Reviews 2018

Story Time: Essays on the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children’s Literature

Story Time: Essays on the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children’s Literature. Ed. Timothy Young. Yale UP, 2016. 280 pages. £20.00 (paperback).

In the first essay anthologised in Timothy Young’s Story Time: Essays on the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of American Children’s Literature, author Gregory Maguire describes the "thrill" he experiences upon entering an archive: one that is not only "over what has been written, what has been published and cherished and preserved for us, but also what might have been done, or what might yet be done" (16). Such a "thrill" – one which should be familiar to scholars whose research leads them into the deepest reaches of archival collections – is profoundly tied to perceptions of temporality. After all, it is in the quiet depths of the archive, so set apart from the hum and rhythm of quotidian clock-time, that the researcher may begin to perceive a certain collapse of time. Here, as Maguire states, long-dead authors "live on" in both their published works, as well as through the material traces of their labour in unpublished works (16). Likewise, it is in the distinctly experienced space and time of the archive that researchers may recognize unanticipated correspondences and tensions between texts produced at different historical moments – and in turn grasp how these surprising connections challenge or otherwise reconfigure present epistemologies. Finally, as Maguire suggests, curious absences in individually archived texts, as well as conspicuous gaps in entire collections, impel the researcher to consider what could have been, or what might yet be imagined.

As its title suggests, Story Time is ultimately concerned with the intimate relationship between temporality and archival literary research. Each of the essays anthologized in this collection demonstrates its author’s attempt to delve into the archive – specifically, the Betsy Beinecke Shirley Collection of Children’s Literature housed in Yale University – in an effort to tell new stories about older (and often forgotten) literary texts produced by, for, and about young people. Once read in relation to one another, moreover, these essays illuminate connections amongst ostensibly disparate texts and critical insights in ways that signal scholarly work ‘yet to be done.’

In the introduction to his edited collection, Young offers an account of the Shirley Collection: it was founded by Betsy Beinecke Shirley, "the daughter of one of the brothers who funded and endowed the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library" at Yale University; Shirley’s primary intention was to curate her "childhood favorites" as well as other "important books, manuscripts, and artwork" produced for young people (9). As the collection has expanded, Young maintains, is has permitted new engagements with familiar and beloved texts "through the lens of history and […] attendant changes in culture" (9).

Significantly, the Shirley collection is primarily an archive of American works of literature for young people. To this end, as Pádraic Whyte observes in his essay on Newbery-winning Irish-American author Padraic Colum, its "exclusion or inclusion of items" of "perceived cultural value" participates in the "canon-formation of American children’s literature" (139). In one of the first essays in the collection, "The Writer, the Family, or the House?" Beverly Lyon Clark analyses multiple editions of Louisa May Alcott’s canonical novel, Little Women, in order to exposit a critical relationship between nineteenth-century interpretations of genius and domesticity. Yet other essays address lesser known texts that demonstrate the interplay between culture and American experiences of childhood. Sandra Markham’s "For the Illustration of the Mind & the Delight of the Eye," for instance, studies the socializing function of early American copy books, including one owned by a young John Hancock, whose iconic signature has come to epitomize the expression of self through disciplined penmanship. Likewise, Patrick Kiley’s "The Page is Fallow" examines farming narratives published between 1800 and 1869 that suggested that American identity is literally rooted in agricultural labour. Other contributions take up more contemporary American texts. In a particularly nuanced work of eco-criticism, "Nature in the Kitchen," Katie Trumpeter calls attention to how "species coexistence" in Robert McCloskey’s picture book Blueberries for Sal involves the intersection of human and animal perceptions of time in a rural New England setting (132). Equally engaging is Heather Klemann’s "Mo Willems and the Poetics of Parenthood," which draws on early drafts and mark-ups of Willems’ picture books to posit a "Copernican shift" in American parenting in which "the child […] now trains the parent" (224).

