The Newbery/Printz Companion

The Early History of Children’s Books in New England

But we must turn for a little while from the contemplation of the light and freedom which American youth now enjoy to the darkness and intellectual bondage of colonial and Revolutionary days, if we would follow the steps by which they have been brought into their present heritage.

No period in the literary history of this country is so barren and dreary as the one hundred and sixty years which followed the landing of the Pilgrims; and inasmuch as it was not until more than a hundred years after that epoch that any special attempt was made in England to provide literature of any kind for children, the early settlers could have brought with them no knowledge of anything of the kind. Books in England were still a costly luxury; children were being taught to read by means of hornbooks and primers of a rudimentary type; a few books containing rules of good manners and guides of behavior were extant; and John Locke, writing as lately as 1691, knew of nothing “out of the ordinary road of the Psalter, the New Testament and the Bible” in the way of reading for the young folk. He recommended that “Æsop’s Fables” or “Reynard the Fox” with pictures should be put into the child’s hand when he begins to read; but although these books were among the first productions of Caxton’s printingpress two hundred years earlier, it was long before Locke’s suggestion was carried into effect.

The men who “turned to the new world to redress the balance of the old,” who crossed the sea in quest of civil and religious liberty, came not to write, but to do. The fear of God and the conduct of the colony were their chief concern; and this is reflected in such books as were published during colonial days. “They took up the pen only in the intervals of grasping the Bible, the sword or the ploughshare.” It is not strange, therefore, that in the catalogue of books published before the Revolution, printed in the memoirs of Isaiah Thomas, there are not twenty titles which indicate that they were intended for children; nor that every one of the books, except the primers and the schoolbooks, is full of piety of a ghoulish sort, or of the teachings of that stern school of theology to which those men belonged who lived in the idea that they had been “ransomed by the sweat of no vulgar agony, by the blood of no earthly sacrifice,” for whom “the sun had been darkened and the rocks rent, the dead had risen, and all nature had shuddered at the sufferings of an expiring God.” To such men doubtless we owe books like “Godly Children Their Parents’ Joy,” “Young People Warned: the Voice of God in the Late Terrible Throat Distemper,” “A Dying Father’s Legacy to an Only Child,” “Young Man’s Guide through the Wilderness of this World,” and Cotton Mather’s ‘Token for the Children of New England: examples of children in whom the fear of God was remarkably budding before they died, added as a supplement to Janeway’s Token for Children.” This last was printed in Boston in 1700, from the English book, which enjoyed high

Transcribed by Laurel O’Donnell. These pages are © Laurel O’Donnell, 2006, all rights reserved
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This page was last updated on 20 Feb 2006