A Letter to Ethel Heins

A response to Ethel Heins's editorial, "Damming the Mainstream." From School Library Journal, Sept. 1975. © 1975 R. R. Bowker Company / A Xerox Corporation. Used with permission.

By Lillian N. Gerhardt

Dear Ethel:

The August, 1975 issue of The Horn Book Magazine just arrived. I read your editorial right away because I think it’s the least the editor of one publication can do for another. I was pleased to see that you read my editorials, too. You quoted just enough of my editorial in SLJ’s May, 1974 issue to help convince your readers that I am right and that you’re all wet. At any rate, when I read my quoted words I found myself just as convinced as when I wrote them that it is not only erroneous and self-congratulatory for people in children’s book circles to run around claiming to each other that children’s literature is in the mainstream, I think it’s the sort of hogwash that induces self-defeating complacency at a time when people who care about good writing for children ought to be alarmed about the low esteem in which children’s books are held in literary circles.

Now, I don’t really trust myself to carry on a dignified editorial exchange with you about this. Whenever I argue, I try to be calm, logical and cool when basically what I’d rather do is pick up a chair and hit whomever I’m trying to convince over the head. The last time I employed this technique in a debate, I got sent home from kindergarten with a very stiff note. Although I never did it again, I’m always afraid I might revert.

So, logically and I hope calmly, I beg to point out that while you are trying to coax Horn Book’s readers that children’s literature is in the literary mainstream of this country, you provide no evidence that this is so while surrounded with much evidence to the contrary. Really, Ethel, I think you should lock yourself in your office, read over The Emperor’s New Clothes, and take it to heart.

For instance, even as I write, it is still doubtful that the new sponsors of the National Book Awards will agree to restore the award in the category of children’s books. The mere fact that this award has been eliminated ought to call a halt to your idea that children’s literature is anywhere near mainstream status in the world of letters.

And then, please consider the implications of the actions of the newly established National Book Critics Circle. At its first general membership meeting last spring, its board of directors announced that the National Book Critics Circle would select the best essays on literary criticism each year and publish them in an anthology. The prospect this presents for in-group logrolling and backscratching is limitless of course, but as distasteful as that may be, such an anthology can be expected to have wide influence on the types of criticism published. Now, grab for one of your horns, Ethel — essays on the criticism of children’s books were specifically excluded! No apologies and no explanations in answer to the protests of those members concerned with children’s literature. Children’s book criticism is, for the present, outside the pale. Now, if that doesn’t leave you high and dry out of the splash of the mainstream, what other evidence do you need?

I say it’s time to stop invoking Anne Carroll Moore and Bertha Mahony Miller and declaring their intention to link children’s literature with general literature. Nobody can doubt that the intention was and is admirable, but nobody should be led to believe that it actually happened. Making it happen now is what needs to concern us, not lulling our readers into a nonexistent security. Children’s books are in trouble and are more generally recognized outside of library service as convenient vehicles for propaganda and proselytizing by every dingbat group in the country with a message to sell. Every special interest group is following the lead of the Feminists on Children’s Media who provided a pattern for the analysis of children’s books to make a point. Unfortunately, the others have not stopped with critical analysis, but have gone on to the creation of pressure groups insisting that publishers publish and librarians buy books that promote a given view or image. That isn’t literary mainstream stuff — that’s right back where it all began with the tracterians of the nineteenth century.

Finally, I thoroughly reject the notion in your editorial 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. That’s the sort of thing that keeps children’s books and children’s book people in a literary backwater far from any mainstream.

On second thought, I may fly up to Boston and hit you over the head with a chair after all.

Lillian N. Gerhardt

Read Ethel Heins's response

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