New Reviews

The ABC of It. Why Children’s Books Matter

The ABC of It. Why Children’s Books Matter Leonard S. Marcus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. vi + 232 pages. £33.00 (paperback).

The ABC of It is, fundamentally, the catalogue of an exhibition at the New York Public Library (2013-14), itself based on materials from the formidable Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota. It contains around 700 full-colour images, with precise bibliographical details, and copious notes and section summaries by Leonard S. Marcus, author of the highly competent history of American Children’s Literature, Minders of Make-Believe (2008). It is designed for the general public, and although the sub-title is not developed strongly, clearly sets out to impress the casual observer. And that casual observer is not, it would seem, expected to build from this book a structured picture of children’s literature as a discipline: reading the book sequentially (probably not the best way to do it) is very much akin to wandering through an exhibition. There are three broad (or vague) section titles - ‘Visions of Childhood’, ‘Off the Shelf – Giving and Getting Books’, and the commodious ‘The Art of the Picture Book’ which includes pop culture, Harry Potter, and Harriet the Spy - but beyond that, this is a book of random delights.

Given that the members of the IRSCL are not the general public, not predominantly Anglophone, they do not, one assumes, need to be impressed as to the importance of subject or its materials, and are likely (especially if they are entering the field) to be looking for at least some sort of coherent narrative, it may be as well to explain why I should want to recommend, such a book. Which I do – enthusiastically.

In the recent, and highly academic The Edinburgh Companion to Children’s Literature (2017), the editors, Clémentine Beauvais and Maria Nikolajeva consider the problem (2-4) – and Eugene Giddens offers ingenious solutions to it (305-313) – that confronts all scholars of children’s literature. This is that our subject is too big: there is too much to know, too much to grasp – and so we all, perforce, become specialists, held together as an academic community by little else than a name. Perhaps this is the nature of the beast, and yet I suspect that some older scholars might wonder whether there should be some central, basic core of knowledge or skill which we share, which distinguishes us from the members of any other discipline. All engineers must know their mathematics; all Shakespeareans must (one supposes) have at least read all the Bard’s plays.

So, what should we know? What counts as ‘basic knowledge’ and how do we acquire it? Being of a certain (advanced) age, I would argue that a grasp of the range of books that have been for children, and are for children both in the individual cultures in which we operate and more widely (this is, after all, above all, an international discipline) is necessary. If we understand contexts, and we can cite examples (even if we have not seen them) then, and perhaps only then, can we specialise. That means an encounter with history – but which history; whose history? Clearly the one-volume, single-author, unique-lens accounts which the last generation of children’s literature scholars grew up with are no longer viable or desirable - which may account for why the books that laid the foundations of the discipline in the Anglophone world, by F. J. Harvey Darton (1932), Mary F. Thwaite (1964), Marcus Crouch (1962, 1972), John Rowe Townsend (1965), or Gillian Avery (1975, 1994), are long out of print. Thus the skeleton of bibliographical and biblio-cultural history of Anglophone children’s books must be acquired piecemeal, through chapters in the Cambridge Companion (Grenby and Immel), or the Routledge Companion (Rudd) or the Oxford Handbook (Mickenberg and Vallone), the Bloomsbury Introduction (Coats), or A Very Short Introduction (Reynolds 2011).

At which point we can be grateful that our subject has such popular appeal, and that we can acquire at least a working bibliographical knowledge from user-friendly and copiously illustrated books such as Sarah Lawrance’s account of the resources of Seven Stories, the British National Centre for Children’s Books – Drawn from the Archive (2015). At the popular end of the market, we might find Julia Eccleshare’s 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up (2009), or Alan Powers’s Children’s Book Covers (2003); at the bibliophile’s end, Jill Shefrin’s One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature (2014). These are all beautiful books with outstanding production values and high standards of scholarship, even if that scholarship is not necessarily ‘formal’.

Importantly, they are not prescriptively-organised histories (although some are structured chronologically), and in that they may be better suited to the mental habits of the latest generation of scholars. It is not original to point out that ‘new’ media are changing the way that we think (see Hunt, Thompson and McIlnay), how data is organised, and how intellectual connections are made and communicated, and so it may well be that these books are apposite to the zeitgeist.

