The Last 50 Years in U.S. Children’s Books

“Landmarks in the Last Fifty Years of American Children’s Books” (from Bologna — Fifty Years of Children’s Books from Around the World)

What follows is, more or less, a list of distinguished children’s books published in the United States during the last fifty years (1963–2013). I offer this essay with some misgivings. First, mine is an impossible task: to reduce fifty years to five thousand words. Next, I am sure to disappoint those who will complain that, given my poor and eccentric choices, I have left out their favorite books, prized the wrong ones, and overlooked the obvious. Humble, I go forward.
I have also been uncertain about what methodology I should employ. Should my remarks be organized chronologically or by themes and genres? And to what extent should I contextualize these works in terms of their times? My answer? I have decided to do all of the above — leaping, as it were, from what I reckon one landmark book to the next.

1. Picture Books

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are was published in 1963. That year, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson became the President of the United States, widening the war in Vietnam. At the Vatican, a beloved pope, John XXIII, was replaced by a colorless Paul VI. In those days, a popular children’s story in France meant Asterix; in Britain, Roald Dahl; in America, Walt Disney.

Unless you can recall those times, it may be difficult to conceive how Wild Things was a groundbreaking and controversial work. To Americans accustomed to thinking of the picture book in terms of the jangling verse of Dr. Seuss, Sendak’s story about Max and his monsters did something surprising by taking up a taboo topic (a child’s anger against his parent) in a psychological way. Sendak explored similar terrains but with greater sophistication in two later books — In the Night Kitchen (1970) and Outside Over There (1981)–that he saw joined to Wild Things to form a trilogy.

This conjunction of developmental psychology and childhood fantasy was new thinking in 1963 and other gifted writer artists would do the same. A wonderful example is William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a 1969 offering that makes use of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s idea of “body armor” (muscular rigidity brought on by trauma) in a story about an immobilized donkey and a rock.

The other precedent-setting feature of Wild Things was its incredible flexibility of design. Echoing the narrative, pictures got larger and smaller, filled a right-hand page, then spilled over to the left, then reversed direction. Words marched up from the bottom or disappeared altogether. And that’s just the start of it. Every element of design was in play and, at the same time, others began to experiment with the picture book in liberated ways. Foremost among these was Eric Carle–perhaps best known for his The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969)–and his creation of the “Gesamtkunstwerk” or a book that employs every kind of thing (collage, layering, texture, cuts, holes, etc.).

This design trajectory lead, in a fashion, to Chris Van Allsburg — the other great American picture-book artist of the last fifty years. Here is a distinction: while Sendak first wrote the text of Wild Things and then added the pictures, Van Allsburg began his breakthrough book The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979) with pictures and later added the story at the prompting of his Houghton-Mifflin editor Walter Lorraine. But perhaps most representative of Van Allsburg’s pictures-first method is The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984).

Harris Burdick is essentially a portfolio of fourteen separate drawings. For example, one shows a man in a living room, holding a chair above his head and about to strike a mysterious and sizeable bump that is moving under the carpet (caption: “Under the Rug: Two weeks passed and it happened again”). Another shows a nun seated on a chair floating twenty feet above the ground in a church while two priests, their arms clasped behind them, eye this unusual levitation (caption: “The Seven Chairs: The fifth one ended up in France”). In his book, Van Allsburg invites children to make up stories to go with these pictures, and I understand they have sent him reams of narratives prompted by his drawings.

This notion of the picture book as Rohrsach test lies behind Van Allsburg’s other successes, like Jumanji (1981) and The Polar Express (1985). And it has inspired other artists, including prize-winning David Weisner (also known as “The Wordless Author”).

2. Fantasy

Turning from picture books to fantasy, we can bracket the period with two stories featuring mice that were written a generation apart. The Mouse and His Child (1967) is an extraordinary work by Russell Hoban, an American writer who visited England in 1969 and never returned, making a new home for himself there. As if crossing Jean Paul Sartre with Antoine St. Exupery, this fantasy novel presents “existentialism for kids” in a fable of genuine interest to young and old alike. It concerns characters who are wind-up toys but escape their fixed lives and become refugees in the larger world where they are pursued by the villain Manny Rat and seek a place they can call home. The central concern of the book is the characters’ wish to escape “clockwork rules” and become “self-winding.”

