ONLY the Best: The Hits and Misses of Anne Carroll Moore

For the past eighty years, most of the twentieth century, the magisterial figure of Anne Carroll Moore, first Superintendent of Children’s Work at the New York Public Library (1906–1941), has loomed over American children’s books, a warts-and-all icon to insiders and a handy target for outsiders. It was Moore and her associates, indeed, who were the original insiders, the ones who created the world of children’s books as a sodality, a community of interest, and the field of children’s literature as a specialty. It was they and their admiring successors, moreover, who wrote the history of their accomplishments that is the universal authority to this day, cited by critics and supporters alike. And no part of the Moore legend is more troublesome all around than the belief — I have promulgated it myself — that Moore was (as a contemporary said) “the yea or nay of children’s books” in America. On closer study, horsefeathers.

Moore was the central figure, rather, in a larger drama: the takeover of children’s books by the specialists.

The story begins in 1918 when Moore, the local authority, was asked to deliver a series of lectures on children’s books to New York publishers, booksellers, and other interested parties. That same fall she began what is traditionally called the first “sustained” reviewing of children’s books for The Bookman, a chatty, catholic monthly devoted to reviews and news of books that had recently been acquired by the publisher George Doran.

The following year Macmillan’s George Brett, the empire-builder of publishing, set up a separate children’s book department, the first known, and selected Louise Seaman (later Louise Seaman Bechtel) as its head. Seaman, out of Vassar and a brief progressive-teaching stint, had apprenticed in various Macmillan departments, ideal preparation for the new dual role of publisher and editor, which would also make her a role model.

That November also brought the first observation of Children’s Book Week, a scheme jointly hatched by Franklin Mathiews, Chief Librarian of the Boy Scouts, and Frederic Melcher, secretary of the American Booksellers Association and newly appointed co-editor of Publishers Weekly, with an assist from ACM. Mathiews was appalled at what boys were reading; Melcher was a devotee of children’s books; Moore had both interests at heart.

In short order Doubleday established a separate children’s department under May Massee, a former Rochester librarian and editor of the A.L.A. Bulletin (1922); Frederic Melcher donated, and the American Library Association bestowed, the first John Newbery Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to literature for children” published in America the previous year (1922); and the booklists of Boston’s enterprising Bookshop for Boys and Girls grew into the Horn Book, the first magazine devoted to children’s books, edited by bookshop-founder Bertha Mahony (later Bertha Mahony Miller). Before opening the bookshop, Mahony had spent a week with Melcher in Indianapolis, learning the ins and outs of the bookselling trade. She had also been to see Moore, who withheld her blessing until she saw the bookshop in action, lest it be “too precious, too educational, too much of the cult of the child.” Mark those words; odd as she sometimes acted, Moore did mean them.

These five — Moore, Mahony, Melcher, Seaman, and Massee — were the culmination, in effect, of the children’s library movement that had coalesced in the 1890s. Moore herself was the protégé of Caroline Hewins, of the Hartford Public Library, and Mary Wright Plummer, of the Pratt Institute Free Library in Brooklyn. She left Pratt for NYPL without hesitation because the growth of the Brooklyn Public Library, where Clara Hunt presided over children’s work, would inevitably extinguish Pratt as a public library. In her new post, moreover, she’d be in a position to challenge (“knock the spots out of”) Pittsburgh and Cleveland, the leaders in the field. It was the children’s library market, as a totality, that publishers had in mind when they set up separate departments. From Caroline Hewins at Hartford in the 1870s to Moore in New York City neighborhoods in 1907, copies of Alger, the “Elsie” (Dinsmore) books, the Stratemeyer series (the Rover Boys, Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, etc., etc.) and other such insipid, moralizing, formula trash were thrown out as fast as they wore out, or faster; but where were the new books, of real character and spirit, to replace them?

