SCBWI Bologna 2010 Author-Scholar Interview: Leonard Marcus

Interview by Jenny Desmond Walters for SCBWI Bologna 2010; photo of Leonard by Sonya Sones.

As a historian and leading authority on children’s literature in America, your knowledge of the history of books for children is inspiring.

As you followed the development of children’s books through the last 300 years, do you recognize any specific elements of long-standing children’s literature that you would you say have contributed to a particular work’s ability to stand the test of time? Do any patterns emerge?

Hmm. While it’s hard to generalize, I would say that one quality that the longest-lasting books have in common is that they are character-driven.

Little Women [by Louisa May Alcott (1868)] is still worth reading because once we meet Jo and her sisters we want to spend time with them. The same is true of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer [by Mark Twain (1876)] and the Little House [by Laura Ingalls Wilder, illustrated by Garth Williams (1932)] books, even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz [by L. Frank Baum (1900)]. The narrative voice, and the assumptions about childhood that underpin the voice, are also key.

Authors who have approached young readers with a playful (and, by implication, respectful) attitude and tone have fared better over time than those who have written from on high, with an elevating lesson of some kind up their sleeve.

John Updike once said that the relationship between a good writer for children and his or her reader is “conspiratorial in nature.” A memorable book is like a confidence shared.

Are there authors today who you feel may have captured that enduring magic and may well continue to be read in a hundred years? What types of contemporary work do you think will survive the test of time?

A hundred years is a lot longer now than it used to be! More people are writing than ever, there are more distractions of other kinds than ever before, and all but the tippy top of the cream of culture feels potentially disposable.

Having said all that, I think there are a great many writers whose work has a chance of going on and on. I’ll just mention a few: Emily Jenkins, Hilary McKay, Philip Pullman, the late Karla Kuskin, the late William Steig, some of Terry Pratchett, some of Paul Fleischman

You’ve written several remarkable books of interviews with renowned children’s authors and illustrators that I feel should be required reading for many! These books are a goldmine of information for those learning about their craft.

When working on your books such as, Author Talk (Simon & Schuster, 2000), or Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book (Dutton, 2002), or your most recent release, Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy (Candlewick, 2009), who was your intended audience for these books, and did you have a sense, early on, that they would become such a tremendous resource for hopeful storytellers?

I do hope the books are read in just the way you’ve described. Because writing and illustrating are such solitary activities, I think it also helps just to know the life stories and struggles of the people who’ve come before us–especially when they are the writers and artists whose books we love.

Also, it’s inspiring to know the tradition you are part of, or are hoping to be part of.

It’s humbling, too, and knowing it helps you to keep what you yourself are doing in perspective, which is critical for anyone doing creative work at every stage in their career.

As for the audience, I hope that some preteens and teens are also looking at those books, especially those who have any thought of one day writing or making art.

For your book Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), which outlines the fascinating history of American children’s book publishing, you mentioned previously that you worked on this project for 14 years. What is the process one employs when taking on a writing project of that magnitude? What strategies did you use to maintain your writing stamina and stay focused on the ultimate goal?

I didn’t think the book would take that long, and it was only when I got started on it that I realized just what I had gotten myself into. I did know I was going to have to work on other, smaller projects at the same time, both in order to make a living and for variety’s sake. This turned out to be a good arrangement.

I completed my book Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (HarperCollins, 1998), for instance, during the first few years. That wasn’t exactly a small project either.

But getting through it gave me the chance to learn a lot about one of the major publishers I was going to write about in Minders–Harper–so the research did double duty for me. It was like a Double Word Score in Scrabble.

Everyone is different, but I’ve learned that I need to be working on more than one project at a time–a big one plus some smaller ones that are going to get done a lot sooner. That way, the experience of a sense of accomplishment always feels within reach.

In a wonderful interview with WETA’s Reading Rockets [see transcript and/or videos below], you stated that you enjoyed biographies and non-fiction from an early age. What are some of the elements that children like to find in a good nonfiction children’s book?

As a ten-year-old, I read a biography both as history and as a projection of the future life I might lead. I wanted to know my options! I think we gravitate toward this or that kind of book–biography or fantasy, say–based on our inborn temperaments. I wanted certifiably true stories. Other children want “What if?” stories.

But a biography has to tell as good a story as one you would expect to find in a fantasy or realistic novel. The only essential difference is the biographer’s commitment to historical accuracy.

In that same WETA interview, you also said that becoming a parent had an impact on “the range of books that [you] would consider worthwhile.” In what ways did your view about books change after becoming a parent?

I became a lot more open-minded. I realized that children like books for all sorts of reasons, only some of which have to do with literature and art. My son was born within a week of the publication of my biography of Margaret Wise Brown (Harper, 1999).

A few months later, I read Jacob Goodnight Moon (1947) for the first time and I could see right away that he was totally bored! I had never heard of that reaction to Goodnight Moon before, and here was my own son having it.

He preferred a book I had gotten in the mail as a reviewer called Where’s My Squishy Ball? by Noelle Carter (Cartwheel, 1993).

I was glad to have that experience as it showed me that no book is right for every child, no matter how great its reputation. I would rather children have the chance to exercise their own judgment than be told they have to love this or that book–as if that were possible.

That’s the goal that Margaret Wise Brown was working for, too, and I think she would have been delighted by my son’s reaction.

Your biography, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon: A Biography of the Author of Goodnight Moon (Harper, 1999), is a really compelling book. What was it about this author that captured your attention?