To be sure, The Mouse and His Child very much seems a child of its times, reflecting the countercultural Sixties. In terms of fleeing “clockwork rules” and becoming “self-winding,” one thinks of Benjamin Braddock (played by the actor Dustin Hoffman) in the film “The Graduate” or the carpe diem nonchalance of the motorcyclists in “Easy Rider,” two signature movies of the era. Or one thinks of the transformations in popular music as Henry Mancini gave way to Bob Dylan, Barbara Streisand to Janis Joplin, and Herb Alpert (and the Tijuana Brass) to Jerry Garcia (and the Grateful Dead).

Some thirty-three years after Hoban’s novel appeared, Kate DiCamillo would publish a book also featuring a nonconformist mouse (Desperaux) and a villainous rat (Roscuro) clearly inspired by Hoban’s antagonist Manny Rat. The Tale of Desperaux (2003) concerns a princess still grieving about the loss of her mother and now kept in a prison torture chamber. Indeed, as the story alternates between the bright and shiny upstairs and the murky depths of the downstairs dungeon, it becomes clear that the subject of this wonderful fantasy is nothing less than the classic clash between the Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness.

If The Mouse and His Child reflected the Sixties, we can say that The Tale of Desperaux did not so much seem to reflect its own times as predict them. In an uncanny way, DiCamillo’s fantasy seemed to anticipate the flavor of the Bush Years. The grief over the loss of a loved one (that animates DiCamillo’s tale) would be the central subject of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which won the National Book Award two years later in 2005. The prison with a torture chamber (a dreaded locale in DiCamillo’s book) became the major news story of 2004 as the scandal broke about American mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. And the battle between the Forces of Light and the Forces of Darkness in DiCamillo’s book? Following the tragedies now known collectively as “September 11,” that is how Americans came to see their war on terrorism in the decade that began with the inauguration of President George Bush (fils) and ended with the election of Barack Obama.

3. Race, Ethnicity and Identity

Reflecting social and political movements to achieve equality for racial and ethnic minorities, spurred by the wish to hear voices and stories that had gone “unheard” when publishing catered exclusively to the majority culture, providing a fertile way to explore identity beyond the confines of the individual, the appearance of “hyphenated” American children’s books (Asian-American, Mexican-American, Italian-American, Irish-Americans, et al.) has been one of the most identifiable and fertile developments in U.S. publishing during the last decades. It began with African-Americans and an endeavor to preserve cultural history.

In 1985, Virginia Hamilton collected twenty-four African-American folk tales dealing with aerial themes in an anthology called The People Could Fly. The title story, for example, relates how some Africans had a magical ability to go airborne but were, nonetheless, caught and sent to America as slaves. When Sarah is mercilessly whipped in the cotton fields, she appeals to grey-bearded Toby who conjures up the old magic and Sarah wings away with her baby, to the consternation of her slave masters. Soon others join in this angelic procession to freedom; and those unable to do so, pass along this story of hope to future generations. This tale, let me add, recalls Hamilton’s earlier and prize-winning young adult novel M.C. Higgins, the Great (1974) with its account both of a slave mother escaping to freedom and of her descendant, a contemporary boy whose own adolescent desire for freedom manifests itself in his wish to fly.

This same effort at historical recovery also inspires Mildred D. Taylor’s prize-winning Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) and its presentation of race relations in rural Mississippi during the 1930’s. Here is the story of nine-year-old Cassie Logan’s growing up. But this historical novel also tells about a beleaguered community of black farmers and store-owning whites, about sharecroppers and lynch mobs, about “nigra” schools and boycotts, and about “night riders” coming in the middle of the night to harass black families and bullets flying. As chance would have it, in adult quarters that same year, Alex Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a best-selling novel that was made into a popular television program by which millions of Americans began to learn about two hundred years of African-American history beginning when Kunta Kinte was kidnaped in Ghana and made a slave.

