A few weeks ago, I posted some illustrations from Harry the Dirty Dog that utterly charmed me. Today, I’d like to share another lovely retro find: Nate the Great, written by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and illustrated by Marc Simont.
I’m pretty sure I read this series as a kid, but I didn’t remember anything about it. So when I started reading the first book recently, I was shocked by how much wit and voice Sharmat had managed to pack into a second-grade vocabulary.
I’ve always toyed with the idea of writing a children’s book some day, but I’d never been interested in writing “easy readers.” As an adult, I’d long considered that stage to be the dark ages of childhood reading, when one’s inability to read more advanced books barred access to richer, more literarily interesting worlds.
That totally changed when I reread Nate the Great. I’d never before appreciated the challenge–the art, really–of writing for the very young reader. As Sharmat so elegantly demonstrates, reading level constraints are not so much a literary hindrance as a creative opportunity.
And then there are the illustrations. Has someone written an undergraduate thesis examining how children’s books can reflect society’s cultural values? (Because that’s the thesis I should have written.) Nate the Great is such an awesome example of this.
The first book was published in 1972, right on the heels of the 1960s Civil Rights movement. It was an era that was very much aware of issues of racial inequality and representation, thanks to the activism of African Americans and other minority groups. Multiculturalism in education was, in fact, born in the 1970s.
So it makes a lot of sense that the illustrations in Nate the Great feature a number of non-white characters. What’s really great–and I don’t know if the credit for this goes to Simont himself or a particularly progressive editor–is that this was a very deliberate choice. Annie, the black character pictured above, is simply described by Nate in this way:
“Annie has brown hair and brown eyes. And she smiles a lot. I would like Annie if I liked girls.”
That’s it. Simont took that description and chose to make Annie black. Even more, the story doesn’t make a big deal about Annie being black. It’s just a book about Nate, a white American kid, and his friend Annie, a black American kid. They even have a friend Rosamond, who looks like she could be an Asian American kid. She could even be biracial. The point is, Sharmat didn’t specify, and Simont didn’t default to white.
(As an irrelevant aside, I also kind of love the characters’ groovy 70s clothes.)
Is it really sad that it’s 2014 and I’m still so impressed by this? What’s amazing is that the publisher, Bantam Doubleday Dell (now part of Random House), was a pretty mainstream publisher. Yet these days, we still have publishers whitewashing young adult covers. We’re still struggling with diversity in children’s literature.
And here is Nate the Great, a 42-year-old children’s book that’s got it all figured out.
It would be interesting to see if Nate the Great is an outstanding example, or if diversity in children’s picture books really was a cultural trend in the 70s. One that, hopefully, we haven’t reversed in the present-day.