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Change, Tradition, and Critical Styles in the Contemporary World of Children's Books
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Change, Tradition, and Critical Styles in the Contemporary World of Children's Books*

"The arrival of Harriet the Spy with fanfare and announcements of approval of its 'realism' makes me wonder again why that word is invariably applied to stories about disagreeable people and situations," wrote Ruth Hill Viguers in the February 1965 issue of Horn Book Magazine. "Are there really no amiable children? No loyal friends? No parents who are fundamentally loving and understanding? I challenge the implication that New York City harbors only people who are abnormal, ill-adjusted, and egocentric." Mrs. Viguers went on to say that many adult readers would find the book sophisticated, funny, and penetrating. "Children, however, do not enjoy cynicism. I doubt its appeal to many of them. This is a very jaded view on which to open children's windows."

Harriet the Spy was not universally denounced. Other critics, also forthright and vigorous, acclaimed it as brilliant, new, and at long last something appropriate for modern children. For example, Ellen Rudin had written this in the School Library Journal, November 15, 1964:

Harriet M. Welsh is not a lovable child, but she is one of the meatiest heroines in modern juvenile fiction. . . . This novel is . . . a children's book, surely, told at a level comprehensible to children, yet it is intensely written, involuted, rich in dramatic vignettes and in warm, breathing characters. Harriet suffers growth and change in the best tradition of literature's most anguished heroines. Harriet the Spy bursts with life. It is up to date, here and now, this minute, real. Get it into circulation, quick!

Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet became one of the early focal points in the upheaval that has gone on in the world of children's books over the last decade.

Who are these critics of children's literature? What are their beliefs about it, their values? Along what dimensions do they differ? Is there a "psychology" of the critic? Or perhaps several "psychologies"? How does change come into the children's book world? These are [End Page 22] complicated questions, but I have been studying some of them and can report my first findings.

A Study of Writings by Critics

The Sample

The study began with a survey of English and American publications devoted to current children's literature. The project staff looked at books, journals, collections of articles, and discussions of children's books in major newspapers. Gradually, we compiled a set of articles written by men and women, all now living, who could be called important in the field or who had a strong point of view about children's literature and a sustained interest in it. The names of these writers were shown to consultants in library science, education, publishing, and literature, and suggestions for additions were solicited.

The sample now consists of articles by eighty "critics and gate-keepers." The term "gate-keeper" was taken from Kurt Lewin,1 who used it in an interesting study of how housewives made grocery purchases during the shortages of World War II, especially the circumstances under which they decided to begin serving their families unfamiliar parts of meat such as hearts and kidneys. A parallel between this study and the incorporation of "realism" into the fare of children's books should not be pressed; nor will I go into Lewin 's ideas except to suggest that his conceptualization of gate-keepers and "channels" does seem applicable to an analysis of the children's book world as a system and how changes come about in that system. Book editors or librarians who buy books for a city are good examples of gate-keepers; they may never write a review but they effectively determine which children's books become available for reading. On the other hand, a professor or a freelance journalist who writes critical articles and reviews about children's literature exercises a much more imponderable influence and may not be described so well as a gate-keeper. In this paper I shall refer to the authors of the eighty articles simply as "critics," using this term broadly to include all those whose participation in the discussion of current children's...