Roots reminded Americans that the United States is, largely, an immigrant nation: its citizens having ultimately come from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Africa and Vietnam; from Polish shtetls, Scandinavian farms, Khymer communities, and countless other places. In that regard, it is worth noticing how often the story of immigration is also often a memoir about childhood (think of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, for example) and sometimes a story for children. There seems, in other words, a vital link between a story of childhood and the immigrant experience.

Pam Muñoz Ryan’s award-winning Esperanza Rising (2000) is a topnotch portrait of Latin immigration. Part fiction and part memoir, this novel is the story of a Mexican family coming to California in the 1930’s when the Golden State was crowded with many refugees from poverty and the Dust Bowl. In an afterword, Muñoz Ryan tells how her book was inspired by the experiences of her grandmother Esperanza Ortega who came to the United States, worked in the fields, and lived in the growers’ camps.

For the novel’s twelve-year-old heroine Esperanza, however, crossing the border means a fall from grace. In Mexico, she lived a life of luxury as the only daughter of a wealthy hacienda owner; but when her father is killed and her avaricious uncles conspire, Esperanza and her mother are forced to flee north with little more than the clothes on their backs. In her new and impoverished situation in a farm workers’ camp, Esperanza is eager to help but first must learn how to sweep with a broom, bathe herself with water from a tin tub shared by others, and (disguising her age) work alongside adults in the fields.

Esperanza and her family pick fruit and vegetables in the Central Valley, suffer from illness and racism, and hesitate to join a farm workers’ strike because there are so many mouths to feed. At times, she feels defeated; at other times, impatient. But by the end of the novel — when her mother recovers from a long and debilitating illness, when she is at last reunited with her beloved grandmother, and when she dreams of eventually owning her own little home — Esperanza comes to embody her name (in English, “Hope”).

4. “Y.A.” or Young Adult

There was a point when it seemed all we had for young adult novels by contemporary writers was J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Then, a decade later, “y.a.” fiction or “young adult” literature took off and became a recognizable genre both at publishing houses and on dedicated shelves at bookstores that were stocked with the likes of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974). The genre received an entirely new spin when Weetzie Bat was published in 1989.

When teens sported spiked and colored hair, when pixie princesses dressed in 1950’s prom dresses and cowboy boots, and when Cyndi Lauper was singing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Francesca Lia Block introduced her punk heroine Weetzie Bat in the novel by that name. Set in Los Angeles when Madonna was the new phenomenon, Block’s book is part fairy tale and part punk novel. The work it most resembles is Tim Burton’s terrific young-adult film of the time, “Edward Scissorhands” (1990).

Three characteristics make up Weetzie Bat’s sensibility. 1) A quirky crew: The major characters are Weetzie and her boyfriend (also known as Secret Agent Man), the star-crossed gay couple Dirk and Duck, and the infant foundlings Cherokee and Witch Baby as well as their Chinese and Jamaican godparents (Ping-Chong and Jah-Love). 2) A happy, sad tone: The novel is flavored by a certain weltschmerz, a cheerful lightness of childhood (where a bunch of friends, all pretty much the same age, live together in a Hollywood bungalow and have nicknames and wear Indian headdresses) that is threatened by encroaching darkness (of maturity, relationship heartbreaks, and the loss of loved ones). And, finally, 3) magical realism: Like the television series “Bewitched” (which underwent a cult revival during this period) and the work of Gabriel García Márquez, Block’s novel is a realistic story occasionally shot through with fairy-tale elements (like the magic wish-granting lamp of Weetzie’s grandma). The quirky, weltschmerz, magical realism–these would become the hallmarks of subsequent y.a. novels, as we can see in the following representative works.

