I met Leonard Marcus three years ago, shortly after arriving in New York. An author/illustrator friend who gives wonderful kid lit parties in her small New York apartment was gracious enough to invite me to one. Thoroughly new to writing and the world of children’s literature, I, unbeknownst to me at the time, met some very well-known people at the soiree, including Leonard! Knowing our community, as many of you do, you won’t be surprised that everyone I spoke to was interesting, kind and humble. I have met Leonard several times since and have also enjoyed one of his highly instructive New York Walks. I learn new things at every encounter and I was grateful he made time for this interview. I went twice to the extraordinary exhibition her curated at NYPL —“The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.”
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?
[LM] I was born and raised in Mount Vernon, New York, a modest suburb just north of New York City. My parents had both grown up in the city and were eager for the peace and quiet of a leafy residential oasis. By contrast, the minute I saw New York for myself—the skyscrapers, the museums, the giant pretzels–I knew that that was where I had to live. It’s an old story: the next generation wanting the exact opposite from what the previous generation prized.
George Washington once spent a little time in my home town (hence the name), and as a young history buff I was thrilled to know it. By age 9, I was reading almost nothing but biographies when I had the choice. The local public schools and libraries were better than average, and I received lots of encouragement from my teachers to pursue not only my interest in history but also my love of writing, which had emerged by second grade. Oddly, our teachers and librarians never told us that E.B. White was a Mount Vernon native. I would have been very proud to know that, and I found this out only years later from reading the back flap of a book of White’s essays.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as a children’s book historian, critic and author.
[LM] I entered Yale College in 1968 thinking I might study political science and then head off for the diplomatic corps. But I soon discovered that “poli sci” jargon repelled me. “Structural-functional analysis!” It felt like such a monstrous misuse of the language. Then again there was the fact that I was a very picky eater, and it dawned on me that diplomats must have to eat everything that was put on their plate. So I turned to writing poetry, and my other first love, history. When I needed a senior thesis topic, I found myself wondering about the beginnings of the American republic—the new nation whose founders had wanted its children to grow up as independent-minded free spirits. I realized that the children’s books of that long ago time might actually capture on paper this truly revolutionary effort to reimagine childhood along more democratic lines—provided of course that there were children’s books in those days, and that I could get hold of some of them. I went to Yale’s Beinecke Library, and was fortunate to find that Yale owned a significant collection of early American children’s books—books, I might add, that nobody else was studying for any purpose. After that, I was sort of hooked, and my interest in children’s books branched out from historically significant books to those—both old and contemporary–with value as literature and art. Lately, I’ve been learning about children’s books from other parts of the world too, especially Asia. As far as my professional life goes, I decided early on that I had to do something I loved, and that that meant becoming a writer. Children’s books became the thing I write about. Just the other day, things came full circle when the library at Yale acquired all my manuscripts and papers for its collection.
[JM] What book do you still have fond memories of from your childhood?
As the youngest of three children, I had mostly hand-me-down books, including a few dozen Little Golden Books. I recall getting happily lost in a LGB called When I Grow Up, and trying in a day-dreamy way at 3 or 4 to pick out an occupation for myself so that I would have something definite to say the next time one of my grownup relatives questioned me about my future. (I had it down to cowboy or gas station attendant and gave up.) I loved another Little Golden Book called Laddie and the Little Rabbit because the boy in the story was lucky enough to have something I was keen to have: a pet dog. Neither of these books had great literary or artistic merit. But each satisfied what felt at the time like a deep need. Remembering my feeling for those books helped me later, as a book reviewer, to understand that “the classics” are not the only children’s books that have special value for a given child.
[JM] What can picture book creators today learn from the authors and illustrators from the golden years of Golden Books?
[LM] The people who created Golden Books had a knack for telling basic stories with appeal to a very wide variety of children. If there are “universal subjects,” Golden Books are a good place to look for them. Also, the illustrators understood that their single most important job was to give children characters with whom they could form a strong and immediate emotional connection. Golden Books were produced to be affordable. There is nothing precious about them. While I love exquisitely made picture books, I think there is something to be said for books that children can relax with, write their own name in, and not have to treat like luxury goods.
[JM] As a founding trustee of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, what did the founding members hope to achieve through this museum, and how have your expectations been exceeded?
[LM] We wanted to raise the appreciation of children’s book illustration as an art form, to show that illustration is a kind of real art. And we wanted to offer children a first experience of museum going that might make them fall in love with art and the places where art can be experienced. Increasingly, the museum is sending its shows on tour both in the US and elsewhere, reaching a great many people who might never get to the Massachusetts woods. I think the museum has also become a rallying point and place of pride for everyone in the field. We need a literate, book-loving population in order to have a democracy, and I believe the museum is doing its part in that regard too.