At the end of the first decade, children’s book editors were in place at a half-dozen houses, and lacked only the title at others. The new editors made the rounds of librarians and booksellers, often bringing authors. After her reviewing stint at The Bookman (1918-1924), Moore edited a weekly page of children’s book essays and reviews for the New York Herald-Tribune weekly supplement, “The Three Owls” (1924–1930), and children’s book pages and supplements were in. Everybody — publishers, librarians, authors, reviewers — turned out for the annual St. Nicholas Eve celebration at the Central Children’s Room.

It was time to take stock. Mahony expressed pleasure in ten years of “tasteful” books. Moore noted with satisfaction the introduction of “new forms of book,” corresponding to the variety of children’s interests. It was generally recognized that books of the decade had been uncommonly handsome; the 1920s in general were notable for fine book design. The appearance of Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats, in 1928, gave hope that American picture books were finally coming into their own. There were some reservations. Anne Eaton, a prominent school librarian and reviewer, offered a mixed report. More books possessing “actual merit” were being published, she observed, “although they did not surpass or even equal the outstanding books of the past.” Still, there were “a greater number of good books,” with specific advances among picture books and nonfiction. Even before the decade’s end, Louise Seaman voiced misgivings about “specialization,” however inescapable or practical. “Its disadvantages,” she wrote, “are numerous” — among them “overproduction by the publisher and author” and “overexaggeration of the appeal to the child versus the literary content.” Both Eaton and Seaman had come to professional maturity in the preceding, 1910–1920 decade, which Seaman dubbed “the age of great classics.”

Moore never wavered. To her there were no children’s book reviews worth mentioning until she and her fellow experts took up the cause. Never mind that, as Richard Darling has demonstrated, children’s book reviewing excelled in the 1870s; or that, as my own spot-checking shows, children’s books were routinely reviewed in the teens in a host of publications, often alongside adult books, by persons familiar with Ralph Barbour football stories, the latest Altschuler historical series, and other late-childhood favorites. For Moore, however, the review was not just guidance for the lay reader, it was also guidance for the editor, the author, the whole community-of-interest. It was meant to make things happen.

Exhibit number one, which she referred to repeatedly, was her debut review, in 1918, of W. H. Hudson’s Little Boy Lost—which she “discovered” in galleys, which had been published in Britain “five years ago,” which she had never heard about and which children had been denied! Moore “discovered” the book at the same time as others reading galleys, of course; reviews appeared simultaneously in several publications. The book had been published in Britain not five but thirteen years earlier (1905), one year after the publication of Green Mansions, Hudson’s best-known work, from which it was derived; Green Mansions was not published in the U.S. until 1916, however, by the new, cosmopolitan firm of Knopf; and it was Knopf, buoyed by the success of Green Mansions and also committed to literary juveniles, which brought out Little Boy Lost, in 1918. To Moore, her timely intercession — her intercession alone — would have assured prompt publication. Was she ignorant of the sequence of events? Was she unaware that even literary publishing is a business?

Moore’s fanfare for Little Boy Lost was so large a part of her first holiday roundup review for The Bookman that the editor printed it separately. Otherwise all her reviewing for the magazine consisted of roundups, usually seasonal roundups. Moore’s quixotic rambles have color and charm as, typically, she exclaims over Henry Beston’s Firelight Fairy Book (regretting, however, that it has such a “commonplace” title when it might have been called, after its strongest story, “The Seller of Dreams”) and then, crossing Boston Common after meeting Beston and illustrator Maurice Day, proceeds toward The Bookshop for Boys and Girls…in just this scatty, to-and-fro fashion, through decades of fairy-tale publishing, to a handful of new books and new editions, with a few personal details about each.

Her detours are not blind alleys: on the title of the Beston book, her point is well taken and not irrelevant to a prospective reader. Musing about Horace Scudder, legendary Houghton editor and friend of Andersen, or “putting a question to Lord Dunsany,” she evokes children’s book history and (the cliché was fresh then) brings the books to life. But she seldom sees a new book she likes without trying to place it in the pantheon of past glories, and her praise tends to be both sweeping and excessive. Perhaps Moore, afire with her mission, found greatness because it was greatness she wanted to find.

