The Power of the Kid Lit Revolution
Image: John Tenniel's illustration of Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
Fairy tales had been in existence for a long time before the nineteenth century. They often were used to teach moral values. But in 1865, a new model emerged, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. What made Alice so different? It was “written without any trace of a moral, because it was designed purely and simply to amuse the child.”
Amuse the child? What a concept! Who would have thought?
Welcome to what is known as The Golden Age of Children’s Literature, an explosion of nonsense and fantasy literature, boy’s fiction, school stories, realistic stories for older children, and domestic tales for girls. Yay! Children and their abundant imaginative abilities finally were being celebrated, rather than repressed. Unless, of course, you were an evangelical child. In that case, the adults around you resisted material like Alice because they believed that novels and fairy tales would have a negative effect upon your childish mind and emotions. You would be told that reading such things was an idle, useless past-time, and the work of the devil. The revolution of children's fiction and fantasy - things written purely for the for the joy and amusement found in the story - was resisted by evangelical authors and parents probably until the 1880s.
That is the sort of attitude my character Maggie encountered as a child. Being a stubborn little thing, she dealt with it by rebelling and reading fiction whenever she could. And I don’t believe Maggie was alone in this endeavor. There probably were more than a few real-life children who staged little rebellions of their own. I believe that, even when forced to read approved materials, it still was possible for a nineteenth-century child to subvert the system and enjoy flights of imagination.
It also is possible that publishers and authors knew this. Earlier in the century evangelical authors and publishing houses tried to bridge the growing cultural gap between themselves and “pleasure reading” by creating “safe” reading materials for children. Novels obviously were out, but magazines and tracts were acceptable. And in my research, I discovered that these types of materials used excitement as a hook for child readers.
It surprised me when I learned that evangelical magazines were loaded with “true stories” having titles that bore an uncanny resemblance to the headlines one can find in today’s supermarket tabloids. For instance, the 1848 Wesleyan Juvenile Offering. carried items with attention-getting, hair-raising, and biased titles like “Horrid Murder in Ceylon,” “The Missionary’s Baby and the Cruel Feejeean Nurse,” and “Naked School Children in South Africa.”
Today these titles might give us a laugh or a face palm or maybe both, but they were intended to emphasize what some people thought was a desperate and immediate worldwide need for the so-called “civilizing” effects of the Gospel. At the same time, such stories most likely gave their young readers a thrill and engaged their imaginations.
The expansion of the British Empire brought tales of different customs to English (and American) readers. Yet while Wesleyan magazines may have offered edifying and inspiring stories about the life and work of missionaries, those same stories also contained abundant adventure. Missionaries went to far off lands, saw exciting people and things, and lived on the edge of danger. And – something that might have engaged a tomboy like little Maggie – the tales featured both the men and the women who served in mission.
Evangelical children's magazines told of trials and tribulations caused by illness, natural disaster, or hostility from native people. Such stories obviously were colonial in nature, intending to emphasize both the great sacrifices made by the missionaries who spread the Gospel and the superiority of British culture and values. However, they also might have provided a child reader with excitement and novelty, evidenced by this example from the Wesleyan Juvenile Offering of April 1847 (pg. 122).
We have already told you something about Mr. Cross. In a former Number of the Juvenile Offering, there was an account of his being shipwrecked, when on a voyage from Nukualofa to Vavua, at which time his poor wife was drowned. He continued laboring amongst the Tonguese and Feejeeans; and it would make your heart ache to read of the hardships he had to bear, and the great trials he passed through. Sometimes he was almost starved because his stock of flour was gone, and the natives had no food to give him. He was often obliged to lodge in hovels, and places where he was exposed to wet and cold; and worse than all, he was surrounded by savages who delighted in the most shocking cruelties, and who were daily committing crimes to [sic] horrible even to repeat.
Imagine this: you are a child sitting in the nursery under the strict eye of your governess or perhaps living away from home in a boarding school with constrictive rules. You might find subversive and vicarious enjoyment reading about tales of strange places, people whose customs are wildly different from yours, and the adults who ventured out into a big, dangerous world to preach the Gospel.
While evangelical publications had much in common with more secular materials, the one thing they did not offer was fiction and fantasy, even though this was coming into vogue, thanks to novels like Alice. To make up for this lack, many evangelical children’s magazines adopted a storytelling style that grew more polished and less restrained as the century moved on.
Despite this, outright fiction does not appear in evangelical materials until the 1880s. Our Maggie would be a lady in her 60s by that time. Even though she rebelled by reading fiction on the sly, she also was exposed to ideas present within evangelical reading materials.
On Monday, we’ll take a look at what ideas she could have absorbed from her reading materials.
 Elvira S. Smith, The History of Children’s Literature (Chicago: American Library Association, 1980), 164.
 Smith, 164-165.
 Wesleyan Juvenile Offering, vols IV-VII (1847-1850), 109, 141, 143.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder