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  • From Elizabite to Spotty:The Reys, Race, and Consciousness Raising
  • Ann Mulloy Ashmore (bio)

The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks at reality, then you can change it.

—James Baldwin

"July 29, 1941—does that date mean anything to you? It does to me."1 In a short, handwritten postscript to a letter dated April 7, 1966, H. A. Rey, creator of the Curious George books, recalled a meeting with Ursula Nordstrom where the two discussed an idea for Rey's first original book for Harper and Brothers. The note marked not only Nordstrom's acceptance of his idea for Elizabite but, more importantly, paid homage to their twenty-five-year collaboration, which produced some of children's literature's most memorable books, including Margaret Wise Brown's The Polite Penguin (1941) and Don't Frighten the Lion (1942); The Park Book (1944) by Charlotte Zolotow; and eight books by the Reys, including Elizabite: The Adventures of a Carnivorous Plant (1942 and 1962) and Spotty by Margret Rey in 1945.

Much in the world of juvenile publishing had changed since that July day in 1941. Voices and faces seldom heard or seen in books for children prior to 1941 had begun to emerge on the lists of mainstream trade publishing houses like Harper—diverse voices and faces—in a rush to meet the changing times. The Reys, too, had changed, becoming naturalized citizens, absorbing the culture and history of their new home, and embracing the political to and fro that was America in the mid-1960s.

The people they had encountered since immigrating to the United States in the autumn of 1940 also had an effect, and as it was their custom, many of these new acquaintances became lifelong friends. One such person was Jesse Jackson, an African American postal clerk from Columbus, Ohio, whom they met at a Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. With their help, Jackson would publish [End Page 357] Call Me Charley, a young adult novel that "predated the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision by nine years and focused on the need for people of different races to get to know each other as individuals in order to eliminate stereotypes" (Lowe 392). The relationship was not one-sided, however. One consequence of their friendship with Jackson was a heightened awareness of racism on and off the pages of children's books. This new awareness, or consciousness raising, can be tracked in their books from Elizabite (1942), to Spotty (1945), and full-circle back to Elizabite's reissue in 1962.

Recent criticism has examined the Reys' work through a postcolonial lens (Cummins; Zornado). Since the publication of these works, however, the Reys' extensive literary estate has been processed and made available for researchers to examine. Housed at the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi, the Rey Collection affords access to information earlier critics lacked, "clues to their intentions, and … their testimony as to their motivations and goals" (Cummins 70). This essay is an attempt to fill in these gaps and discover answers to the questions previous researchers have asked.

Upon examination of the archival record—their letters, diaries, interviews, and the contemporary reaction of others to their work and contributions—a new understanding of the Reys and their significance in the field of children's literature emerges. This essay traces the evolution of the Reys' consciousness raising throughout the 1940s by focusing on their friendships and working relationships with others in the field of juvenile publishing. Secondly, it adds new insights into the life and writing career of Jesse Jackson. Of particular significance is the impact his friendship had on the Reys' understanding of the consequences of racist attitudes throughout America and within the postwar world of children's publishing. Additionally, it builds upon Leonard Marcus's work and peeks behind the doors of Harper and Brothers' Department of Books for Boys and Girls, observing the world of juvenile publishing in greater depth through correspondence between the Reys and their editor, Ursula Nordstrom. But more importantly, this essay allows the Reys to...