I first read Goodnight Moon in a bookstore when I was in my late 20s. I had never heard of the book before then.

I had recently moved to New York City, was writing a lot of poetry, and was hoping to get a writing career going. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write, though.

A few years earlier, as an undergraduate history major, I had written a senior honors thesis on early American children’s books.

When I read Goodnight Moon that evening I responded to it first of all as a work of amazingly distilled poetry–a poem that even a two year old could understand. That kind of simplicity and clarity seemed like an ultimate achievement for a writer. I became curious about who had pulled it off.

The author bio on the back flap showed a photo of a movie-star-ish young woman who, it said, had written a great many children’s books and died very young. I thought about how much I had enjoyed reading biographies as a child and how as a college student I had enjoyed writing about the history of children’s books. These strands came together in the thought that I might now try to write a biography of a poet for children whose own book had sent a chill up my spine.

That of course, was just the beginning….and the more I looked into Brown’s career and her life story, the more I felt that I had found a really rich subject–someone who was as questioning and creative in the way she approached her life as she was original in her writing for children. Her story also turned out to be entwined with the history of American progressive education, the avant-garde New York art scene of the 1930s and 40s, post-war American Baby Boom culture, and on and on. I felt lucky to have found a subject that led me in so many directions. Of course, that also meant more work for me!

Are there aspects of children’s literature or forms of storytelling that you think touch children’s lives more than others? What literature contributes most to the life of children and to building a love of reading?

The answer would be different for different children. For preteens and teens of today who don’t see themselves as readers, I think graphic novels and funny books stand the best chance of serving as gateways to reading. For very small children, there are lots of wonderful read-aloud picture books.

The most important thing for children at the beginning is the experience of sharing a book with a loved and trusted older person. The good feeling that is conveyed by that experience is the main thing. It almost doesn’t matter what book is read.

What are some of the things happening in the world of children’s literature today that you think historians might be talking about in the future?

The impact of electronic delivery systems is certainly a topic for future–and present day–historians. I happen to think that traditional books on paper will last, though maybe not certain kinds of books–not dictionaries and other reference works for instance.

Picture books stand the best chance of lasting because the physical aspects of sharing them are central to the way they are read.

Future historians will have a lot to say about comics and graphic novels and how and why they went from being vilified to being regarded as mainstream. It will be interesting to look back at all the fantasy being written now to see, more clearly than we can now, what were the real-life concerns of our time that these writers used indirection to explore.

Lastly, as a trustee of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, and also as the author of Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children’s Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became An American Icon Along the Way (Golden Books, 2007), you have a special awareness of how the perception of children’s book art has changed over the last several decades.

What changes have you observed, and how would you say children’s book art is regarded today?

As printing technology has improved, illustrators’ options have increased. That’s a good thing. So is the fact that more young artists see illustrating children’s books as a worthy career goal. The field has gained greatly in status, and the talent pool has never been larger.

The Eric Carle Museum exists in part because this has been the trend. The time was right for a museum devoted to illustration. In turn, the establishment of the museum has carried the trend of greater recognition a big step further.

Japan already has a number of children’s book art museums. England has one and may soon have more. We’re seeing an international trend in the making, and that is all to the good!

On the dark side, the corporatization of children’s book publishing and book selling has distorted the creative environment for illustrators, putting undue pressure to have a steady stream of blockbuster books and illustrations that shine and sparkle and generally scream “buy me!” Artists have less time to learn the ropes and grow.

But publishing tends to be cyclical and self-regenerating, so I think it’s way too early to be pessimistic about the long term. As I said a moment ago, picture books may be the last traditional books left standing, and that means plenty of work for illustrators.

Cynsational Notes

Leonard Marcus is a rare bird—a distinguished children’s literature scholar who is also an award-winning writer for kids. His books include Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom; Golden Legacy; Minders of Make-Believe; and, most recently, Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy. Leonard is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and other publications and writes a regular column on picture books for The Horn Book. He has served as a judge of the Ragazzi Prize, the National Book Award, and on numerous other prize committees. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

See “Hopes and Dreams,” a segment from his excellent interview with Reading Rockets in the video below (4 minutes, 13 seconds). Give it a moment to load, and then press play. Note: the entire interview series is available; scroll for more segments.

See also, in the video below, Leonard on “Books for a Multiracial Society” (1 minute, 50 seconds). Other segments include: “Images of Children: From Idealism to Realism;” “Goodnight Moon: a New Kind of Children’s Book;” “The Golden Days of Golden Books;” “The Radicalism of Snowy Day and Stevie;” “The All-White World of Children’s Books;” “The Emergence of Books for Teens;” “Does Quality Matter;” “Current Trends in Children’s Literature;” “From Comic Book to Graphic Novels;” “Impact of Television on Storytelling;” “Understanding the World;” “A Matter of Temperament;” and “The High Art of Picture Books.”

Jenny Desmond Walters is the founding regional advisor of the SCBWI Korea chapter. She is an experienced education professional with a love of learning and literature. She has worked in public television developing curriculum and promoting instructional programs, as well as worked extensively with educational publishers and learning materials companies. For the last several years, Jenny has lived in east Asia where she has become an avid writer and observer of life in Japan and Korea. Her articles have been published in national children’s magazines and writing journals, and she has been a member of SCBWI for more than 10 years. Jenny currently resides in Seoul with her husband and three daughters, and she rarely runs out of interesting stories to write.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.