Roman Mars [00:00:02] Some companies are big. Others are small. To Robert Half, their hiring needs are equally huge. Robert Half has transformed candidate discovery, assessment, and selection by combining custom AI with specialized hiring experience. Whether sourcing talent locally or in any geography that works for you, Robert Half can pinpoint hard to find candidates in finance and accounting, technology, marketing and creative, legal and administrative, and customer support. Robert Half. We know talent. Learn more at roberthalf.com/invisible. As the weather gets warmer, Bombas is inviting you to get outside and find your outer peace in socks, underwear, and t-shirts you can effortlessly move and relax in all season long. Not to get too personal, but I am wearing Bombas underwear right now as I’m recording this. When there’s a new batch of clean laundry, they are the first pair I go for because they are that comfortable. Socks, underwear, and t-shirts are the number one, two, and three most requested items in homeless shelters. That’s why for every comfy item you purchase, Bombas donates another comfy item to someone in need. Go to bombas.com/99pi and use code “99pi” for 20% off your first purchase. bombas.com/99pi. Code: “99pi”. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. January of 2020 marked the New York Public Library’s 125th anniversary. And to celebrate, they published a list of the ten most checked out books in the history of the library.
Joe Rosenberg [00:01:38] And there’s one thing about the list that you really can’t help but notice right away.
Roman Mars [00:01:43] That’s our producer, Joe Rosenberg.
Joe Rosenberg [00:01:45] It’s made up almost entirely of children’s books.
Dan Kois [00:01:48] So The Snowy Day, The Cat in the Hat, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte’s Web.
Joe Rosenberg [00:01:53] Dan Kois is a writer at Slate.
Dan Kois [00:01:55] To Kill a Mockingbird–arguably a children’s book–also on the list.
Roman Mars [00:02:00] Well, I mean, I think I read it as a kid. I’m not sure. Anyway.
Joe Rosenberg [00:02:04] Fine. But come on. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Very Hungry Caterpillar…
Dan Kois [00:02:09] The only books, quote unquote, “for adults” on this list are 1984, Fahrenheit 451 How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Love that that book is still on there.
Roman Mars [00:02:22] All told, seven of the ten books were for kids. Taken together, they were checked out over two and a half million times.
Joe Rosenberg [00:02:29] At the very bottom of the list, Dan Kois noticed this little footnote.
Dan Kois [00:02:34] And it just said, you know, “Fun fact: Goodnight Moon,” of course, one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, “was not on the list.”
Joe Rosenberg [00:02:43] The footnote was almost like an apology because if there’s one title that you’d expect to be on the list, it’s Goodnight Moon. The famous picture book where the little toddler rabbit says goodnight to all the objects in its massive bedroom. “Goodnight socks, goodnight clocks, goodnight… you know… moon”
Dan Kois [00:02:59] I was really surprised–not only because I know of its popularity, but because I have always sort of viewed it as a kind of platonically perfect children’s picture book for the exact moment in the day when you most need a picture book.
Roman Mars [00:03:16] That moment when you need your child to fall asleep so you can finally take a shower or watch TV or do anything except parent.
Joe Rosenberg [00:03:25] Still, the book had only been checked out about half as many times as the lowest ranking book on the list. But it wasn’t because of lack of interest. No, it was because of one person.
Dan Kois [00:03:35] According to the New York Public Library, an influential children’s librarian at the library had disliked the story so much when it was published in 1947 that the library didn’t even carry the book until 1972. And this librarian’s name, according to the press release, was Anne Carroll Moore.
Joe Rosenberg [00:03:57] Anne Carroll Moore was the head children’s librarian at the New York Public Library for pretty much the whole first half of the 20th century. And for nearly three decades, she single handedly kept Goodnight Moon out of the entire library system.
Dan Kois [00:04:10] That a children’s librarian could just say “No New York Public Library will stock this book.” And the idea of, like, children everywhere in the world growing to love Goodnight Moon–except for in New York City, where they grew up sad and Goodnight Moonless just seemed bananas to me.
Joe Rosenberg [00:04:28] Now, at this point, if you’re imagining your stereotypical rule mongering, moralizing librarian giving you the stink eye, Dan Kois says, “You don’t need to imagine it. There are pictures.”
Dan Kois [00:04:38] At the time that there were finally photographs of her taken, she was an older lady who looked like the quintessential bun-in-the-hair, shushing librarian, who’s a really easy villain.
Joe Rosenberg [00:04:49] But as Dan would find out, Moore was and remains a very complicated historical figure.
Roman Mars [00:04:55] Because long before she became a villainous banner of books Anne Carroll Moore was a hero of children’s literature who left the world with one undeniably good thing.
Jill Lepore [00:05:07] She pretty much single handedly invented the children’s library.
Joe Rosenberg [00:05:12] Jill Lepore is professor of history at Harvard and a staff writer for The New Yorker who wrote about Moore for the magazine. And she says that perhaps no single person has ever done more to get books into the hands of children.
Roman Mars [00:05:24] And she did so by creating a place for kids to read.
Jill Lepore [00:05:28] So when you go into your neighborhood public library and there is a thing called the “Children’s Room” and they have potted plants there and they have toys and they have a cozy rug and a rocking chair and they have story hours and they have fun art on the walls–all that stuff was invented by Anne Carroll Moore.
Joe Rosenberg [00:05:47] Today, with all the emphasis we place on instilling kids with love of reading, it’s hard to imagine your local public library without a children’s reading room. But Lepore says that before Moore came along, children weren’t even allowed to enter the one place they would be sure to find a book.
