Monday, May 4, 2009

Voices from Our White House: Leonard S. Marcus

Marcus Answers Questions About "Theodore Roosevelt's Letters to His Children"

Welcome back to the NCBLA blog's weekly feature, Voices from Our White House, a series of interviews with some of the talented contributors to the art and literature anthology Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, conducted by NCBLA high school intern Colleen Damerell. Our White House was created by the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance. A collaborative effort by over 100 authors and illustrators, the book is the product of a desire to encourage young people to learn and read about American heritage. For more information, please visit and
This week we feature children's book historian, author, and critic Leonard S. Marcus. Marcus is the author of Golden Legacy: How Golden Books Won Children's Hearts, Changed Publishing Forever, and Became an American Icon Along the Way and A Caldecott Celebration: Seven Artists and Their Paths to the Caldecott Medal. His piece in Our White House, entitled "Theodore Roosevelt's Letters to His Children," is about our 26th president and what the contents of his personal letters reveal about his presidency and life in the White House. Here's an excerpt:
Roosevelt approached reading and writing as forms of action. He had
devoured books as a housebound child. As president he still often read a book a
day. The more than thirty-five books that he himself wrote--the most by far of
any American president--span a breathtaking range from biography, natural
history, and memoir to politics, literary criticism, and philosophy. Somehow, he
also found the time to write more than 150,000 letters, including scores of
letters to his six children. Some of these last he enlivened with his own
comical drawings.

We asked Mr. Marcus a few questions about his piece:

NCBLA: Theodore Roosevelt stands out for many Americans as one of the most fascinating presidents we have ever had. He lived life to the fullest and also accomplished a great deal
as president, both of which you touch upon in your story. Is Roosevelt your favorite president? If so, is that why you chose to write about him?

LSM: Not my absolute favorite: who could stand before Lincoln as a wise and courageous leader and deeply human soul? What I like about TR is that he was a government leader who cared about books, and who was himself a writer. And I was drawn to him by the sheer verve of his personality, and by the fact that he was never too busy to spend time with his children.

NCBLA: Your piece is about Roosevelt's letters to his children. I read on your website that you have a son. Do you write letters to him? If so, do you save the letters?
LSM: My son, Jacob, and I have never been apart long enough for us to need communication by letter. But I do keep in touch by e-mail with friends all around the world. And I once edited a book of letters--Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Nordstrom was the visionary editor who published Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, Charlotte's Web, and many more of the classic children's books of the last half century.

NCBLA: Many believe that letter-writing has become a lost art. Do you prefer to use email or another form of electronic communication rather than hand write a letter?
LSM: It depends. I put a lot of care into some of the e-mail I write, and I print out and save the e-mail messages I receive that are special to me. So, to that extent, I regard e-mail as no different from standard mail, only faster. All in all, I'm very grateful for it. For certain occasions, however--a birthday wish for a dear friend, a message of condolence--there is still no substitute for a hand-written message. And I still check my own mail box every day with great anticipation, just as I did when I was very young.

NCBLA: You end the story with a quote from Roosevelt that indicates the importance of his letters to him and his legacy. Do you believe we will learn as much about our presidents' thoughts and personal lives from their electronic communication as we have from the personal letters of Roosevelt, John Adams, and other political figures?
LSM: Not having studied recent presidents' e-mail records, I don't have a direct basis for comparison, but I would guess that a president who happens to be highly literate would write e-mail worth reading by historians of the future. It's important to remember that when John Adams was president the means of long-distance communication available to him was limited almost entirely to letter-writing. So, we can't expect contemporary presidents to devote quite as much time and attention to their e-mail as Adams did to his correspondence.

NCBLA: What are your hopes for President Barack Obama? For his children?
LSM: I hope that President Obama continues to do what he has already begun:
to lead the country in a thoughtful, principled, and responsible way, and to continue to challenge everyone--children and adults--to do their best. I hope his children get to live normal lives and that they have the chance to realize their potential, whatever it may be.

Marcus' most recent book, Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature, is available in bookstores and libraries. For more information on Leonard Marcus and his work, please read his OWH bio and visit his website.

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