The Time Value of Literature

“A classic is a book that has lasted more than 100 years.” –

Famous Person Cited by English Professor Too Long Ago to Remember

But the forgotten famous person has a point.

Today at work, I was talking with someone about a writing project she’s considering, and two books published several years ago came into the conversation. “Of course, they wouldn’t be published now,” I remarked. Times have changed, the publisher’s needs have changed, what the market is reading has changed…the list goes on.

My subconscious mind must have thought this was interesting because the topic recurred in another guise while I was scrubbing a saucepan after dinner.

It began with recollections of a picture book my mama read us often when I was a little girl. The book is called Supposings, by Johanna Johnston, Pictures by Rudy Sayers. See? That’s already something different. Picture books now say “illustrated by” on the cover. Why did that change, I wonder? Is the word “pictures” too specific, or not specific enough?

Everything about this book reminds me of my 1970s childhood. I remember it being read to us, I remember the sunlight inside the rooms of our house and that soft “nap-time-soon” quiet feeling of cuddling on the couch with wiggling siblings, staring at pictures, pointing at things at will, floating along in the sound of our mother’s voice.

The colors in the illustrations and the style of them remind me of the curtains on the landing and a wool plaid vest my mama sewed that still hangs in my closet, simply for love.

I love this book. But if Johanna and Rudy submitted it now, would it be published? Would it be hard-back? (I don’t like picture books to be paperback. Thin and flooooppppy.) Would this simple, childlike journey through an afternoon of daydreaming be considered a plot? The illustrations would be different, wouldn’t they? Even art for children follows trends. Are those trends set more by adults, or by the shifting landscape of a generation raised in front of screens?

Supposings was published by Holiday House, Inc., in New York, in 1967. There was no such thing as self-publishing in those days. That means a New York editorial staff thought this book was a good risk. Would they now?

What was the competition like back then? Were publishers swamped with submissions the way they are now? Perhaps they thought they were, but could their swamp compare with the tsunami made possible by personal computers, internet research, and the lure of social media stardom?

Years ago, my Daddy explained to me what he meant by “the time value of money.” He told me that even if I have a million dollars, if it hasn’t been paid to me yet (or it’s tied up in a trust fund or etc. etc.), then it’s value is changed. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Is there a similar principle for literature? To me Supposings is a classic because it is lovingly bound to a host of childhood memories. My objective analysis of its literary worth will be quite subjective, no matter what. Love is not blind, but sometimes love is not seeing the same object that everyone else is.

Would it be easier to evaluate the lasting literary contribution of a book for adults? I’m not sure. Novels go out of style. So do self-help books. Medical advice? Goodness yes! But at some point in all this analysis, one must confront the reality that a change in criteria is not always a change for the better. Before we can finish judging a book that wouldn’t be published if it were submitted today, we can’t avoid asking whether it should be.

9 thoughts on “The Time Value of Literature

  1. Wonderful thought provoking questions! In this Disney/video game/electronic crazed world, it does seem as if just about everyone is trying to top everyone else with how extreme or “creative” they can get with their content. That leaves out what’s truly important for our youth like books with content or stories like Supposings. Children need time to dream and have unstructured play for their brain development. These other books stifle that. Fortunately, there are still a couple of books which are being published which have very simple themes to encourage imagination. I would be curious to know if a study was done to find out if adults are behind the trends in illustrations or if they’re inspired by children.

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  2. Fellow 70s child here:) And I agree that so many of the sweet and slow books that we grew up with would not be published today. I am thinking of the limited color palette of Gus was a Friendly Ghost, by Jane Thayer, (which I still have a copy of and read to countless students and my own three children.) And many other more subtle dreamy books from the same era. I have never read this one, but it looks so sweet and gentle. On another note, I went into a children’s bookstore recently and left feeling kind of sad. There were no joyful and gentle books, everything was a lesson designed to make children into better citizens. There is definitely a shift in children’s literature, some for the good, but some not.

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    1. I feel the same way. Some things make me sad about children’s literature now, but I’ve also seen some lovely books, and there are things in the older books that weren’t always great. To everything there is a season, I suppose.

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  3. Former children’s librarian here. 1) to answer Melinda’s question, it’s “illustrated by” (I’m guessing) to tie into the Caldecott awards which is the best picture book of a given year, given to the illustrator not author of that book. Also to distinguish it from photo-‘illustrated’ books. 2) To JustOneRobin, I was always taught, as a children’s librarian and an aspiring children’s book author, that pedantic stories were to be avoided. Sorry you didn’t observe that in your local bookstore. 3) you’re all probably right in that I’ve seen a lot of clever and witty and funny children’s books recently, and fewer cozy and comforting ones. I never noticed it until you pointed it out. 4) Lastly, publishers are really trying to target boys; boys stop reading around 3rd-5th grade when they start sports; so an active protagonist of either gender is now preferable to a dreamy, cozy book. My thoughts from the field. Sorry to pontificate.

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  4. P.S. I think we’re all women commenting on these books; and most elementary teachers are female; and most children’s librarians are female. We’re all adults. We sometimes discuss: are the books the Adults love the same ones the Children love? Maybe authors and librarians should consider children’s interests at least as much as the adults (purchasers).

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    1. Thank you Cynthia for your very thoughtful and insightful comment. I always wanted to be a librarian, that must have been amazing. I also love clever and witty books and my daughter does too, along with the slower stories. I should provide context and add that I am a semi-retired teacher (20+ years) and Literacy specialist. I do think you’re right in that sometimes we miss the mark in matching students to the right books for them. And I think sweet and gentle does not appeal to everyone, especially after a certain age, as you said We were always taught that interest and motivation were the main things to think of when helping students choose books along with the reading level and I always really tried to do that in the classroom, although not always successfully:) I love the word you used, “pedantic,” because in the bookstore that I mentioned that was what it felt like, a lecture rather than an invitation.Thanks again for your insight, I am always interested in what draws children to certain books rather than others.

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    2. This reminds me of an article I read once, in which one commenter said an important part of writing for children is being a parent. The other commenter said you don’t have to be a parent to write for children: you have to have been a child.

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      1. I really like that! I remember in You’ve Got Mail when Meg Ryan’s character said that the reading you do as a child forms you more than anything else. I think there is a lot of truth in that.

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