Posts tagged Children’s literature

A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teenager: From Philip Nel’s Blog, Nine Kinds of Pie

Philip Nel is the author of several books about children’s literature and the director of Kansas State University’s Program in Children’s Literature. He’s also the creator of the website Nine Kinds of Pie, which takes its name from a line in Harold and the Purple Crayon.

He recently published a post that I wanted to share with my readers titled “A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teenager” in which he perfectly expresses all the things I think and feel about children’s books. And, like Nel, I began collecting children’s books as a teenager.

I’ve copied his post below, but I urge readers to check out Nel’s site as well.


Those of us who read, create, study, or teach children’s literature sometimes face skepticism from other alleged adults.  Why would adults take children’s books seriously?  Shouldn’t adults be reading adult books?

There are many responses to these questions:

  1. Children’s books are the most important books we read because they’re potentially the most influential books we read. Children’s books reach a young audience still very much in the process of becoming. They stand to make a deeper impression because their readers are much more impressionable.
  2. Adults who dismiss children’s literature neglect their responsibilities as parents, educators, and citizens. What future parents, teachers, doctors, construction workers, soldiers, leaders, citizens read is of the utmost importance, if for no other reason than some of us will continue live in the world they inherit. If books leave such a powerful impression on young minds, then giving them good books is vital.
  3. Almost no children’s literature is written, illustrated, edited, marketed, sold, or taught by children. Adults — and adults’ idea of “children” — create children’s books. It’s profoundly hypocritical for an adult to suggest children’s literature as unworthy of adult attention. Indeed, adults who make such claims are either hypocrites, fools, or both.
  4. Children are as heterogeneous a group as adults are. There is no universal child, just as there is no universal adult. Defining the readership of any work of “children’s literature” is a tricky, sticky, complex task. Paradoxically and as the term itself indicates, “children’s literature” is defined by its audience — it’s for children. It thus a literature for an audience whose tastes, reading ability, socio-economic status, hobbies, health, culture, interests, gender, home life, and race varies widely. Children’s literature is literature for an unknowable, unquantifiable group. The very term “children’s literature” is a problem. Only someone who has never thought about children or what they read could argue that children’s literature does not merit serious consideration.
  5. Children’s literature has aesthetic value. Good children’s books are literature. Good picture books are portable art galleries. If we don’t take children’s literature seriously, then we diminish an entire art form and those who read it. We also prevent ourselves from being able to distinguish quality works from inferior ones — thus neglecting our responsibilities outlined in no. 2, above. This is not to suggest that we can or should all agree on what is a great children’s book. We can’t and we shouldn’t. What we can and should do is care about what makes children’s books bad or good, average or classic, banal or beautiful.

But my focus in this post is less on those preceding five points (or the many other points that could be added) and more on a sixth point: that children’s books have much to give those of us who are no longer children. There are levels of meaning we may have missed when we read the book as a child. There are experiences adults have that grant us interpretations unavailable to less experienced readers — just as children may arrive at interpretations unavailable to adults who have forgotten their own childhoods. In children’s books, there is art, wisdom, beauty, melancholy, hope, and insight for readers of all ages.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverWhat inspires me to make this sixth claim is that I have no memory of reading Harold and the Purple Crayon as a child. As an adult, I created a website devoted to the book’s creator, Crockett Johnson, and wrote a biography of Johnson and his wife, fellow-children’s book writer Ruth Krauss. But the book that inspired both website and biography is completely absent from my memories of early childhood.

The book does appear in memories of those memories. In eighth grade, when I had long since “graduated” into reading chapter books, my mother got a job teaching at a private school, thus enabling my sister and I to attend the school for free. Once a week (or was it once a month?), there was a faculty meeting after the end of the school day. During that meeting, my sister and I were left alone in the school library to do our homework. She did her homework. I did not. Instead, I wandered over to the picture books and began reading them. There, I rediscovered Harold and the Purple Crayon, a book I then remembered fondly from my pre-school days. I also realized that there were other books about Harold — Harold’s Trip to the Sky, Harold’s ABC. Had I read these other Harold stories when I was younger? I wasn’t sure. But I knew they were just as enchanting as the first Harold book.

So, at the age of 14 — an age when you might expect a person to be reading Young Adult novels — I began to collect paperbacks of Crockett Johnson’s Harold books.

I don’t know what needs were fulfilled by those particular words and pictures. Perhaps it was the books’ presentation of the imagination as a source of power and possibility. Maybe Harold’s iconic, clear-line style better enabled me to identify with him as he, and his crayon, navigated an uncertain, emerging landscape.

