Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How About We Go With the Nightingale AND Janey Larkin?

Julia L. Sauer: Fog Magic, Radio Days, and a World Gone Mad

On June 22, 1937, Frances Clarke Sayers, a children's librarian, author, and college instructor, stood before an audience of fellow professionals in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City and delivered a speech entitled, "Lose Not the Nightingale". The event was the Annual Conference of the American Library Association, and Sayers was addressing the Section for Library Work with Children.

The speech was a response to a controversy that began in the 1920s concerning the standards used in evaluating children's books.  Educators -  and I am painting with very broad strokes here -  taking exception to the public children's librarian claim of sovereignty in the area, saw themselves as being the best evaluators of books for children, and were demanding more realistic books, books that reflected a child's immediate experience and environment.  Children's librarians, on the other hand, maintained that they were the best evaluators of children's books, always had been, always would be, and insisted that imaginative literature, such as traditional folklore and fairy tales, and stories that inspired children to imagine a world beyond their own, of a much broader version of reality, were the best books for children.

An important point to remember here is that in 1937, the professionals of both elementary education and children's librarianship were almost 100% female.

The nightingale Sayers referenced was from Hans Christian Andersen's tale, The Nightingale.  In a nutshell, the Emperor of China discovers a nightingale, a plain little bird with the ability to produce magical songs. Word gets around, everybody gets into the act, and before you know it, the Emperor of Japan sends a mechanical nightingale, all bejeweled and bedazzling, as a present to the Emperor of China.  Everybody makes such a fuss over the new and flashier version, which, in all fairness, also sings well, that eventually the brokenhearted real nightingale flies away. Years pass, the mechanical bird breaks down, and no one can fix it. The Emperor of China becomes ill,  the real nightingale learns of his illness and returns, sings, and the Emperor lives, hopefully a little wiser, but who knows?

Sayers - broad strokes again - likened the here-and-now realistic fiction to the mechanical nightingale of the story, and the imaginative literature to the real nightingale. It was an interesting speech, heartfelt, and "lose not the nightingale" became something of a catch phrase for many children's librarians in the ensuing years.  

I'm getting to Julia L. Sauer soon, I promise. This is important.

Fast forward to 1939.

The University of California in Berkeley is the site for an ALA preconference, the Institute on Library Work with Children, sponsored by the Section on Library Work with Children. The leader and moderator was Frances Clarke Sayers.  Referred to afterwards as the Sayers Institute, the first speaker, invited by Sayers, was author Howard Pease.  Pease wrote what we would today call YA books, featuring teenage males and adventure stories involving pirates and life at sea. I could not get my hands on a copy of his actual speech, but the gist of it seemed to be Pease's belief that the predominately female world of children's books: librarians, writers, editors and publishers, were incapable of selecting or producing suitable books for for American boys, books with stories that interested boys, full blooded stories, written with vigor, books like, you know… his.

Pease claimed that this bias towards the feminine, the sweet and light, the whimsical, was evident in those books selected for the Newbery  awards, which he claimed were written predominantly by females and featured female protagonists. (By 1939, had been eight male winners and ten female winners - the tenth for the year 1939. The winners from years 1922 to 1929 were all male; the winners from years 1930 to 1939 were all female. In the years 1940 and 1941, the winners were male.) Steps needed to be taken, said Pease, immediate steps, to remedy the situation. Otherwise, today's sheltered children would be tomorrow's lacking adult; a person unable to cope with the realities of life.

List of Newbery Winners

Despite Pease's overall tone of condensation, which, face it, was simply typical for the time, and his complete tone-deafness in regards to his audience - it just might be possible that several hundred professional librarians would not appreciate being treated as incapable of judging literary merit on the basis of their gender, really, it might - he did make salient points regarding the need for more realistic fiction for young readers, points of which his audience was already well aware.  

The last major attack on the suitability of public children's librarians to evaluate books and name award winners came in 1940, from  C.C Certain, an English teacher and school library supporter who founded and served as editor of Elementary English Review, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English aimed primarily at the elementary school level.  Certain believed that teachers were the best evaluators of children's books, and devoted considerable ink in his magazine promoting his view.  Certain was not known for his cool, calm demeanor, and could, at times, be a bit over the top.  His death at the end of the year cooled the rhetoric considerably, and in the January 15, 1941 edition of Library Journal, an article entitled "Making The World Safe For The Janey Larkins"addressed the entire controversy with reason, clarity and complete professionalism.

The author of the article was Julia L. Sauer.

Julia L. Sauer (1891-1983) was born in Rochester, NY.  She attended school at the University of Rochester and New York State Library School. She was a children's librarian at Rochester Public Library from 1921 until her retirement in 1958.  In addition to Fog Magic, she authored The Light at Tern Rock (1952) and Mike's House (1966), illustrated by Don Freeman.  She also edited Radio Roads to Reading: Library Books Talks Broadcast to Girls and Boys (1939).  Sauer was the creator and pioneer of a radio show that aired book talks for children.  She also promoted preschool reading and wrote frequently on the subject of children and reading.

Sauer loved Nova Scotia, visiting every summer for years and eventually, with friend Alice Walker, purchasing some property in Little River, Digby Neck, where they built a cottage. The place and the people of Little River served as inspiration for her book, Fog Magic.

Julia L. Sauer at Wikipedia

Book #17:  Fog Magic (1943) by Julia L Sauer.  Illustrated by Lynd Ward. 107 pages.

Ten-year-old Greta Addington has a secret. When the heavy grey fog rolls in from the sea and over the tiny fishing village of Little Valley in Nova Scotia, Greta is able to walk the Old Post Road and visit the town of Blue Cove, a town that only appears with the fog, and a town that only Greta can see. Blue Cove was once a prosperous village, but something happened, and now, in Greta's time, all that's left is a series of cellar-holes where the houses used to be.

