I recently spoke with a nice woman who works in publishing. I asked her why publishing has abandoned timelessness in favor of timeliness.
I will summarize her answer:
Librarians used to drive the market. That explains the success of Robert Lawson, Eleanor Estes, and Richard and Florence Atwater. Librarians measure current works according to the yardstick of the classics. However, librarians are no longer the market driving force they once were. Today the market is driven by moms. Moms overwhelmingly prefer timeliness, which has made celebrity publishing a thing. Moms have single-handedly qualified Madonna, Molly Shannon, Perez Hilton, Katie Couric, Jewel, and Tyra Banks to be children’s authors.
In all fairness to Tyra Banks, it’s quite possible that Modelland (snicker) will be a classic of young adult fiction. Still, it seems plausible to cast blame at those moms who allow the trend-worshipping impulses of People Magazine to contaminate the pool of children’s literature.
It is inaccurate to paint all moms with the same derisive brush. The woman who spoke with me oversimplified the problem for the sake of clarity. While mothers may drive the trend it should be noted that not all mothers drive it. Many moms are the librarians of their own homes and share the impulses of arch-librarian Lillian Smith who was fond of quoting Walter De La Mare’s assertion “… only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.” Also, it should be noted that Goodnight Moon, Make Way for Ducklings, and other classics are still in print and are found in places other than libraries. Furthermore, moms are also the drivers behind the homeschool movement, which frequently treasures the classics.
However, we must acknowledge that the value of timeliness is culturally assumed, but the value of timelessness must be culturally defended. Moms, if you’re concerned about the current trends in children’s literature, you might consider spending your dollar strategically and supporting publishers who share your values. Dads, maybe you should pick out a few books too.
Here are a few thoughts in defense of the classical impulse:
1. Classical books and stories aid in cultural literacy. We each live in a particular culture and navigate that culture with varying degrees of success. Classics lay bare the origins of many cultural phenomena. If a culture has no way to reference its foundational stories (i.e. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) except through satire (i.e. King Artie and the Underpants of the Changing Table), then that culture is bereft of gratitude. A culture bereft of gratitude is a culture committing suicide.
2. Classically biased books aim to cultivate a curiosity about the world, whereas contemporary books often seek to enhance self-regard. The “Kid’s Rule!” attitude of many kid’s books encourages a distasteful narcissism and a habit of immaturity. By immaturity I mean the preference for what is mine over what is right. Timeless books tend to assume the child’s experience is a universal human experience. There is nothing wrong with condescending to a child by simplifying one’s message, but it seems best when the child still has to aspire toward the meaning.
3. The classical triad of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is more readily defended in timeless books. Timely books often substitute Usefulness, Sincerity, and Fashion. It’s a bad trade and leads to moral illiteracy. Morals mutate from truths to trends.
I should mention that I am an illustrator who prefers classic illustration to contemporary illustration, and some of the energy of this post might be the result of sour grapes. I recently had an editor tell me she loved my work but it seemed old-fashioned. It took me a minute to realize it was a criticism. At any rate, I welcome opposing thoughts, as I may be overlooking hidden virtues or benefits of timeliness.