For that matter, I don’t know why, as a freshman in college, I adopted as my bedtime reading A. A. Milne’s The World of Pooh and The World of Christopher Robin. (The former contains both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner; the latter collects all the verse from When We Were Very Young and Now We are Six.)

My point is that books “for children” can speak to people of all ages and backgrounds — if we are ready to listen. It’s hard to predict when or why we will be ready to listen. It is indeed dangerous to assume that recommended age-ranges on the backs of books will tell us anything about who may read those books. When I read and re-read the Harold stories at age 14, the books did not then have age ranges on them, though I note that a more recent copy of Harold’s Fairy Tale claims it’s for “Ages 3 to 8.” As Philip Pullman has said of his own work,

I did not intend the book for this age, and not that; for one class of reader, and not others. I wrote it for anyone who wants to read it, and I want as many readers as I can get, and I want to meet them honestly…. For a book to claim “This was written for children of 11+”, when it simply wasn’t, is to tell an untruth.


Books “for children” or “for teenagers” are books for all who are ready to listen to them. They are for all who recognize that art cannot be confined within such narrow labels.

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My Book House, edited by Olive Beaupré Miller: a treasure trove of children’s literature.

My Book House

All Ages

Edited by Olive Beaupré Miller


12 Volume Set

Originally published 1920

The Book House for Children

Out of print


In the “About Me” section of this blog I mention how much I loved this series growing up. This may surprise readers, considering I obviously read and love books now, but there were not a lot of books in my home growing up, and I was not much of a reader. Loving to read didn’t really come until I was an adult. However, my family did have a complete set of the My Book House books and I loved them. In fact, we all loved them.

Olive Beaupré Miller was a fascinating woman and ahead of her time. Though there’s not a lot of material written about her, this biographical note contains some amazing highlights. A graduate of Smith College, she began writing rhymes and stories to entertain her young daughter (in addition to editing My Book House Miller also wrote many of the entries). After publishing three books, she founded The Book House for Children publishing company with her husband in 1919; in 1920 the first volume of My Book House (titled In the Nursery) was published.

My Book House was the first collection of children’s literature specifically arranged to meet the developing needs and abilities of children at different ages. Each entry had to meet the following three criteria (taken from Miller’s introduction):

“First, To be well equipped for life, to have ideas and the ability to express them, the child needs a broad background of familiarity with the best in literature.

Second, His stories and rhymes must be selected with care that he may absorb no distorted view of life and its actual values, but may grow up to be mentally clear about values and emotionally impelled to seek what is truly desirable and worthwhile in human living.

Third, The stories and rhymes selected must be graded to the child’s understanding at different periods of his growth, graded as to vocabulary, as to subject matter and as to complexity of structure and plot.”

And these books still fulfill that mission today. While some stories are admittedly dated—at the very least, some characters of color should be included in the art—most of the material is still worthy of attention and much of the material is still important to current American and European culture.

The first set of My Book House books consisted of six black, cloth-covered books that were published between 1920 and 1922. Later the black cloth was changed to green and three storybooks were added—Tales Told in Holland, Little Pictures of Japan, and Nursery Friends from France. Occasionally these sets can be found inside a custom wooden house that was created for promotional purposes in the mid-1930s. We had one such set for sale while I was working at Books of Wonder and it was beautiful.

Around 1930 the six-volume set was expanded to twelve. The content was mostly unchanged (some tales from the three storybooks were incorporated) and the concept remained the same: the books were meant to “grow” with the children with early volumes containing nursery rhymes and simple stories and later volumes containing Chaucer and Shakespeare. There were updated versions in 1937 and again in 1971 (in later printings at least two stories, Little Black Sambo and The Tar Baby, were replaced with less racist material). The whole set went out of print in the early 70s.

There were different cover designs over the years; the set that I grew up with—which my mother purchased from a door-to-door salesman—consisted of twelve books and was printed in the 1950s. The first book in the series was covered in light green cloth, the last in light blue; the color of the books in between ranged between the two hues, like a rainbow of greens & blues. Each volume had a gorgeously illustrated color-plate affixed to the front cover; Volume 9’s cover art is by N. C. Wyeth.

