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Pollen in the Wind

By Ann Durell

First I want to apologize for giving such an embarrassingly fancy title for such a plain little talk. But you know how it is when someone asks you to make a speech. You say “yes” with the comfortable assurance that you will either have been killed in a plane crash or have retired from the book business and gone around the world on a legacy from an unknown benefactor lo ng before you will have to write, let alone actually stand and deliver, the speech. So, if you’re like me, instead of conscientiously and sensibly sitting down and writing it then and there, you put the whole thing completely out of your mind. Until the dreadful day some months later when someone calls and asks for the title of your speech because the program is going to the printer. Then, of course, in a terrible state of acute panic, you search wildly for a title and choose something completely inappropriate. In this case, what the title should have been is “A Few Remarks on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Horn Book, or A Short Canter down Memory Lane.”

In 1924, as anyone who can count has already figured out, the first issue of the Horn Book – the first magazine published anywhere that concerned itself exclusively with children’s books and reading – was put out by Bertha Mahony, later Miller, who ran the Bookshop for Boys and Girls in Boston. The bookshop had been founded, interestingly enough, by Miss Mahony in 1916 under the sponsorship of something called the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union; this institution had come into being on the first wave of the Women’s Rights Movement which had swept across the country in the 1870’s. Thus, the Horn Book can be said to be an offshoot of Women’s Lib. These facts are taken from The Spirited Life, the biography of Mrs. Miller by Eulalie Steinmetz Ross. Since this talk of mine is not in any way an attempt at a history of the magazine but is rather a diminutive and very personal retrospective, I recommend the Ross biography to those of you interested in history.

I also recommend that those of you lucky enough to have access to early issues of Horn Book dip into them. I did so this spring when Paul Heins was kind enough to give me the freedom of the Horn Book office and a desk at which I could sit and browse through an entire set of the bound volumes of the magazine. Although I certainly could not and would not attempt a critical appraisal of the Horn Book, I naturally found myself curious about, therefore looking for, some idea of the original editorial approach. There was a definite clue in this statement: “The books starred below should prove of interest to schools, but every book on the list could well be included in a school library.” So we can deduce that from the beginning, the editor wished the magazine to be of use to schools and libraries.

But what struck me most about the direction taken by Miss Mahony and her working ally Elinor Whitney is the way in which this first issue clearly reflects its bookshop origin and setting. The approach is very pragmatic and customer-child­-reader oriented, rather than critical or scholarly. This was a magazine from which you could buy books. Indeed, I found myself suffering from the fit of frustrated desire that invariably attacks me whenever I see those catalogues reprinted for something publishers call “The Nostalgia Market.” I don’t want to sit and feel nostalgic; I actually want to order from them – at their 1920 and 1930 prices of course.

I found myself longing to order from that first Horn Book. What I wanted most was not a book but one of the items with which Miss Mahony – very shrewdly I thought – started the periodical. These were toy theaters for putting on plays of children’s stories. Plays came complete with scenery and characters colored and mounted on cardboard, and they cost from two to ten dollars, depending on the size of the scenery and the number of characters. In fact, I had one of “Jack and the Beanstalk” as a child, and I have never forgotten it. From my grownup perspective, I realize that these theaters represented a multimedia approach to children’s literature and that either the Horn Book was way ahead of its time or there is nothing new under the sun.

I also wanted to order the entire “Little Library” of choice volumes of stories like Susanna’s Auction for $1.00 each – which, I remember, Louise Seaman Bechtel (the Macmillan editor whose name was to appear often in the Horn Book) once showed me from her own collection. The “Little Library” was introduced in a poem attributed to a doll called Alice-Heidi, who was a regular feature in the magazine for some years. She lived in a dollhouse in the Bookshop, and I have to confess I find her an example of one of those rather repellent excursions into arch whimsy which seemed all too often to characterize the adult approach to children and books in the twenties and the thirties. An image, I might add, which children’s book editors and librarians have been trying to live down ever since. However, I can also well believe what was apparently true – according to Lee Kingman – that children really loved Alice-Heidi and that she served a very real purpose in bringing them together with books.

Before moving on, I cannot resist quoting from this review, by John M. Little, M.D., in the second issue:

Yourself and Your Body. By Wilfred T. Greenfell.

I should think that any father or mother would like to have their boys and girls read this book, and I advise them to read it with them if they all want to learn these important subjects together, and have a lot of fun at the same time.

If, at first, the editorial approach was characterized by endearing enthusiasm and a desire simply to get children enjoyable books to read, by March 1925 the magazine was demonstrating the interest in authors and illustrators that was to make it a serious tool for the study of children’s literature. There were articles by Anne Carroll Moore on Leslie Brooke and by Louise Seaman on Padraic Colum. Both were audience-directed rather than critically oriented, but nevertheless represented a start for that solid support that has meant so much to the creators of children’s books through the years.

