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"

Dr. Holmes tells how much more New England boys and girls used to hear, in books, of English birds, and flowers, and games, and social customs, than of their own, and how he used to find himself in a strange world, "where James was called Jem, not Jim, as we heard it; ... where naughty schoolboys got through a gap in the hedge, to steal Farmer Giles's red-streaks, instead of shinning over the fence to hook old Daddy Jones's Baldwins; where Hodge used to go to the alehouse for his mug of beer, while we used to see old Joe steering for the grocery to get his glass of ruin; ... where there were larks and nightingales instead of yellow-birds and bobolinks; where the robin was a little domestic bird that fed at table, instead of a great fidgety, jerky, whooping thrush." The time was now coming when as distinctively American characteristics would be found in stories and books of amusement as in Webster's school-books. We owe the change to one man, Samuel Griswold Goodrich, born in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 1793. His father was a clergyman, who had, for the time, a large collection of theological books, but few others. The son says, "When I was about ten years old, my father brought me from Hartford Gaffer Ginger, Goody Two Shoes, and some of the rhymes and jingles now collected under the name of Mother Goose, with perhaps a few other toy books of that day. These were a revelation. Of course I read them, but, I must add, with no real relish."

A little later, one of the boy's companions lent him a book with some of the popular fairy and giant tales, which inspired him with such horror that his mother was obliged to tell him that they were not true, but invented to amuse children. With fine scorn and the true matter-of-fact Parley spirit, the child replied, "Well, they don't amuse me." He grew up with the belief that the children's books of the day were full of nothing but lies and horrors, exciting those who read them to crime and bloodshed. At twelve, however, he was delighted with Robinson Crusoe, and a translation of one of Madame de Genlis's tales, explaining certain marvels by simple physical causes. He read, too, The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain, and twenty years later, while telling Hannah More how he had enjoyed it, formed the idea of the Parley Tales. In 1827, he published the first of them, & #8212; Tales of Peter Parley about America. In the next thirty years he wrote or edited more than a hundred volumes, most of them for children or schools, told in a pleasant and familiar style. A middle-aged reader can hardly see his little History of the United States, with chapters on Central and South America, without recognizing as the source of many ideas useful in later life the hideous little woodcuts of the Pilgrims landing in a snowstorm, the Dustin family attacked by the Indians, the burning of Schenectady, or Captain Waterton on the cayman's back. It is just possible that true tales of Indian barbarities may impress a sensitive child with as great a sense of horror as legends of giants, but Peter Parley seems never to have thought so. In his mind, if a thing was true, it was right ; if false, it was wrong. He speaks with scorn, in his autobiography, of attempts to revive the old fairy-tales, and treats Halliwell's edition of the nursery rhymes of England as if it were beneath notice. His mind was essentially prosaic, but he did a great work in simplifying history, geography, and books of travel for children.

Jacob Abbott published his Young Christian in 1832, and from that time until his death, in 1879, was constantly writing for young people. Who is not grateful, notwithstanding late irreverent burlesques, for the simple pictures of happy child-life in the Rob, Lucy, Jonas, and Franconia books? Old-fashioned as they seem now, they are so full of common sense, and have so clear an idea of children's relations to each other and their elders, that some of them should be on every child's bookshelves. The young people of fourteen or fifteen, like Beechnut and Mary Bell, who act as guides and teachers to children a few years younger, are remarkably mature, and have a wonderful development of reason, judgment, and knowledge of child-nature; but their advice is always good, and worthy of remembrance. Then, too, these are distinctively New England story-books. The children go sleighing and coasting, walk on snowshoes, pop corn, roast apples, and do a thousand things such as country boys and girls delight in. They learn, too, to use their eyes in traveling, and many a grown-up man or woman of to-day, who cannot tell why London or Paris looks so familiar, is indebted to Rollo in Europe for knowledge absorbed so long ago that its source has been forgotten.

Between 1840 and 1850, a German influence was felt in children's books. Grimm's tales had been translated before, but Gammer Grethel and little stories of real life came on the scene. Illustrations and type began to be better. Soon after 1850, really beautiful colored pictures were to be seen in books for children, published on both sides of the Atlantic. Hans Andersen was by this time well known to English-reading children. The reign of fairy-tales had begun again with the study of folk-lore. With fairy-tales and hero-legends rewritten and simplified for children, with history told in story-form, there is only one danger,—that young readers will be satisfied with abridgments, and know nothing in later years of great originals.

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