All twelve volumes are beautifully illustrated throughout with color and black and white art. The wide variety of artists includes Milo Winter (famous for his art in Aesop’s Fables for Children), Maud and Miska Petersham (1946 Caldecott Medal winners), Palmer Cox (creator of The Brownies), Johnny Gruelle (creator of Raggedy Anne and Andy), Garth Williams (illustrator of many books including Charlotte’s Web), W.W. Denslow (illustrator of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) and many other important and recognizable names.

The highly varied literary material is of the highest caliber. Authors include Rudyard Kipling (author of The Jungle Book), Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women), the English poets Robert Browning, William Wordsworth and William Blake, Lewis Carroll (author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), Robert Lewis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island), and countless others.


Vol1Volume 1, In the Nursery, is heavily illustrated with art on every page and begins with Mother Goose and English nursery rhymes. It moves on to poems and rhymes from around the world, and ends with what are referred to as “experience stories,” which are basically simple tales of everyday life. For instance, a story titled “What the Children Do in Summer” by Pearl S. Buck, outlines how five different children like to spend their summer days.


Vol2Volume 2, Story Time, is also heavily illustrated but slightly less so than Volume 1; this volume tends to have only one or two pieces of art per page. It begins with short, repetitive and rhythmic stories and moves onto slightly longer, and highly recognizable stories such as Beatrix Potter’s “A Tale of Peter Rabbit,” Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” and Fables by Aesop.

It was this volume that contained “Little Black Sambo,” (the stand-alone book is actually titled The Story of Little Black Sambo) which was later replaced; the set I own contains this story. Interestingly, the illustrations feature distinctly Indian characters as opposed to Bannerman’s own art featured in the stand-alone book, which was stereotypical of the time, and racist.


Vol3Volume 3, Up One Pair of Stairs, introduces readers to simple fairy tales, more complex poetry and ends with an excerpt from Charles Kingsley’s “Water Babies.” I remember this last story making a strong impression on me as a child and I read it again and again.

This volume is also heavily illustrated and we begin to see art by some of the most influential illustrators for children: Kate Greenaway, Randolph Caldecott and Walter Crane.


Vol4Volume 4, Through the Gate, contains more fairy tales, including “Cinderella” and “Snow White and Rose Red,” and popular American folktales, such as “Pecos Bill” and “Old Johnny Appleseed.” This volume is still heavily illustrated but the art becomes sparser, befitting of material for this age group, with occasional spreads featuring only text.



Vol5Volume 5, Over The Hills, continues with folktales but also includes stories of important inventions (for example, the use of steam in trains and boats) and highlights of American history and historical figures, as well as excerpts from “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White and “Winnie-the-Pooh” by A.A. Milne.




Vol6Volume 6, Through Fairy Halls, is best described by Miller herself:

“[These stories] relate music, art and science to literature in the period when boys and girls are of an age to wander freely in any sort of Wonderland.”

One of the most interesting entries may be “The Fairyland of Science,” which is a story of Jean-Henri Fabre whom is considered to be the father of modern entomology.


Vol7Volume 7, The Magic Garden, contains more complex folktales and fairy tales and includes the first known “Cinderella” story, an Egyptian tale titled “Rhodopis and Her Gilded Sandals.” As discussed in my review of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version, every culture has its own collection of tales passed from generation to generation and many tales have sister stories in other cultures—Cinderella is one such story.

This book also includes a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, and excerpts of works by William Shakespeare and Nathaniel Hawthorne. By this volume art appears every few pages; this frequency of illustrations remains the same through the rest of the series.


Vol8Volume 8, Flying Sails, turns from fairy tales to stories of adventure, both real—“The Adventures of General Tom Thumb” by Phineas T. Barnham, and imagined—“Gulliver’s Travels to Lilliput” by Jonathan Swift.





Vol9Volume 9, The Treasure Chest, is more of the same kind of stories that appeared in Volume 8. Among other true stories in this book, we have “Exploring the Wilderness,” the story of Daniel Boone and “The Adventures of Alexander Selkirk,” the shipwrecked sailor whose story inspired Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Included with other fictional stories are two Greek myths, two Norse myths, a story from the bible and “Hiawatha’s Fasting” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.


Vol10Volume 10, From the Tower Window, is comprised of heroic and romantic adventures taken from Russian, French, Spanish or Roman epics, as well as stories about Joan of Arc, Robert Bruce, and The Children’s Crusade.




Vol11Volume 11, In Shining Armor, continues the themes of Volume 10 with bits from German and Yugoslavian epics, along with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a story of Robert E. Lee, and a tale of Old New York by Washington Irving titled “Wolfert Webber, or Golden Dreams.”




Vol12Volume 12, Halls of Fame, concludes the series with stories about the lives of thirty-five (primarily American or English) authors. It also includes “The Story of Faust,” “An Interesting History of Old Mother Goose,” and “The World’s Greatest Epics.”




Each volume contains a preface (explaining how to best use that particular volume), and footnotes (though not interesting to a small child, they may be of great interest to older children and adult readers). Volume 1 also contains a forward that explains Miller’s reasons for creating such a set of books and Volume 12 contains three different indexes—“Authors, Titles and Leading Characters,” “Special Subjects” and “Character Building: A Guide for parents.”

My Book House is an encyclopedia of important writing from beginning to end. Miller says this in her preface to Volume 12:

“From the first volume of My BOOK HOUSE through this last one, a real attempt has been made to give the child a large acquaintance with the best in literature, presented to him in understandable form for his age at a given period, and we have constantly progressed with him as he grows until in “Halls of Fame” he is ready for this glimpse of literature as a whole.”

And I must say, Ms. Miller could not have been more right, for, while books did not surround me as a child, I had this gold mine at my fingertips. Long after I had “outgrown” the series I would still return to it to peruse the art or reread favorite stories. Having looked carefully through each volume while writing this post I realized how much of my literary knowledge (prior to my bookstore years) came from these twelve volumes. My Book House laid the foundation for what eventually became my passion for books and my love of reading.


Find used copies on Amazon.

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Bear Has a Story to Tell: An utterly sublime picture book.

Bear Has a Story to Tell


Picture Book

Ages 2 to 6

By Philip C. Stead

Illustrated by

Erin E. Stead

32 pages

Roaring Brook Press


Book Trailer


A lot of my friends are people who worked with me at Books of Wonder. A lot of those friends went on from Books of Wonder to become published writers and illustrators. They’ve made, and continue to make, great books and they are all extremely talented. I’m not saying that because they’re my friends either. They’ll tell you the same thing. This is all to say you may often see the term “Books of Wonder alum” on this site. In this case, it’s Erin E. Stead.

Each year, the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, honors the illustrator of the most distinguished American picture book for children with the Caldecott Medal. You can recognize it by the gold sticker, as on the cover of this book. 

Sick Day for Amos McGee, Erin E. Stead and Philip C. Stead’s first book, is extraordinary, and was awarded the Caldecott Medal. That was Erin’s first book. Philip is an illustrator, as well as a writer, and has published three other books of his own (Creamed Tuna Fish and Peas on Toast, Jonathan and the Big Blue Boat and A Home for Bird). Erin’s second book, And Then It’s Spring— written by Julie Fogliano, another Books of Wonder alum—is stunning. Bear Has a Story to Tell is Erin’s third book, and the second for the husband and wife team.

I am not overstating when I say this: these three contributions to the world of children’s books have already changed the industry. They are much appreciated additions with their sweet, simple stories and their exceptional art.

Erin’s art is delicate yet strong, tight yet free, subtle yet imposing, and overwhelmingly beautiful. Not every illustrator can draw and paint. Often, an artist’s strengths lie in one area or the other. Erin is a skilled draftsman and an amazing painter and she knows just when to let the right art form shine through. Her art appeals to all the senses; you can feel the wind, hear the leaves rustling, smell the winter air, feel the heavy sleep and taste the anticipation. Her art is breathtaking and frequently astounding.

Phil’s text is perfectly paced, allowing you to drink in the art. There’s nothing unnecessary or extraneous about the story. And nothing is missing. Volumes are being said with just a few sentences per page. It is precisely this kind of text that leads people to proclaim, “I could write a children’s book. It’s easy!” I assure you, it is not easy.

Bear has a story to tell. He’s getting sleepy but he’d like to share his story with his friends. Though his friends clearly love him, they do not have time for a story right now. Winter is coming and they must prepare. Mouse needs to gather seeds. Duck has to fly south.

Bear graciously understands when his friends decline, and even assists them with their tasks. It’s also time for Bear to prepare for winter, just as the first snowflakes fall.

Bear wakes in the spring, eager to tell his story. He waits patiently for each of his friends to rouse, or return, so he may gather them together.

All his friends are listening. Bear has a captive audience, and he can’t remember his story.

Bear’s friends offer ideas and suggestions; maybe it was about a bear, getting ready for winter. And maybe his friends were there too.

Bear Has a Story to Tell is an utterly sublime picture book.

View on Amazon

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