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Books: Libraries 'r' us but it wasn't always that way

Published November 3, 2013 12:36 pm

Interview • Author recounts how she discovered the subject of her children's book, Anne Carroll Moore, who ensured kids became part of the library culture.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Children's rooms in public libraries are so commonplace now that it's hard to imagine a time when they didn't exist. And yet as late as the early 20th century, children weren't even allowed to enter many of the country's libraries. A tough-minded Yankee woman from Maine changed all that. In her splendid new picture book, "Miss Moore Thought Otherwise," Salt Lake resident Jan Pinborough tells the true story of Anne Carroll Moore and her crusade to give children from all backgrounds access to a world full of words.

How did you become interested in this story?

I didn't find this story. It found me. In 2004 my dear friend Shauna Cook Clinger was commissioned to paint a portrait of Moore for the Anne Carroll Moore children's library at Utah State University. One day she called me sounding excited: "You need to write a children's book about Anne Carroll Moore." I'd never heard of Moore, and at the time I wasn't even writing for children. But after reading Frances Sayers's biography about Moore, I became convinced that children deserved to know about this woman whose vision and determination did so much to open library doors to children not only in the United States, but throughout the world. Along the way, I hoped to encourage "otherwise-thinking" children to value and pursue their own individualistic ideas — and thus to make their own unique contributions to the world.

Within several months of my book's publication, both the New York Times and Huffington Post ran stories questioning the continuing relevance of libraries. My vision for this book was that it would encourage people to not only remember and appreciate libraries, but to support them. One of Moore's great contributions was giving less-privileged children access to lots and lots of the best books. We need to continue doing this for children today.

Can you tell us more about Moore's connection with Utah?

Sometime in the 1920s, President E.G. Peterson of Utah Agricultural College paid a visit to Anne Carroll Moore's Children's Room in the New York Public Library. "Oh, Utah could use a place like this!" he said. The following summer, Moore made the first of many visits to Logan, speaking to faculty, students and even church groups. She fell in love with the Wasatch Mountains and became almost an adopted member of the Peterson family. The many boxes of books that she shipped from New York to Logan eventually helped fill the shelves of the Anne Carroll Moore Library (now part of the Edith Bowen Laboratory School at Utah State).

How did you research this story?

The hours I spent in the New York Public Library poring over the Anne Carroll Moore Collection were the stuff of my dreams. Among many other treasures, I held a postcard from her friend Beatrix Potter, with a little hand-drawn Nicholas doll [the children's library "mascot"] drawn by Potter herself; a poem written about her and typed out by Carl Sandburg, and a telegram from Eleanor Roosevelt.

I got to know Peterson's granddaughter and namesake Anne Carroll Peterson Darger. Thanks to her generosity, I held in my hand a Fabergé egg, a minuscule elephant carved out of ivory, and dozens of other fabulous miniature toys that Moore's literary friends sent to her puppet-doll, Nicholas. (You can see photographs of "Nicholas' treasures" @http://www.missmoorethoughtotherwise.com.)

I talked to and corresponded with celebrated author Marcia Brown, who wrote three of the most memorable books from my childhood, "Cinderella," "Stone Soup" and "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." Brown shared her reminiscences about Moore, telling me about the beautiful pink tiles from Wales that covered the floor of the Children's Room. I felt the thrill of touching history, of talking with someone who knew Moore and the whole world of books and libraries that form the backdrop for this story.

I made a pilgrimage to Moore's birthplace in Limerick, Maine, visiting the school she went to as a girl and the building that housed her father's law office, where she studied to be a lawyer before that terrible week when both of her parents died in the flu epidemic. I parked at the little country cemetery on the hill by the Baptist Church, where she began her wild sled rides as a child. I walked straight to her grave, guided, I'm almost convinced, by Moore's spirit. While in Limerick, I met a highly literate nonagenarian, who, as a young college student, worked with Moore at the NYPL.

What other information would you have liked to include in the story?

