Why the World of Children’s Books Was Ready for Maurice Sendak

Why the World of Children’s Books Was Ready for Maurice Sendak

My doctoral dissertation in sociology was on the history of children’s books, and as part of my research I counted mentions of different children’s books in a couple dozen different histories of the genre—so I can tell you with about as much scientific precision as is possible that Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is generally considered to be the single most important children’s book of all time.

Below is a passage from my dissertation (From Captains Courageous to Captain Underpants: Children’s Books as a Cultural Field in the Twentieth Century) that explains, in context, why Wild Things represented such a turning point in the history of children’s books. The recently deceased Sendak was a brilliant writer and illustrator, but his book is important as much for what its success meant as for what the book itself was.

Only a short portion of this passage directly mentions Maurice Sendak—but that was part of my point. Sendak’s genius could not have flowered and achieved the mass popularity it did if he hadn’t come along at precisely the right time: a time when the world of children’s books was very ready for him.

This passage begins with the emergence of television in the 1940s. What does television have to do with changes in children’s books? As it turns out, quite a lot. The backstory here is that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were widespread suspicions about “juveniles,” “50-centers,” and other cheap, poorly-written children’s books that were thought to have terrible influences on children. A “good” children’s book was defined primarily as one that taught proper moral lessons, as opposed to the tawdry series books and comic books. But TV gave parents and teachers a new villain, and relieved the pressure on children’s books to teach proper moral lessons. Enter the Wild Things.

Commercial television broadcasting began on the east and west coasts of the United States in the mid-1940s; by 1950, broadcasting was available coast to coast and ten million sets were in use nationwide. Just a decade later, there were 57 million sets in use—an average of one for each American household. Initially, television broadcasts were offered for children to help convince their parents to buy the sets, and most children’s programs were shown at hours when adults viewership was thought to be low—for example, weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. By the late fifties, though, a significant amount of advertising for products like Mattel’s Barbie dolls and “Burp Gun” was aimed directly at children.

The advent of television advertisements has been argued to be a decisive factor in the creation of a “consumer culture” among American children. While it is true that the 1950s were a turning point for children’s commercial culture, it may be more accurate to say that television advertisers were responding to the existence of a market decades in the making. In the wake of the Victorian-era emergence of the “priceless” child, the first decades of the twentieth century saw children increasingly regarded as active and capable consumers. A 1928 parenting guide advised mothers to “sell” healthy food to their children: “If your spinach is tempting, if your publicity is good, and if your sales talk is both appealing and in the language of your customer, then trade will pick up.” By 1930, child consumers constituted an appreciable (though still small) fraction of the retail trade, and children’s radio programs were being used to “capitalize imagination.”

Even if the child consumer was not a new invention, the advertisements on television programs became one of a host of features provoking widespread public concern with children’s TV-watching.  An early concern with the “over-stimulating” nature of the medium shifted to a concern with particular programs—for example, “the excessive number of Westerns that are being shown for children.” Historian Carmen Luke notes that children’s television viewing “came under scrutiny by psychologists at a historical moment, when the laboratory experiment was considered the most sophisticated and scientifically rigorous analytical tool.” The research tradition established early on thus sought to directly measure the effect of television on child viewers—in particular, television was thought to make children more aggressive. Albert Bandura’s “Bobo doll” experiments, which “were widely considered at the time to have reached new heights of methodological ingenuity in scientific investigation,” demonstrated that children who watch adults hit an inflatable doll with a mallet were more likely to hit the doll with the mallet themselves than were children who did not have such behavior modeled for them. These studies were widely discussed, and images of Bandura’s young subjects assaulting Bobo dolls convinced millions of parents that television-watching might bring about such behavior in their own children.

Another prominent fear was that television would distract children from reading. In the first major academic study of children and television, Hilde Himmelweit and her colleagues found in 1958 that children spent a third less time reading books once a television set arrived in the house. Less noted, however, was Himmelweit’s observation that her young subjects hadn’t been doing all that much reading even before the TV arrived: “Time spent on reading was not so great as to be able to afford much encroachment from viewing.” Noting that “many thoughtful people today are anxious about the effect of television on children’s reading,” Himmelweit wondered whether “the importance of reading may be overstated, represented as something desirable for its own sake, irrespective of what is read.”