With their windswept trailers and government-check poverty, California’s desert communities are often the last stop for the quirky and the woebegone. Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky (2006) is their novel. Here is Short Sammy (who lives in a converted metal water tank), Lincoln (a schoolboy genius keen on knot-tying), Dot (who owns the Baubles and Beauty Salon), Miles (a five year old who constantly wants others to read to him his favorite book, P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?), Lucky (our ten-year-old hero who is the only person in town with a job, sweeping out The Found Object and Wind Chime Museum), and Brigitte (the woman who has flown over from France to temporarily care for Lucky after Lucky’s mother died).

Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) is a Native American novel that introduces Junior, a wimp and fourteen-year-old high-school student from the Spokane Indian Reservation. He is also a smart aleck with a PG-13-rated mouth. Trouble begins when Junior takes his teacher’s advice and transfers to the better white high school some miles from the Reservation; his best friend and other tribal members see him as a traitor. But Junior is escaping the Rez’s omnipresent alcoholism and tragedy that bring, in these same pages, the deaths of his sister, a family friend, his grandmother, and even his dog. Here may be what is difficult to understand: the book is often witty and downright hilarious. This peculiar tone, this mixture of the sad and funny, this weltschmerz, turns out to be a measure of Junior’s resilience and this book’s authenticity.

In her own recipe for magical realism, Rebecca Stead mixes Madeline L’Engle’s sci-fi series A Wrinkle in Time with the Manhattan Story (in books like E.L. Konigsburg’s The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler) to create her prize-winning When You Reach Me (2009). Set on the Upper West Side in the 1980’s, when moms wore orange turtlenecks with a denim skirts and purple striped tights, this book tells about Miranda, a savvy latchkey kid who is good at navigating the streets by herself and dealing with friends and rivals at her school. But the apparent ordinariness of Miranda’s sixth-grade life is upended when it becomes clear that time-travel is not just theoretical.

5. Dystopias

In the decade in which The Giver (1993) was published, the tragic place names that were common in the news were Sarajevo, Rwanda, Kuwait, Oklahoma City, and Waco. In those cynical times, the names heard most frequently were O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Rodney King, and the Unabomber. Also reflecting the dark mood of the times was “The Matrix,” popular movie in the 1990s that seemed to have all the answers and presented a vision of the universe as one vast, evil conspiracy. Is it any wonder, then, that adolescents at that time, hordes of tattooed and pierced youths dressed in grunge and goth attire, saw themselves as so many movie extras standing on the brink of a cinematic Apocalypse, scanning the smoking fires on the horizon, and seeing in the Future even more dehumanization, totalitarian governments, and environmental disasters.

Welcome to the world of Suzanne Collins’ popular and best-selling Hunger Games trilogy: The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010). In some postapocalyptic era, America has fallen upon hard times. While the Capitol prospers, the impoverished Districts are required to annually send their youth to slay each other in televised gladiatorial games. Our heroine is Katness Everdeen, a kind of green version of Steig Larsson’s Lisbeth (in The Girl With the Golden Tattoo), Diana, a skilled archer and canny media celebrity, our girl on the barricades, our sacrificial virgin, our warrior goddess, our Joan of Arc.

To my way of thinking, Collins’ Hunger Games was inspired by Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Lowry was there first: with the dystopian story, the futuristic society gone bad, the teen rebels who are also celebrities, and the notion that salvation will come from some futuristic equivalent of Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood. [ill. 3]

The Giver is one of the truly remarkable books of the last fifty years and the one that ushered in the current craze for young-adult dystopian fiction. An anti-authoritarian story, The Giver describes a supposedly perfect community of the future where its citizens have embraced the Principle of Sameness as a way of warding off trouble and pain even though this results in their having shallow lives. The exception is young Jonas who has been chosen to receive the memories of the Giver about the community’s history and about the time before Sameness was embraced. The discovery of variety–in particular, color — in the novel’s denouement provides a breakthrough sensory moment akin to that in the 1990 movie based on Oliver Sack’s Awakenings.

