‘I will make sweet for you the little cheeses’: A History of Children’s Books in 100 Books

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle goes down the rabbit-hole in this enthralling history of children’s books of all kinds

Around £2.2 billion is spent on books in the UK each year, and about one-fifth of this is spent on children’s books. The publishing industry is big business, and it can be very big business where a younger readership is concerned. Some of the bestselling authors of the last hundred years, such as Dr Seuss, Enid Blyton, and J. K. Rowling, have sold in huge numbers; indeed, those three names alone have probably clocked up over 1.6 billion books when their sales are combined. But when was the first children’s novel published? And how have successive generations and eras sought to edify, and entertain, their children through the written word? A History of Children’s Books in 100 Books (British Library), by Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad, explores the history of all sorts of books written for children, from the purely entertaining to the strictly educational, from the ancient to the modern, from the inventive to the downright bizarre.

A History of Children’s Books in 100 Books is the kind of book the British Library do so well: an expansive coffee-table book, with large pages and high-quality paper, making the images all the more enthralling, whether it’s pictures of original jacket designs or illustrations from within the books discussed. Cave and Ayad’s text illuminates the various histories of children’s reading down the centuries: in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was common for moulds for letters to be cut for wood and then used by pastry cooks, who made gingerbread figures from them – ‘intended as rewards for good children who recognised the letters’. Going back a little further, to 2,500 BCE (over 1,500 years before Homer), we find a Sumerian lullaby inscribed on a cuneiform tablet. In the lullaby, a mother longs for sleep to come to her ailing son: ‘in my song may he grow big, in my song may he grow large … Sleep will fill your lap with emmer [wheat], I will make sweet for you the little cheeses, Those little cheeses that are the healers of man …’

Cave and Ayad don’t just focus on the canonical, perennially popular children’s books. They make time for those books which were designed to instruct young readers, or, in some cases, to show the parents how to instruct their children. In 1662, a book named The Childes First Tutor, by the ridiculously named ‘Festus Corin’, was published. Its aim being ‘Teaching children an easie and delightful way to learn the twenty four letters, to spell, and read true English in a short time’ (before you wonder, the letters i/j were counted as one in the seventeenth century, as were u/v). We’re lucky to have this book – lucky, anyway, from a book historian’s perspective – because only one copy of the book, and a second edition from 1664 at that, has survived. And for many years that was lost: it was accidentally walled up in an old cottage in Hampshire shortly after it was published, and was only discovered in the 1980s, over three centuries after its inadvertent incarceration.

They devote a captivating couple of pages to The Governess (1749), the first English novel for children according to many literary historians. The book was by Sarah Fielding, the sister of Henry, the novelist best remembered for Tom Jones, which came out the same year. The Governess focuses on nine days in the world of Mrs Teachum, the governess of the title, and the nine girls under her tutelage. Although the book was openly didactic, The Governess moved away from earlier, more Puritan literature by including fairy stories designed to entertain as much as to instruct. A later author, Mary Martha Sherwood, who also rewrote John Bunyan’s most famous work for a young readership (as The Infant’s Progress), removed the fairy stories from Fielding’s book and reissued it with more edifying content replacing these flights of fancy. It’s worth remembering that much of the most popular children’s fiction of the Victorian era, a hundred years after Fielding was writing, was even more moralistic than Fielding’s original (and often to a quite unpleasant degree): Lewis Carroll was the exception, not the norm.

Talking of Victorian books for children, Cave and Ayad argue that Charles Bennett’s charming Nine Lives of a Cat: A Tale of Wonder (1860) deserves to be revived: it was popular throughout the nineteenth century but fell out of print, yet it was an innovative book in which, alongside the text and illustrations, there was a representation of an object which connects with the story. The connection between the object and the story was left for the young reader to ‘find out’. Such forgotten gems are a regular feature of A History of Children’s Books in 100 Books, and along with the beautiful colour pictures and the depth of research displayed in the accompanying text, make this book both an entertaining and edifying addition to any library – like so many of the children’s books it discusses, A History of Children’s Books in 100 Books manages to entertain us just as it teaches us something new.

Oliver Tearle is the author of Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, published by John Murray.

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