Monday, January 6, 2014

Early children’s books.

Raise your hand prissily if you don’t get a tremendous tee hee reading through this with all the F’s that aren’t really F’s.  “To fee if the corn is almoft ripe.”  Tee hee.

(I come by it honestly:  my mother’s name is Susan, but my father, tickled by old-fashoned handwriting, used to call her, affectionately, “Foovan”, because of the S’s.)

Since early children’s book writers clearly hadn’t heard of Mistake #1:  Tossing in Values, those first books had purely moral intentions – sometimes pretty scary ones involving hellfire (heckfire, if the former offends you). 

image Later, it was discovered that they were also a great way to teach children to read.  But ideally, as with the American McGuffey Readers in the 1800s (a series I adore, by the way, and still use with my own kids), books would do double-duty, sharing a moral lesson AND teaching children to read!

When books were rare and precious.

image This was before the days of Print On Demand:  books were rare and precious, and most families – heck heck, most schools – only had a few. 

So you crammed as much as possible onto each page.  They had math texts back then that could fit into your hand and cover the entire mathematics curriculum from Grades 1 to 12.  Maybe not in as much detail as a slow math student like me would prefer, but there it was.

imageThese were all-purpose texts, too.  Even the McGuffey readers included “Slate Work” in the form of script-handwriting lessons interspersed with the with the stories and poems.  Of course, these, too, were designed for double duty, dishing out moral lessons about faith and hard work right along with the handwriting practice.

Kids today are daunted by script – I read somewhere about a girl who had to learn script so she could send letters back and forth with her grandmother.

What else is different today?

Forget about fonts.

imageToday’s kids’ books make liberal use of fonts – well, except for good old script handwriting, which seems to have been completely eliminated from our kids’ repertoire.

Indeed, books like the popular (accidentally typed “poopular,” maybe it means something?) Geronimo Stilton series (this page is from Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye, one my kids adore), at times seem to rely more on font and novelty than on actual plot – let alone moral virtue.

(Not a fan of this series, but not for any reason I can put my finger on, and I’d never forbid the kids from reading them based on my own intuitions.)

0307010856Anyway, who can blame them when there is such marvellous precedent from the previous generation of kids’ books, the books of the 1970s and 1980s that were the first to break with morality, convention, with everything?

imageInstead of these tried-and-true formulas, this generation created fun, eclectic Free-to-be-type books that (sometimes literally, like in Grover’s 1971 classic, The Monster at the End of This Book, smashed all precedent to create the totally new artform in which Geronimo Stilton is free to play today to his heart’s content.


(Okay, it’s late, I’m tired.  Hands up; bonus hug for anyone who followed that last sentence!!!)

Forget about trees.

Today, you get taken to task if you don’t make careful use of whitespace – or, what those early children’s book pioneers would call “intentionally waste space in your book.”

image 0810983915And rather than one picture per story (regardless of how many pages each story ran), you'd darn well better include a picture on each page if you expect hold kids’ attention.

Better yet, make like successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kenney and many of today’s graphic novelists and forgo the words part altogether.  (Okay, comics and Diary of a Wimpy Kid HAVE words… but they are generally incorporated among other graphic elements, rather than carrying the story alone.)

Forget about stopping progress.

Not that I want to!  I love today’s kids’ books.  I’m not panicking about their future, by any means, and I’m always excited to see what the future will bring.

But sometimes, when I see the woeful choices my children make and chuckle over (this is code for the entire body of literature that relies primarily on fart jokes for its readers’ edification), I yearn for a simpler time.  Don’t we all?

0694003611I yearn for Goodnight Moon. (An Israeli woman once told me she found this canonical book creepy!  Really, it’s creepy to have an old lady in your room watching you fall asleep?  I always thought this was kind of sweet, but maybe she has a point.)


B00ES279V4I yearn for The Velveteen Rabbit.  (Does anyone still read this?  I thought about it once but realized it was too long to hold my attention span, let alone my kids’.  There – painful true confession.  Maybe I should try again now that they’re older.)

B000FCK65WI yearn for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – a wonderfully shocking YA book easily as scandalous as anything today’s teens encounter.

Or is it perhaps not a simpler time I yearn for but a “fimpler” one, a world full of fimple ftories that won’t confound or confufe uf.  “Come, it is Auguft.  Buy a fharp fickle; you muft cut down the corn and eat fome.”

Ah, but you can’t stop progress.  Or, as Grover might put it,


What modern changes do you love in the world of kids’ books?  What can’t you stand?  If you could go back to visit any period of children’s literature, when would you pick?


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