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A Letter to Lillian N. Gerhardt

Ethel Heins’s response to Lillian N. Gerhardt’s “A Letter to Ethel Heins.” From School Library Journal, Nov. 1975. © 1975 R. R. Bowker Company / A Xerox Corporation. Used with permission.

 

By Ethel L. Heins

I have read your lengthy editorial letter to me (SLJ, September) and find it difficult to believe that my own brief August 1975 Horn Book editorial has elicited such a loud and illogical response. It’s not that I object to the explosiveness of your remarks — I hold many passionate convictions myself and appreciate them in others. But you seem to be talking about a totally different subject, or, rather, the same subject from a totally different point of view.

To begin with, you have apparently switched horses in mainstream. In your original statement (SLJ, May 1974), you complained that children’s books are not in the literary mainstream because of their outmoded styles, devices, or novelistic construction. “From where we sit, books for children are more accurately described as the last bastion of yesterday’s literary methods and standards.” But in your recent editorial, you argue that books for children are excluded from mainstream literature because of the myopic views of the sponsors of the National Book Awards and the new National Book Critics Circle — and also because of the stupidity and the strident insistence of pressure groups. I must point out that I never suggested that ignorance, commercialism, or didacticism are dead; all three, in fact, continue to plague adult books as well as children’s. Moreover, it is difficult for me to see how the book world can be expected to take children’s literature seriously when one of its professional critics uses such uncritical supports as hurling epithets or threatening to throw chairs.

The problem is not one of providing “evidence” that children’s books are within the literary mainstream but of deciding on the meaning of mainstream, which has nothing to do with popular acclaim or even acknowledgement. Although it is unfashionable to bring the past to bear on the present, hindsight can be revealing. If public acceptance were the criterion, then doubtless Helen Hunt Jackson — and not Emily Dickinson — was a mainstream writer of her time. And surely Melville — who was neglected during his lifetime and whose Billy Budd was not even published for more than a quarter of a century after his death — was not contemporaneously viewed as a mainstream novelist. Children’s books are part of the literary mainstream when they are produced with as much intellectual honesty as good adult books and judged by the same qualitative standards. This statement is neither “hogwash” nor “self-defeating complacency”; it is simply a definition of a term.

Actually, I am heartily tired of the imprecise, much-misused catchword mainstream. I discussed it in my editorial — as I indicated — because I had recently been asked to speak on the subject. Moreover, if you would read over what I said, you would see, I think, that I was not “invoking Anne Carroll Moore and Bertha Mahony Miller” but was merely ruminating on the historical development in children’s book criticism of what I called the “well-worn metaphor.” But if the term has any meaning at all, I am certain that the serious writers and artists who produce important children’s books have a right to consider their own work within the mainstream of creativity. The burden of proving this fact to the rest of the book world rests, of course, upon people like you and me; and if we have failed so far, it is even more urgent that we keep on trying.

If you read over my editorial, you will discover also that your last statement about it is appallingly untrue. I realize that it is your suspicion and one of your favorite themes that many children’s book specialists are incapable of or uninterested in reading adult books; but you should make specific charges more carefully. Nowhere in my exploration of the subject did I say or in any way imply “the notion…that children’s book people can comfortably ignore without loss to themselves and to good writing for children what is going on in writing for adults.” I find the idea and the accusation equally shocking. On the other hand, it is perfectly legitimate, in a rational discussion, to point out that many critics hold that the modern novel often wanders into eccentricity; only recently, C. P. Snow observed gloomily that “this century has produced no Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, or Balzac … no Dickens, Trollope, Hardy.” Such book discussions can be interesting and fruitful; but no Horn Book editor — or reviewer — has ever made the preposterous suggestion that the world of adult literature should be ignored.

 

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