Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Why there weren't enough children's books...and why there aren't enough children's books

[Baker:] Where are you off to?
[Belle:] The bookshop. I just finished the most wonderful story about a beanstalk and an ogre and a -
[Baker:] That's nice. ...
Have you ever found your own particular suddenly meshing with a much larger general?  For instance, when you read those books about Boomers and GenXers and Beepers, and you suddenly realized that that 40ish guy you knew who worked a McJob and lived in his parents' basement with a reel-to-reel tape recorder wasn't that unique?

I started thinking awhile back about what kids' books used to be like, back when I was growing up--we'll say from the '60's through the '80's.  There were some things that puzzled me, or that I thought I had misremembered.  But I put a lot of that down to growing up in Ontario (rather than in the catalogue-happy U.S.) and in a small-town, working-class kind of place where you wouldn't expect to find a lot of bookstores.

I don't remember most kids I knew owning a lot of books.  My sister and I actually did better than most:  our mom got us the Parent's Magazine Press picture books by mail (Miss Suzy and the rest), plus we got several monthly magazines over the years, plus we were taken to flea markets and odd places where we found older treasures, plus my mom had been a teacher and had a few anthologies and such things around.  Also, we had a great public library, and a fairly good school library. But the standard at-home books of the time were the drugstore, supermarket and discount department store books:  Wonder Books, Little Golden Books, Dr. Seuss, anything printed by Whitman-Golden...and some series books that were easy to come by like Trixie Belden and the purple-bound Bobbsey Twins.  Most homes might have a few older hand-me-down classics around--Grandpa's copy of The Water Babies, or an older sister's cache of Scholastic books.

What there weren't a lot of...from the way things looked to me then...were places where grown-ups bought interesting books--or a lot of grownups who seemed to want to buy or read them.  Most living rooms had chairs, ash trays, televisions, but not bookshelves.  (One of my great-aunts was the exception--she had a little painting/sewing room with a wallful of books.)  And most children's picture books--again, other than the inexpensive ones like The Poky Little Puppy--and novels--other than the short list of real classics--were borrowed from the library.
So I thought about this--realizing that I was fortunate to have been gifted early on with old-but-cherished copies of Winnie the Pooh, Heidi, and Fifty Famous Fairy Stories...and wishing we had held on to that long-gone Mother Goose that I've never been able to identify...and wondering when all that changed...

And then recently I came across this, in Perry Nodelman's 1990's book The Pleasures of Children's Literature:
"In the mid-1980's, the sales of children's books in North America skyrocketed.  The most obvious reason was that the children of the so-called baby-boomers....were beginning to read.  Furthermore, the baby-boomers seemed more willing, or able, than their parents had been to buy children's books.  Because many of them had put off having children until much later in their lives than had been typical, many had already established careers.  Even those well off were often in two-career marriages.  There was more money to spend on relatively nonessential things like children's books."
Yes!--I thought--everybody during the '70's worried about money.   And yes, I think it's true that the later, younger '80's parents wanted more for their kids, wanted to buy them more stuff, wanted them to "read" more (in a qualified sense), had higher expectations (also in a qualified sense).  The inconsistent part, though, is that the parents of the kids I knew were usually as generous as they could afford to be when it came to Christmas and birthday toys...but we hardly ever asked for specific books.  First of all, the Sears catalogue didn't carry books, except for a few Dr. Seuss and baby titles. Besides, wasting your Christmas wishes on books seemed akin to the dentist suggesting you ask Santa for an electric toothbrush.

