Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Children's Literature: John Newbery

Let's start at the very beginning--a very good place to start.  Actually of course this is not the beginning of children's literature, but it's close enough, right?  I thought we could learn a little bit about some of the first popular children's books, and so we will look at John Newbery.  He lived from 1713-1767, and he was quite a successful publisher and merchant.  He started off in Reading, going from apprentice to owner over the years (he married the deceased master's widow!).  Newbery moved to London in 1743, the year before he got interested in publishing books for children.  Children's books--for pleasure reading--did exist at this time but they were not yet common, and they were pretty minimal.  Newbery is known as the man who really popularized the idea of books for children.  He was also a great believer in learning through pleasure, which was still an unusual idea back then.

A facsimile edition of Mother Goose
His first children's book had the amazingly long title of A Little Pretty Pocket Book: With two letters from Jack the Giant-Killer as also a ball and pincushion : the use of which will infallibly make Tommy a good boy, and Polly a good girl : to which is added, a little song-book, being a new attempt to teach children the use of the English Alphabet by way of diversion.  You can see a facsimile of the first American edition at the link (the facsimile is from 1944 and was published for the 200th anniversary)--there are poems and an alphabet song and so on.  It was a great success and Newbery went on to publish quite a few more children's titles.  The idea of Mother Goose as the author of traditional nursery rhymes arrived in English in 1765 with the publication of Mother Goose's Melodies.  Another famous title is The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, a sort of Cinderella tale.  It has been attributed to Oliver Goldsmith; he could well have written it, but there is no proof of authorship.

Newbery of course did not write these books; he published them, and their contents were either traditional or contracted out to writers like Goldsmith who earned their living through writing.  The stories were highly didactic and emphasized good behavior as the way to get ahead in life.  Georgians were a practical lot and seem to have always taught their children that honesty, hard work, and virtuous living would infallibly lead to riches, while naughtiness would inevitably result in a quick and horrible death.  (The Victorians softened this up a bit and injected far more piety, but usually left in the death.) 

In 1921, Frederic G. Melcher proposed to the Children's Librarians' Section of the American Library Association that they start giving an annual award to the best children's books, and that they name it after the father of children's literature.  This would be the first award for children's literature in the world.  The official purpose of the award was to be:
"To encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children's reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field."

The first Newbery Medal was awarded in 1922.  Other countries have since followed suit with the idea: the UK's Carnegie Medal was established in 1936, and there are many more.  The H. C. Andersen Award is the international honor for children's literature, and is given every two years to one author and one illustrator for a whole body of work.


amanda @ simplerpastimes said...

I came across Newbery while researching ideas for the suggestions list, but had somehow missed the really, really lengthy title of A Little Pretty Pocket Book...! We just don't make titles like they used to. :)

Thanks for the informative post--very interesting to learn more about these early children's books. Also, thank you for the links to the other prizes--I'd not heard of them before, but will be following them up for more ideas.

Jean said...

Oh, there are a bunch more, since many countries now give awards. Here's one list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Children%27s_literary_awards