Greta's mother doesn't like her going out in the fog, but Greta's father allows it. It almost seems to Greta that her father knows more than a little about the mysterious qualities of the fog.  In Blue Cove, Greta is befriended by the Morrill family, whose daughter, Rheta, is the same age as Greta. Rheta's mother, Laura, and her husband understand where Greta is from, though how they do is never explained, and never discussed with Greta.

No matter how long the interval between Greta's visits, it is always just the next day in Blue Cove.  Greta is there when a ship is stranded between the rocks in the cove, and witness to the salvage of the ship's contents by the townspeople. She is also visiting when a young woman involved in a property dispute announces that she will walk all the way to Halifax to plead her case with young Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, who is visiting.  Finally, the day comes when Greta turns twelve, an event she has come to realize will end her ability to visit Blue Cove. Although never able to bring anything from Blue Cove back with her to Little Valley before, Mrs. Morrill gives her a kitten to take back, and seems relatively sure that the kitten will make the journey.  It does, and on her walk home, Greta is met by her father, who finally confirms that he too visited Blue Cove as a boy, and he pulls out his own souvenir, a small knife, that he received at Blue Cove on his twelfth birthday.

This is not a wham, bang, full-blooded, vigorous book, but it is a time travel fantasy, and by virtue of this fact worthy of reading, since time travel books are the best books ever written. There is no driving narrative, just a series of vignettes depicting everyday life in a maritime setting.  Despite the fact that Greta will no longer be able to visit Blue Cove, there is no feeling of sadness in Greta, no impression that the best of life is over, but instead an appreciation of what has happened, and an anticipation of what will happen, in the next phase of her life.  In my opinion, an excellent sentiment to share with young readers.  Life goes on; cherish what you had, appreciate the possibilities ahead.

Fog Magic at Amazon

In 1941, when Sauer wrote her article, anticipation of the future was filled with dread. War was raging in Europe, with new horrors reported every day, and America's eventual direct involvement was beginning to appear inevitable.

Sauer began her article referencing the war, and then stated that each individual longs to believe that in such trying times, his or her work counts in some measure against the forces at play that threaten those values that make life worth living. Librarians hold fast by their faith in the power of books to influence children.Working with others, librarians have focused their efforts on bringing children and the best of literature, classic and contemporary, together, and contributed to further developing current literature that will appeal and enlighten a child's world.

Sauer continues that while classic imaginative literature allows a child to see life steadily - the big picture - children need books about the present day to see it whole.  Children need these types of books in order to make them think about the world around them. Librarians past efforts to build international friendship through children's books, featuring children in other lands, generated an enormous supply of background books, some of which Sauer considers excellent, the majority mediocre to horrible.  Sauer has no love for children's books that beats IMPORTANT FACTS AND LIFE LESSONS! into their little heads with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Sauer states that the most pressing need currently is to produce more books about the present.  Yes, we want our children to have happy childhoods, but not to the degree that they grow up unprepared for the world they will inherit.

Sauer states that the dearth of "right now" stories is detrimental to the goal for a child to be able to see the world around him, think about that world, and relate the facts to the current situation.  There is a great need in the country to build a sympathetic understanding of the lives and problems of all the groups within the country.  The best way to do this, writes Sauer, is through good fiction, well written stories that appeal first to the emotion and then to the mind of the reader. Sauer wants to see books that question living conditions, life in mining towns, the manner in which the business of the country affects households, i.e., the effects of the economic forces on families, and more.  Prejudice in all forms - class, racial, and religious - can be and should be combatted in children's books. These books won't solve, can't solve, problems, but they can lay a foundation in young reader of tools with which to think about them, be conscience of them, and regard their existence as relevant and even pressing.

Imaginative literature is crucial for a child's development, but such literature must be combined with present day, more realistic fiction. That is Sauer's contention, and she ends her article giving an excellent example of one such book, Blue Willow, by Doris Gates.  It's a story about migrant agricultural workers, an Janey Larkin is the young daughter of the family.  Her most precious possession, which she shows to her best friend Lupe, is a blue willow china plate that belonged to her great-grandmother.  That plate represents Janey's most cherished dream, the dream of a permanent home, of stability. Sauer states that the world still must be safe for the nightingales, but before that, it must be made safe for all the Janey Larkins.

I don't think Sauer included anything in her article that the majority of individuals involved in the controversy hadn't already come to believe. She states her case clearly, and with a certain dry wit. Point by point, she counters the litany of objections to librarians as effective evaluators of children's books, and outlines defined goals for the immediate future.

Sauer does an excellent job of stating her case and outlining a solid strategy for pursuit.  I like facts, especially the ones that are true, and I appreciate opinions that are based on such.  The article was well worth the two plus hours round trip from my house to a not-so-local university library that had back copies of Library Journal. 

Just an aside on how things change. My undergrad papers involved various physical copies of Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature and hours and hours at one of thirty or so microfilm readers stationed in the library. It was clear after about thirty seconds that the very helpful and very young reference librarian where I traveled to get the article had never actually held a roll of microfilm, never actually used a microfilm reader, and didn't realize until that day that the huge piece of equipment pushed forlornly into a far and forgotten corner was, in fact, a microfilm reader.  Learn something new every day.  Credit where it's due, the librarian hung around and watched as I loaded the film and got the machine up and running.  Seemed to find the entire process fascinating.  History at work, or something like it.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Lynd Ward, the illustrator, will be the subject of a post coming in the near future.

1 comment:

  1. "Fog Magic" remains a memorable story for me... one of my favorites. I still have my paperback copy from 5th/6th grade (1970ish); it has survived many weedings of my personal collection of books. Loved this background on the author and the profession. Thank you.