Businesses shutting down or laying off employees. Banks suffering. Homes being foreclosed. People standing in unemployment lines.
Though it sounds like I'm reading the headlines from today's newspaper, I'm actually talking about the OTHER economic depression -- the one that began in 1929.
We've all heard about the New Deal and the WPA (Works Progress Administration, later known as Works Projects Administration) but I never knew the WPA was involved in creating children's books until I came across this volume today:
Compiled and edited by James A. Finley, and published by the Bienes Museum of the Modern Book in Fort Lauderdale, WPA CHILDREN'S BOOKS is a catalog of a recent exhibition showcasing children's books created by out-of-work authors, artists, and editors who were hired by the Pennsylvania Writers' Project, the New York City New Reading Materials Program, and the Milwaukee Handicraft Project during the 1930s.
The latter group only published four titles. The Pennsylvania Writers' Project worked in tandem with Whitman Publishers to produce fifty-cent science books on subjects such as clouds, coal, gold, and plastics. The dustjackets and color illustrations reprinted in the catalog have an appealing art-deco look.
I was most intrigued by the titles issued by the New York City New Reading Materials Program. According to the catalog, the Program published "approximately 200 books in large mimeographed editions using inexpensive and unstable papers and inks that were distributed in huge editions free of charge." These titles -- mostly fiction -- range from fanciful to urban and gritty. Going through the catalog, I see at least one book, MEGGIE AND THE FAIRIES, by an author who would later become much more well-known, Sulamith Ish-Kishor (1970 Newbery Honor for OUR EDDIE) as well as one book, MRS. TALKY AND JIM SPOT by George Barnet, which would be reissued some twenty years later by a mainstream publisher, Macmillan.
Because they were so cheaply produced, using highly-acidic paper and stitched or stapled bindings, few of these works remain. However, poking around on the internet today I discovered that some are still available from booksellers, ranging in price from as low as $20 to several hundred dollars.
According to the catalog, the WPA book exhibit was scheduled to run until March 13, 2009, but some other sources seem to indicate it closed at the end of 2008. If that's the case, we can forget about planning a field trip. The good news is that we can still take a virtual field trip to the Bienes Museum of the Modern Book and view the entire exhibit online right here.
It's a fascinating glimpse into our past. Let us hope that, despite our current economic crisis, it is also not a glimpse into our future.