Jill Lepore [00:06:04] Kids really couldn’t go to libraries. Libraries were for grownups.
Joe Rosenberg [00:06:09] The late 19th century saw some of the first public libraries being built in America. This was an age in which there was a surge in support for government funded, progressive institutions intended for the betterment of all–or, in the case of libraries, the betterment of everyone except children.
Jill Lepore [00:06:25] You had to be, I think, 14 or 16 in most places. And in most places, you had to be a boy. And the Brooklyn Public Schools had a policy that children below the third grade do not read well enough to profit from the use of library books.
Joe Rosenberg [00:06:37] The thinking went that if you were too young to read, obviously there would be no need for you to go to the library. What good would that do to you?
Dan Kois [00:06:43] And if you were old enough to read but you were still a child, going into a library, which was full of trashy romance novels and westerns, would just corrupt your mind. And so certainly there’s no reason for you to go to a library either.
Joe Rosenberg [00:06:57] Jill Lepore says that for the children of the wealthy and middle classes, who often had their own small book collections at home, being banned from libraries wasn’t really a problem. But it left the children of the poor with virtually no access to literature.
Jill Lepore [00:07:11] It’s completely bound up with class discrimination because it’s not really until the 1920s that you have a very strict regulation against child labor. So, the children of the poor are working. They’re not reading. They’re not even learning to read.
Roman Mars [00:07:25] But then at the turn of the century Anne Carroll Moore–the crusty old librarian who hated Goodnight Moon–came along and flipped the purpose of the library on its head.
Jan Pinborough [00:07:36] So I was very surprised recently to read in an article someone describe her as the quintessential librarian with the bun in her hair and shushing the children, when in actual fact that was exactly what she did not do.
Joe Rosenberg [00:07:52] Jan Pinborough is an editor and children’s book author. And she says that in the 1890s, Moore was the most vocal and energetic among a small group of young progressive librarians who’d begun experimenting with a radical idea. What if they finally let kids into a library, stocked an area with children’s books, and then made that area just for kids?
Jill Lepore [00:08:13] And what she was trying to do–and this is what’s really important–was trying to provide a childhood to working class kids. She was trying to give them all the luxury and leisure of having a space with books that are made for them to be able to read so that they would have what we would think of now as, you know, a way to address an achievement gap. And she was trying to level that field.
Joe Rosenberg [00:08:34] And in 1906, Moore got the chance to run this experiment on an unrivaled scale.
Roman Mars [00:08:41] The New York Public Library was building its iconic main branch at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue–and it would feature a dedicated children’s reading room that would be designed, stocked, and run by Moore.
Jill Lepore [00:08:55] And there are just these incredible photographs of that children’s room when it opened in 1911.
Joe Rosenberg [00:09:01] The photos depict one of the earliest public spaces designed exclusively for kids. Moore started by borrowing the idea of kid sized tables and chairs from kindergartens. But she took the concept even further.
Jill Lepore [00:09:14] She had benches. Window seats built at the bottoms of the windows–giant windows–but they’re, like, pintsized. Like, if you were five years old, you could sit in those window seats and your feet would touch the floor.
Joe Rosenberg [00:09:28] Moore especially wanted to provide poorer kids from the tenements access to the beauty of the natural world. So, she installed pink floor tiles to catch the light coming through the windows and then filled the room with shell collections, butterflies, and dozens of bowls of freshly cut flowers.
Jan Pinborough [00:09:42] And these children–a lot of them were starved for nature. And they would line up for the chance to look out and smell the flowers when she brought them in.
Joe Rosenberg [00:09:52] More took down the “Silence” signs. The library was now a space for puppet shows and musical performances and story hours featuring stories in multiple languages, so that the children of immigrants who did not yet read or speak English would still feel welcome.
Roman Mars [00:10:07] But most importantly, Moore filled the shelves of the new reading room with hundreds and eventually thousands of children’s books–not locked in a cabinet or in a rich kid’s nursery, but out in the open for any child to pick up, leaf through, and read.
Joe Rosenberg [00:10:22] And if a child liked the expensive book they were holding, they could take it home. The only requirement was that they sign their name in a big black ledger alongside a pledge.
Jill Lepore [00:10:34] “When I write my name in this book, I promise to take good care of the books I used in the library and at home and to obey the rules of the library.” And it was a kind of sanctified moment.
Roman Mars [00:10:45] The pledge turned the process of checking out a book into a child’s first act of citizenship.
Joe Rosenberg [00:10:51] The room was an overnight success. Rich and poor kids alike flocked to the library. And more began training librarians to establish new reading rooms throughout New York, including Nella Larsen, the prominent African American writer who created the first children’s room in Harlem.
Roman Mars [00:11:07] By 1913, just two years after the children’s room opened, Moore could boast that one third of the volumes borrowed from the city’s branch libraries were children’s books.
Joe Rosenberg [00:11:18] And children’s rooms were springing up even more quickly in the rest of the country. By the end of the 1920s, by one estimate, there were perhaps as many as 1,500 children’s rooms in the U.S. alone.
Jan Pinborough [00:11:29] And her reach was really worldwide. And there are places and countries where people would say, “Well, if you walk into that library, you’ll realize that that was touched by Anne Carroll Moore.”
Joe Rosenberg [00:11:42] The spread of Moore’s reading room model was also instrumental in establishing children’s literature as literature. Moore convinced the library-going public that books like The Velveteen Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and the works of Beatrix Potter were, in fact, art. And the 1920s saw an explosion in dedicated children’s departments at major publishers and of prizes like the Newbery Medal, which Moore helped create.