Besides The Giver, another noteworthy offering in the dystopian category is M.T. Anderson’s Feed (2002). In this high tech future, data-mining is the main occupation of corporations and the price of free internet access is an embedded chip (a feed) that constantly streams commercials and monitors consumer behavior. Teens may attend School™ but mostly they message each other in advanced telepathic ways or go to malls where they get high by screwing up the circuitry on their embedded chip. We follow the story of Titus and Violet, two star-crossed cyberpunks who wish to escape mind control and gated communities. (See Romeo and Juliet.) This is impressive work by M.T. Anderson, a kind of polymathic genius, who appears in the next section as well.

6. History Wars

In his now famous A People’s History of the United States (1980), Howard Zinn pointed out that the American Revolution has always been employed to present an establishment version of this country’s past where everyone aspired to be white, male, and Anglo-Saxon. But during the 1970’s, activists and multiculturalists and Zinn himself asked: What about the voices and views of others–slaves, for example, and immigrants and Native Americans? One answer has come from historical fiction for young people. In the last decade, there have been four prize-winning works by two authors that have presented “unheard voices” of the American Revolution by having African-Americans tell their stories.

M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation (2006) is an astonishing work and, in my opinion, the most important children’s book to be published in the U.S. in the last fifty years. Volume I: The Pox Party introduces Octavian Nothing, a slave child who is given a classical education by a circle of philosophers at the Novanglian College of Lucidity because they are conducting experiments on him to discover whether Africans are indeed humans and equal to Europeans. Taking advantage of a smallpox epidemic raging in colonial Boston and following the death of his mother, Octavian escapes his captors and joins the American rebels outside the city who are likewise fighting for their freedom–albeit, of a different kind. In fact, we discover, political freedom for colonials does not include freedom for slaves, and Octavian is betrayed and returned to his owners. Told in Eighteenth Century language, presenting a story that needs to be traced through maps and other clues, this book is a breathtaking masterpiece on a par with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

In Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves (2008), Anderson continues Octavian’s story when he hears that Lord Dunmore is forming an Ethiopian Regiment of escaped slaves and promising them their freedom in return for their fighting on the side of the British. With that hope, Octavian makes his way through rebel lines to Norfolk, Virginia, just as the British are forced to retreat to their ships and smallpox breaks out. A traitor to the hopes of many, Dunmore goes back on his word, getting rich by selling the escaped Africans back into slavery and Octavian flees, finally finding his way back to Boston where the College of Lucidity has gone to ruin and where his former owners lay dying. At this moment which seems absolutely hopeless, Octavian flees once again, this time heading towards the promising freedom of the Western frontier. Like its predecessor, Volume II is an epic work and a dark meditation on the meanings of freedom.

The other pair of novels to present “unheard voices” of the American Revolution is the work of another Anderson, in this case Laurie Halse Andersen. Her Chains (2008) allows Isabel, an escaped slave, to tell her own story of hurt and betrayal: how she should have been freed but was wrongly sold again, how she was separated from her five-year-old epileptic sister, how she spied for the rebels on the promise of her freedom but never got it, and how she was branded on her cheek with the letter “I” for her insolence. A sequel, Anderson’s Forge (2010) is told by another slave, Curzon, who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other rebels at George Washington’s winter encampment in Valley Forge but tragically discovers that his wish for freedom from slavery does not go hand-in-hand with America’s wish for freedom from England. Both books are immensely moving and monuments to historical research.

7. Graphic Times

Brian Selznick’s Hugo Cabret–a graphic novel that is part film script, part story board–seemed unprecedented to many when it appeared in 2007. Indeed, a controversy ensued the following year when the book won the American Library Association’s Caldecott Award, a prize normally reserved for a children’s picture book. Critics complained that this unclassifiable beast, some 533 pages of pencil drawings and text, was not a picture book along the lines of, say, Goodnight Moon or Peter Rabbit. Moreover, this wasn’t a children’s book; this story (of a twelve-year-old orphan living in a Paris railway station at the end of the Nineteenth Century) had “adolescent” written all over it. In 2011 Martin Scorcese released his 3D film “Hugo” based on the book.