Her praise meant little, however, unless it was supported by the opinions of others.

Probably the most obscure book I featured in American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within is René d’Harnoncourt’s 1931 A Hole in the Wall. So scarce were copies that I had to borrow one to reproduce from Sarah d’Harnoncourt, the author-artist’s widow. How had such a big bold book, from a famous name and a major house (Knopf), escaped notice? It hadn’t: in the Atlantic Moore had heralded it as “the most spontaneous and the most amusing picture book of the year”; in the Saturday Review of Literature she proclaimed it “a milestone among children’s books.” But wiser heads than Moore’s or mine saw its weaknesses, and it quickly passed into oblivion.

Not only was her praise no guarantee of a book’s success; more significantly perhaps, her strongest disapproval did not assure its failure. The stories of the books Moore didn’t like are legion, and reflect on her judgment as well as her influence.

Three works of the last eighty years that seem assured of immortality are Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, Goodnight Moon, and Charlotte’s Web. Moore didn’t care much for any of them. The Wilder books she largely ignored; why, wondered Virginia Kirkus, the originating editor at Harper. As Ursula Nordstrom heard the story, Kirkus made so bold as to approach Moore in her office, where Nicholas, Moore’s small wooden alter ego, was in attendance as usual. And each time Kirkus spoke, Moore would turn to the little Dutch doll and say, “Nicholas, Miss Kirkus wants to know…” Moore did subsequently put Little House in the Big Woods on a “representative list” of 1926–1939 books, but with only a brief, tepid endorsement and no mention of others in the series. Was she cool toward Wilder? Or was she cool toward Kirkus and her successors? Among the 180 or so books on that 1926–1939 list, only four are Harper books.

A host of aversions put Goodnight Moon out of the running. Margaret Wise Brown, the author, was a protégé of Lucy Sprague Mitchell, author of The Here and Now Storybook and declared foe of make-believe. Another famous anecdote tells how Moore got indirect revenge when the first William R. Scott books, inspired by Mitchell and edited by Brown, were presented to her by Scott and Brown. “Truck,” was her immediate and final response. Ursula Nordstrom, editor of Goodnight Moon, was another veteran of a run-in with Moore; challenged to name her qualifications since she was not a “former teacher or librarian,” Nordstrom retorted that she was “a former child.” But it would be wrong to attribute Moore’s indifference toward the Scott books, and to the likes of Goodnight Moon, to any single factor of personality or taste. She wasn’t simply anti-Scott, or antimodernism. She hailed Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round, on the second Scott list, as the latest masterpiece; the illustrator was Clement Hurd, responsible for “truck” the year before (and Goodnight Moon in the future). She does seem to have been indifferent to books for very small children; the Lenski “Small” books passed her by, too. One way or other, though, Margaret Wise Brown became “Laureate of the Nursery” without an assist from Moore. One can imagine ACM cringing at the thought.

The story of Moore and Charlotte’s Web is no story at all; she wrote in her “Three Owls” column in the Horn Book that she didn’t like it, and hardly anyone but E. B. White and Katharine White noticed. The Whites remembered the drubbing they took from Moore about Stuart Little — her long, dismayed letter after she read the book in galleys, her exhortations to the Whites and to Ursula Nordstrom not to let the book be published, or at least to publish it anonymously, lest White’s reputation be fatally damaged. It sounds ridiculous, as if Moore had grown old and batty; and when the Whites retold the story publicly on the book’s twentieth anniversary, after Moore’s death, it gave not only Moore but children’s librarians generally a black eye.

