The History of Children's Books

"There have been children's stories and folk-tales ever since man first learned to speak. Children's books, however, are a late growth of literature"

The tales and verses, although always advertised to be of highly moral tone, are often free in speech to a degree that entirely unfits them for children's reading nowadays. The copies that remain are either in the original Dutch paper, in rainbow colors, blue, green, red, and yellow, with small gilt figures, all in the space of less than four inches by three, or bound together, half a dozen in one fat volume. These were the little books which every country schoolmistress felt obliged to give "to all her pupils on the closing day of her school. Otherwise she would be thought stingy, and half the good she had done during the summer would be canceled by the omission of the expected donations. If she had the least generosity, or hoped to be remembered with any respect and affection, she must devote a week's wages, and perhaps more, to the purchase of these little toy-books."

Thomas was as ingenious as Newbery in advertising one book by means of another. Master Friendly, in The Father's Gift, "got all the little books by rote that are sold by Thomas, Son & Thomas in Worcester, when he was but a very little boy," and in Nurse Truelove's Christmas Gift there is a like mention of them. The same cuts were used by Thomas, and presumably by Newbery, to illustrate the most diverse scenes, and stand for persons of the most different character, from a praiseworthy spirit of economy not yet extinct in publishers of children's literature.

There were other publishers and sellers of children's books in this country besides Thomas, in the last years of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth. The second Connecticut edition of The Child's Instructor, by a Teacher of Little Children in Philadelphia, was printed by Lazarus Beach in Newfield (Middletown ?), in 1799. It has Mrs. Barbauld's Hymns in Prose and extracts from Little Charles; also a long story about an infant prodigy named Billy, who at five years of age was always good and obedient, and said, "If you would be wise you must always attend to your vowels and consonants." When General Washington came to town, Billy's mamma asked him to say a speech for the ladies, and he began: "'Americans! place constantly before your eyes, the deplorable scenes of your servitude, and the enchanting picture of your deliverance. Begin with the infant in his cradle; let the first word he lisps be Washington.' The ladies were all delighted to hear Billy speak so well. One said he should be a parson, another said he should be a lawyer, and another said he should be President of the United States. But Billy said he could not be either, unless his mamma gave him leave." A little later book, "The Juvenile Miscellany, including some Natural History for the use of children," published by Jacob Johnson, of Philadelphia, in 1808, has copperplates, of some spirit and much carefulness of execution, representing birds and animals.

Dobson, a Philadelphia publisher, had issued a copy of Evenings at Home, two years after the last volume was published in England. It was nearly thirty years since Mrs. Barbauld had written Early Lessons, for the use of her nephew and adopted son, Charles Rochemont Aikin. She and her husband had a school at this time, and she took pains to make her pupils familiar with Shakespeare by teaching them to act parts of the plays. She writes once to her brother, "Did I tell you the boys are going to act the First Part of Henry IV., and I am busy making paper vandykes, and trimming up their hats with feathers?" And again, "We are wondrous busy in preparing our play, The Tempest, and four or five of our little ones are to come in as fairies; and I am piecing scraps from the Midsummer Night's Dream, etc., to make a little scene instead of the mask of Ceres and Juno." Her Hymns in Prose, published in 1777, were written for her youngest pupils, one of whom was afterwards Lord Denman, Chief Justice of England, and another Sir William Gell, famous for his illustrated work on Pompeii. "Lord Denman," says his biographer, "always attributed to the judicious care of his first instructress much of the retentiveness of his memory, of his fondness for literature, and of the clearness and force of his elocution."

It was in 1796 that Maria Edgeworth published the first volume of the Parents' Assistant. She had before this translated some of Madame de Genlis' stories, but a translation by another hand prevented her from publishing them. From this time until 1830, she was constantly engaged in writing, and her books for children are no small part of her work. She lived in a house full of children, wrote her shorter tales on a slate, and if her little brothers and sisters liked them, printed them. In 1798, she and her father issued Practical Education, the first part of which he had written with the second of his four wives, the Honora Sneyd who was betrothed to Major André. It was printed, but not published, and after more than twenty years Richard Lovell Edgeworth gave it to his daughter to finish. He believed that children's stories should be the history of real life, not of improbabilities, and that they should even contain no poetical allusions. His daughter, who understood children better than he, and had lived all her life among them, "not only," as her latest biographer says, "wrote in the language of children, but, what is even rarer, from the child's point of view."

Berquin's Ami des Enfans and the stories of Madame de Genlis had a certain influence over English books for children. Rousseau's theories, too, were expounded in Thomas Day's Sandford and Merton and Little Jack. As Horace Scudder says, "There seems something half grotesque in speaking of children and the French Revolution in one breath, but I think that the incongruity is only superficial.... The perception that the child had divine relationships was one form of the new consciousness of the worth and dignity of man." Whatever writers of to-day may say of the utilitarian tendencies of the Edgeworth system, it is certain that the little people of the books are well bred, reasonable, and early taught patience, self-control, and the necessity of bearing the consequences of their own follies and mistakes, & #8212; three lessons not useless in after-life. They are real children, too, as one sees by comparing them, not with Little Lord Fauntleroy, or Little Women, or any other favorites of to-day, but with the little Noah's Ark figures, named to represent their characters, in Newbery's books or Thomas's reprints.

In 1791, Johnson, the London bookseller, employed William Blake to design and engrave six plates to a series of tales for children, in the then prevailing Berquin school, by Johnson's favorite and protegé, Mary Wollstonecraft; tales new and in demand in the autumn of that year, now unknown to the bookstalls. They are called "Original stories from real life, with conversations calculated to regulate the affections and form the mind to truth and goodness." The book never went to a second edition. Blake had already written, designed, printed, and engraved his Songs of Innocence, and was to publish before many years his Songs of Experience, both of which contain some of the loveliest child poems in the language.

Mary Wollstonecraft's stories attack cruelty to animals, peevishness, lying, greediness, indolence, procrastination, and other faults of children. Every chapter has an illustrative story. Crazy Robin, which Mrs. Pennell quotes in her life of Mary Wollstonecraft, is powerfully conceived and told. At about this time, while Mary was doing literary hack-work for Johnson, she translated, and Blake illustrated, Salzmann's Elements of Morality, which went through several editions, and was republished in Baltimore in 1811. Miss Yonge has revived it in her Storehouse of Stories for the present generation.

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