Dan Kois [00:12:05] So for multiple generations of New York children, Anne Carroll Moore was the reason that the libraries became places that fostered their love of storytelling and love of books.
Joe Rosenberg [00:12:16] But all this came with a crucial caveat, which is that Anne Carroll Moore’s vision was never limited to simply creating a place for kids to read. From the beginning, it was also about what counted as children’s literature.
Roman Mars [00:12:31] So even as she was letting more children than ever into the library, Moore was keeping all kinds of books out.
Dan Kois [00:12:38] And as the head of the children’s department in the New York Public Library, she was in charge of choosing the books that the children’s departments of all those libraries acquired.
Joe Rosenberg [00:12:46] And the NYPL’s purchases often set the standard for libraries nationwide.
Roman Mars [00:12:51] Back then, children’s titles were only published once a year in the fall. So, every year around the same time, Moore would make a list of her favorite upcoming books.
Joe Rosenberg [00:13:00] And that list was used by other librarians across the country.
Dan Kois [00:13:04] So if you ran a library in Dubuque, Iowa, and you were trying to figure out “what am I going to spend my budget on?”, you’d just go right down the list. You go, “I’m going to buy one of this, two of this, three of this, one of this. Oh, none of this.” Whatever. You would use that list to guide your purchasing.
Joe Rosenberg [00:13:20] Moore also had a regular review column that parents and librarians alike used to decide which books were worth buying and which weren’t.
Jill Lepore [00:13:28] So she’s the most eminent children’s book reviewer in the country. But then, because she was also the chief purchaser for books, she quickly accumulates really far too much power.
Joe Rosenberg [00:13:39] At the height of her career in the 1920s and ’30s, she was like the Anna Wintour of kids lit. Editors and authors were routinely seen walking up the steps of the public library’s main branch between the two marble lions to drop off their books and await Moore’s verdict. If they were lucky, she’d send back notes for suggested changes, which they would dutifully incorporate into the final draft. Others weren’t so fortunate.
Dan Kois [00:14:03] The story about Anne Carroll Moore–although no one, including her biographers, knows whether this was apocryphal or not–was that she actually had a custom-made rubber stamp that read “not recommended for purchase by expert.” And if she didn’t like your book, she would stamp that on your book. And that’s it. Your book’s dead. No one’s going to order your book. Better luck next time.
Roman Mars [00:14:24] And there were a lot of manuscripts “not recommended for purchase by expert” because Anne Carroll Moore had very specific tastes in children’s literature.
Joe Rosenberg [00:14:34] She may have been a great advocate of children’s books as art, but in her zeal to protect kids from the horrors of poverty and urban life, Moore almost invariably favored magical, “once upon a time” stories that felt pastoral and twee. The whole point was for them to take the less fortunate into their warm boujee embrace.
Dan Kois [00:14:53] So her favorite children’s books–the ones that she approved–certainly weren’t meant to represent anything that a child might actually see or experience in his or her everyday life. They were meant to be little, mini escapes into this magical world of talking animals and rabbits in waistcoats and whatnot.
Joe Rosenberg [00:15:14] To be honest, this is kind of where most of my experts for this story get off the Anne Carroll Moore train.
Jill Lepore [00:15:19] She was a sharp-eyed critic. It’s just not my eye. I’m trying to be charitable here. She likes gooey. And she likes super sweet. And she likes silly animals that talk.
Joe Rosenberg [00:15:35] Because Winnie the Pooh is great, right? But for a few decades of children’s literature–from the 19-teens through the 1920s–pretty much everything coming out of the publishers was very Pooh.
Roman Mars [00:15:47] Meanwhile, there were almost no books for kids that took place in cities, no books for kids that depicted real world problems, and very few children’s books containing messy ideas or ambiguous endings. Stories with those qualities never made it past Moore.
Joe Rosenberg [00:16:03] Although sometimes a book could meet all of Moore’s criteria, and she would still have it killed for reasons known only to her. Moore–you said she’s a pretty sharp-eyed critic. Did you think she had a kind of systematized notion of her own gatekeeping rules, or was she just shooting from the hip?
Jill Lepore [00:16:24] You know, I have no idea. I think she was drunk with power. Like, I think she loved being the lady in charge. Like, I think she just loved having the entire publishing industry at her beck and call. And she thinks she’s right. And she has no doubts about it. Like, she thinks she’s right.
Roman Mars [00:16:42] But even as Anne Carroll Moore held the publishing world in her iron grip, a small group of preschool teachers were busy writing stories for kids that embodied everything in children’s literature that Moore hated.
Joe Rosenberg [00:16:56] Their stories would go on to influence an entire generation of children’s book authors. And they worked just a few blocks away at an experimental school in Greenwich Village called Bank Street.
Leonard Marcus [00:17:07] Bank Street came along and said that picture books ought to be stories about modern urban life.
Joe Rosenberg [00:17:14] Leonard Marcus is a historian of children’s literature. And he says that the Bank Street Co-operative School for Student Teachers, founded by the great educational reformer Lucy Sprague Mitchell, was in many ways the ancestor of today’s progressive schools. They believed that teachers should let children guide their own learning experience.
Leonard Marcus [00:17:31] And it just so happened that when people trained as teachers at Bank Street, they didn’t read textbooks. They were trying to write stories for children so that future teachers would really know from their own experience what kinds of stories are meaningful to kids at different ages.
Roman Mars [00:17:47] And when the teachers tried to write stories for the youngest kids at Bank Street, they noticed something important.
Leonard Marcus [00:17:54] Children are interested in the world they find themselves in.
