“Only the rarest kind of best in anything is good enough for the young.” —Walter de la Mare
Life is a banquet—and most of us starve. This adage applies particularly to readers of children’s books. Despite the wealth, the complexity, and the beauty of children’s books, so few people have the time, or the resources, to experience the full richness offered. The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators brings the banquet to everyone.
For more than thirty years, first as editor of Horn Book Magazine, then as a publisher of children’s books, I have lectured extensively in the United States and Canada about our most important children’s books. Often when seeking basic information, I found myself searching through a dozen reference volumes. Gradually I formed an image of the reference book on children’s literature that I frequently reached for but could not find. Such a book, I believed, would concentrate on the literature created for American children over the past fifty years, treat its subjects broadly, offer thoughtful evaluations, contain a wide range of critical perspectives, and allow children’s book authors and artists to speak for themselves. With these objectives in mind, I conceived Children’s Books and Their Creators, published in 1995.
After using Children’s Books and Their Creators for a few years, I became aware of certain limitations. Because of the size of the volume, I could not adopt it for my college courses. Although extensively covering the history of children’s books, it became more outdated with the passing years. Then Susan Canavan of Houghton Mifflin suggested I revise the book for a paperback volume, and I welcomed the opportunity. The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators, alphabetically arranged, contains three types of entries: biographies about the creators; overviews of history, issues, and genres; and “Voices of the Creators,” written by thirty of our finest authors and illustrators.
Focusing primarily on contemporary American authors and illustrators, I selected about 375 entries from the 1995 text for this volume. When necessary, I updated certain entries with new information and titles. These essays represent our classic children’s literature, the canon of children’s books, which continue to be read in the twenty-first century. Although not the only books of merit published, these books motivate children to read. They include captivating stories, compelling characters, and imaginative use of language. They appeal to a wide and diverse audience of children. Because childhood is so brief, we need to expose our children to the best of our literary heritage in their childhood years. That remains the finest—and most poignant— gift we could ever give to the young.
The 1990s proved a particularly exciting time in children’s book creation. Thanks to Harry Potter, children’s books became front-page news, and some talented writers and illustrators demonstrated their best work during this period. To present information and commentary about these new voices, I added one hundred new essays.
Although I believe that at least one thousand people could be considered essential creators of children’s books, I could not offer information about all of them in one volume. In selecting the entries, I considered their historical importance, popularity, current interest in and availability of the books, and the overall contribution of the author or artist; together, the essays provide a thorough and invaluable introduction to children’s books. They also reflect the wide variety of cultural backgrounds represented in the field. Those who seek more information should consult the updated electronic version available through Net Libraries and Children’s Books and Their Creators. Ultimately, I held the quality of artistry as most important for my selections. Because my sympathies lie with those trying to fashion the best children’s books, my professional mantra remains those immortal words of Walter de la Mare: “Only the rarest kind of best in anything is good enough for the young.” Like any sane human being undertaking such a massive project, I immediately recognized my limitations. Then I remembered a statement by children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom, one of the great geniuses of the twentieth century. When asked for her job qualifications, she tartly replied, “Well, I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.” Because I haven’t forgotten either, this volume contains old—and sometimes new— friends, the books of my childhood, my young adult years, and my years of professional work.
Fortunately, I received a great deal of assistance whhile shaping The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators. About a hundred contributors, passionate about children’s books, wrote these entries. The entire staff at Houghton Mifflin, especially Susan Canavan, Becky Saikia- Wilson, Susanna Brougham, and Robert Overholtzer, transformed an ungainly manuscript into a book. My agent, Doe Coover, kept me laughing and working until the end. I am particularly indebted to the two consulting editors, Peter Sieruta and Marie Salvadore. Book people extraordinaire, they helped shape the contents and gave me honest opinions about the works published in the 1990s. And in those final hours, when we had to focus the contents more precisely, they were both clear-headed and consoling. My husband, Bill Clark, provided a clipping service unrivaled on the East Coast and showed admirable patience and humor. Fortunately, the book got finished before he ran out of both. For all of his understanding, I am extremely grateful; every book I have created exists because of his support.
Anita Silvey Westwood, Massachusetts
Copyright © 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.