Making Americans: Children’s Literature from 1930 to 1960

Charlie Kennedy

As a UK native, my childhood literary experience revolved largely around the classics that held a European heritage. I devoured the Brothers Grimm, Perrault, Hans Anderson. I delved into Enid Blyton’s worlds. I made friends with Roald Dahl’s characters. Quite simply, my reading experience was a diet of fairy tales and pure fantasy. But this is exactly the type of children’s literature that, during the 1930s to 1960s, America looked to avoid producing, and to steer children away from reading. Which is precisely why Gary D. Schmidt’s latest nonfiction work, Making Americans, Children’s Literature from 1930 to 1960 interested me so much. Here was a period of time in which children’s literature was growing enormously in the United States, and the demand for homegrown writing was prevalent. But what is interesting in Schmidt’s work is that he shows how teachers, editors, and librarians set the tone of children’s literature during particularly turbulent and fast-changing times in America. Authors and illustrators followed the calling. Major social issues including racism, immigration and assimilation, sexism, poverty, the Great Depression, World War II, the atomic bomb, and the threat of a global cold war, were all topics these people wished to address. The propaganda, shaped into books by authors and illustrators, formed the platform for children’s reading.

Educators, editors, and librarians all believed that children in America needed material that drew from their own history. The central concern that many children’s book authors and illustrators dealt with was the meaning of America and democracy itself. Authors like James Daugherty, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire, Virginia Lee Burton, Robert McCloskey, and many others concentrated on major social issues. Fiction and nonfiction for children urged them to see American history as theirs to understand, and in some ways, theirs to resolve.

Schmidt shows that the progressive political agenda shared by many Americans who wrote, illustrated, and published children’s books had a powerful effect. His study focuses more heavily than I expected, on illustrators of the time, rather than simply concentrating on authors. Illustrators played a crucial role in the works of children’s literature between the 1930s and 1960s, and while Schmidt does a great job of describing the styles and works of illustrators, it surprised me to find just one single illustration example in the whole book—an odd thing to come at three-quarters of the way through the book. The illustration, an example from Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, didn’t seem nuanced enough to warrant its inclusion.

Making Americans is a study of a time when the authors and illustrators of children’s books decisively set their eyes on national and international sights, with the hope of bringing the next generation into a fuller sense of national citizenship. Interestingly, authors and editors and illustrators of this important time in children’s literature believed that they were doing something radical and new—something different from their counterpart countries. They wanted to step away from the effects of “brainwashing,” as they believed other countries had done; yet it seems to me, that inadvertently, this is exactly what these people were doing by creating a literature based on the ideals of American democracy.

In short, they must be able to read in order to vote intelligently, to be good citizens, to govern themselves. We have seen what has happened in countries where books have been banned and burned; we have seen the effects of brainwashing. We must keep alive children’s interest in books so that they can acquire a true pleasure in reading for its own sake and in reading intelligently for the sake of the good life. (195)

This quote, from New York Times Book Review Editor Ellen Lewis Buell, made me question the brainwashing that—good intentions or not—fueled the growth of children’s literature during this period of time. I awaited Schmidt’s own verdict—and it never came. The reader is told how librarians logged the interest and activity of certain titles checked out and read, and indeed it showed that children were hungry for stories of morality, all-American boys and girls doing “good” in and for society. But does that mean that they weren’t brainwashed, that their reading choices weren’t strongly decided for them? Schmidt keeps his judgment to himself. However, I consider his interest in this topic to speak favourably and admirably to the content of children's literature created during these years, without pointing to any method of propaganda in children’s books.

There is no doubt that Making Americans is a fascinating and insightful read. Schmidt is no stranger to children’s literature himself. A much published and oft-translated author of children’s books, he has earned national acclaim with The Wednesday Wars (2007) and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (2004), which were both John Newbery Honor Books. In 2011, his Okay for Now was a National Book Award finalist and was listed on the Notable Children’s Book lists of the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe. Trouble (2008) was a Junior Library Guild Selection and appeared on the Kids Reading list for Oprah’s Book Club.

Schmidt’s voice is engaging; his passion for children's literature radiates. Making Americans is well-researched and offers an intelligent discussion on a topic that is perhaps as important today as it was then—questioning the content and importance of children’s literature. Perhaps now it is important to not only ask what the children of today are reading, but how they are reading. Amid these rapidly-changing times, when technology and other interests vie for the attention of young readers, engaging the literary world of the youth is just as crucial as ever. Schmidt’s work captured my attention as a reader, and I am certain it will do the same for others with an interest in the history of children’s literature.

Making Americans: Children's Literature from 1930 to 1960
By Gary D. Schmidt
University of Iowa Press, 2013
ISBN 9781609382216



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