to lapse from when you read a book as a child to when you gather a child into your lap and read it aloud. That point of transition is what makes the difference between a classic and an ordinary good book. We’re seeing anniversaries now — we could talk about writers like Maurice Sendak, Natalie Babbit, whose work is classic, but I’m not sure we can say that yet about Jo Rowling. Will [Harry Potter] always be a phenomenon? Yes. And was what happened last July thrilling? For those of us in the world of books to finally be part of the mass media — I loved it, it was really neat.

To what do you attribute the huge success of the Harry Potter books?

It’s the momentum. Once it took off and became a phenomenon, quality wasn’t even an issue. And it’s not a children’s book at all anymore; it hasn’t been since about November 1999. After the third book had been out for two months, it was clear to me that the children had read it and adults were passing it around from hand to hand. If you’re my age, you remember that before Roe vs. Wade, a young woman who needed an abortion could never say it was for herself. I knew Harry Potter was a phenomenon when I heard people saying, “My sister is in the hospital, and I bought it for her” or “I got it from my uncle.” There was this embarrassed distancing even though there was nothing wrong going on! To break the ice at suburban dinner parties a friend of mine talks about how much he likes reading the books, and everyone else relaxes and joins in.

But why do you think the book became a phenomenon to begin with?

Everyone who’s been to school knows the architecture of the story. In real life, and in most fiction, school is horrible: The beds are uncomfortable, the food is inedible. This is the inversion of that convention. Also, look at the competition! After they took Harry Potter off the adult bestseller list at the New York Times, there was a full season before anything that an adult would want to read went on it. It was a summer of Danielle Steel and Sandra Brown potboilers. Harry Potter is far better written than those. We’re at a strange historical moment, after the Cold War and with the transfer of power to the youthful leadership of Clinton and Bush. It’s a rudderless, confusing time, so the idea of school is appealing. School is such a helpful framework, so orderly, at a time of searching and when there is such a sense of the inchoate.

Do you think adults are reading other kinds of children’s fantasy novels, too?

I don’t have the same kind of anecdotal proof. People will say to me, “I like Harry Potter, what else do you recommend?” But those are childless people. People with children have the advantage of the pass-along factor. Most of the major children’s fantasists cross over: Robin McKinley won a Newbery medal, and her fantasy novels are marketed as adult fantasy. Francesca Lia Block is in paperback as an adult writer. Diana Wynne-Jones writes for both markets. Phillip Pullman is the most ambitious and most elegant of these. It’s an interesting question why there are more Brits who do it than Americans — Terry Pratchett wrote a good essay for the Times of London in 1999, in anticipation of the new Harry Potter, about why the English love fantasy.

What about realistic children’s novels?

I don’t see them crossing over in the same way. But maybe if there were the right vehicle. There are some very interesting young adult novels being published. I argued rigorously that Tony Earley’s “Jim the Boy” was a children’s novel. There’s often a very fine line; it’s mostly about marketing. Robert Cormier, who wrote “The Chocolate War,” a bomb dropped in the world of children’s books, died last winter. His death marked a turning point. That book is so often banned and at the center of controversy. It’s also set in a boarding school. That book crosses over the line to adult fiction. And then there’s Susie Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” a book that at 30 years old still has the capacity to get people excited. It’s the second-best book written by an 18-year-old!

What about illustrated books?

In the case of picture books, right now the art is so lavish and spectacular. There are such talented people working in the field. Recently the Caldecott went to David Small for “So You Want to Be President?” That’s an entertaining and extremely accomplished work, but people take it lightly. This is a classical artist using classic techniques, caricature in the grand fashion, reminiscent of [Honoré] Daumier, and people fail to give him credit. The art that’s normative in children’s books is just spectacular. Another book illustrated by Small that came out in the spring, “The Journey,” is just stunning. Even among the up-and-coming and midrank level of illustrators, there’s so much professionalism and care. A well-made children’s book is something you can study for hours; the care that goes into them is an honor to the readers.

Do you see any changes in how children’s books are published?

Historically, children’s books didn’t have to survive in the same way as adult books, which have their brief chance in the marketplace and then disappear. Most had the chance to find their market even if it took two or three years. That’s not the case anymore, now that there’s so much inventory. The fall season is like a tidal wave. You’re at a disadvantage if you try to keep things in stock; good titles go out of print at such a speedy rate. And there are so few librarians who can retrieve good books. The industry pressure is on more, better, faster. It’s hard to develop new talent and even harder to get a second book published if the first didn’t do well. It’s harder to keep the classics in print. It’s harder to train librarians; they often just don’t know what to do. They don’t have time to read the new books sent to them and so don’t know which ones to keep on the shelves.

It sounds like good children’s librarians have played a key role in introducing kids to books — what can we do if they’ve become a vanishing breed?

We should all sing the praises of great librarians, the ones who said, “If you like that, try this.” It’s just a human response to the bright-eyed child, to say, here’s something else. Scratch any of us and you’ll find someone like that. That’s something those who live in the world of books and ideas all share. The professional and career satisfaction that the people who do that have is phenomenal; it’s the most potent reward. But they are not well paid. It’s a hard impulse to keep alive when librarians are being asked to support audiovisual stuff, run film clips, run computer searches, monitor Internet access. They don’t have time, nor does their training allow for the same luxurious acquisition process, the time spent going through stacks of books and learning what goes with what. Our guide tries to fill that gap, as much as a book can. It has the cross-references that a good librarian or teacher keeps in his or her head.

Laura Miller
Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

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