Minders of Make-Believe is the first comprehensive history of the American children’s book business. Up until now, one could have only cobbled together a partial history from various sources—notably Barbara Bader’s American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within (1975), Beverly Lyon Clark’s Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America (2003), back issues of The Horn Book, and reference compendia by Peter Hunt, Anita Silvey, and Jack Zipes. Synthesizing the work of such predecessors (yes, I read the endnotes, too) and adding considerable new archival research, Leonard Marcus has created an essential work for scholars and anyone serious about children’s literature.
Packed full of information, Minders of Make-Believe is a book to linger over. Interweaving biographies of major figures (librarians, editors, authors), Marcus chronicles the rise and fall of publishers, children’s magazines, and technologies of the book. For anyone working in the genre, it is [End Page 193] especially helpful to know when Reilly and Britton became Reilly and Lee (1919) or when Harper and Brothers became Harper and Row (1962). Likewise, those interested in the relationship between publishing technology and aesthetics need to consider how chromolithography (in the 1860s) brought more and brighter colors to picture books, and how laser scanning (in the 1980s and since) created the possibility for greater subtlety and nuance in illustration. To offer one more example, though I knew that a court case resulted in the demise of publishers’ backlists, I did not know when or precisely which case. The case was—of all things—Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue (1979). By this verdict’s curtailing of manufacturers’ “ability to write off the unsold inventory left over in their warehouses at the end of the year, publishing executives suddenly lost their strongest argument for keeping in print backlist titles with lackluster sales” (278). This is the reason that, these days, books go out of print so quickly. And this is one of many pages I felt compelled to annotate for future reference.
A literary scholar might suspect that a book about business would be boring, and thus that Marcus’s book is one to read out of obligation but not for fun. Happily, Minders is that rare book that scholars of literature both should read and will actually enjoy. Marcus has an eye for the telling detail, the illuminating anecdote that makes history come alive. For instance, how did Hurt and Houghton become Houghton Mifflin? When Henry Houghton realized that his partner Melancthon Hurd was “a dilettante,” he sought to bring “more responsible men of means” into the company’s management. One was George Mifflin, a “young Boston Brahmin” who Houghton feared might prove “another spoiled aristocrat.” So, Houghton put Mifflin to the test, scheduling “one of their first interviews for seven-thirty in the morning. Much to Houghton’s astonishment, Mifflin arrived on time.” Mifflin also succeeds during “an apprenticeship period” in the bindery and counting bills, and so Houghton and Mifflin become partners in 1872 (52). As this glimpse of nineteenth-century corporate history indicates, Marcus excels at offering a compelling story about an otherwise dry fact.
Marcus’s narrative efforts certainly gain support from the fascinating characters who create and promote children’s books—from those (like Maurice Sendak) who are well-known to those (like Elisabeth Hamilton) who are not. Worried that Sendak “might be about to desert her,” Ursula Nordstrom—the legendary head of Harper’s Books for Boys and Girls—enticed him to work on his “own beautiful picture book” that he had told her was, she recalled, about “something, or someone, or some little animal getting out of some enclosure” (229). That someone became Max, and the book became Where the Wild Things Are (1963). Hildegarde Hoyt Swift and Lynd Ward’s North Star Shining: A Pictorial History of the American Negro (1947), a pioneering children’s book in challenging racial [End Page 194] stereotypes, also benefited from a bold editor...