- Making Americans: Children’s Literature from 1930 to 1960 by Gary D. Schmidt
Making Americans is a kind of institutional history that classifies and reviews US children’s books published during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Its aim is not only to describe the range of children’s books produced during that period, but also to celebrate those books as beacons of an American way of life.
Author Gary D. Schmidt is well known for his middle grade fiction, including The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (both Newbery Honor Books) and Okay for Now (a finalist for the National Book Award, young people’s category). But in Making Americans, Schmidt, who is also an English professor at Calvin College, assumes the voice of a literary critic and scholar, arguing that the mid-twentieth century was critical because it marked the moment when American children’s literature developed as a genre. Mid-century juveniles were not only written, illustrated, and published by US citizens, but also reflected American values: a commitment to [End Page 297] democracy, to individualism, and to racial liberalism. Collectively, this body of literature nurtured the baby boom generation, including the author himself.
Making Americans is organized into four chronological sections, each of which pairs a chapter-long case study of an author (or in one case, a series) with a chapter outlining larger literary trends. Schmidt characterizes books from 1930 to 1940 as Imagining the American democracy (subtitle: “Self-Reliance and Social Cooperation”); those from 1930 to 1955 as Defining it (subtitle: “Normalizing Inclusion”); books published in 1940–55 as Adapting it (subtitle: “Responding to the Urgencies of War”); and those from 1945 to 1960 as Globalizing it (subtitle: “Exporting the American Heritage”).
It would be impossible for any one chapter to capture the breadth of children’s books published in even a single decade in the twentieth-century United States; nonetheless, Making Americans provides a tantalizing taste of the range. Scholars are familiar with major award winners, and with classics such as Eleanor Estes’s The Hundred Dresses and Virginia Lee Burton’s Katy and the Big Snow. But many texts that were vitally important in their own day have since been neglected or ignored. For example, Schmidt describes Fairfax Downey’s Dog of War (1943), which went through five printings during World War II. And he discusses a number of neglected African American–authored texts, including Margaret Taylor Burroughs’s picture book Jasper the Drummin’ Boy (1947).
Importantly, Schmidt also devotes an entire chapter to Bobbs-Merrill’s Childhood of Famous Americans series. Begun in 1932 with the publication of Abe Lincoln: Frontier Boy and ultimately comprising 208 titles, the series pointed the way in juvenile biography. Its reach was impressive; during the first twenty years, it generated $2 million in sales and sold more than 100,000 copies of its initial title, written by Indianapolis schoolteacher Augusta Stevenson (she subsequently authored another twenty-nine). The extent to which Stevenson’s work is understudied is highlighted by the fact that during the 1960s, her biographies commanded the largest circulation of juvenile hardbacks in the entire world. Notably, her Buffalo Bill: Boy of the Plains was adopted by the US Army after World War II for distribution to German schoolchildren.
Childhood of Famous Americans was one of many series that flourished during the postwar period; Schmidt writes, however, that it was unique in that “none of these [others] … were as strongly marked by a purposely fictive nature” (95). In fact, in a 1952 New York Times Book Review article, the editor of the William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History wrote that the Bobbs-Merrill series was Parson Weems “modernized for twentieth-century readers” (qtd. in Schmidt 95). In light of today’s Common Core State Standards, which call for both a curricular increase in nonfiction and the cultivation of discipline-specific text literacies, Schmidt’s review of the postwar debate about biography, fiction, and fictionalized biography is particularly fascinating. [End...