A Digital Archive of 1,800+ Children’s Books from UCLA

In the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry, the nov­el was seen as a friv­o­lous and triv­ial form at best, a moral­ly cor­rupt­ing one at worst. Giv­en that the pri­ma­ry read­ers of nov­els were women, the belief smacks of patri­ar­chal con­de­scen­sion and a kind of thought con­trol. Fic­tion is a place where read­ers can imag­i­na­tive­ly live out fan­tasies and tragedies through the eyes of an imag­ined oth­er. Respectable mid­dle-class women were expect­ed instead to read con­duct man­u­als and devo­tion­als.

Eng­lish nov­el­ist Samuel Richard­son sought to bring respectabil­i­ty to his art in the form of Pamela in 1740, a nov­el which began as a con­duct man­u­al and whose sub­ti­tle rather blunt­ly states the moral of the sto­ry: “Virtue Reward­ed.”

This mor­al­iz­ing expressed itself in anoth­er lit­er­ary form as well. Children’s books, such as there were, also tend­ed toward the moral­is­tic and didac­tic, in attempts to steer their read­ers away from the dan­gers of what was then called “enthu­si­asm.”

“Pri­or to the mid-eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry,” notes the UCLA Children’s Book Col­lec­tion—a dig­i­tal repos­i­to­ry of over 1800 children’s books dat­ing from 1728 to 1999—“books were rarely cre­at­ed specif­i­cal­ly for chil­dren, and children’s read­ing was gen­er­al­ly con­fined to lit­er­a­ture intend­ed for their edu­ca­tion and moral edi­fi­ca­tion rather than for their amuse­ment. Reli­gious works, gram­mar books, and ‘cour­tesy books’ (which offered instruc­tion on prop­er behav­ior) were vir­tu­al­ly the only ear­ly books direct­ed at chil­dren.” But a change was in the mak­ing in the mid­dle of the cen­tu­ry.

Pamela attract­ed a rib­ald, even porno­graph­ic, response—most notably in Hen­ry Fielding’s satire An Apol­o­gy for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews and the Mar­quis de Sade’s Jus­tine Mean­while, the world of children’s lit­er­a­ture also under­went a rad­i­cal shift. “The notion of plea­sure in learn­ing was becom­ing more wide­ly accept­ed.” Illus­tra­tions, pre­vi­ous­ly “con­sist­ing of small wood­cut vignettes,” slow­ly began to move to the fore, and “inno­va­tions in typog­ra­phy and print­ing allowed greater free­dom in repro­duc­ing art.”

That’s not to say that the didac­tic atti­tude was dispelled—we see codes of con­duct and overt reli­gious themes embed­ded in children’s lit­er­a­ture through­out the 19th cen­tu­ry. But as we point­ed out in a post on anoth­er children’s book archive from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Flori­da, the more staid and tra­di­tion­al books increas­ing­ly com­pet­ed with adven­ture sto­ries, works of fan­ta­sy, and what we call today Young Adult lit­er­a­ture like that of Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott. You can see this ten­sion in the UCLA col­lec­tion, between plea­sure and duty, leisure and work, and edu­ca­tion as moral and social train­ing and as a means of achiev­ing per­son­al free­dom.

Of the adult lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion of the time, Leo Bersani writes in A Future for Astyanax that “the con­fronta­tion in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry works between a struc­tured, social­ly viable and ver­bal­ly ana­lyz­able self and the wish to shat­ter psy­chic and social struc­tures pro­duces con­sid­er­able stress and con­flict.” I think we can see a sim­i­lar con­flict, expressed much more play­ful­ly, in books for chil­dren of the past two hun­dred years or so. Enter the UCLA col­lec­tion, which includes not only his­toric chil­dren’s books but present-day exhib­it cat­a­logs and more, here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Enter an Archive of 6,000 His­tor­i­cal Children’s Books, All Dig­i­tized and Free to Read Online

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

The Anti-Slav­ery Alpha­bet: 1846 Book Teach­es Kids the ABCs of Slavery’s Evils

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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