Image from The American Antiquarian Society.
I have friends who write children’s literature. It is a popular genre. It was when I was growing up, too. I remember reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Black Beauty, and Little Witch, to name a few. But literature for children goes back further than the mid-20th century.
Back in my graduate school days (the mid-late 1990s), I did a fair amount of research on the topic, especially as it pertained to evangelical Protestants. I’m use the term “evangelical” to mean those who simply were focused on spreading the “Good News,” as opposed to some of the more current understandings. What you’re seeing today is a shortened and revised version of a research paper. You’ll notice that the books are all dated from the 1960s and 1970s. If I had the time, it would be fun to see what, if any, current research has been done in the field.
Protestant children’s fiction probably had an impact on my character Maggie, whose childhood and teen years stretched (born 1821) and on her daughters Lydia (born 1842) and Frankie (born 1846). But in creating the characters, it is clear that I was influenced by the impact children’s literature published by Methodists and other evangelical Protestants had on them.
"Before there could be children's books," John Rowe Townsend writes, "there had to be children - children, that is, who were accepted as beings with their own particular needs and interests, not merely as miniature men and women"(Townsend,17). A new understanding of children and childhood began sometime during the eighteenth century, when adults began to view childhood as a separate and special time of life. That also was the era in which they started to develop written materials for children. Are we surprised at this? We shouldn’t be.
Interestingly, the 1740's were "the decade in which both the English novel and the English children's book got under way" (Townsend 28) and, by the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign (1837), didactic stories for children, adventure and school stories for boys, domestic stories for girls, fantasies, and animal stories were readily available (Townsend 55).
In her review of American children's literature in period of 1836-1875, Mary Lystad found that nearly three quarters of those books included some sort of religious teaching. Mention of God and the need for salvation found its way into even books written for education or pleasure. These materials provided religious instruction, but also educated children with regard to social behavior, school subjects, and (for girls) family relationships. Adventure stories (aimed at boys) and pleasure-reading also were introduced. However, of all the books published during the period, the overwhelming majority were fiction, clocking in at 63% (Lystad, 83-87).
In America, part of the boom in children's literature was supported by materials published by the growing Protestant Sunday school movement. Sunday schools began in England during the 1780's as a charity effort to educate children of the poor, who were unable to go to school because they had to work (Lynn & Wright, 24-28). Teaching the children on Sunday when they were free and using the Bible as a textbook seemed a natural for church people on a mission.
When the Sunday school movement spread to America, a similar experiment was tried. However, it did not stay located within the poor communities due to the development of common and public schools in the early-to-mid-nineteenth century. Instead it was adopted by churches as a means of teaching the children of their parishioners.
Sunday schools in the United States were supported by non-denominational groups such as the American Sunday School Union, founded in 1824, and denominational organizations like the Methodist Episcopal Church’s Sunday School Union, founded in 1827. The Sunday School Union worked in conjunction with the Methodist Book Concern to produce affordable materials for both children and adults (Pilkington, 192-194).
Although evangelical Protestants generally frown on fiction and believed it to be a dangerous influence, their publishing houses printed a large amount of fiction for children, Publishing fiction for children could have arisen out of sheer practicality. The American Sunday School Union knew children liked to read stories and most likely planned to get its message across in story form, rather than as a more boring and highly didactic tract (MacLeod, 21). This same logic probably held true for the other Sunday school publishers of the time, who also published children's fiction. However, the fiction was not without purpose, and most children's literature published by Protestant organization had copious amounts of moral content woven throughout the stories.
A unique feature of Sunday school books is that they were small and fit easily into a child's hand. They were either sold singly or combined into "libraries (Pilkington, 433), and they were popular. "Few homes with any books at all were without some product of the burgeoning Sunday school publishing industry, either in the form of a young person's moral and spiritual guide or the tearful, joyous tale of a dying, heaven-bound child" (Rodgers, 129). In local congregations, religion teachers built “Sunday school libraries” that disseminated evangelical literature to their children. They also and gave away tracts and moral tales." (Boylan, 48).
To encourage reading among their pupils, Sunday schools used reward tickets. A child was given a ticket for good attendance, punctuality, and memorization of scripture. The child had accumulated a certain number of tickets and then turned them in for a premium in the form of a book or a tract. Later, teachers focused on giving children library privileges for good behavior or attendance, hoping that it would draw them (and their parents) to Sunday school (Boylan, 48 & 50).
On the American frontier, a church’s Sunday school sometimes was the only place where people could find books and learn how to read. The 1859 Manual of Public Libraries reported that an amazing 30,000 out of 50,000 libraries in the United States were found in Sunday schools (Lynn & Wright, 55-57).
Like all literature, children's lit by evangelical authors addressed certain perceived psychological needs. For Protestant publications, the most frequent perceived need was eternal salvation, followed by love between parent and child, sometimes between husband and wife (when the book was written for girls), strength and achievement, and play and adventure. They also stressed responsibility to one's family, community and God and numerous copious warnings about the evils of drinking. Another goal was to place the good of all people over one's personal good. The books also took note of social mobility, expressing the belief that the poor would be able to rise if they conformed to societal norms and focused on the good of all, rather than on their own desires (Lystad 91-99).
Messages were conveyed through several formulae: 1) the contrast tale, which pit the industrious boy against the slothful boy; 2) the ode to usefulness, which showed the glories of duty and responsibility over the waste of play; 3) the experiment in idleness, in which the anticipated joys of doing nothing explode in boredom and disaster. "Tales like these drummed home not the heroic virtues but the sober, prudent economic ones." (Rodgers, 131-132).
By the 1850's, things began to change within the larger culture. We see the emergence of the fairy story (such as those written by Hans Christian Andersen). Another innovation in fiction was the removal of the intrusive moralist (think Mark Twain's technique in Huckleberry Finn). Finally, the boys' tale came into its own. This was "a nostalgia-filled story of boys still half-savage, the best part of them not yet broken to the prim, restrictive conventions of civilization". However, while the "the tacked-on lesson, the obtrusive sermonizers" was removed, the presence of a moral did not completely disappear. Nor did writers stop seeing themselves as moralists (Rodgers, 132-133, 135).
Now you know a little about some of Maggie, Lydia, and Frankie’s formative influences. They also were formative for many other American Protestants during the first half of the nineteenth century. They may seem quaint, even baffling, to us but were quite potent in the 1800s.
I’ll be back on Friday with an investigation into the writings of British children’s fiction author Sarah Fry. Never heard of her? Neither had I until I did the research back in the late 1990s! But since it’s women’s history month, we might as well look at a lesser-known influencer.
Boylan, Anne M., Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution 1790-1880 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
Lynn, Robert W. and Elliott Wright, The Big Little School (Nashville: Abingdon; Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1980).
Lystad, Mary, From Dr. Mather to Dr. Seuss (Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc., 1980).
MacLeod, Anne Scott, A Moral Tale (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1975).
Pilkington, James Penn, The Methodist Publishing House: A History, Volume I, (New York: Abingdon Press, 1968).
Rodgers, Daniel, The Work Ethic in Industrial America 1850-1920 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1978).
Townsend, John Rowe, Written for Children (Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippencott Company, 1965).
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder