Dead Indeed

Still available through interlibrary loan!

One of my favorite book blogs, listed over there in the blogroll, is Peter Sieruta’s Collecting Children’s Books (1). He posts about once a week, and it’s always worth reading. If it’s related to children’s books, especially older books, he’ll find it and blog about it. So I owe it to him that I learned about and was able to request through interlibrary loan (2) Dead Indeed by Marion Rouse Hodgkin (1956). It’s a mid-twentieth century mystery set in the high-profile, high-stakes world of children’s publishing, and written by someone I am vaguely related to in the bargain.
Other people have clever things to say about the milieu of this book and its representations of actual publishing figures(3). All I want to do is quote a passage that struck me as particularly interesting. Emily, the young editorial assistant, is meeting with a couple of nuns to discuss the upcoming children’s list, in order for the nuns to decide which books they will recommend in their Catholic book review.
“‘We are sometimes shocked at the apparent indifference of editors to the responsibilities imposed by growing minds. People speak scornfully of children’s literature in the last century, and by present-day standards much of it was sentimental, and even morbid. But its intent was noble. Writers for children, and the reputable publishers, were always aware of their moral responsibility: to make better men and women of the children who read their books. It was looked upon as a serious obligation. We may not approve of the particular means they thought suitable for achieving that end, but they always kept the end clearly in sight. Somtimes I think today that writers and editors have lost sight of that end altogether.'”
And that was in 1956. The Newbery winner (4) that year was Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham, a slightly fictionalized biography of sailor and mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch. I haven’t read it. Does it fulfill its moral obligations?
What I think this quote shows is the vast difference between what “moral obligation” meant in the nineteenth century, 1956, and today. I doubt that today’s editors are greatly immoral creatures, but their moral concerns have more to do with allowing children to explore choices and consequences through the relatively safe medium of literature than providing one clear path of instruction.
But before you think that this is solely a problem in children’s literature, consider the following quotations from John Gardner:
“Moral fiction improves or elevates humanity rather than debasing it.” —On Moral Fiction (1979)
“Nothing in the world has greater power to enslave than does fiction.”–The Art of Fiction (1991)
Contrast that with our good friend Northrop Frye: “There’s no such thing as a morally bad novel: its moral effect depends entirely on the moral quality of its reader, and no one can predict what that will be.”–The Educated Imagination (1964)
The lesson? Readers learn their morals from books, but books are not responsible for readers’ morals. I think I see a chicken and an egg in the distance.
1. I can’t wait for the book on the hidden stories of children’s literature he’s writing with Elizabeth Bird of  A Fuse #8 Production and Jules Danielson of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
2. Use this service at your local library! Do you want a book they don’t have? ILL is like magic.
4. One of the honor books that year was The Secret River by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Interestingly enough, it was reissued this year with new illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon. Will it get modern Caldecott recognition, too?