Little Private Lives

Where the Wild Things Are

by Maurice Sendak
Harper & Row, 32 pp., $3.95

In the Night Kitchen

by Maurice Sendak
Harper & Row, 48 pp., $4.95

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

by Roald Dahl
Knopf, 162 pp., $3.95

Fantastic Mr. Fox

by Roald Dahl
Knopf, 62 pp., $3.95

The Trumpet of the Swan

by E.B. White
Harper & Row, 210 pp., $4.50

Young and Black in America

compiled by Rae Pace Alexander
Random House, 137 pp., $3.95

I Was a Black Panther

by Chuck Moore
Doubleday, 144 pp., $1.75 (paper)

I Never Loved Your Mind

by Paul Zindel
Harper & Row, 181 pp., $3.95

Children’s book people are always fussing that they and their product are not taken seriously enough. They should instead recognize their good luck and be still lest the bad fairy hear them and grant their wish. Since the number of good books for children published in any given year would not fill the reading time of an intelligent child for two weeks, the children’s book people would soon starve if reviewers began to apply serious standards. In the children’s book market, alas, the buyer is not the consumer. Because such books are short and composed of easy words, most people imagine that they could write them easily—and it seems they often do. Failed painters, failed poets, tired journalists, and captive wives all take up this cottage industry in the way that young people take up making music and films, few of them realizing that they have picked work that is indeed deceptively simple.

It would not be worth going on about such bad books except that children, by and large, can exert their own will in this matter only in negative ways—by non-attention and by a disinclination to read at all. One becomes grateful for comic books because they are interesting as well as cheap enough for a child to get hold of himself—keeping at least this kind of reading a private business much as television now is and as movies used to be when admission was eleven cents.

But comics alone are stingy fare and, for generations, children have augmented pulp by raiding the grown-up shelves to read Haggard, O. Henry, and H.G. Wells as well as their own classic writers—such as George MacDonald, Edith Nesbit, and P.L. Travers, many of whose works are still available. It would be good if more consistent attention were paid not only to such books but to others, less well-known, on publishers’ backlists. For example, there are books from the 1940s by Crockett Johnson and Margaret Wise Brown that no young child should miss. If things were done sensibly, Miss Brown’s Goodnight Moon would appear on reviewers’ Christmas lists each year until children no longer loved it.

Instead, we must have the latest “promotion” of the publishers, which is much bought and much less read. Certainly, all good books are not good forever—sometimes too great a cultural distance comes between the child and the book so that we lose Water-Babies or The Hole Book. Nonetheless, there is more in the past than we imagine for children who want to read.

Just as you cannot force children to attend to a bad book, you cannot keep interesting books away from them if there are any available. By good books, I do not necessarily mean those which adults think are good—but those which capture a child because they are saying something significant to him. No amount of chic art work or trendy writing can compensate for a true message from the heart of darkness. The Dr. Seuss books with their big slobbish drawings and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.