Indeed, from the standpoint of the late 1950s, much had changed in the four decades since Edward Stratemeyer (publisher of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series) had been alleged to be “blowing boys’ brains out”—and even in the few years since the anti-comics frenzy had subsided. While cheap series fiction remained very popular, concerns about the movies, the radio, comic books, and television had swamped the once-widespread opposition to “mile-a-minute fiction.” The amount and availability of reading material across the spectrum from comics to classics had grown substantially. If the later decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth had been “the golden age” of children’s novels, the years from 1925 to 1940 were considered by some to be a golden age of picture books—which new printing processes made affordable to produce in large quantity. Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats (1928), the first picture book by an American artist to be published in the United States, paved the way for books such as The Little Engine That Could (Watty Piper, 1930), Madeline (Ludwig Bemelmans, 1939), and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (Virginia Lee Burton, 1939). Children’s book illustration became well-established as a serious artistic pursuit, and was even touched by the avant-garde in Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947).

Despite persistent concerns about threats from the radio and comic books, the market for children’s books surged—part and parcel of the broader commercial market for children. Children’s books spread from traditional bookstores into supermarkets and drug stores, where classic children’s books were sold in inexpensive editions alongside comic books. Children’s book professionals positioned themselves as gatekeepers who could help parents and teachers “cope with the flood,” railing against comic books as well as the radio and television. They continued to disdain “juveniles” (the term used for poorly-written children’s books), although the distinction between juveniles and “literature” was steadily receding in the public mind.

While the emergence of radio and television helped to consolidate the cultural status of books, the motley growth of children’s books in the 1940s helped this process by confusing what had once been a clear distinction between “fifty-centers” and proper literature. Children’s books from this decade include the likes of Animal Babies (Kathryn and Byron Jackson, 1947), a typical example from the “Little Golden Book” series launched in 1942. Little Golden Books were a classic product of the 1940s—inexpensive, brightly colored, sold in supermarkets and other mass retail outlets. Media tie-ins were an important part of the Little Golden Book line from the beginning; Disney tie-ins entered the Little Golden Book line in 1944, and succeeding years saw Little Golden Books featuring Lassie, Howdy Doody, Bugs Bunny, Big Bird, and Pikachu. Animal Babies and other Little Golden Books of its era prominently featured this endorsement: “The Little Golden Books are prepared under the supervision of Mary Reed, Ph.D., formerly of Teachers College, Columbia University.” And this: “The Child Study Association of America says about the Little Golden Books: ‘…the answer to a parent’s prayer:  fine pictures, excellent print, and the best of stories for the youngest listener and reader—at a price most of us can afford.'”

While these endorsements for Little Golden Books do not necessarily represent the prevailing views in the children’s literature establishment, the fact that such endorsements were sought, obtained, and advertised is significant insofar as it represents the growing importance of the professional children’s literature establishment and the softening distinction between “good” and “bad” children’s books. Also note that the moral dimension that figured so significantly in endorsements of children’s books earlier in the century had become scarce—amid rampant concern over movies, radio, and comics, children’s books were steadily being reframed as unproblematic and beneficial.

Throughout the 1950s, publishers—with parents’ and teachers’ tacit permission—approached children directly as potential consumers of books.  The didactic “reader” style of textbook slowly lost legitimacy, and there “was less difference than ever before, in both appearance and content, between schoolbooks and children’s leisure reading.” Children’s publishing boomed, driven in part by increasing subsidies for libraries and in part by demographic trends creating a new teen market that in the early 1950s was worth nine billion dollars annually. Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen (1956) is regarded as the prototypical “young adult” novel. “Despite its lack of drama,” write historians Agnew and Nimon, “the book set some of the patterns for subsequent teenage novels; Jane’s desperate desire for a boyfriend, her continual and acute embarrassment, and her sense that her parents cannot possibly understand what she is going through, are all themes that have been reworked in many later young adult novels.”

By 1957, the children’s book universe was ready for a revolution.  Three crucial elements were in place:

  1. A large, powerful class of professional gatekeepers with an interest in establishing children’s literature as a legitimate aesthetic field.
  2. A clear and present threat from a new medium that was growing more rapidly in pervasiveness and influence than had motion pictures or the radio.  “When watching a television program,” asserted a 1949 observer, “it is impossible to do anything else where concentration and attention are required.  As a generation, students of today have shown conclusively that they can listen to the radio and still go through the motions of doing their homework at the same time.  This is absolutely impossible with tv.  Expressed in different terms, the effect is as though the student attended a three-hour movie every night of the week (Saturday and Sunday included)!” Reading and homework were thought to be in grave danger, and concerns about exactly what children were reading were increasingly put aside.
  3. An established principle that it was valid and, in fact, necessary to create books that appealed directly and strongly to children.

The Cat in the Hat (Dr. Seuss, 1957) did not immediately convert teachers who were used to teaching from “Dick and Jane” readers, but it was an immediate popular success, and soon it was widely adopted in schools as well; by 1960, the book had sold a million copies. As Louis Menand writes, “It was a tour de force, and it killed Dick and Jane…The Cat in the Hat transformed the nature of primary education and the nature of children’s books.  It…stood for the idea that language skills—and many other subjects—ought to be taught through illustrated storybooks, rather than primers and textbooks.”

This realignment was built upon foundations that had been decades in the making, but the success of The Cat in the Hat and later Seuss works such as Green Eggs and Ham (1960) inaugurated a decade of decisive transformation in the fundamental orientation of the field of children’s books.

By general consensus, children’s television in the 1960s was worse than in any other decade. In 1960, Hanna-Barbera’s prime time cartoon The Flintstones pioneered a new and inexpensive animation technique that made it possible for broadcasters to fill hours upon hours with cheap animation. Broadcasting codes permitted almost twice as much advertising time per hour in the morning and afternoon as on prime time, and (historian Signorelli writes) “advertisers were making the most of these advertising minutes, pitching products such as sugar-coated vitamins, outrageously expensive toys, as well as anything and everything in between. Many of these messages, moreover, were delivered by the program’s cartoon characters or performers and many were close to being downright deceptive.”

Amid pressures for government regulation and network self-regulation, an enduring distinction was formed between commercial, entertainment-oriented (i.e., bad) television content and non-profit, education-oriented (i.e., good) television content. The Public Broadcasting Service was founded in 1967; its Sesame Street, which debuted in 1969, became the definitive example of the latter.

In a way, of course, Sesame Street represents the erosion of the distinction between entertainment and education. Its format famously aped the rapid-fire cuts of commercial television, and episodes were “sponsored” by letters and numbers. Significantly, however, the distinction between education and entertainment became and remained very salient with respect to audiovisual media such as television, computer games, and the Internet. Even if there was relatively little difference substantively between programs on PBS and programs on commercial stations, the symbolic distinction between for-profit and non-profit production has remained a fundamental touchstone of discourse on children and audiovisual media while remaining virtually absent from the discourse on children’s books.

The White House has hosted a national Conference on Children and Youth every decade since 1909; it was 1950 when children’s literature professionals were for the first time included among the conferees, and (historian Meigs writes) “to the Golden Anniversary Conference in 1960 came representatives of still other groups:  religious leaders, philosophers, psychologists, economists, sociologists, recreational workers, publishers; and motion picture, television, and radio producers, writers, and performers. The theme of the conference was ‘to promote opportunities for children and youth to realize their full potential for a creative life in freedom and dignity.’ Mass communication was considered in all of its aspects.  Workshops dealt with the effects on children of radio and television, films and plays, books, magazines, and newspapers, comic books and comic strips. Resolutions presented at the forum at the conclusion of the conference showed an awareness of the significance of books in young people’s lives and of the need to make library services available to everyone.”

Resource-rich and enjoying an unprecedented degree of creative freedom, the children’s book field in the 1960s and 1970s produced one groundbreaking work after another.

• Roald Dahl’s novels (starting with James and the Giant Peach, 1961) “are full of violence, vulgarity, revenge, and strongly held opinions,” writes historian Hunt. “They often feature downtrodden but resilient children pitted against adult grotesques.”

• Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), “at once a science fiction story, a philosophical meditation on the nature of Evil and Love, and a coming-of-age novel,” writes historian Kvilhaug, “broke new ground in what was considered appropriate for young readers.”

• Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), initially seen as dark and controversial, came to define the new ideal of a children’s book: firmly child-oriented yet aesthetically ambitious, and artfully ambiguous in its themes. “It is perhaps as close to the perfect picture storybook as an imperfect world allows,” writes one critic. “The vision of childhood presented is neither idealized nor nostalgic…With the publication of Wild Things, the modern era in children’s books began. The picture book had received its ultimate codification.”

A decade of challenging novels for young adults pushed the outermost boundaries of acceptable themes and content, animated by the argument that thoughtful books that address the “issues of particular importance to teenagers, such as romance, sexuality, death, and alcohol abuse” can help teens negotiate the arduous path of adolescence.

• S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) stripped away “the insulation the nuclear family of the 1950s provided” and became “widely recognized as the first important contemporary young adult novel”—as opposed to earlier, relatively lightweight novels in the vein of Judy Blume’s Fifteen.

• Paul Zindel’s My Darling, My Hamburger (1969) used characters and situations “similar to those of the high school romance novels” and turned them into “dismal parodies of carefree teenagers.”

• Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974), a hard-edged tale of conflict among teens, leaves the reader with “a sense of utter despair and futility…The despair found in The Chocolate War parallels the lingering death of American idealism that occurred in the jungles of Vietnam.”

• Judy Blume’s Forever (1975) was the first book for young readers to realistically and sympathetically depict teen sex.

• Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), set in Mississippi during the Depression, “is a historical novel of the recent and shameful past…in the one eventful year chronicled in this story, [the protagonist] observes her family’s courageous struggle against poverty, racism, and terrorism build toward a violent climax.”

Not only ambitious literary works benefited from the open gates of this period. In the 1960s, librarians long suspicious of series novels began stocking Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: “Any book a kid wanted to read was better than none.” Reading became seen as a crucial skill for all youngsters, and the “high-low” genre (high interest topics, low reading level) was invented to entice problem readers. The rapidly expanding market and dropping production costs flooded the market with undistinguished titles—some spun as “educational,” some not. Like the classics from the original “golden age,” the books above were an exception to the general run of young adult novels such as The View from the Cherry Tree (Willo Davis Roberts, 1975) and The Poltergeist of Jason Morey (Gloria Skurzynski, 1975). These latter books have all the properties of a dime novel—vivid cover, punchy prose—but, in keeping with the times, feature thinly-developed treatments of psychological and social issues.

Meanwhile, advocates for the regulation of children’s television—led by a group called Action for Children’s Television (ACT)—won a steady stream of victories in the 1970s.

In 1970 the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) issued guidelines for toy commercials, one of the more objectionable perpetrators of misleading selling techniques directed at children. By the end of 1971 the issue of “overcommercialism” in children’s television had also been considered through revised provisions of the NAB television code (effective January 1, 1973), reducing the amount of “non-program material in weekend children’s programs” from sixteen to twelve minutes an hour, and the number of interruptions in these programs from eight to four. Children’s program hosts or primary cartoon characters are also forbidden to deliver commercial messages during, or adjacent to, their own programs.

Under pressure from ACT, networks appointed supervisors for children’s programming, eliminated commercials for drugs and vitamins from children’s shows, and instituted educational “commercials” such as the Schoolhouse Rock series. By the late 1970s, the FTC was officially considering ACT’s proposal “to ban advertising to children who were too young to understand what it means to sell something and to ban advertisements aimed at eight-to-eleven-year-olds for sugary foods.” Surveys conducted in 1960, 1970, and 1980 revealed a declining public estimation of the quality of television and a increasing opinion that children would be better off without it. In particular, there was “growing concern that television is a harmful interference to reading and schoolwork.”

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, children’s literature went from a newly institutionalized field limited by the need to exclude and marginalize juveniles and comics to an established, thriving field with vast stylistic and substantive freedom. By 1980, the anti-comics movement was a quarter-century past, and fears about juveniles and dime novels even further behind.  In response to a clearly-articulated and very current (perceived) threat from television, reading material of all sorts enjoyed near-blanket support, and the market had grown to include a wide range of books from the ambitious and challenging to the quick and cheap. The succeeding decades would see this range expand even further on both ends.

Jay Gabler

References have been abbreviated or deleted for readability; fully annotated text available upon request.