Making Americans

Making Americans

Basic information

  • Author(s):
  • Published: December 1, 2013
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Page count: 314
  • ISBN: 1609381920

Making Americans

American children need books that draw on their own history and circumstances, not just the classic European fairy tales. They need books that enlist them in the great democratic experiment that is the United States.

These were the beliefs of many of the authors, illustrators, editors, librarians, and teachers who expanded and transformed children’s book publishing between the 1930s and the 1960s.

Although some later critics have argued that the books published in this era offered a vision of a safe, secure, simple world without injustice or unhappy endings, Gary D. Schmidt shows that the progressive political agenda shared by many Americans who wrote, illustrated, published, and taught children’s books had a powerful effect. Authors like James Daugherty, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lois Lenski, Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire, Virginia Lee Burton, Robert McCloskey, and many others addressed directly and indirectly the major social issues of a turbulent time: racism, immigration and assimilation, sexism, poverty, the Great Depression, World War II, the atomic bomb, and the threat of a global cold war.

The central concern that many children’s book authors and illustrators wrestled with was the meaning of America and democracy itself, especially the tension between individual freedoms and community ties. That process produced a flood of books focused on the American experience and intent on defining it in terms of progress toward inclusivity and social justice. Again and again, children’s books addressed racial discrimination and segregation, gender roles, class differences, the fate of Native Americans, immigration and assimilation, war, and the role of the United States in the world. Fiction and nonfiction for children urged them to see these issues as theirs to understand, and in some ways, theirs to resolve. Making Americans is a study of a time when the authors and illustrators of children’s books consciously set their eyes on national and international sights, with the hope of bringing the next generation into a sense of full citizenship.


“Gary D. Schmidt here examines the literature for young people published during a momentous period in our nation’s past, and documents in compelling detail its role as an instrument of nation-building and social reform. A thought-provoking contribution to our understanding of children’s books as cultural transmitters and transformers."
Leonard S. Marcus, Minders of Make-Believe: Innovators, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children’s Literature
“As a child in the early 1960s, I devoured those orange biographies that fictionalized the childhoods of famous Americans. Gary Schmidt’s Making Americans explains the important influence these and many other mid-century American children’s books had in shaping and reflecting young citizens’ democratic and social values. Essential reading."
Richard Flynn, Georgia Southern University
“Tracing representations of national identity in American children’s literature published from the 1920s through the 1960s, and providing focused readings of works by James Daugherty, Lois Lenski, the D’Aulaires, Virginia Lee Burton, and Robert McCloskey, among others, Professor Schmidt offers insightful readings of this significant but often overlooked literary canon.”
Anne Phillips, Kansas State University 

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