[JM] You teach a course on children’s books and child development at NYU. What are some of the misconceptions students start out with in your classes?
[LM] I co-teach the course with a child psychologist. We present a variety of theories of development, and a variety of children’s and teen books. The books illustrate the theories and the theories serve as tools for interpreting the books, the characters found within them, and the readers likeliest to find the books of compelling interest. We go from Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar to American Born Chinese and The Phantom Tollbooth. It’s an experiment that is now in its seventh year—and it really works well. The main misconception is that coming in to the class, many students focus too much on “the message” of a children’s book. They see the books only as teaching tools in the most literal sense. Also, I think that many students are not used to looking at visual art closely and responding to it in a nuanced way. Visual literacy is a very undervalued skill that I try to help them develop.
[JM] Writing picture books and interviewing illustrators has helped my visual literacy enormously. What do you see as the biggest difference between European and American picture books?
[LM] Given how much books and people travel, book and illustration culture has become more fluid than it was twenty years ago. But still I would say that European picture books are more about design and American picture books are more about character. Compare Maurice Sendak’s books with those by Tomi Ungerer or Lisbeth Zwerger and I think you’ll get a sense of what I mean.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[LM] I have turned a studio apartment, which is about a 5-minute-walk from where I live, into an office/library. I love it there. The walls are thick. I have plenty of shelf and closet space, and my reference book collection is good enough to make trips to the library largely unnecessary. I bought it with money I inherited from my mother, and I always feel her encouragement when I am there.
[JM] I love that your inheritance honors your mother. What are you working on at the moment?
[LM] I am curating four exhibitions, the first of which—about Lewis Carroll as an out-of-the-box thinker in every area of his life and work—opens at the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia on October 14, and will remain on view through next May. Then at the end of October, a children’s book festival opens in Saudi Arabia that I have helped to organize. The Eric Carle Museum will be sending two art educators and a small show of Eric’s work, and I’ve created a historical timeline display tracing the story of the Western illustrated children’s book from Aesop to Press Here! It’s designed to introduce people of the region to children’s literature’s creative possibilities. In November, a show I curated called Glorious Flights: The Illustration Art of Alice and Martin Provensen opens at the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, in Abilene, TX, and will then go out on a national tour. And next March my exhibition called Magician of the Modern: The Art of Leonard Weisgard opens at the Carle.
In the book realm, I have two books coming out next year: Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration (Walker/Candlewick) and Comics Confidential (Candlewick), a book of interviews with 13 graphic novelists. Each artist has also created an original comic for the book. I’m really excited about that!
[JM] Over the years you have met and interviewed many well-known people in our children’s book industry. Where are some of the most interesting places you have gone for your interviews and research?
[LM] To write about Randolph Caldecott, I went to all the places in England that were important to him. To write about Margaret Wise Brown, I traveled with Clement Hurd and his wife to MWB’s island home in Maine. They had last been there in 1951, so the experience was like time travel for them. That was magical. I realized that places meant as much to Brown as people and so I felt I had to retrace her steps in Ireland and along the California coast among other places in order to get inside her way of seeing the world.
[JM] Fascinating. I love literary journeys! What artwork do you have hanging in your house?
[LM] I have a few drawings and prints by Clement Hurd, Wanda Gag, and others. I’m not a collector but I have a few things that I enjoy seeing every day, which is my main criterion for choosing art.
Five Fun Ones to Finish? [JM] What’s your favorite park (state, urban or national) in the world?
[LM] Paley Park, a small “vest pocket park” on West 53rd Street, just east of Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. It has a “water wall” that replaces the noise of the city with a calming hum. Watching the water rain down is almost the same as looking at a painting by Jackson Pollock—mesmerizing. It’s a great place to relax, think, or talk with a friend.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[LM] Turns out I’m allergic.
[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?
[LM] That I’m left-handed…that my favorite uncle wanted me to be an architect…that I’d be happy to eat nothing but Japanese food from now on…
[JM] First paid job after high school?
[LM] I spent a morning as a house painter’s assistant in an old Manhattan office building. My job was to put masking tape on all the individual window panes so that no paint would get on the glass. After about four hours, I accidentally kicked my roll of tape out the window and was told not to return after lunch.
[JM] Go to snack/drink/distraction to sustain your creative juices?
I play hooky at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as often as possible. Although the museum is vast, it always feels intimate. I feel very lucky to live a subway ride away.
Leonard, thank you for sharing with us. I feel like I have had a lovely chat with you in that wonderful library/office surrounded by books and authors we love and admire. You can find out more about Leonard and his books from his website.