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Silver Lining in a Big, Black Cloud

by Ann A. Flowers

We are in the midst of an immense increase in the number of children’s books being published. Such a circumstance, in many ways happy, has been brought about by a number of factors: an increase in the juvenile population, new methods of teaching that emphasize the use of trade children’s books, and a growing interest on the part of many parents in obtaining — sometimes from libraries, sometimes by purchase — the finest books for their children. Indeed, no one seriously interested in children’s books or education or even the quality of everyday life can be anything but pleased at this resurgence of a thriving juvenile publishing industry.

But this silver lining has a large, black cloud. Although fine, splendid, thoughtful, amusing, and even magnificent children’s books are being produced almost daily, there is also a horrid proliferation of ill-conceived, poorly edited, and shoddily produced series books — usually, but not always, nonfiction.

Why are series books such a problem? We all know that the best books come from an author’s deep interest in and knowledge of a particular subject. Some authors have a gift for books in a certain field, such as a particular period of history or a type of scientific research. And occasionally some genius creates or finds a format suited to his needs and writes a terrific series. Two examples that come to mind are Dr. Seuss with The Cat in the Hat, Hop on Pop, and Green Eggs and Ham (all Random), and Jean Fritz with her biographies, such as And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? (Putnam). But these books were written one at a time, with skill and research, and published with care as well.

It is clear that there is no way for a series of biographies of famous American female poets, to take a subject at random, to fit easily or usefully into an inflexible formula consisting of sixty-four pages, black-and-white illustrations, eight chapters and an index, a different author for each book — or, even worse, the same author for each book -and a target audience in grades four to six. Some subjects may require a much longer (or shorter) book; there may not be sufficient background material available; or there may not be an author knowledgeable or caring enough. Such a restrictive concept assures mediocrity.

In a technology series about tunnels, dams, highways, and skyscrapers, for example, it is unusual to find more than disconnected, mangled snippets of information, instead of a complete, thorough look at any subject from a single, informed point of view. Errors of fact, inference, and typography are extremely common. Many of these books are imports from Great Britain, printed without further editing and lacking settings recognizable by or information useful to American children. Some publishers offer many series on identical subjects, providing the same material several times and differing, if at all, only in grade levels. And then the bibliographies refer back only to other books by the same publisher. Even among these the quality varies to some extent; some are so indifferently edited that the name of the author is misspelled or omitted from the title page. If you can’t even get the author right, you’ve got real problems.

To furnish an example: In a series of carelessly edited craft books in six twenty-four-page volumes, the same suggestions on how to dress up as a pirate are repeated in three of the six. Directions are misleading; crayons are suggested for face make-up; the child is instructed to draw an eight-inch circle in a seven-inch space; tea is mentioned as a standard meal. The illustrations are, at best, mediocre. The whole set costs over sixty dollars. A buyer may well ask himself why a publisher offers such inferior books. Clearly these books are published for one reason only — to make quick money by taking advantage of the great surge in children’s book buying. I feel strongly that those who buy books for children should be warned about such miserable material. To quote Baudelaire, “If . . . criticism is to be good, it must be passionate.”

This is not to say there are not a few good series: the Land and People books, published by Harper, about various countries are usually carefully written to high standards and furnish not only information but a feeling for the culture of the country. And the Eyewitness books, published by Knopf, on subjects such as ancient Egypt or cars include very handsome photographs and are fine for browsing.

But none of these can equal such fine nonfiction works as Rhoda Blumberg’s Commodore Perry in the Land of the Sho-gun (Lothrop) or David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work (Houghton), excellent from every standpoint. The physical production of the books is magnificent, and they are carefully and beautifully written and illustrated. They point the way to the best books for children — what every child needs and deserves.

From the Spring 1991 issue of The Horn Book Guide

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