And though I loved books myself, I didn't have a strong desire to own more than a few.  The library had all my favourites, and surely they would be there forever.
"Meanwhile, the political climate meant that government at all levels had less money to spend on libraries.  According to Adam Hochschild [New York Times Book Review 1994], 'fifteen or twenty years ago, some 85% of all children's books were sold to school or public libraries.  This figure has plummeted'....The dramatic increase in the proportion of books purchased by parents and other relatives transformed the children's book business....Now, the people who buy the most books aren't experts, and they have no way of choosing books other than to try to figure out what the children they know might like.  This means, primarily, things they or their children are already familiar with."--Nodelman, 1996/1992
So there's the crunch, you see.  All of a sudden there was more money and more interest in buying children's books.  But according to Perry Nodelman, that did not mean that parents (and kids with money to spend) immediately went out and started buying the same sorts of books that discriminating librarians and teachers had once chosen for them.  Other than picture books, which did survive as something fairly easy to market, the rapidly changing publishing industry and bookselling industry started to concentrate only on
"1.  Reprintings and new editions of favorite books from the baby-boomers' youth: books by Dr. Seuss, book versions of classic Disney cartoons.

"2.  Other movie and TV tie-ins; books about characters the baby-boomers' children were already familiar with from other media.

"3.  Books about new characters, but ones that came in series, so that once children became familiar with these characters they could read new books about them again and again."--Nodelman, 1996/1992
Now obviously there is more to the last twenty years of children's publishing than that; otherwise how could the Horn Book have survived?  Obviously there are still at least a few good books for older children still being written and still being published and still being sold.  But I think Perry Nodelman makes some good points...and his timeline of the change in the mid-1980's comes more than coincidentally close to that pre-1985 CPSIA ruling (outlawing pre-1985 children's books because of supposed lead hazards).  Why have we been fussing about that for the last few years?  Because those pre-1985 books, lots of them, are the good ones, the lasting ones.  Not the TV tie-ins, not the "classic Disney," but the real stuff.

And I learned something else from Nodelman's chapter about publishing.  This is about the U.S., so I'm not sure how it relates to Canada (other than the major publishers being in the U.S.), but it's interesting anyway:
"In the early 1980s, in order to encourage aggressive sales, the U.S. government raised the taxes charted on goods left in warehouses at the end of each year.  As applied to books, this meant that publishers could no longer afford to keep large numbers of titles on their backlists.  Books that had been in print for decades suddenly became unavailable.  Now, only those titles that still sell widely remain in print for very long."
I mentioned this to The Apprentice, and she pointed out that maybe this will change again with the advent of electronic book readers and publishing on demand. Maybe so.  Maybe in the near future there won't be any such thing as an out-of-print book.

But will there be anything left that we care to read?

When I realized myself that it was getting harder to find the kind of children's books that I used to like myself, and the books that were recommended by authors like Gladys Hunt and Dorothy Butler, I started bringing home any of the good ones that I could find at library sales and thrift shops, from other homeschoolers' for-sale lists, from yard sales, from anywhere.  I have a lot more children's books now than I did as a child.  That's all right, because I've had the excuse of having young Squirrelings for almost two decades now.  But am I going to sell them all off (the books, not the Squirrelings) when the last one leaves home?

Not on your life.

Image obviously copyright and owned by Walt Disney, although I found it on somebody else's blog


Susan said...

I never really thought about this, but I think I agree. I remember being a big reader, constantly reading while growing up, but there really weren't many books in our house. I have very few, ok almost no, books from my childhood, in fact. But I read constantly as a child.

And yes, the libraries are not so great anymore. I find that they, too, buy those based on TV/movie books and new series with their limited funds. We just can't find the old classical children's literature at our library. Maybe that's why I have a "library" in my own home.;0)

Brenda@CoffeeTeaBooks said...

My daughter was born in 1977 and I remember seeing my first children's bookstore when we lived in Holland, Michigan... in the 1980s!

My friend and I were just talking this morning about the importance of holding on to favorite books for our kids. We both recently said goodbye to homeschooling (as my homeschooler is in college and her youngest is in the Marines).

She now regretted getting rid of so many of her kid's books since they are now difficult to find. I held on to most of mine, which are now being used by my homeschooling daughter.

My son's favorite books are in his room or in a box, waiting for his children to come along. They are now both happy I get attached to books. :)