Dan Kois [00:17:57] Certainly there are children who have flights of fancy and think about dragons and wizards and whatnot. But anyone who has had a four-year-old knows that often the thing that is most interesting to them is the garbage truck that comes by every Tuesday afternoon.
Joe Rosenberg [00:18:10] So instead of a book about magical realms, a book published by Bank Street would be about the child’s more immediate world, focusing on the kinds of things that small children in cities really, really like–like streetcars and a trip to the grocery store and steam shovels.
Roman Mars [00:18:25] Designed for the very young, these stories rarely had plots. They were more like games–circular, interactive, and open ended.
Leonard Marcus [00:18:34] Plot wasn’t the most important thing at Bank Street–much more important was being invited to participate.
Joe Rosenberg [00:18:42] Bank Street stories might depict a jackhammer or a train going by and then ask the child to imitate those sounds, but also any other sounds they might feel like imitating.
Leonard Marcus [00:18:51] Giving the child an opening to expand them, you know, infinitely if they wanted to–not just sit there and listen to the “once upon a time” story.
Joe Rosenberg [00:19:01] All of which pretty much stood in diametric opposition to the philosophy of Anne Carroll Moore.
Dan Kois [00:19:07] The idea that the everyday life of a child–with no magic whatsoever involved in it–is something that ought to be immortalized in a children’s book definitely was not Anne Carroll Moore’s speed.
Joe Rosenberg [00:19:21] To Moore, these plotless games for the very young, with their emphasis on experience over imagination, simply didn’t count as literature. She made sure they weren’t included in her annual list of best books. She didn’t even deign to write her usual scathing review. And the very first Bank Street books, called the Here and Now series, stayed off the library shelves.
Roman Mars [00:19:42] But Bank Street’s earliest stories had another more fundamental problem.
Mac Barnett [00:19:46] I think the stories in the first Here and Now book–they’re boring.
Joe Rosenberg [00:19:50] Mac Barnett is the author of over 40 children’s books. And he says that from the point of view of craft–which is to say of actually capturing a kid’s attention–Bank Street’s first attempts at children’s literature were terrible.
Mac Barnett [00:20:03] Although they were new at the time and feel sort of radical, they are being written according to a formula. You can see the philosophy; they’re theory driven.
Joe Rosenberg [00:20:11] The writing of most of these early stories came across as stiff and formulaic. There were only occasional illustrations with no real interplay between image and words. And every story started with an introduction describing its pedagogical intent. Here’s one from a chapter called The Skyscraper.
Mac Barnett [00:20:27] The story tries to assemble into a related form–many facts well known to seven-year-olds–and to present the whole as a modern industrial process. So right there–as soon as your story begins with a mission statement, it’s already over. The thing is lying on the floor.
Joe Rosenberg [00:20:45] The writers at Bank Street were just as blinded by their own dogma as Anne Carroll Moore, and with the same end result. Their stories could never achieve their high-minded aspirations because they felt stale and doctrinaire.
Roman Mars [00:20:58] But in the 1930s, one person managed to make the Bank Street style come alive–the future author of Goodnight Moon.
Joe Rosenberg [00:21:06] Margaret Wise Brown was a teacher at Bank Street who didn’t want to be a teacher.
Leonard Marcus [00:21:11] She wanted to be a famous literary writer. She wanted her short stories to be published in The New Yorker. But that wasn’t going to happen.
Joe Rosenberg [00:21:19] And honestly, neither was the teaching thing.
Mac Barnett [00:21:21] All of her evaluations say, “You know, I don’t think she’s going to be a great teacher.”
Joe Rosenberg [00:21:27] So she couldn’t write for adults, and she couldn’t teach kids. But when Margaret Wise Brown tried to write Bank Street stories for kids, something weird happened. They were good.
Roman Mars [00:21:38] In Brown’s hands, these stories for the very young–with their circular rhythms and game-like structures–were transformed into something new.
Mac Barnett [00:21:47] The Big Bank Street realization, I think, for Margaret Wise Brown is that through talking to kids, she discovered her purpose as a writer because she found that kids are the best audience for poetry.
Joe Rosenberg [00:22:00] Margaret Wise Brown’s books were more than stories or games. They were poems for children who were still open to novel ways of seeing and describing the world around them.
Roman Mars [00:22:09] Consider a story from a series of books Brown first started in collaboration with Bank Street–The Noisy Books. The story is about a little dog who hears a tiny, almost imperceptible noise and tries to identify it. Brown asks the reader to guess what the sound might be. But instead of suggesting things that we might think of as making sounds, she points to things that don’t.
Mac Barnett [00:22:33] So it says, “Was it butter melting? Was it a little blue flower growing? Was it a skyscraper scraping the sky?”
Joe Rosenberg [00:22:43] The early Bank Street Books would have simply asked the reader to register that a skyscraper was tall. But Brown was encouraging them to perceive it in an entirely new poetic fashion.
Mac Barnett [00:22:54] “Skyscraper scraping the sky,” and suddenly you can hear it.
Joe Rosenberg [00:22:56] Brown was also a master of writing poetry that worked in tandem with the art in a book, particularly by deploying page turns.
Roman Mars [00:23:03] Your average contemporary children’s picture book will contain 14 page turns, and most authors will use these moments to build suspense. If you want to know what happens, you’ve got to turn the page.
Joe Rosenberg [00:23:14] But Margaret Wise Brown’s page turns just as often zig zag–setting up patterns, and then breaking them.
Mac Barnett [00:23:20] So you get, “Was it an ant crawling? Was it a bee wondering?” Page turn. “Was it an elephant tiptoeing down the stairs?” And you move across that page turn from this very intimate, domestic scene of a dog–very small on the page–listening at the stairs, to this giant, two-page spread–this elephant. And the scale is gigantic. He barely fits in the frame.
Roman Mars [00:23:47] Page turns like these can be disorienting. And that’s the point.
Mac Barnett [00:23:51] You feel like you’re constantly crashing into new worlds and discovering new things, which, again, that’s what being a kid feels like a lot of the time.
Roman Mars [00:24:03] Brown also helped change the look and feel of children’s books. As an editor at Scott Publishing, a small imprint associated with Bank Street, she developed one of the first tactile books, featuring lambs with real toy bells and bunnies with real cotton ball tails, turning the book into a physically interactive object.
Joe Rosenberg [00:24:23] But perhaps Margaret Wise Brown’s greatest accomplishment was bridging the divide between the two factions of children’s literature. Her stories provided interactive experiences, focusing on everyday things. But they also contained elements like talking animals. And they weren’t afraid to lean into nostalgia and whimsy. So instead of rejecting the documentary realism of Bank Street or the magical escapism of Anne Carroll Moore, Brown found a way to combine them.
Roman Mars [00:24:47] And nowhere did she do this better than in Goodnight Moon.
Joe Rosenberg [00:24:51] For Goodnight Moon, Brown took inspiration from something in her own daily life. Whenever she woke up feeling sad and struggled to get out of bed, she’d perform a kind of ritual.
Leonard Marcus [00:25:01] She would lie in bed and look around and focus on different objects in the room that she was glad to have in her presence and would essentially count her blessings.
Joe Rosenberg [00:25:13] She would take in the books on her shelf, the pattern of her sheets, the view from her window. And then when she was finished, she would write it all down in a list, get up, and face the day.
Roman Mars [00:25:25] For Goodnight Moon, Brown simply reversed the ritual. It’s a list you read to fall asleep.
Mother [00:25:31] What are we going to read today?
Child [00:25:33] Goodnight Moon.
Joe Rosenberg [00:25:36] The beginning of Goodnight Moon really is nothing more than a list. Documenting the objects in the bedroom–a little bunny getting ready to go to sleep.
Mother [00:25:45] “In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon and a picture of–”
Joe Rosenberg [00:25:53] There’s no plot, no tension–just things.
Mother [00:25:57] “The cow jumping over the moon.”
Leonard Marcus [00:26:00] But then you move into the second section, unannounced.
Mother [00:26:05] “Goodnight bears. Goodnight chairs.”
Leonard Marcus [00:26:08] And yet everyone knows what to do when they get there.
Child [00:26:11] “Goodnight kittens.”
Leonard Marcus [00:26:14] Which is chime in.
Child [00:26:16] “And goodnight mittens.”
Mother [00:26:19] Right. What about this one next to it?
Leonard Marcus [00:26:22] And then you come to the page that says, “Goodnight nobody.”
Child [00:26:24] “Nobody.”
Leonard Marcus [00:26:27] Well, what do you do with that? And it’s up to the child to decide. And that’s pure Bank Street and, I would say, pure magic.
Roman Mars [00:26:39] And Anne Carroll Moore hated it.
Leonard Marcus [00:26:42] Oh, yeah. She hated it. Yeah. She was totally opposed to it.
Joe Rosenberg [00:26:47] By the time Goodnight Moon came out in 1947, Moore was technically retired from her job at the library. But even in retirement, she remained in control of the children’s department, showing up at meetings uninvited, and making sure her policies remained in place.
Mac Barnett [00:27:01] Even when her successor would try to change the meeting room at the last minute, Anne Carroll Moore would still just magically show up and run that meeting.
Joe Rosenberg [00:27:09] Leonard Marcus says we know what Moore thought of Goodnight Moon because the New York Public Library maintained internal reviews of every book that was submitted to them.
Leonard Marcus [00:27:17] And I was secretly shown the report on Goodnight Moon–secretly because nobody outside of the library staff was ever supposed to see them. But I found someone who was willing to leak the report to me.
Joe Rosenberg [00:27:32] The report described Goodnight Moon as an “unbearably sentimental piece of work.”
Mac Barnett [00:27:37] Which is just funny when I think of “unbearable sentimentality” as, like, the jacket copy of a book you would write for Anne Carroll Moore.
Roman Mars [00:27:44] But it didn’t matter. Goodnight Moon had the stink of Bank Street on it. The book was “not recommended for purchase by expert.”
Joe Rosenberg [00:27:54] Goodnight Moon sold only a handful of copies before more or less disappearing from stores. Margaret Wise Brown died only a few years later in 1952 following complications from a surgery. She was just 42 years old.
Roman Mars [00:28:09] But even if she didn’t know it, it was right around this time that Goodnight Moon’s fortunes began to change.
Joe Rosenberg [00:28:16] It was the era of the baby boom. Pop psychology was in. And parents, eager to raise their children using the latest methods, devoured books and articles about what children needed at various stages of life.
Leonard Marcus [00:28:27] And in 1951, there was a column saying that if you have a two-year-old and he or she is not going to sleep, read them this book, Goodnight Moon–it’ll work.
Joe Rosenberg [00:28:38] And sure enough, 1951 is when sales of Goodnight Moon at bookstores slowly began to rise.
Mac Barnett [00:28:45] And that book was read by kids in the late ’50s who grew into adults who remembered reading that book more than any other book, so bought it for their own kids, who then grew into adults who loved that book more than any other. And that’s how it happened. It happened in a way that maybe is most terrifying to Anne Carroll Moore. Anne Carroll Moore sort of irrelevant to the success of that book.
Roman Mars [00:29:09] In 1972, the New York Public Library caved and finally put Goodnight Moon on the shelves. At that point, it was selling nearly 100,000 copies a year. As of 2017, it sold nearly 48 million.
Joe Rosenberg [00:29:25] Leonard Marcus says that Clement Hurd, the illustrator of Goodnight Moon, showed him a fan letter once. It was from a mother whose little boy had wanted the book read to him every night–six times–from start to finish.
Leonard Marcus [00:29:37] And one night after the sixth reading, she laid the book down on his bed and he stood up. It was open to a page with one of the colored illustrations of the room. And he put his foot down on the page, and then he burst into tears. His mother didn’t know what to make of it, so she just waited to see what would happen next. And then he put his second foot down and just completely melted down. And then she realized what was happening. And she wrote to him and said, “My son was trying to climb inside your room. That’s how real it is to him.”
Joe Rosenberg [00:30:15] Jill Lepore says she also came across a letter, but this one was about Anne Carroll Moore. Moore died in 1961, and upon hearing of her death, a prominent editor wrote to a friend, quote, “Much as she did for children’s books, I can’t help feeling her influence was baleful on the whole. Am I wrong?”
Jill Lepore [00:30:37] It’s an incredibly powerful final epitaph on her life. It seems totally fair to me. She did an extraordinary amount for children’s literature and for children early on. And then I think she kind of lost her grip.
Joe Rosenberg [00:30:55] Lepore, however, is also quick to defend Moore. And so is Dan Kois. Walk into the children’s reading room of any library in the country at Storytime, he says. And you’re witnessing her contribution.
Dan Kois [00:31:07] The notion that the library’s mission remains to serve children and to make them feel at home in the space and to make them feel like reading is a thing for them is remarkable, and I don’t want to lose sight of that. And for all her faults and flaws, that’s because of her.
Roman Mars [00:31:34] If you go back and look at the list of the New York Public Library’s top ten checked out books, a lot of the titles are ones Moore probably would have banned had she still been around. After all, Where the Wild Things Are, The Snowy Day, The Very Hungry Caterpillar–they all owe something to the work of Margaret Wise Brown and the teachers at Bank Street.
Joe Rosenberg [00:31:55] But the fact that the top ten list is mostly children’s books in the first place–that’s something we owe Anne Carroll Moore.
Roman Mars [00:32:06] Next up, the story of a doll that delighted children and possibly terrified adults at the New York Public Library–after this. Summer vacation season is around the corner. But before you pack your bags, be sure to secure your home with SimpliSafe home security. With SimpliSafe, you’ll feel good knowing your home is monitored around the clock by trained agents ready to act to defend against break-ins, fires, and other threats. SimpliSafe’s Fast Protect Technology enables monitoring agents to visually verify the threat is real and conveys eyewitness evidence to 911 dispatch for fast police or fire response. With the SimpliSafe app, you can arm or disarm your system remotely, check your cameras, or even unlock the front door to let a guest in. SimpliSafe ships to your door and is easy to set up yourself in about 30 minutes. Or you can have SimpliSafe-certified technicians install it for you. Summer is a weird time at the house. You’re gone for long stretches. The kids are coming and going at all hours. And their discipline? Locking the door is not the greatest. SimpliSafe just adds a layer of stability in this chaotic season. Customize the perfect system for your home in just a few minutes at simplisafe.com/invisible. Go today to claim your free indoor security camera, plus 20% off your order with interactive monitoring. That’s simplisafe.com /invisible. There’s no safe like SimpliSafe. This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. It’s pretty easy to get caught up doing everything for others and forget that you need to support yourself sometimes, too. Therapy can help you clarify your values and find more balance in your life, so you can keep being a rock star for others without forgetting yourself in the process. Therapy is really helpful for learning positive coping skills and learning how to set boundaries. It empowers you to be the best version of yourself. It isn’t just for people who’ve experienced trauma. Everyone can benefit from it. If you’re thinking of starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online, designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist, and switch therapists at any time at no additional charge. Find more balance with BetterHelp. Visit betterhelp.com/invisible today to get 10% off your first month. That’s betterhelp.com/invisible. With thousands of new podcasts being started every day, it seems, it’s more important than ever to make sure you stand out from the crowd. And that goes for any business, really, whether you’re selling custom dollhouses, marketing your graphic design company, or even producing a podcast. Squarespace helps you create an all-in-one platform to grow your business online through an engaging and aesthetically pleasing website where you can sell anything. Squarespace lets you use customizable galleries to display images in unique ways, like your model home blueprints. With member areas, you can unlock a new revenue stream for your business and free up time in your schedule by selling access to gated content, like videos, online courses on the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Or newsletters. Squarespace email campaigns allow you to collect email subscribers and convert them into loyal customers. You can also display posts from your social profiles on your website. Head to squarespace.com/invisible for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, use the offer code “invisible” to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. The best thing about summer is getting to do all your favorite indoor things outside, like sharing meals and accidentally falling asleep on the sofa. Article’s curated catalog of outdoor furniture is here to help you do all your favorite things this summer. They’ve got everything you need, from outdoor sofas to dining sets to decor. Their team of designers is all about finding the perfect balance between style, quality, and price. And they’re dedicated to thoughtful craftsmanship that stands the test of time. Article offers fast, affordable shipping across the U.S. and Canada. You just pick the delivery time, and they’ll send you updates every step of the way. I have a beautiful Article outdoor dining set. It’s kind of this heavy, wood, three-piece picnic table kind of thing, and it is robust. It is quality. Article is offering our listeners $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. To claim go to article.com/99, and that discount will be automatically applied at checkout. That’s article.com/99 for $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. Okay, so I’m here with Joe Rosenberg. So, one of the reasons why we invented this little coda section is there’s often little outtakes from the story that we couldn’t quite fit in. And I hear you have some really good bonus material for me.
Joe Rosenberg [00:36:56] Yeah. And I wanted to save it for the coda because it is the one subplot in this whole saga that is maybe the thing I most wanted to talk about. But if we talked about it in the main piece, it would just derail the story. Like, it would just bring the entire story to a crashing halt.
Roman Mars [00:37:14] I know exactly what you mean. I’ve totally been there.
Joe Rosenberg [00:37:16] Yeah. Yeah. And it’s because, like, whenever this comes up, everyone is just like, “Wait, wait, wait, wait. Stop. What?” And it is the story of Nicholas Knickerbocker.
Roman Mars [00:37:27] I already love it. So, who is Nicholas Knickerbocker, and how does it fit into the story?
Joe Rosenberg [00:37:32] So Nicholas Knickerbocker was this creation of Anne Carroll Moore that perhaps represents everything that is most wonderful and most problematic about her all at once because Nicholas was this little, wooden, articulated doll that Moore liked to use to talk to kids. He was about eight inches high. And when she was in the reading room, if a young child was acting shy–perhaps because their English wasn’t very good yet–and she wanted to bring them out of their shell, she would pull this doll out of her handbag and basically say, “I want to introduce you to Nicholas. “
Roman Mars [00:38:08] That’s so sweet. I actually kind of like that sort of a Mister Rogers kind of quality to it. So did Nicholas have a certain personality, or was he just kind of Anne Carroll Moore?
Joe Rosenberg [00:38:19] Yeah. So, Nicholas apparently was a little Dutch boy with a little Dutch boy outfit, which I kind of suspect was a nod to the idea that so many of the children using the reading room were immigrants. But more importantly, she would tell the children that Nicholas came alive at night and had access to this kind of magical world hiding just behind this one. And so, the idea was that you might think you were in a normal, old, boring room, but when Nicholas showed up, he would help reveal the magic all around you.
Roman Mars [00:38:49] Right. I mean, that actually reminds me of the types of books that she was really fond of. I mean, she always liked those escapist stories.
Joe Rosenberg [00:38:57] Right. Very “once upon a time.” None of that boring Bank Street stuff.
Roman Mars [00:39:03] Right, right. No garbage trucks. No city problems. Yeah.
Joe Rosenberg [00:39:06] Right. Where you just get the child to delight in the mere room itself? No. So the whole point of Nicholas was to propel the child into these flights of imagination that would take them beyond the here and now into these magical nighttime realms.
Roman Mars [00:39:21] I mean, that all seems pretty wonderful. That seems like a good librarian thing to do. You mentioned that it represented the kind of problematic way in which she operated. How did it manage to do that?
Joe Rosenberg [00:39:31] Yes. So, the problem is that, as with so many things related to Anne Carroll Moore, there is a dark side to Nicholas Knickerbocker. And in this case, it’s that Nicholas’ life was not restricted to the confines of the reading room. Dan Kois was telling me that apparently after a while, people started noticing that Moore was carrying Nicholas around with her, like, almost all the time.
Dan Kois [00:40:00] I can only speculate as to what people thought about Anne Carroll Moore carrying around Nicholas Knickerbocker. There are photos of her just, like, out in the park–in Bryant Park, I assume–just carrying Nicholas the doll under her arm. And I don’t know if it was her way of connecting to children or if she just had some kind of weird ass fixation.
Roman Mars [00:40:24] Well, I mean, I can see his concern or maybe other people’s concern. But a generous reading of this is, like, you know, she had a cool companion. She had a doll. She talked to kids. It seems okay to me so far.
Joe Rosenberg [00:40:37] Okay, fair enough. But keep in mind that walking around the park with the doll was just, like, the tip of the iceberg because apparently, she would also host these dinner parties. And when everyone sat down for dinner, Nicholas would be seated at the table with his own spot, his own place setting, and everything.
Roman Mars [00:40:59] And at, like, a dinner party where you’re supposed to talk to Nicholas? Is that part of the deal?
Joe Rosenberg [00:41:03] Yeah, I think so. And even Jan Pinborough–who, of everyone I talked to for this story, is probably the most ardent defender of Anne Carroll Moore–admitted that this could be a challenge for Moore’s friends and colleagues.
Jan Pinborough [00:41:17] It’s been said that some people didn’t like Nicholas because she did, I think, sometimes hide behind him. Like, if she didn’t want to give someone bad news, she might say, “Oh, Nicholas doesn’t like that.” So, I can imagine how that would grate on a person.
Roman Mars [00:41:36] Me too.
Joe Rosenberg [00:41:38] Yeah. So, I mean, you can see where this is going, right? When Nicholas disapproved of something–whether it was at a party or a work meeting–you were still expected to respond and apologize or whatever because this is Anne Carroll Moore. Remember, she’s the titan of children’s books.
Roman Mars [00:41:57] Right.
Joe Rosenberg [00:41:58] And your career was in her hands. So, you would just kind of be stuck talking to this doll.
Dan Kois [00:42:04] My hunch is that everyone talked about Nicholas Knickerbocker when Anne Carroll Moore wasn’t around. And when Anne Carroll Moore was around, everyone was like, “Oh, hey. Hi, Nicholas. How are you?” You know, she wielded just a remarkable amount of power inside the library. And so, what would you do if you were in that situation and the person you depended on carried around a wooden doll? You would be like, “Hey, Nicholas. Good to see you. Have a seat at the table. Can I get you a cup of tea? “
Joe Rosenberg [00:42:33] And by some point, according to Jill Lepore, the whole conceit was taken so far that Nicholas actually had his own letterhead. And Moore would write letters to children’s book authors and editors in the voice of the doll.