In context, it simply sounds like ACM. She was in the habit of telling authors what and how to write. In the 1930s she badgered Edward Ardizzone not to put Lucy, of Lucy Brown and Mr. Grimes, into a book with Tim, of Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain. (Ardizzone was unyielding, per Tim and Lucy Go to Sea; but Lucy’s place was subsequently filled by Charlotte.) Immediately after the appearance of Doris Gates’s Blue Willow, but before it became a Newbery Honor Book and minor classic, Moore wrote Gates in detail about its failings; and Gates, a Massee author no less, replied humbly that she hoped to do better.

Among the many people with whom Moore corresponded were the Whites. Periodically she congratulated them on one thing or another — Katharine White, a New Yorker editor, wrote the magazine’s annual review of children’s books — and Mrs. White replied with news of the farm and the local library, and invitations to visit. Learning that White had a children’s book gestating, Moore urged him along — but White declined to be urged. On reading Moore’s objections to Stuart Little, Katharine White wrote a serious, cordial, considered reply (“Didn’t you think it even funny?”), concluding with the customary invitation to the farm.

Moore did not review Stuart Little in her Horn Book column, but her opposition was well known to editor Bertha Mahony Miller. The book got favorable notice, nonetheless, from Alice Jordan, the longtime head of children’s work at the Boston Public Library who had taken charge of the magazine’s reviewing (and whom Moore had once called the best librarian-reviewer). And the same Horn Book issue that carried Moore’s column criticizing Charlotte’s Web also carried a laudatory review by Siri Andrews, one of Jordan’s joint successors.

If Moore was an uncertain guide to individual books, she held the whole world of books, past and present, in a secure embrace. Holidays and celebrations were her specialty. As a child she relished Christmas in Hans Brinker; reviewing a batch of sea books, she bethought herself of Christmas in Moby Dick! At the neighborhood branches of the NYPL — in Harlem, in Chinatown, in the far reaches of Staten Island — candles were lit on the birthdays of Caldecott, Greenaway, Andersen, Walter de la Mare, and distinguished others. Eleanor Farjeon took pleasure, on her seventieth birthday, in thinking of the single candle lit for her in Harlem, along with the seventy lit in London. It was outlandish, absurd; it was magnificent.

It was one expression of the Progressive ideal of social and cultural betterment on which the children’s library movement was founded. So was the ouster of Alger and his disreputable kind. A boy at the Hamilton Grange branch, in Upper Manhattan, showed Moore what he was reading and she pronounced it “trash.” On his next visit the boy told the librarian to tell Miss Moore — he mentioned her by name — that he was now reading something better. Was this force-fed gentility? Or equal opportunity?

It was emphatically and resoundingly inspirational. The message of Moore and her cohorts, that making books for children was important work, that making beautiful books was almost a duty, became a mantra. Ernestine Evans, radical journalist and children’s book irregular, made the “discovery” of the first decade. “All I knew about Wanda Gág were her pictures...They were beautiful, and very simple, and full of the wonder of simple things...I had always wanted to reach out and touch them. It was this that made me sure that if the new publishing house of Coward-McCann was going to enlist America’s artists in the service of children, Wanda should head the list.” The words could be ACM’s.

Anne Carroll Moore (1871–1961) lived too long, and too much enjoyed playing the role of quirky despot, for the good of her reputation as primal force. With the passing years she has become instead the testy, eccentric subject of funny stories and emblematic of the stuffy old order overthrown in the fifties and sixties. Truer-to-life is Ernestine Evans’s glimpse of her in a crowd of celebrants at her retirement party, “the blue hat and dress like State Robes.” Candle, scepter, torch.

Barbara Bader is critic at large for The Horn Book Magazine. For vital assistance, she would like to thank Robert Sink and Angelita Sierra of the Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, and Claire Goodwin, College Archivist, Simmons College. Part II of “Only the Best,” to appear in a future issue, will examine the consequences, following from specialization, of the separate development of children’s books.

Barbara Bader
Barbara Bader is a longtime contributor to The Horn Book. Most recently, she has written a dual portrait of the editors Elisabeth Hamilton and Margaret McElderry, and taken a Second Look at Virginia Hamilton’s The Planet of Junior Brown.

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