But this is what is important to know: Hugo Cabret was not unprecedented, nor was it unclassifiable. Instead, it was like the suddenly noticed peak of an iceberg that calls attention to a wide and sizeable world underneath. Hugo Cabret made suddenly visible to the uninitiated the wide and longstanding realm of graphic storytelling: comics and manga, Art Spiegleman and Will Eisner, Felix the Cat and Scrooge McDuck, Neil Gaiman and Harvey Pekar, Jughead and Beetle Bailey, Wolverine and the Sandman, Spiderman and Superman. Graphic stories have a long history in the U.S. and they have also been spurred to new heights by the appearance of inspiring artists like the Australian genius Shaun Tan and works like his The Arrival (2006). For home-grown talent we can turn to Selznick or Gene Yang–whose prize-winning account of growing up, American Born Chinese (2006), is told in a high-flying graphic novel that is formatted like a comic book.

Honestly speaking, as a work of graphic storytelling, I find Selznick’s new book Wonderstruck (2011) a genuine accomplishment and more interesting than Hugo Cabret. In the earlier book, Selznick seemed to switch arbitrarily between text and picture when his interest flagged. In Wonderstruck, however, the alternation between mediums is deliberate and canny because he is telling two separate stories that parallel each other: the one about young Ben in the 1970s is told largely in words, while Rose’s story from the 1920s is largely told in pictures. Adding complexity and depth, Selznick makes both adolescents deaf, thereby creating a need to understand their world in visual terms and giving the term “silent film” more pointed meaning. Wonderstruck is a 640-page masterpiece with more than 400 pencil drawings.

Conclusion: Children’s Books for All Ages

During the last fifty years, there has been a boom in children’s publishing. What is remarkable is that this has been driven in a large way by adult interest. Statistics show, for example, that Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, like the Harry Potter books, has been purchased in equal numbers by youngsters and oldsters. A recent research report in Publishers’ Weekly (13 September 2012) makes a similar point: fully 55% of all “young adult” books (targeted at readers between the age of 12 and 17) are actually purchased by adults (well beyond their teen years) who don’t plan to pass them along to an adolescent. Finally, anecdotal evidence collected by publishers indicates that a third of all picture books are purchased by grown-ups who plan to keep them for themselves.

Population statistics tell a related story. In an era when picture books and y.a. novels have been flying off the shelves, the number of children in the population has actually dropped dramatically. In the early 1960s, the proportion of family households that included a child under the age of 18 peaked at 57% but by 2008 that number had fallen to 46%; as the New York Times (15 November 2012) neatly summarized, “there are now more American houses with dogs than with children.” So, who is buying all those children’s books? If someone really wanted to know, some of their time might be best spent among those in categories that census takers say are growing: childless couples and single-person households. Here, however, may be the most telling statistic: Between 1982 and 1990–in other words, well before the first Harry Potter book appeared in 1997 — sales of children’s books quadrupled while the number of children (aged five to thirteen) fell to about half of what that number had been in 1957.

Ultimately, what this data reveals is that adults, along with the young, have discovered gold in the realm of children’s books. That comes as no surprise. After all, only in the last fifty years have we been able to enjoy picture books by Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg, ponder the fantasies of Russell Hoban and Kate DiCamillo, feel touched by accounts of injustice in books by Virginia Hamilton and Pam Muñoz Ryan, admire the pluck of young people created by Francesca Lia Block and Lois Lowry, and visit the past in the brilliant company of M.T. Anderson and Brian Selznick. Readers of all ages have reasons to feel lucky.

This essay was originally presented as a lecture in Italy at the 2013 Bologna Children’s Book Fair and collected in an anniversary album “Bologna — Fifty Years of Children’s Books from Around the World,” edited by Giorgia Grilli (Bologna: Bononia University Press, 2013) along with contributions from notable scholars and critics like Sandra Beckett, Leonard Marcus, Jeffrey Garrett, Martin Salisbury, Nina Goga, Zohar Shavit, and others. I’m sorry to say the volume is now out of print but some contributors have made their essays available at other sites: Juan Mata Anaya and Junko Yokota.

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