The First Children’s Picture Book, 1658’s Orbis Sensualium Pictus

I’ve heard a fair few new par­ents ago­niz­ing about what chil­dren’s books to admit into the fam­i­ly canon. Many of the same names keep com­ing up: 1947’s Good­night Moon, 1969’s The Very Hun­gry Cater­pil­lar, 1977’s Every­one Poops — clas­sics, all. Odd­ly, I’ve nev­er heard any of them men­tion the ear­li­est known chil­dren’s book, 1658’s Orbis Sen­su­al­i­um Pic­tus, or The World of Things Obvi­ous to the Sens­es Drawn in Pic­tures. “With its 150 pic­tures show­ing every­day activ­i­ties like brew­ing beer, tend­ing gar­dens, and slaugh­ter­ing ani­mals,” writes Charles McNa­ma­ra at The Pub­lic Domain review, the Orbis looks “imme­di­ate­ly famil­iar as an ances­tor of today’s children’s lit­er­a­ture. This approach cen­tered on the visu­al was a break­through in edu­ca­tion for the young. [ … ] Unlike trea­tis­es on edu­ca­tion and gram­mat­i­cal hand­books, it is aimed direct­ly at the young and attempts to engage on their lev­el.” In oth­er words, its author, Czech-born school reformer John Come­nius, accom­plish­es that still-rare feat of writ­ing not down to chil­dren, but straight at them — albeit in Latin.


The Orbis holds not just the sta­tus of the first chil­dren’s book, but the first megahit in chil­dren’s pub­lish­ing, receiv­ing trans­la­tions in a great many lan­guages and becom­ing the most pop­u­lar ele­men­tary text­book in Europe. It opens with a sen­tence that, in McNa­ma­ra’s words, “would seem pecu­liar in today’s children’s books: ‘Come, boy, learn to be wise.’ We see above a teacher and stu­dent in dia­logue, the for­mer hold­ing up his fin­ger and sport­ing a cane and large hat, the lat­ter lis­ten­ing in an emo­tion­al state some­where between awe and anx­i­ety. The stu­dent asks, ‘What doth this mean, to be wise?’ His teacher answers, ‘To under­stand right­ly, to do right­ly, and to speak out right­ly all that are nec­es­sary.’ ” This leads into some­thing like “an ear­ly ver­sion of ‘Old Mac­Don­ald Had a Farm,’ ” lessons on “the philo­soph­i­cal and the invis­i­ble,” “thir­ty-five chap­ters on the­ol­o­gy, ele­ments, plants, and ani­mals,” and final­ly, an “exten­sive dis­cus­sion” of reli­gion which ends with “an admo­ni­tion not to go out into the world at all.” After read­ing the Orbis, embed­ded in full at the top of this post, you can judge for your­self whether it belongs on the shelf. Per­haps you could file it along­side Richard Scar­ry’s Busy­town books?

orbitus image

via The Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Inter­na­tion­al Children’s Dig­i­tal Library Offers Free eBooks for Kids in Over 40 Lan­guages

The Epis­te­mol­o­gy of Dr. Seuss & More Phi­los­o­phy Lessons from Great Children’s Sto­ries

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (8)
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  • LSM says:

    What a delight­ful post. A per­fect his­to­ry of chil­dren’s books.…makes me want to explore more. Thanks for this.

  • Martin Baasten says:

    It might be worth not­ing that a fac­sim­i­le edi­tion of the Eng­lish trans­la­tion of Come­nius’ Orbis was pub­lished by Holp Shup­pan pub­lish­ers (Tokyo 1981).

  • Eileen Tsiapanos says:

    Oh, how I wish I’d known about this book 33 years ago. I would have made cer­tain that I had it for each one of my four chil­dren. As it is, I did­n’t even know about Good­night, Moon until I’d had my sec­ond child. Now, both of my grand­chil­dren have it, as well. My youngest grand­son is about to turn 3 and now, thank you. I know what to get for him.

  • Lati Nashion says:

    I am doing a research about the his­to­ry of first writ­ten pic­ture book in my lit­er­a­cy class ENG 211 chil­dren lit­er­a­ture. I want to know how were the pic­tures repro­duced in the first pic­ture book print­ed in 1658’s Orbis Sen­su­cli­um Pic­tus. Will you send me a infor­ma­tion of this first print­ed book.

    Appre­ci­ate your helps,
    Lati Nash­ion

  • Donne Buck says:

    I was deeply touched to find this post and can­not thank you enough for it. I hope you and your read­ers will add items to it that fill any gaps, and won­der if there are any which exist as illus­trat­ed man­u­scripts.

  • caroly n Bernard librarian says:

    Would cut.

  • Aubury Haynes says:

    Wow this just amaz­ing how the chil­dren books have changed since the old­er days com­pared to know.

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