Reviewed by Harriet
Earlier this year I reviewed Martin Edwards’ Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and very good it was too. So when I spotted this one, also published by the British Library, I imagined it being similar in appearance and format. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Though the general idea is the same – here the 100 books are spread out over eleven thematic chapters – the format and presentation could not be more different. This is a big, beautiful book – Amazon tells me it measures 28.7 x 3.1 x 23.1 cm – gorgeously illustrated with colour plates and photos. But don’t get the idea that this is just a coffee table book, which to me always implies something to flick through rather aimlessly. On the contrary, though it is lively and entertaining, it’s also as learned and thorough as anyone could wish for.
If the book itself is pleasingly large, this really fits in with the scope and range of the subject matter. We may perhaps have the idea that writing specifically aimed at children probably emerged in around the eighteenth-century. While this may largely be true for printed European books, the authors here take a global perspective, and thus are able to trace the development of the genre from its earliest beginnings. Myths, folk stories and fables have undoubtedly been handed down in the oral tradition since the beginning of time, but their printed forms can be found in very early works such as Aesop’s Fables and the Indian Panchatantra.
With such a lot of ground to cover, it must have been difficult to decide on how to arrange all the material. The authors have chosen an approach which can best be described as a combination of thematic and chronological. To take the first chapter as an example, its title is First Steps: Oral Traditions and Pre-Literacy. The chapter begins with an extensive discussion of attitudes throughout history regarding when and how children should be introduced to books and reading, and this is followed by a number of sub-sections illustrating the various solutions to this problem. Songs and poems clearly featured a great deal, both orally and later in print. Thus we are introduced to the oldest known lullabies (from ancient Sumeria, about 2,500 BCE) and make our way through 18th-century songbooks, 19th-century rag-book ABCs, picture books through the ages, and into more modern times with ‘tactile, noisy and smelly’ books for babies, Dr Seuss (The Cat in the Hat), and Touch-and-Feel Books for Blind Children. Every section has its own illustrations, with their own informative descriptions.
The second chapter, ‘Once Upon a Time, in a Land Far Away’, looks at fables and folk tales, and their dissemination over time. Here we find not only the fables of Aesop and La Fontaine, but also Arthur Waley’s Monkey, which is a translation of a Chinese classic, the Thousand and One Nights, and Irish, Nordic and Caribbean folk stories. The third chapter looks at ‘Abecedarias and Battledores’, the most common form of early children’s literatures, but also the most easily destroyed or discarded. The earliest of these to have survived have been generally in the form of hornbooks, which could take battering and even chewing. The 18th century even saw a fashion for hornbooks made of gingerbread, unfortunately often gilded with highly poisonous gold leaf – amazingly, examples have survived though it’s doubtful whether their young owners did. Paper-cuts and pop-ups also feature here, as do some attempts at moralising (Uncle Tom’s Cabin for infants, and African and Asian books for young children).
The subjects of Education and Morality continue into the next chapter: indeed, most early printed books for growing children from the 16th through to the 19th century had a strong educational purpose. Initially these seem to have been intended to be read to children by their parents, but, as we learn in Chapter Five, ‘Small Books for Small People’, publishers in the mid-18th century finally recognised a need for bright, attractive small books for children. This was the era of the astonishingly and enduringly popular Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, not originally aimed at children but quickly produced in child-friendly, often abridged, editions. The sixth chapter deals with animal stories, a genre which surged at the turn of the twentieth century, with Beatrix Potter, Rudyard Kipling, The Wind in the Willows, Little Grey Rabbit and Winnie-the-Pooh leading on to those great mid-century heroes Barbar the Elephant and Orlando the Marmelade Cat. The following chapter, ‘Innocence, Experience and Old-Fashioned Nonsense’, finds a place for Alice in Wonderland, which, the authors tell us, ‘marked a watershed for the production of children’s books: since Alice, juvenile writing has changed completely’. At almost the same time in America, meanwhile, appeared Little Women, and a few years later Tom Sawyer, and, by the end of the century, the enduringly popular novels of Edith Nesbit.
I could go on, describing to you in detail the subsequent chapters on Fairies, Heroes, ‘The War Years and Beyond’, and, finally, ‘Growing Up Fast: TV and New Media’. But I’m sure you’ve got the general idea. And, even if I haven’t mentioned them, you are sure to find your own childhood favourites here – from Peter Pan to Maurice Sendak, C.S. Lewis to Raoul Dhal, Just William to Pippi Longstocking and pretty much anyone else you can think of – they’re all there, and all placed in context and discussed in just the right amount of detail. The volume concludes with a discussion of ‘Books as Historical Artefacts’, a Bibliography and a Glossary. What more could you want?
The authors, who are father and daughter, have done a truly remarkable job here – the amount of work that has gone into this is truly breathtaking. This really is a book to treasure, and would make a wonderful present for anyone who loves children’s literature – as indeed many adults do – or indeed anyone interested in the history of book production. And if either of those is you, buy it as a present for yourself – you won’t regret it.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and frequently re-reads her childhood favourites.
Roderick Cave and Sarah Ayad, A History of Children’s Books in 100 Books (British Library, 2017). 978-0712356985, 272pp., hardback.
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