What do children love most about books? Leaving their mark on inviting white spaces? Or that enchanting feeling when a book marks them as its own, taking them off to where the wild things are? Back in 2021, Elizabeth and John invited illustrious and illuminating book historian Leah Price to decode childhood reading past and present. The conversation explores the tactile and textual properties of great children’s books and debate adult fondness for juvenile literature. Leah asks if identifying with a literary character is a sign of virtuous imagination, or of craziness and laziness. She also schools John on what makes a good association copy, and reveals her son’s magic words when he wants her to tell a story: Read it!
For many years an English Professor at Harvard, Leah is founder and director of the Rutgers Initiative for the Book, and she tweets at @LeahAtWhatPrice. Her What We Talk About When We Talk About Books recently won Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award.
Sometime around the turn of the millennium, the concern about distinguishing between juvenile and adult books seemed to shift from moral panic about speeding up sexual maturity to worry about turning back the clock on what we now call adulting through the mainstreaming of young adult literature.
Mentioned in the episode:
Patrick Mc Donnell, A Perfectly Messed-Up Story
“Association copy”–e.g. Frida Kahlo’s goofily annotated and illustrated Works of Edgar Allen Poe.
Dorothy Kunhardt, Pat the Bunny
Erica Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Peggy Rathmann, Ten Minutes Till Bedtime
Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
Richard Wilbur, The Disappearing Alphabet
Dr. Seuss, On Beyond Zebra!
Miguel Cervantes, Don Quixote
Charlotte Lenox, The Female Quixote
Recallable Books: what else should I read if I enjoyed this episode?
(Leah) Francis Spufford, The Child that Books Built: A Life in Reading
John also wrote a children’s book, back when his kids were tiny:
Listen and Read Here: