Thursday, December 3, 2015

Down the Rabbit Hole: Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature, by Selma G. Lanes (1972)

Though perhaps little remembered today, Selma G. Lanes (1929-2009) was an influential editor and children’s book critic.  Born in Dorchester, MA, she attended Smith College after a stint at the Dorchester High School for Girls.  She would eventually land in the Columbia School of Journalism.

She became editor of Parents Magazine, and from there became managing editor of Western Publishing children’s book division.  During this time, she wrote dozens of reviews on children’s books for the New York Times daily and magazine section.  She was one of the first members of the literary establishment to recognize the genius of Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), and would eventually write a book about his art.

But Lane’s great claim to fame were her two books about children’s literature, Down the Rabbit Hole, published in 1972, and much-delayed and far superior sequel, Though the Looking Glass: Further Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature, published in 2004.

Down the Rabbit Hole is a remarkable achievement, both as literary criticism and as a historical document.  Being a journalist, Lane clearly recycles previous reviews and covered trends.  Happily, there is a minimum of recycled journalism in Rabbit Hole, and Lane includes original chapters that are as fresh and insightful as they were over 40 years ago.

Lane seemed to be among the first in the literary establishment to fully realize Sendak’s genius, and her chapter comparing him to English illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) – of all people – is something of a tour de force.  Better still is her dissection of the American fairy tale tradition, and just how unique and separate it is from its European counterpart.  She also sites L. Frank Baum (1856-1919) as one of the central figures of American letters, a position as unpopular in 1972 as it is today.

Lane also provides historical context with a lengthy chapter on St. Nicholas Magazine, the first important periodical directed at children.  She writes at length on why such a publication would be impossible in 1972 (as it would today!), and mourns, to a degree, the then-incipient fracturing of our society.

Happily, Lane also champions children’s serial fiction, finding much value in the various adventures of The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.  She concludes that children do not see life as a story with beginning, middle or end, but, rather, as a series of adventures.  It’s only natural that their books reflect that view.  More important, the endings of individual titles in children’s series are often quite disappointing … better still is the promise at the end of further adventures to come.  (Children weaned on everything from Nancy Drew to Harry Potter become, I’m sure, besotted by the continuing adventures of everyone from James Bond to Sherlock Holmes.)

Her finest chapter, though, was on the explosion of books for African-American children.  While applauding these books – some of which by now are considered classics – she bemoans the loss of previous books about black children chucked overboard in the name of Political Correctness.  (PC seems to be a scourge of modern life – its baleful influence seemingly as potent then as now.)  Lane pleads for both historical context and intent when reading a work of the past, a simple catechism that seems inexplicable to most college students today.

Though Down the Rabbit Hole is sadly out-of-print, this title is easily gotten by or ebay, and is well worth the investment.  Delightful reading for anyone seriously (or even somewhat) interested in the genre.

In the weeks to come, we will look at her follow-up book, Through the Looking Glass, written more than 30 years later.

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