What then, of The ABC of It (a title almost certainly, and not inappropriately, alluding to the song ‘Teach Me Tonight’.) There are one or two examples of what the old critical guard might think of as the usual suspects – with, naturally enough, an American leaning – such as The New England Primer, and McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers – but otherwise, the word kaleidoscope does not seem out of place. Winnie-the-Pooh sits next to The Poky Little Puppy, one of the Little Golden Books (from 1942) ‘which revolutionized children’s book publishing in America’ and may well be the bestselling picture book of all time (95); there are Book Week posters; original artworks by Beatrix Potter, Wanda Gág, Margaret Wise Brown, Ezra Jack Keats, Robert Lawson, David Wiesner, and dummies of Amelia Bedelia; mini-features on The Story of Ferdinand, Randolph Caldecott, censorship, modern comics, nineteenth-century book covers, and international editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; dozens of examples from the Hess Collection of Dime Novels – including books by Edward Stratemeyer in his pre-syndicate days, such as Shorthand Tom the Reporter (1903); there is even a smattering of examples from the non-anglophone world – Japanese Fairy Tales, and Indian comics. All in all, a rich and informative smorgasbord.

Scholarship is changing: we live in a world where browsing is a necessity; where viewpoints are not stable, and connectivity is all. It is a world in which a book such as The ABC of It can have a useful and happy place: it has enough traditional virtues to make it appeal to older scholars, enough information to make it of immense value to new scholars, and enough sheer joie de vivre to give pleasure to both.


Avery, G. Childhood’s Pattern: a Study of the Heroes and Heroines of Children’s Fiction 1770–1950. Leicester: Hodder and Stoughton, 1975.

Avery, G. Behold the Child: American Children and their Books. London: Bodley Head; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Beauvais, C., & Nikolajeva, M. (eds.) The Edinburgh Companion to Children’s Literature. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

Coats, C. The Bloomsbury Introduction to Children’s and Young Adult Literature. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

Crouch, M. Treasure Seekers and Borrowers. Children’s Books in Britain, 1900-1960. London: Library Association, 1962.

Crouch, M. The Nesbit Tradition, the Children’s Novel in England 1945–1970. London: Benn, 1972.

Darton, F. J. H. Children’s Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932. [3rd edn. rev. B. Alderson, London: British Library; New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1999.]

Eccleshare, J. (ed.) 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up. London: Cassell Illustrated, 2009.

Giddens, E. ‘Distant Reading and Children’s Literature’, in Beauvais, C., & Nikolajeva, M. (eds.) The Edinburgh Companion to Children’s Literature. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017, 305-313.

Grenby, M. O. & Immel, A. (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Hunt, P. ‘Futures for Children's Literature: evolution or radical break?’ Cambridge Journal of Education, 30, 1, 2000, pp.111-119. [Reprinted in P. Hunt (ed.) Children’s Literature: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, London and New York, Routledge, 2006, I: pp. 237-245.]

Lawrance, S. Drawn from the Archives. Newcastle: Seven Stories, 2015.

Marcus, L. S. Minders of Make Believe. Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

Mickenberg, J. and Vallone, L. (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Powers, A. Children’s Book Covers. Great Book Jacket and Cover Design. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003.

Reynolds, K. Children’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Rudd, D. (ed.) The Routledge Companion to Children’s Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

Thompson, R. & McIlnay, M.‘Nobody Wants to Read Anymore! Using a Multimodal Approach to Make Literature Engaging.’ Children’s Literature in English Language Education, 2019. 7,1.

Shefrin, J. One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature. New York: The Grolier Club, 2014.

Thwaite, M. F. From Primer to Pleasure: an Introduction to the History of Children's Books in England. London: Library Association, 1964.

Townsend, J. R. Written for Children. An Outline of English-language Children’s Literature. London: The Bodley Head, 1965. [25th Anniversary edn. New York: Harper, 1992.]

Peter Hunt, Cardiff University, UK