One cannot fancy Johnson, whose style matched his person, writing for children, or enjoying Newbery's books. Indeed, Mrs. Piozzi says of him that he "first learned to read of his mother and her old maid, Catherine, in whose lap he well remembered sitting, while she explained to him the story of St. George and the Dragon. The recollection of such reading as had delighted him in his infancy made him always persist in fancying that it was the only reading which could please an infant, and he used to condemn me for putting Newbery's books into their hands, as too trifling to engage their attention. 'Babies do not want,' said he, 'to hear about babies; they like to be told of giants and castles, and of somewhat which can stretch and stimulate their little minds.' When, in answer, I would urge the numerous editions and quick sale of Tommy Prudent or Goody Two Shoes, 'Remember always,' said he, 'that the parents buy the books, and that the children never read them.' Mrs. Barbauld, however, had his best praise, and deserved it." Tommy Careless, Tommy Lovebook, Tommy Playlove, and Tommy Titmouse appear in Welsh's catalogue of Newbery's books, but Tommy Prudent, whose name is no doubt an index to his nature, has either vanished forever off the scene, or is a creation of Mrs. Piozzi's own brain.
Children in the colonies had, up to about this time, no books but such as Franklin speaks of in his Autobiography, & #8212; chap-books, Robinson Crusoe, and a few stray importations from England; but after the Revolution there was, in New England at least, no lack of small, cheap reprints for them. Isaiah Thomas, a self-made man of the best type, printer's apprentice at seven, before he could read, afterwards successful bookseller, publisher, and author, noted for fine presence and courtly manners, and founder of the American Antiquarian Society of Worcester, was publishing, just a hundred years ago, school-books and story-books for children. He had at one time sixteen presses, seven of them in Worcester; five bookstores in Massachusetts, one in Concord, New Hampshire, one in Baltimore, and one in Albany. His little books are hard to find now, but once in a while one, in its original gilt or flowered binding, strays into the hands of a collector, and is worth, literally, almost its weight in gold. At the end of several of these little books is a catalogue of "Books for the Instruction and Amusement of Children, which will make them safe and happy, printed and sold by I. Thomas, in Worcester, Massachusetts, near the Court-House." A comparison with Newbery's catalogue shows that nearly every one of these books was reprinted from his publications, with, in some cases, changes of words or phrases to suit republican taste, as in " Nurse Truelove's New Year's Gift; or the Book of Books for Children. Adorned with Cuts; and designed for a Present to every little Boy who would become a great Man, and ride upon a fine Horse; and to every little Girl, who would become a great Woman, and ride in a Governour's gilt Coach." In Newbery's editions of the same book, the "gilt Coach" is the Lord Mayor's.
One of the most amusing of the little books is "The Juvenile Biographer, containing the lives of little Masters and Misses; including a variety of good and bad Characters. By a little Biographer. The first Worcester edition. Worcester (Massachusetts). Printed by Isaiah Thomas, and sold at his Book Store. Sold also by E. Battelle, Boston, 1787." The frontispiece is a bust of the supposed author, a child evidently in the last stages of hydrocephalus. The first biography, of Miss Betsey Aligood, states that "this pretty little Miss, though now but in the seventh year of her age, has more Thought and Prudence than many at seventeen. She works at her Needle to admiration, reads like a little Queen, and writes a very pretty hand." Of Master Billy Badenough it is told that "at the age of nine years he could read, write, and cast accounts with any one, had made some progress in Latin and French, and understood some little matters in Geography. He was very good-natured, and readily parted with any Thing to his Playfellows." But the biographer goes on to say that with these virtues and accomplishments he had grave faults, for he robbed orchards, went bird's-nesting and killed the little birds, kicked up his companions' heels on the ice, and fought with other boys, until his father was obliged to send him to sea.
Miss Nancy Careful lost both father and mother in her seventh year, and spent much time in watering their tomb with her tears. A woodcut shows her engaged in this pious, even if useless act. Master Tommy Careful, her brother, heroically kept back his tears when with his sister, but used often to steal away and have a good cry by himself. At fourteen, he went to learn business in Boston, and was so apt a pupil that at last he became heir to the merchant in whose counting-house he had been placed. Finally, the biographer says, he "was chosen at the late general Election, Representative in the General Court, for one of the first Towns in New England, without the least Expence to himself." From which a modern reader may infer one of two things: either that bribery and corruption were not unknown to the voters of the early days of this republic, or that Thomas reprinted the book (named in Newbery's list of the next year but one), changing "Member of Parliament" and other terms unknown to Yankee children into words with which they were familiar.