While the definition of the term “popular” has remained relatively unchanged for over four hundred years, its connotation certainly takes on new meaning when applied to children’s literature. In Keywords, Raymond Williams (1983a) reports that the term “popular” was “originally a legal and political term” that first came into the English language in the late fifteenth century. Within the domain of the legal system, an “action popular” was any suit that was open to or brought forth by anyone who was part of the general public. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in the early sixteenth century the term “popular” defined the “common people” or people of “lowly birth” as opposed to people of the aristocracy. By the late sixteenth century (the OED cites 1599), the intention behind the word shifted slightly to invite negative similes such as low, vulgar, and plebeian. Nine short years later, in 1608, “popular” appeared for the first time as a positive attribute indicating that a subject was a favorite, acceptable, and pleasing to numerous people. The change from a pejorative to a complementary connotation reflected the beginning of the “common” people’s effect on culture. Well into the twentieth century, the term “popular” continued to contain these diametrically opposed negative and positive connotations, particularly when describing texts created for and read by children.
As early as the 1920s in the United States, the term “popular” was held in direct opposition to the term “literature” in the children’s book world because the former indicated “not only those creations of expressive culture that actually had a large audience” but also “those that had questionable artistic merit” (Levine 1988). At the same time, “literature” signified a masterpiece that inherently contained a high degree of worth and value. In this regard, the term “literature” maintained an attachment to its definition as “polite or humane learning,” which the OED deemed “rare and obsolete” by the late 1800s. In Literary Theory (2000), Jonathan Culler further emphasizes that “literature is “an institutional label that gives us [the readers] reason to expect that the results of our reading efforts will be ‘worth it.’” According to these standards, a mass-produced, popular text must have “questionable artistic merit” by the very definition of its consumer-driven nature, and therefore cannot simultaneously contain literary merit or be labeled as “literature.” Beginning in the 1920s and persisting for decades, the rift between these two ideologies fueled a debate among public school teachers and librarians over what types of texts children in the United States should be reading.
In 1916, Lucy Sprague Mitchell indirectly challenged the standards librarians placed on children’s literature by establishing the Bank Street College of Education in New York City (originally named the Bureau of Educational Experiments before its move to Bank Street). Mitchell promoted experimenting with and adopting new educational techniques. She also encouraged authors to test the popularity of new books on the students who attended Bank Street’s School for Children before they were published (Bank Street School for Children 2006). Rather than base their teaching materials solely on the educational value of the “classics” of children’s literature, teachers emerging from the Bank Street College understood that a popular children’s text could also trigger the imagination and intelligence of a child. In challenging the standards by which librarians judged texts for children, public school teachers also brought into question the librarians’ larger ownership of children’s literature.
In contrast, librarians championed the merits of “literature” over “popular” children’s texts. Due to a secondary, audience-based divide between books for adults and books for children, librarians in the early twentieth century had only recently become the cultural gatekeepers of children’s literature. Unfortunately, this division of reading audiences further diminished the importance of texts for children by categorizing all books read by children as “kiddie lit.” (Often books enjoyed by women were also forced into this same category in order to indicate their perceived lack of literary merit.) Prior to this division, a book’s movement between child and adult audiences was rarely questioned. According to Beverly Lyon Clark in Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America (2003), “[C]hildren and childhood were less segregated from adults and adulthood in the nineteenth century, before the split between high culture and low, before literary authority shifted from genteel editors to the professoriate [sic].” By the early twentieth century, as “gatekeeping shifted from literary journals to the academy,” this split forced children’s literature out of the hands of “genteel editors” and into the hands of librarians, since “academics ignored it” (Clark 2003). This shift placed librarians in a position to dictate which children’s texts contained the proper amount of moral fiber and artistry to be deemed literature worth reading. Thus, while librarians fought for the importance of literature over popular texts, they also struggled against the pejorative connotation of the term “kiddie lit” (a controversy people in the field of children’s literature still face).
