Meet the Biographer: Jan Pinborough

©Cristy Powell 2012Jan Pinborough edits The Friend, a children’s magazine. She recently published her first children’s book,  Miss Moore Thought Otherwise, a picture-book biography of innovative children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore. This week, she spoke with Kidsbiographer about Moore and the wonder of libraries.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Anne Carroll Moore, and how did you decide to write her picture-book biography?

Jan Pinborough: It all started in 2004 when a dear friend of mine, Shauna Cook Clinger, was commissioned to paint a portrait of Moore for a children’s library at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. “You need to write a children’s book about Anne Carroll Moore,” she told me. I’m not a library historian, and I’m not from New York City, so I’d never heard of Moore. At the time I wasn’t even writing for children. But after reading Frances Sayers’s biography about Moore, I became convinced that children needed to know about this strong-minded woman who did so much to give the gift of books and libraries to children not only in the United States, but throughout the world.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most fascinating fact or anecdote you uncovered during your research?

Jan Pinborough: Oh, how could I choose just one? Here are four highlights of my research:

1.) The hours I spent in the New York Public Library poring over the Anne Carroll Moore Collection were the stuff of my dreams. I held a postcard from her friend Beatrix Potter, with a little hand-drawn Nicholas doll drawn by Potter herself; a poem written about her and typed out by Carl Sandburg, and a telegram from Eleanor Roosevelt.

2.) I got to know Marcia Brown, who wrote three of the most memorable books from my childhood, Cinderella, Stone Soup and The Three Billy Goats Gruff—and who worked at the New York Public Library (NYPL) before she launched her celebrated career as an author and illustrator. Marcia shared her reminiscences about Moore, telling me about the beautiful pink tiles from Wales that covered the floor of the Children’s Room. I felt the thrill of touching history, of talking with someone who knew Moore and the whole world of books and libraries that form the backdrop for this story.

3.) I got to know Anne Carroll Moore’s namesake, Anne Carroll Darger, whose father enlisted Moore’s help in creating a children’s library at Utah State University, and who is the guardian of “Nicholas’s treasures.” I held in my hand a Faberge egg, a minuscule elephant carved out of ivory, and dozens of other fabulous miniature toys that Moore’s literary friends sent to her puppet-doll, Nicholas. (You can see photographs of “Nicholas’s treasures” at www.missmoorethoughtotherwise.com.)

4.) I made a pilgrimage to Moore’s birthplace in Limerick, Maine, visiting the school she went to as a girl and the building that housed her grandfather’s law office, where she studied to be a lawyer before that terrible week when both of her parents died in the flu epidemic. I parked at the little country cemetery on the hill by the Baptist Church, where she began her wild sled rides as a child. I walked straight to her grave, guided, I’m almost convinced, by Moore’s own spirit. While in Limerick, I met a highly literate nonagenarian, who, as a young college student, worked with Moore at the NYPL.

Kidsbiographer: Both a biography of Moore and a celebration of libraries, Miss Moore Thought Otherwise also explores the changing attitudes towards childhood in the early twentieth century. Moore and other reformers in a variety of fields believed children were people – a revolutionary idea! – and that they possessed unique needs and rights. How did you develop this thread in your narrative?

Jan Pinborough: The fact that she believed in the rights and dignity of all children, and not just a privileged few, was such an important part of Moore’s story to me. I love the fact that she wanted the library to have books in many languages so children who had recently come to this country could read. I love that the library was a haven for children whose parents spent their days working to earn their livelihood in a new land. Moore used her Nicholas doll at least in part to help shy children who didn’t speak English very well feel more comfortable talking. One of my favorite photos in Sayers’s biography is called “The Constant Visitor.” I believe it’s a shot of a little girl named Aimée, who had recently emigrated from Belgium. The book’s refrain, “But Miss Moore thought otherwise,” really alludes to many opinions and attitudes that, if not totally original to Moore, were very forward thinking. Moore knew that many New York children rarely saw growing things, so she brought armfuls of roses for them to smell and dirt and little seeds for them to plant. She understood how much children need beauty to nourish their souls—the beauty of nature and the beauty of books. Moore trusted and respected children. In her early days at the NYPL, she spent time visiting schools and settlement houses and talking to children on the street to find out what their lives were like. And she had a very acute memory of her own childhood. All of this is reflected in her approach to children and to library services.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most challenging aspect of writing about Anne Carroll Moore for young readers?

Jan Pinborough: As I said, I’m not a library historian, but I feel that whenever we are writing history we’re treading on sacred ground. I also knew that in some ways Moore is a slightly controversial figure. I didn’t want to overstate her contribution to children’s library services because surely many others played important roles across the country. I just wanted to tell the story truly and accurately — and in a way that children would find interesting and engaging. That’s a delicate balance.

Kidsbiographer: What messages do you hope young readers will take away from Miss Moore Thought Otherwise?

Jan Pinborough: I had two goals in writing the book. One was to encourage “otherwise-thinking” children to value their unconventionality and to pursue their individualistic ideas — and thus to make their unique contributions to the world. The second was to prompt children — and others — to appreciate that indispensable and yet much-taken-for-granted gift, the public library. My grand vision for this book was that it might encourage people to not only remember and appreciate libraries, but to support them. Many libraries have fallen on hard times, and some people are even questioning their value. In an increasingly digital age, I think we need to support this great democratizing institution and make sure that all children, not just the privileged, have access to lots and lots of the best books! To this end, people who visit my book’s  website will soon be able to post their own memories of important books and libraries.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Jan Pinborough: I love the picture-book biography genre. I’m currently working on another project—and incubating a third.

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