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Who would we put on our walls?

Yesterday afternoon, my friend Kirk and I went to see Marilyn Horne give a masterclass at Harvard. The location was incidental, as the event was actually sponsored by Oberlin, where Horne is Distinguished Professor of Voice, and the four singers had all worked with her there. (Many thanks to Oberlin alum Elissa, who scored us the tickets.)

The masterclass took place in Harvard’s Paine Hall, whose interior walls are on three sides inscribed with the names of 26 composers, chosen when the hall was being finished in 1913-14. It’s all dead great European men from the 19th century and earlier. Some of the names have worn better than others. At one point, while guiding a young soprano through “Porgi, Amor,” Horne happened to glance up at the frieze of names and exclaimed “Couperin?! How did HE get up there?” And worse was to come when Horne noticed that her career stalwart Rossini was absent from the roster.

It made me wonder who the names on a children’s-book frieze would be, if we used a basic criteria of “dead but important and still singing to readers.” Let me take a stab at 26:  Alcott, Andersen, Barrie, Baum, Bemelmans, Burnett, Carroll, Collodi, Grahame, Grimm, Keats, Kipling, L’Engle, Lewis, Lindgren, McCloskey, Milne, Perrault, Potter, Seuss, Spyri, Stevenson, Wilder, Twain, Travers, White. Hmm, all white and mostly male. Is that me, the canon, or both?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. A few ladies I’d add:

    M Wise Brown, Edith Nesbit, Betty Macdonald, Kay Thompson, Louise Fitzhugh, Noel Streatfield, Lois Lenski…

    EB White or TH White? Because I want both of them.

    As for men… Thurber needs to be there too. Edward Eager, Dahl.

  2. Susan Stan says:

    Keats the poet?

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I meant E. B. but could go with T.H. as well (although I’m listening to a mostly terrific audio version of Once and Future King and I don’t think White ever saw a digression he didn’t take.) And I thought about Brown, Fitzhugh and Lenski but passed over them because they didn’t seem quite up to the company i was asking them to keep. But let’s say our walls are the same size as Paine Hall’s, Laurel: who would you take out to make room for your choices?

    I betray my ignorance, Susan, by asking why Keats? And why not Blake?

  4. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sorry, Susan–I just realized you were asking if *I* meant the poet! No, I meant Ezra Jack.

  5. Oh, I was just trying to randomly add names. If I were fleshing out to 26 and swapping for your names I’d add Nesbit for sure, and Dahl, but you ask a very hard question.

    I think, in order to answer it, I need to know something… when you say, “still singing to readers” are you suggesting that all of these authors are still widely read?

    Because as I mull over your question, I find myself thinking about authors like Grimm, Collodi, Perrault, Spyri, and even Baum… and while I love them all, and do think they “sing” in the public consciousness, as retold stories, I’m not so sure they’re actually read in the originals very much. (at least in America/English) I certainly think Brown is more widely read than Grimm, by kids today.

    But if we’re looking for influences on contemporary authors, the answer changes.

    What do you think?

    This makes me want to cry. But I can’t help thinking about it.

  6. I think I’d swap Nesbit for Collodi in a heartbeat. I see why Anderson is important, but I don’t like his stories, so he wouldn’t go on MY wall.

  7. I would add Tolkien, but also male and white.

  8. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    What about Beatrix Potter?
    Also, have to note that one summer when I sang in the Harvard Summer Chorus we kept having to switch rehearsal halls because of renovations in our usual venue. This was also before Paine Hall got better lighting and air conditioning. About half the time the director would announce that we would be “in Paine” for our next rehearsal.

  9. Definitely Dahl. Women . . . Sydney Taylor? Maud Hart Lovelace? Marguerite Henry? I don’t think modern kids read any of them (except Dahl) but they certainly influenced my generation of writers. Does that count?

    I envy you getting to see the great Horne in action. In my singing days, I got to take master classes with both Eleonor Steber and Birgit Nilsson. I was far more excited about Nilsson because she WAS Nilsson, but I have to say she seemed a bit confused by the coloratura French thingy my voice teacher unwisely chose to have me sing for her! Just goes to show: Know your audience!

  10. Roger– Have you seen the new exhibit space at the de Grummond? They solved this problem by using a smaller font, and going three rows deep. Of course, they could also limit themselves to those authors and artists represented in the collection, and thereby avoid the dubious process of selecting a canon…

  11. Lucy Maud Montgomery. Wanda Gag. Else Holmelund Minarik. Marguerite Henry. Virginia Hamilton. Ellen Raskin. P.L. Travers.

  12. Beverly Cleary.

  13. Ron McCutchan says:

    H’mm….I was going to argue against Tolkien, since–though I know THE HOBBIT was intended for children, I think it crossed over fairly quickly, and I don’t know whether he himself saw himself as a children’s author (not a Tolkien expert by any road). But I suppose by the same argument, that might exclude Lewis Carroll–equally an academician and a one (two) hit wonder….but ALICE seems so much more central to the children’s canon. THE HOBBIT etc. cast far more of a shadow on the full genre of fantasy, not just children’s literature.

  14. I think it depends on what age you’re looking for. If you’re including picture books, I’d argue that Margaret Wise Brown was the unparalleled genius of our time. Clement Hurd once said she was the only adult he’d ever met who truly remembered what it was like to be a child. Her rhythm and word choice are perfect, and she bears rereading hundreds of times in a row — a standard that really only picture book authors need to live up to.

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