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Children’s literature controversies, then & now…

I was very interested to learn from last week’s New Yorker that some of the first public libraries for children were right here in New York City; the first in 1896 at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, followed in the early 1900s by a Central Children’s Room at the New York Public Library and children’s programs at the NYPL branch libraries. Anne Carroll Moore, who founded the Children’s Library at Pratt and went on to run the Department of Works for Children at NYPL, also reviewed children’s books, playing a decisive role in creating and shaping the field of children’s literature. E.B. White and his wife, Katharine White, who wrote reviews for the New Yorker, tussled with Moore over what was appropriate for and appealling to children.

Moore had some progressive values, which she espoused in her reviews:

She could be a tough critic, especially of books that violated her rules: “Books about girls should be as interesting as girls are” or “Avoid those histories that gain dramatic interest by appeal to prejudice. Especially true of American histories.”

But Moore’s taste tended towards the sentimental, while Katharine White favored smartly-written books, hated the idea of “juvenile literature,” and questioned whether teenagers needed books written specifically for their age group when they could understand and appreciate books written for a general adult audience.

The article goes on to narrate Moore’s battle with E.B. White over the value of Stuart Little, which she encouraged him to publish but then panned, at least in part on the basis that children would not be able to handle the blending of reality and fantasy in the tale of a mouse’s adventures in the human world.

Today, when children’s literature is an established, profitable field within publishing, and reading at home is linked to better academic outcomes for children, parents and educators are asking whether reading on-line “counts” as reading. Many children (not to mention adults!) spend hours a day on the internet, and sometimes a fair amount of that time reading and writing, but how does this kind of reading compare to reading literature? Should children be pushed to read books? Does the more interactive nature of the internet promote different kinds of thinking about text? Should schools teach internet literacy in addition to standard literacy classes? Could reading on-line actually help some students – such as those with learning disabilities – engage with ideas? The jury is still out.

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