Beatrix Potter is, of course, the most notable example of an author struck by the wholehearted appreciation both in and out of print which she received from Mrs. Miller, but most children’s books authors and artists have reason to be grateful to the Horn Book for more than reviews. The articles about them – and perhaps even more important – by them have given these authors and artists a rare opportunity to express and record the elements which go into their work.

Let me skip next to the April 1953 issue because, as I have said, these remarks are personal and that was the year I entered the Junior Books Department at Doubleday at the age of six. And I think that’s as personal as anyone can get, and the last time I’m going to even tell a lie about my age in public. That 1953 issue displays a great difference from issues of the twenties. Elizabeth Nesbitt’s article on Rudyard Kipling, “The Great Originator,” is a serious piece of literary evaluation of the writer and his work. The Horn Book was now the Horn Book as we think of it today. Certainly as I think of it, because that was my first exposure to the magazine. I have to confess that my earliest impression is not of the editorial content but of the fact that the Horn Book always sent the publisher clipped copies of reviews neatly pasted to a card giving the date and other pertinent information. You could send a review right to the author without having to cut it out of the magazine. It may seem hard for some of you to believe this, but in those days there were no Xerox machines in offices. Since I was low man on the totem pole, I was in charge of clipping and filing reviews and sending duplicates to authors – and without benefit of Xerox that meant a lot of clipping. So the Horn Book was correctly established in my mind as a periodical in touch with the needs of the publishing community in small things as well as large.

The magazine also sticks in my mind as the place where I learned that, because of my name, I could never be a success in the children’s book business. On its pages I saw the names of the women who had succeeded and realized that to be a distinguished reviewer and/or librarian you had to have three names: Anne Carroll Moore, Frances Clarke Sayers, Ellen Lewis Buell, Ruth Hill Viguers, Bertha Mahony Miller. And to be a children’s book editor you had to have an alliterative name: May Massee, Velma V. Varner, Margaret McElderry. The only thing that gave me heart was the fact that my own boss and deeply respected mentor was named simply Margaret Lesser.

Eulalie Ross comments that it was a pity Mrs. Miller didn’t do more articles on publishing and children’s book editors in the magazine, and I certainly agree with her after reading the issues of 1928 and 1936 devoted to Louise Seaman Bechtel and May Massee respectively. These issues provide fascinating insight into the early days of children’s book publishing, and one longs for more. For example, Mrs. Bechtel, writing on Miss Massee’s time at Doubleday, says, “But these were the years of the depression. It reached children’s books a little slower than others, but when it hit them, it hit harder, not only through counter sales, but through the decreased appropriations from public money to schools and libraries.” Indeed, indeed, there is nothing new under the sun.

But, however much one might regret what did not appear in the magazine, one must praise and rejoice at what did appear steadfastly through the years for the benefit of all who worked with children and books. It was and truly is a children’s book forum – and even, like all good forums, has become a little heated at times. The temperature rises noticeably from New England moderate cool during the exchanges between Frances Clarke Sayers and Charles M. Weisenberg in “Walt Disney Accused”; in Rumor Godden’s dialogue on controlled vocabulary and rewritten cIassics in “An Imaginary Correspondence”; and in Eleanor Cameron’s controversy with Roald Dahl over Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But on the whole, I would say that the great value of the Horn Book lies in its consistency. It is basically a review medium, and a good yardstick does not change its measurements from year to year.

It is hard to judge exactly what the Horn Book‘s effect has been in the last fifty years and will be in the next fifty years that we hope it will continue. Mrs. Miller said in a letter about the Bookshop for Boys and Girls: “Surely all that was good…must be blowing around the world like pollen in the wind. It will settle and take root wherever the soil is most favorable to it, and so while dispersed will not be lost.” And Mrs. Ross adds, “It is impossible to give an exact measure of the legacy…So much deals with intangibles. How can the effect of a book on the spirit of a child be put into facts and figures? How reduce to statistics the understanding that a spirit so enlightened lends to thought? How tabulate the actions sprung from the thought? And if the child, when grown, passes his love of reading on to those who came after him, how establish limitations to the ever-lengthening chain of cause-and-effect? In truth, the pollen does blow on forever; dispersed, but never lost.” Surely, this must be true of the influence of the Horn Book.

When I say the words pollen in the wind, I inevitably think of children blowing on dandelions in the late spring. The little seeds rise and float almost magically on currents on air. And when they finally land and take root, new plants grow — wonderful plants with leaves that are nourishing to eat and flowers that are bright and beautiful. And above all, plants that are, as any gardener will tell you, almost indestructible. Not a bad symbol for children’s books and the next fifty years of the Horn Book.


Given on July 10, 1974, in New York City at the Children’s Book Council/ALA Joint Committee Meeting honoring The Horn Book Magazine.

 From the December 1974 Horn Book Magazine.

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