Children's literature has a rich history. Books written, illustrated, and published for young readers skyrocket in popularity during the 19th century. They have remained a mainstay of the publishing industry ever since. From primers meant to teach spelling and math to fairy tales, these books can tell historians and modern readers a lot about the mores of a given time. Now, anyone can explore over 7,000 historic titles online through the University of Florida’s Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature.
The online archive features countless books available for reading online or downloading. Many date to the 19th century, while others were published through the 1950s. Titles range from Pretty Little Stories for Pretty Little People to the classic Cinderella. Topics range from Biblical stories to school subjects to sweet animal tales.
Some may be of historic value. For example, the 1946 book My Dog Rinty is illustrated by black and white photography which offers a peek into a fictional little boy's world in 1940s Harlem. Written by Ellen Tarry—a Black journalist and author—and Caldecott-winner Marie Hall Ets, it tells the tale of a young boy named David trying to hold on to a dog who causes all kinds of trouble. It is depicted through photographs taken by a radical Russian Jewish immigrant photographer and his wife. Many books like this are out of print, but they represent moments that historians can mine.
Children's literature reflects what society wants to teach the young: the values, facts, and social norms of the time deemed essential for growing up. Looking back, these are not always the same as modern values. For example, in the 19th and 20th-century many children's books had imperialistic and racist themes, stereotyping non-white or non-Western people. Preserving these books and making them available online will help modern scholars studying American and British history. If children's books were not such important markers of social mores, there would not be the current culture war attempting to ban books addressing racism and LGBTQ+ identities. Changes in children's literature represent broader changes in culture, as well as our hopes for the future.
Book lovers of all ages looking for more to read should be sure to check out My Modern Met's many recommended book lists on topics including outer space, “how to draw”, art of all kinds, New York City, the history of photography, and architecture. You can also shop our favorites while supporting independent bookstores through our curated choices on Bookshop.org.
An online archive has over 7,000 historical children's books available to read or download.
These include fairy tales, gardening manuals, and picture books.
The books are made available through the University of Florida’s Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature.
Throughout the past 200 years, children's books have represented social mores and hopes for the next generation.
h/t: [Open Culture]
Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature: Website