In 1939, UC Berkeley hosted the Institute on Library Work with Children, an ALA preconference sponsored by ALA’s Section on Library Work with Children. Four hundred youth services librarians attended the institute, which eventually became known as the “Sayers Institute,” after its leader and moderator, Frances Clarke Sayers. The opening talk was made by Howard Pease, a prolific author whose books were edited by May Massee (aside: let’s hear a little SQUEE for the awesomeness that was May Massee!). Technically, Pease’s talk was about the absence of realistic fiction for young readers, but his rhetoric suggested a very different topic: the isolation of the female junior novel network.
By 1939, the network had started to enter its second generation. It had grown immensely during the 1920s and 1930s as more and more women attained jobs as children’s book librarians, editors, booksellers, and critics. With that expansion, however, had come an accompanying ghettoization. Children’s departments in both libraries and publishing houses slowly became the norm rather than the oddity, but although collaboration across disciplines still formed the basis of the network, the early collaboration outside the network (such as the organization of the early Children’s Book Weeks) had slowed dramatically. As Anne Scott MacLeod suggests,
“children’s literature became an enclave. All the creative activity, all the knowledgeable producing and reviewing and purveying of children’s books, took place a little apart from the larger world of literature” (MacLeod 125).
Thus when Howard Pease announced in 1939 that the children’s book world was “‘wholly and solely a woman’s world—a completely feminine world’” (qtd. in Jenkins “Women” 821), he was not embellishing the gendering of the professions involved. As children’s services historian Christine Jenkins summarizes Pease’s argument:
According to Pease, children’s books were being written, edited, reviewed, sold, selected, and promoted almost entirely by women, and the results of this female domination was uniformly negative. Women’s “tender-minded feminine control” of the field was responsible for the lack of male juvenile book authors. The identification of the field with women made it generally unattractive to men, plus the fact that a male breadwinner could not work for the same depressed wages as an “amateur housewife writer.” (821-822)
Oh, my. Boo hoo.
The predominantly female population attending the Sayers Institute responded pretty negatively to Pease’s statements. Sayers herself stepped in immediately, stating that
“‘Mr. Pease is a very brave man. Mr. Pease, I have to admit that as an ardent feminist I rather enjoy this world that is so completely controlled by women’” (qtd. in Jenkins 823).
May Massee, by 1939 easily the most influential figure in children’s book publishing, responded to her own author by reminding both him and the audience that
“it was women who had ‘rescued [the field] from mediocrity…and not without a struggle’” (qtd. in Jenkins “Women” 824).
Still, Pease’s accusation regarding the feminization of the field remained, and the members of the second generation of the female junior novel network found themselves facing the same charges that had been leveled at their counterparts, the first children’s services librarians, roughly twenty-five years earlier. Gah.
Pease’s accusations were further exacerbated by ongoing editorials in the Elementary English Review, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) that was founded in 1924 by C.C. Certain, an English teacher and school library supervisor, and aimed at elementary school teachers and school and public youth services librarians. Certain’s opening editorial of the October 1939 issue, titled “What Are Little Boys Made Of?” attacked the winner of the 1939 Newbery Medal on the grounds that it had no appeal to “the average tousle-headed American boy” (qtd. in Jenkins 828). He suggested that the main problem with how the Newbery was awarded was that it was selected by librarians, not by teachers, and that librarians were responsible for thus awarding the medal to books written by female authors, and which featured female protagonists. In the next issue of Elementary English Review, Certain followed up his attack by claiming that recent Newbery winners were “highly sentimental,” and would
“most assuredly lead his tousle-headed American (male) child reader to regard all literature as ‘sissy,’ and either drive him to ‘ten-cent thrillers’ or away from reading all together” (Jenkins “Women” 828).
Lesley Newton, the Chair of the ALA’s Section for Library Work with Children and a member of the 1940 Newbery Committee, replied that
“It is perhaps unfortunate that so many of the books chosen recently have been feminine in appeal, but we must not forget that there are little girl children, too” (“Newbery Award: Open” 162).
Similarly, Betty Hamilton, a children’s librarian at the Carnegie Library in Atlanta, asked
“why do the editor and others complain when a good book for girls wins the Medal? Why shouldn’t a girl’s book win? Don’t girls read?” (“Newbery Award again” 193).
The Newbery controversy within the pages of the Elementary English Review came to an abrupt end when C.C. Certain died in 1940. His wife, Julia L. Certain, took over the editorship of the journal, shifting the tone of the journal to a less antagonistic stance. Although the controversy surrounding the medal appeared to die down, Christine Jenkins suggests that the struggle over the composition of the Newbery Committee—all librarians—was “a serious challenge to the professional authority of ALA children’s librarians” (“Women 835). While Pease’s original concern regarding the medal was about the lack of realistic fiction available to children, his focus on the “tender-minded female control” of the children’s publishing and librarianship realms eventually served to highlight the predominantly female composition of those realms and, once again, the concern regarding the “feminization” of children through books.
Gah gah gah.
Jenkins, Christine.“Women of the ALA Youth Services and Professional Jurisdiction: Of Nightingales, Newberies, Realism, and the Right Books, 1937-1945.” Library Trends 44.4 (Spring 1996): 813-839. Print.
MacLeod, Anne Scott. American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Athens: University of Georgia P., 1994.]
Photo: Frances Clarke Sayers