I think children would have loved to have seen and known more about Nicholas and his amazing treasures. I would also loved to have shared some of the remarkable letters I found from people like Carl Sandburg, Louis Slobodkin, Robert McCloskey and Dr. Seuss.

I would also liked to have shared more stories of individual children who were touched by Moore's work, such as a little girl named Aimée who had emigrated from Belgium and who spent virtually every day in the Children's Room while both of her parents worked. And I think there could be a whole book devoted to Moore's worldwide influence. One of the book's illustrations shows a children's library in Japan, where Moore's influence was important (and my book has recently been published in Japanese). Moore also advised a group of women who formed the American Committee for Devastated France, one of whose projects was to build libraries in bombed-out buildings. The tables in those French libraries had bowls of flowers, just one evidence of Moore's influence.

Readers may recognize a little of the fictional heroine Miss Rumphius in Anne Carroll Moore. Is there any connection between the two?

Well, Moore was very independent-minded, a free thinker who lived life her own way, spreading books and libraries the way Miss Rumphius spread lupines. What Moore planted were three new ideas that have become so pervasive that we take them for granted today — that children belong in libraries, that they ought to have free access to books, and that libraries ought to be lively and inviting places for children.

The author/illustrator of "Miss Rumphius," the late, great Barbara Cooney, wrote and/or illustrated several of my favorite picture book biographies, "Eleanor" [Roosevelt] and "Emily" [Dickinson], and I could never think about this story without envisioning Cooney's illustrations. It was a touch of magic when Debby Atwell, who painted the beautiful folk-art illustrations for the book, turned out to live in Maine, not far from where Moore grew up. It was double magic that she lives in the same town where Cooney lived, that she knew Cooney, and even owns one of her paintings.

How did your manuscript become a book?

I went to a writers' workshop, where I received enough encouragement about my manuscript to just barely give me the nerve to send it to several publishers. A generous and encouraging author at the workshop, Mary Casanova, gave me the name of her editor, the wonderful Ann Rider of Houghton Mifflin, who ended up accepting my manuscript and working with me very patiently through too many revisions to count.

What surprised you the most about the process of publishing a picture book?

How long it took — to find a publisher (a year), to get the manuscript right (two years), to find the right illustrator (several months), to illustrate it (one year), to finally get the book printed after the illustrations were done (another year).

What kind of feedback have you received from reviewers and readers?

The reviews have been mostly quite complimentary. It has been a Junior Library Guild selection, a nominee for the Amelia Bloomer Project award, a Huffington Post "best book for summer 2013" and a New York Times notable book for Women's History Month.

My favorite feedback, though, has been from several people who knew Moore, including children's author Johanna Hurwitz, and from children who felt inspired by Moore's work. Children today are shocked to learn that children once weren't allowed to even come into libraries, much less check out books.

If someone approached you and said they wanted to write a picture book, what advice would you give them?

I imagine everyone's reasons for wanting to write are quite personal. For me writing is a bit of a torture, so I only write when I feel like what I have to say will really help someone or advance some cause I feel passionate about. Even with a driving passion to tell this story, and even with all the help I got from "a thousand unseen helping hands," it was still so much work that I almost gave up a few times. But if you feel your story is important, then go for it. It can be done!

What advice do you think Annie Moore would give to today's young readers?

I feel sure she would invite them to come to the library to do what she worked so hard to help children do in her day — to spend hours curled up in library window seats, go to library story times and join book clubs. She'd probably encourage them to keep the pledge she had the children sign in her big black book a hundred years ago: "When I write my name in this book, I promise to take good care of the books I use in the Library and at home, and to obey the rules of the Library." Most of all, I think she'd want them to take advantage of every opportunity to learn about the world by reading lots and lots of the best books. I'm confident, too, that she would want all children, especially those who "think otherwise," to be brave, to have confidence in their own ideas and to look for ways to improve the world in ways large and small. —

Miss Moore Thought Otherwise: How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children

Jan Pinborough and illustrated by Debby Atwell

Houghton Mifflin 2013

Pages • 40

Cost • $16.99