As Young observes in his introduction, however, "we cannot talk about American children’s books without the need to refer to English books , French books, German books – and other forebears and contemporaries that provide context and comparison" (10). Indeed, Pádraic Whyte’s essay, "A Place in the Canon," which so persuasively claims the Shirley’s role in American canon formation, is specifically concerned with how renditions of Greek, Irish, and Hawaiian myths produced by the Irish immigrant Padraic Colum contributed not only to a distinct American tradition of children’s literature but also to early twentieth-century discourses of American identity. JoAnn Conrad’s "Typical Norwegian" also takes up the complex ways immigrants contributed to the American canon by showing how Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaires strategically modified Norwegian tales, as well as their own biographies, in order to address young US readers. Whereas these two contributions make evident the ways texts produced by immigrants enriched the American canon, Michelle Martin’s essay, "Black Childhood Abroad," calls attention to how American-born authors drew on their travels abroad to challenge conventions and dominant ideological claims within the American tradition: here, she shows how Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps’ Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti deliberately counters racist stereotypes in turn-of-the-century US children’s literature by offering fully developed characters in an "all-Black society" (65) to a "mixed-race audience" (64).

If Whyte’s, Conrad’s, and Martin’s contributions insist on the multi-directional cultural transactions that influenced texts archived in the Shirley, other essays attend to the significance of trans-Atlantic exchanges in processes of production and publication. Laura E. Wasowicz’s essay, "Headstrong Travels By Land and Water," for instance, focuses on how two picture book producers – the British Richard Andre and the American William Bruton – contributed substantially to the McLoughlin Brothers’ turn-of-the-century monopoly on American children’s literature and media. Brian Alderson’s "Across the Wide Atlantic" similarly addresses the "two-way traffic in the making of children’s books" by showing how seventeenth- and eighteenth-century catechisms, much like their own authors, developed over successive voyages between Britain and America (239). The "to-ing and fro-ing" that Alderson traces in his essay is evident in Young’s own contribution to his collection, "Happy Deaths and Urban Dangers," which demonstrates how the ostensibly distinct genres of religious death-and-salvation narratives and secular cautionary tales – popular on both sides of the Atlantic – eventually "overlap" in their mutual questioning of childhood agency (269).

Certainly, the overlapping of cultural, ideological, and indeed philosophical concerns is a major theme of Young’s collection. Jill Campbell, for instance, addresses such theoretical intersections in her essay, "Taming Llamas," which identifies Joachim Heinrich Campe’s Robinson der Jüngere, a 1779 rendition of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, as a source of Marx’s exposition of labour in Das Kapital; to this end, Campbell shows how one might read Marx through Robinsonades just as one might read Robinsonades through Marx. Such attention to the relationship between children’s literature and theoretical discourses and practices is evident in Leonard Marcus’ essay "Seen and Heard," which documents how the New York-based Bureau of Educational Experiments – now known as the Bank Street College of Education – substantially influenced the modernist experimentation in Margaret Wise Brown and Leonard Weisgard’s The Noisy Book (1939). Marcus’ detailed account of the creative processes that resulted in The Noisy Book is complemented by Elizabeth Frengel’s "Ludwig Bemelmans, from The Castle No.9 to Madeline," wherein Frengel analyses the artist dummies of Bemelmans’ earlier picture books to trace the emergence of his iconic heroine, the intrepid schoolgirl Madeline.

To be sure, each of the essays anthologized in Story Time warrants attention by scholars of children’s literature working in the greater fields of American literature, comparative literature, trans-Atlantic studies, and critical and cultural theory. Moreover, each contribution may be of use to teachers in these fields: for example, since my reading of this collection happened to coincide with my instruction of a survey course of American children’s literature, I was able to draw on Beverly Lyon Clark’s visual rhetorical study of "genius" in my lectures on Alcott’s Little Women. However, what might be especially valuable about this collection is its arrangement of discrete contributions that, once read in relation to one another, offer a greater invitation. Indeed, this invitation is one to further scholarly research in the Shirley collection – one that is made even more attractive through its inclusion of 35 colour and 40 black-and-white facsimiles of archived materials cited in the anthologized essays. More broadly, however, this collection is an invitation to archival research itself – and thus to an inhabitation of a "story time" from which emerge new insights about what was, is, and might yet be imagined and thought.

Anastasia Ulanowicz
University of Florida, USA