Reading from a very early age

Thu, Jun 28, 2012, 01:00

Books for children from the 18th century had much of the appeal, and marketing nous, of their modern equivalents, writes MAIRE KENNEDY

WE ALL HAVE our favourite books from childhood: fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland, Paddington Bear, Where the Wild Things Are, The Railway Children, Matilda, The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, Gulliver’s Travels or Robinson Crusoe. These books affected us profoundly and maybe even changed our lives. But suppose we grew up in the 18th century, what could we have read? We would have had Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726), in versions specially geared towards children, with simplified language and pictures. Fairy tales excited and terrified children then as now, and created fantasy worlds that adults did not always approve of.

The success of Gulliver’s Travels led to other works aimed at children that built on its reputation, using Gulliver and Lilliput in their titles to create an association with the original text. An early example is The Lilliputian Magazine, launched in London in 1751 by John Newbery, founder of the famous London publishing house. Another is The Lilliputian Library, or Gulliver’s Museum, published in Dublin in the 1780s in 10 small-format volumes. This work was marketed directly at children. The overall cost of the 10 volumes was five British shillings (5s.5d. Irish), but single volumes could be purchased for sixpence halfpenny each, and the cost spread out over weeks or months. This was still expensive and only children from middle and higher income families could afford these books, and would have had the literacy skills to read them.

Chapbooks, cheaply produced books of popular literature, were also available. They consisted of children’s stories, histories, travels, natural history, songs, prayer books, and sensational stories of outlaws, robbers and murderers. The volumes were cheap and cheerful, badly printed on inferior paper with poorly executed woodcuts, unbound, printed in tens of thousands and sold for a penny or two. Chapmen were itinerant pedlars who carried them in their packs, along with a range of trinkets and novelties, for sale at fairs and from door to door in rural areas. The reading of chapbooks, like newspapers, transcended literacy: one reader allowed an entire group to understand and enjoy. These ephemeral materials have not survived well, and sometimes we know only the titles.

By the 18th century, books specifically aimed at delighting children were produced. Many were imported from England, but large numbers were printed in Ireland. Small-sized formats appealed to children, and they were cheaper to produce. Children began to be targeted in the advertising in these books. The child became a consumer and was in a position to influence what was purchased. Advertisements recommended children’s books as presents for Christmas, New Year and Easter.

Story books written to entertain children, but often with a strong moral message, were published in London from the 1740s. John Newbery specialised in the publication of books for the amusement of children. A little pretty pocket book was advertised for sale in 1744, and was the first of about 400 titles published for children by Newbery and his successors, up to 1815. Newbery books were widely available in Ireland, and were advertised in the newspapers as presents “for all good little masters and misses”.

Oliver Goldsmith was one of the anonymous writers employed by Newbery to write books for children. He is thought to have written at least part of their best seller, Goody-two-shoes, first published in 1765, and reprinted throughout the 18th century.

From memoirs and autobiographies we can get glimpses of the wonderful world of childhood reading remembered well into adulthood.

When children enjoyed a story they played it out afterwards. In the 1780s, Dorothea Herbert from Co Tipperary remembered the adventure books that delighted herself and her siblings: “We were all book mad – Dido and Aeneas, Hector and Paris fired our brains, a sixpenny voyage of Lord Anson, and old Robinson Cruseoes tale completed our mania . . . one time we fancied ourselves thrown on a desart island till a fight who should be Crusoe and who Fryday ended our play. Another time we were a set of sailors thrown on the delightful island of Juan Fernandez.”

Books that children enjoyed 250 years ago can now be seen in our reference libraries. Trinity College has the Pollard Collection of children’s books, lovingly collected throughout her life by Mary (Paul) Pollard, former keeper of early printed books at the college.

The Church of Ireland College of Education in Rathmines has a wonderful collection of school books, including the extensive collection issued by the Kildare Place Society from the early 1800s. The National Library of Ireland has a fine historic collection, and as a legal deposit library, receives all books published in Ireland. Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse Street, has a major collection of children’s books including early editions collected by John Gilbert and ER McClintock Dix. St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Trinity College and UCD all run courses in children’s literature, either at undergraduate or postgraduate level.

Children’s Books Ireland (CBI) promotes children’s literature in all its forms, especially through its magazine, Inis, and by the CBI Children’s Book of the Year awards. The Irish Society for the Study of Children’s Literature (ISSCL) promotes academic research into children’s literature, through publication and conferences. The love of children’s literature, past and present, is alive and well in modern Ireland.

Dr Máire Kennedy is a divisional librarian, special collections, at Dublin City Public Libraries. She will talk at the annual conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (Sharp) at Trinity College Dublin today

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