Tag Archives: libraries

Celebrating Children’s Book Week—and a pioneering librarian

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.

Anne Carroll Moore at New York Public Library, ca. 1906.

Anne Carroll Moore in her office at the New York Public Library, ca. 1906

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.

Twin Travellers in South America, Mary H. Wade.

Frontispiece, Twin Travellers in South America, by Mary H. Wade

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.

Children reading in library, ca. 1910, William Davis Hassler.

Children reading in the reading room of an unidentified branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, ca. 1910 (William Davis Hassler)

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.

Stuart Little, first edition, 1945.

Cover of Stuart Little, first edition, 1945

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.)

Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Anne Carroll Moore

Cover of Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Anne Carroll Moore

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, 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.”

“Yaaaawn.”

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.”

Headline, From the Child's Holiday Books of 1918.

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:

Three Bears, Mother's Nursery Tales, Katharine Pyle, 1918

Illustration from Mother’s Nursery Tales, by Katharine Pyle, 1918

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:

Dream Boats, Portraits and Histories of Fauns, Fairies, and Fishes, written and illustrated by Dugald Steward Walker.

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:

Illustration of Captain Nemo 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.)

Arthur Rackham illustration, The Three Bears

An academic interlude: Harvard’s Widener Library

I live in Cape Town, which has a lot of advantages, like this

and this,

but presents certain challenges My Year in 1918-wise. Online resources like Google Books’ Hathitrust and the Modernist Journals Project are a godsend for online researchers–I get all my magazines there–and most of the books I read are available on Kindle, but there’s no substitute for holding an actual, physical book in your hand.*

So when I went to my Harvard reunion last month, I stayed on and spent a couple of days in Widener Library, which (together with the university’s other, smaller libraries) is home to the world’s third-largest collection of books. My ideal vacation destination!

Widener is a great place to channel 1918. The library, which was dedicated on commencement day in 1915,

Dedication of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Harvard University, 24 June 1915 (Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Vol. 24)

was donated to the university by Eleanor Elkins Widener in memory of her son, Harry Elkins Widener of the class of 1907, who died on the Titanic. Harry was, despite his youth, an accomplished book collector**, and there’s a room in the library dedicated to his memory.***

That room is roped off, but I did get to browse the stacks (which is just as fun and creepy as it was when I was an undergrad), grab a pile of 1918-era books, and peruse them in this less luxurious but still very cool reading room.

Conclusions: E. Nesbit was kind of boring when she wasn’t writing for children. Winnifred Eaton’s Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model seems like it’s worth reading (good thing, since it’s on my 1918 bedside bookshelf). So does Clive Bell’s Art.

I also did some literary detective work, continuing my pursuit of the script of Alan Dale’s 1918 play The Madonna of the Future, which, as I wrote in April, shocked audiences with its depiction of a wealthy woman who becomes a single mother by choice. There was no trace of it in the National Union Catalogue, although there were lots of other works by Dale, whose real name was Alfred J. Cohen.

With the help of a research librarian, I did find an article in Puck magazine in which Dale, who was a prominent (but, according to Smart Set’s George Jean Nathan, very, very bad) drama critic, interviewed his play’s star, Emily Stevens. Bottom line: Stevens thinks Dale is kind of a moron.

If anyone has advice on where else I might turn to find the elusive script, please let me know. The Library of Congress pointed me in the direction of a copyright records archive, but no luck there either. I’m starting to think it might not exist.

Just when I was winding up my visit to Widener, thinking that it had been fun but a bit lacking in serendipity, I came upon, in this copy of Edna Ferber’s Buttered Side Down,*****

a real-life copy of a Winward Prescott naked microscope bookplate!

Which, in case the excitement of this is eluding you (although a naked microscope bookplate should be exciting enough in its own right), I discovered a while back in an online scan of a Harvard library book and wrote about here.

Two afternoons well spent! Next stop, when I’m back in D.C. in July: The Library of Congress.

*Yes, I know there are some great South African books from that era, and I will get to them.

**An area of accomplishment that is, of course, available only to very rich people.

***There’s a myth at Harvard that, in memory of her drowned son, Eleanor Elkins Widener demanded that the university require that all students pass a swimming test in order to graduate. During the reunion, several classmates reminisced about dutifully going to the athletic center to take the test–which does (or did) in fact exist, but is not a graduation requirement and has nothing to do with Widener. Luckily, some upperclassmen clued me in before I got all wet for nothing.

****Although not as many as I wanted, since, unlike during my student days, much of Harvard’s collection is now stored offsite, including–who would have thought it!–a high percentage of obscure books from 100 years ago.

*****which I subsequently raved about