Damming the Mainstream

Reponse to "An Argument Worth Opening" by Lillian N. Gerhardt, editor of School Library Journal

Editorial by Ethel Heins

When I was invited to be a speaker at a spring conference on “Children’s Literature in the Literary Mainstream” sponsored by the Western Michigan University School of Librarianship, I thought — as I often have — about the well-worn metaphor mainstream. To link children’s literature firmly with general literature was the intention of early critics like Anne Carroll Moore and Bertha Mahony Miller who were building a solid foundation of apologetics. In 1953, Lillian Smith put it squarely: “Children’s books do not exist in a vacuum, unrelated to literature as a whole. They are a portion of universal literature and must be subjected to the same standards of criticism as any other form of literature.”

In the School Library Journal of May 1974, Lillian Gerhardt disavowed the mainstream notion, sharply disagreeing with those “who have employed or applauded that self-congratulatory tag line.” She continued, “From where we sit, books for children are more accurately described as: the last bastion of yesterday’s literary methods and standards. The Mainstreamers would be hard pressed to name one, let alone two, children’s books that ever turned around writing for adults.” But is art in the mainstream only when it is cast in experimental or innovative modes? Is Verdi to be ignominiously dismissed as “last bastion” because he wrote in a traditional form long after Wagner had pushed back the frontiers of operatic convention? Moreover, many people have been preoccupied with the weakness of the adult novel in this century. Jill Paton Walsh once said that the mainstream novel has turned its back on story, and Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, “I came to the child because I see in him a last refuge from a literature gone “berserk and ready for suicide.”

Last bastion or last refuge? Pigeonholing and labeling can be unfortunate — tidy, but artificial and constricting. Can we categorize, for example, someone like Virginia Hamilton — unique and daring among children’s writers, black or white? Will her books prove to have “turned around writing for adults”? One way or the other, are they not in the literary mainstream?

From The Horn Book Magazine, August 1975

Read Lillian N. Gerhardt's response

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