Friday, August 12, 2011

The Teen Library circa 1950.

The Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts: The Library and the Young Adult by Margaret A. Edwards. Hawthorne Books, 1969.

The Fair Garden and the Swarm Of Beasts is the first comprehensive treatise on youth advocacy in a library setting. Written in 1969 by Margaret A Edwards, the book still remains relevant in a world where teens can do research from a laptop and download digital books. While times have changed, the fact that reading is essentially important and that we need community advocates remains possibly more significant now than ever. When American schools are bogged down by testing standards and required reading, libraries offer an alternative to a regimented educational system. Unlike computers, the library offers a forum for real life human interaction and a place to discover physical copies of books at no cost to youth.

Margaret A. Edwards was an innovator in the field of Young Adult librarianship.

Her work began after she was fired from her job as a teacher for telling off her school supervisor. A self described “hot potato” she was given a chance to start anew without mentioning her questionable past. This opportunity presented itself in the form of a job offer as a librarian working with Young Adults at the Enoch Free Public library in Baltimore. Taking her new assignment more seriously than anyone would've imagined, Edwards pushed teen services to work towards the goal of youth advocacy through the promotion of books and recreational reading. She viewed the library not as a sacred place but as a community center where youth could be introduced to new ideas outside of a scholastic environment. She laid down the standards for YA librarians in the future to follow. They had to be passionate about working with youth, they needed to read and be familiar with a wide range of books of interest to teenagers and they had to be advocates who had the potential to reach even the most reluctant teen readers.

In her book, Edwards lays down the guidelines for this profession with a sociological mission. In her own words:

“After the atom was split and Hiroshima was bombed, I read countless articles and books by thoughtful writers calling attention to the dangerous lag between man's knowledge and his emotional and cultural development. They convinced me that the destruction of the earth and the suicide of the human race were distinctly possible unless man became truly civilized. I was sure that the ideas to be found in books would help if the books were read and I felt that as far as the adolescent was concerned, the library could not play a passive role, that the librarian should do more than just wait on these people and answer their questions.”

Edwards was a warrior librarian who broke the rules in order to get books, the type of books that teenagers like to read, into their hands. She pushed her way into schools in order to give “book talks” that acted like movie previews to get youth psyched up about fiction. She found alternate ways to approach youth in a library setting that did not scare them away. And she even went as far and renting a horse and wagon, bringing books out onto the street and letting youth who would never have gone to the library before gain access to materials.

Amazingly, this was all done before YA books even existed as a publishing niche. For example, SE Hinton's The Outsiders was published roughly the same year as Margaret A. Edwards book. So, what types of books exactly were groundbreaking, relevant and popular amongst teenagers of the 1940's and 1950's when Edwards was working for the Baltimore public library? Edwards mentions several. These are not to the exclusion of adult reading as such, but the titles I'm listing below are those written about teenagers. As you can tell from the covers, these are mostly romance or sports related books. But most of these books have a hint of the psychological and social flavor that would become more prominent in the late 1960's and throughout the 1970's.

Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly. Mead, 1942.

Seventeen-year-old Angie finds herself in love for the first time the summer after high school graduation.

All American by John Tunis. Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1942.

After he and a fellow player on the football field gang up on a Jewish member of the opposing team and cause him a serious neck injury, seventeen-year-old Ronny leaves his elite all-white private school for the integrated public high school, where he discovers that the practice of democracy takes courage and loyalty to one's principles.

Hot Rod by George Felson. Dutton, 1950.

Bud Crayne was proud to be the wildest, most reckless driver on the road. Then came a horrible accident and a lesson learned much too late.

Double Date by Rosamond Du Jardin. Lippincott, 1952.

Penny and Pam are twins who must learn to accept their differences and individual personalities.

Pray Love, Remember by Mary Stolz. Harper, 1954.

Dody spends her senior year hating her small town, impatient and embarrassed with her lower middle class family, bored with her beau, and dreaming of a way to escape a future as a Plattstown housewife. When she has an opportunity to go away as a governess for a problem child in Oyster Bay, she leaves Plattstown and learns a great deal.

The Red Car by Don Stanford. Funk & Wagnalls, 1954.

On YA books, Edwards writes, “Books are literary atom bombs capable of destroying stupidity, cant, insularity and prejudice---if read....At the appearance of teen-age novels the literary critics went into tailspins and vied each other in expressing their scorn. Some librarians agreed with them, while others who have [actually] read and circulated these books and listened to the reactions of young readers have come to believe that the public library can make good use of teen-age novels: to teach the apathetic the love of reading; to satisfy some of the adolescent's emotional and psychological needs; to throw light on the problems of adolescence; to explore the teenager's relationship to community...”

An important message indeed.


In reading this book, I began thinking about what books I might recommend were I a teen librarian in the 1950's. Here is the list that I came up with:

A Portrait of A Girl In Glass by Tennessee Williams. This short story published in 1948 was the basis for the play (and film) The Glass Menagerie. Tom's stifling home life with his mother and his pain at leaving his shy, reclusive sister behind is the perfect metaphor for the end of adolescence.

The Holy Terrors by Jean Cocteau published in 1957. With both their parents gone, Paul and Elizabeth live in seclusion and obsess over past loves in the form of Dargelos (a boy) and Agatha (his female double). This french tragedy presents the teenager as outsider in an epic poetic manner. Also made into a film by Jean Pierre Melville. The 1978 novel The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan shares many similarities to this.

Carson McCullers' The Member of The Wedding (1946). Loneliness and waiting characterize 12 year old Frankie Addams. A drab home-life and Frankie yearns for a sense of belonging. This has been adapted into a film on three separate occasions.

All Fall Down by James Leo Herlihy (1960). A study in the disillusionment of an adolescent boy on a journey to find his brother. Clint drops out of school and journeys to find his drifter older sibling Berry Berry. William Inge wrote the screenplay to the excellent film.

Catcher In The Rye (1951) -- enough said!

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking for a book a friend read as a kid in the 50s. The plot involved a boy and a north country bush pilot named Bun teaming up to solve a crime, I believe. Any help with the title would be appreciated.