Imagine a time when there was no children’s literature and kids were barred from even entering a library. That time was not so long ago. In her article, “The Lion and the Mouse,” Jill Lepore recounts how a New Yorker named Anne Carroll Moore single-handedly invented the children’s library in 1896.
Prior to Moore’s pioneering work, children were not allowed into libraries for fear they would read some trashy novel, like “The Scarlet Letter.” It was also believed that children below third grade did not read well enough to benefit from library books. However, in a bold experiment, Moore was given the job of designing a children’s room for the New York Public Library.
Many of Moore’s innovations have become standard: child-sized tables and chairs, story hours and shelves stocked with thousands of children’s titles. Moore wielded absolute power over what children’s books were purchased, effectively dictating what books were published.
Unlike Moore, our library’s Youth Services Manager, Lindsey Kraft, does not see herself as a “gatekeeper” like the librarians of old. On the contrary, Kraft often purchases books for the collection based on the input of young readers. For example, there’s a series of urban novels popular with teens and Kraft asks them what “street-lit” books they should add.
As so often happens to young visionaries, Moore morphed into a reactionary as she aged. She fought the battle of her career in the 1940s when she tried to ban “Stuart Little” from America’s libraries. She feared children would be confused by the book’s mixture of fantasy and reality. Nonetheless, “Stuart Little” went on to sell more than four million copies and children’s books have delighted in crossing the line between fantasy and reality ever since.
Kraft hasn’t been involved in any “Stuart Little” type controversies but noted that some parents object to the “Gossip Girl” books and others find the “Harry Potter” series distasteful. Nevertheless, these titles are flying off the library’s shelves.
Besides providing popular books, the library’s children’s section hosts discussion groups, story hours and hands-on activities such as science experiments and video game tournaments. It also gives the after-school crowd a safe, comfortable space to wait for their parents. From 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. some 20 to 40 students typically linger at the library.
Kraft noted that they are generally well behaved and only asks that they refrain from yelling and roughhousing. Kraft is grateful for the spaciousness of the building’s lower level, which houses her department, and how kids don’t have to worry about bothering adults.
She also loves the community of Forest Park and how generous taxpayers have been in supporting the library. Her goal is to have kids value the library and grow up to become adult patrons. Who knows, maybe some Forest Park kid who was enthralled by “Stuart Little” will have to vote on a library referendum someday.