Roman Mars [00:42:47] Oh my.
Joe Rosenberg [00:42:48] And they would be signed “Nicholas” with a return address on the back of the envelope flap that said, “Nicholas Knickerbocker” and then the address of the central branch of the New York Public Library.
Roman Mars [00:43:00] So he lives at the library.
Joe Rosenberg [00:43:02] Remember, he comes alive at night at the library.
Roman Mars [00:43:04] Sure, why not? That’s when he writes his letters and gets his best work done.
Joe Rosenberg [00:43:09] Exactly. That is when he’s at home.
Roman Mars [00:43:12] And so did the children’s book editors and authors–did they write back to Nicholas? Was that part of the deal of this fantasy?
Joe Rosenberg [00:43:23] You know, I don’t know. I do know that very frequently authors would send him their warm regards by way of Anne Carroll Moore–like, “Please tell Nicholas I say hello”–because it was just understood that Moore and Nicholas were a package deal.
Roman Mars [00:43:39] Yeah, that makes sense.
Joe Rosenberg [00:43:41] But, you know, despite the creep factor, kids also wrote to Nicholas.
Roman Mars [00:43:48] Yeah.
Joe Rosenberg [00:43:49] And some of the correspondence and gifts Nicholas received from adults also suggests that a lot of people saw Nicholas as this benign or even kind of benevolent presence. So, for example, the author of Billy Goats Gruff Maid Anne Carroll Moore a miniature version of her first book for Nicholas to carry around. Beatrix Potter sent her these little hand-drawn postcards depicting Peter Rabbit and Nicholas together, almost as if they were friends. And according to Jan, one of the employees from the library was, like, this Russian emigre. And she apparently gave Nicholas, like, a Fabergé egg.
Roman Mars [00:44:28] Whoa. Like, a real Fabergé with, like, gemstones in it? That type of Fabergé egg.
Joe Rosenberg [00:44:32] Yeah, well, she said there was a gem inside. A Fabergé egg with one gem. But the point is that in the end, you can make an argument that Nicholas Knickerbocker’s reign in the balance, you know, did more good than harm. And as with so much of what Anne Carroll Moore did, it’s a close call.
Roman Mars [00:44:53] Well, I mean, creating a character to make kids comfortable in the library is a totally nice and joyful thing to do. Making her employees–adult employees–talk to it is a little odd. But, you know, I hope it was good on balance. I mean, I hope for everyone’s sake it was good on balance. So, Nicholas Knickerbocker as an extension of Anne Carroll Moore’s personality–did she just take it with her when she retired? Or did it sort of live on in the library as this, like, mascot?
Joe Rosenberg [00:45:26] Excellent question because this is where this whole, weird side story kind of climaxes, which is when the elaborately rendered fiction of Nicholas collides with the reality.
Roman Mars [00:45:40] Okay.
Joe Rosenberg [00:45:41] You know, he’s just a doll. And dolls can be lost.
Roman Mars [00:45:46] Oh no.
Jan Pinborough [00:45:46] It was actually an employee of the library who was riding with Anne Carroll Moore in a taxicab. And she was in charge of minding Nicholas and left it in the cab.
Roman Mars [00:45:59] Oh. I mean, I don’t mean to disparage anyone’s character, but I’m suspecting foul play here. I mean, if I was the adult employee of Anne Carroll Moore and I was in charge of the doll who I had to talk to and serve cookies to, I might be inclined to leave it in a cab, too.
Joe Rosenberg [00:46:18] Yeah. You know, we’ll never know. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re innocent. But I am sure many of Moore’s colleagues secretly cheered when this happened. But then, a little while later, apparently, Moore just went out and found a new little, wooden Dutch boy and basically said, like, “Oh, good news, everyone. Nicholas is back.”
Roman Mars [00:46:43] Oh my goodness. Oh, the reign of Nicholas keeps going.
Joe Rosenberg [00:46:48] Yeah. And so, much like Anne Carroll Moore herself, Nicholas Knickerbocker refused to retire.
Roman Mars [00:46:54] Oh, that’s so good. Oh, that’s so fascinating. I can totally see why that didn’t belong in the story because I would be totally preoccupied with it. Today, Nicholas Knickerbocker and many of the other figures in the story are getting to live a strange afterlife thanks in part to this week’s experts. Go to your local library and browse the children’s section and you’ll come across dueling picture books whose authors’ names, if you’ve been paying attention, will look familiar. Miss Moore Thought Otherwise: How Anne Carroll Moore Created Libraries for Children is written by Jan Pinborough. And The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown is by Mac Barnett. The two books have two very different takes on what Anne Carroll Moore was really up to in her reading room. Whether she would have recommended either of them “for purchase by expert,” we will never know. But a good library and a good bookstore should carry them both. Thanks to all of our experts in today’s story. If you’re looking for an adult book on Brown, check out Leonard Marcus’ “Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon.” Thanks also to Seth Lerer, whose voice we did not get to include in this story, but whose book, “Children’s Literature from Aesop to Harry Potter” is a great guide to the deeper history of kids’ lit. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Joe Rosenberg, with many assists from Vivian Le. Original episode mix by Bryson Barnes. Music by Swan Real. Our senior editor is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Kelly Prime, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered in the Pandora Building, within a mile of six public library branches… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.