During this time, the United States witnessed a proliferation of popular series books such as Dick and Jane, the Bobbsey Twins, Betty Gordon, the Blythe Girls, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, Perry Pierce, the Hardy Boys, and the Riddle Club. The Stratemeyer Syndicate produced many of these series books; if not, other publishers followed the Syndicate’s example by hiring ghostwriters who could churn out multiple texts under a pseudonym. According to Leonard Marcus’s Golden Legacy (2007), the 1920s clash between traditional librarians and progressive educators deepened into the 1940s as librarians regarded “all juvenile fiction published in series form” with “deep suspicion.” Most (but not all) librarians in the early twentieth century disapproved of these popular texts because the dominant discourse among librarians dictated that an inexpensive, highly popular children’s text could not possibly contain high-quality literature or artistry. Librarians feared that the consumption of popular children’s texts would diminish a child’s moral fiber and social consciousness. Thus, on a certain level “popular” became synonymous with “lowbrow.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, a basic social assumption that cultivation and class could be achieved through literature complicated the debate surrounding the merit of popular children’s texts. The growth of a middlebrow culture blurred the simplistically defined, either/or parameters of highbrow and lowbrow culture as the people in a growing middle and working class strove for self-improvement regardless of their class status and educational background. In response to the desire for self-improvement, book distribution was largely based on the conclusion that culture “could be acquired” through the process of “reading certain books and avoiding others” (Rubin 1992). For example, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was first circulated in 1937 through the Book of the Month Club. Since then, the literary status of Steinbeck’s novel has transformed from that of a new book through which adults could acquire culture to a “classic” piece of literature for children, thereby avoiding the negative connotations of the term “popular.” Quite commonly, texts that move from an adult to a child reading audience are labeled as “classic” while texts that crossover in the opposite direction are designated as “popular.”
Currently within American children’s literature and culture, “popular” connotes a widespread appreciation for and love of the object itself when appended to a text, object, or person. Yet, the same question still resonates: Can a popular children’s text also contain literary merit? Children’s and young adult authors are deemed “popular” when the general public shows great admiration for them and their work. This question has faced numerous greatly admired, commercially successful authors, including Dr. Seuss, Judy Blume, J. K. Rowling, and Shel Silverstein. Popular texts, movies, toys, and the like can prove their popularity through sales figures. In 2000 Janette Sebring Lowrey’s Little Golden Book The Poky Little Puppy (1942) was ranked the number one selling hardback book on the Publishers Weekly “All-Time Best-Selling Children’s Books” list (“All-Time” 2006). The top ten slots on this list included three additional Little Golden Books: at #3 is Tootle (1945) by Gertrude Crampton, at #7 is Saggy Baggy Elephant (1947) by Kathryn and Byron Jackson, and at #8 is Scuffy the Tugboat (1946) also by Crampton. Furthermore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000) ranked at #5 and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) claimed #10 on this same list. In June 2008, the final book in Rowling’s wildly celebrated Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007), had reportedly sold over 15 million copies within its first twenty-four hours on the market in the United States (Forbes.com 2008). As a result of their sudden and continued popularity, the literary merit of books like Harry Potter or the Little Golden Books remain in question.
If online dictionaries offer any gauge of contemporary use, then the term “popular” has largely been freed of its negative connotations with definitions like “regarded with favor, approval, or affection by people in general” or “widely liked or appreciated.” At face value, the term indicates that a person’s work is worth reading or that a text is worth buying because it is loved and embraced by the general public. Yet, describing an author or a text as simply “popular” still brings into question the literary merit of the work. Here, the term becomes a conflicted selling point. Do authors sacrifice some of their own literary reputation if their books are marketed as popular? Can a book ranked highly on a best seller’s list also be a “good” book of literary merit? What makes a children’s book an instant classic as opposed to a marketing success? The establishment of both cultural studies and children’s literature as legitimate fields of inquiry has created a space for academic dialogue about topics that are “popular” in American culture but have “questionable artistic merit” in the eyes of the critics (Levine 1988). Moreover, the exploration of consumer culture has opened the door for projects that recognize mass-marketed children’s books as a significant part of American culture and children’s “literature,” not in spite of, but certainly because of, the books’ widely popular appeal.