Digital Archives Give You Free Access to Thousands of Historical Children’s Books

It is no arbi­trary coin­ci­dence that Margery Williams’ clas­sic The Vel­veteen Rab­bit involves a ter­ri­fy­ing brush with scar­let fever. Pub­lished in 1922, the book was based on her own chil­dren. But all of its first read­ers would have shud­dered at the men­tion, giv­en very recent mem­o­ries of the glob­al dev­as­ta­tion wrought by “Span­ish” flu. The sto­ry earns its fairy-tale end­ing by invok­ing cat­a­stro­phe, with images of the poor rab­bit near­ly thrown into the fire and then tossed out with the trash.

The Vel­veteen Rab­bit recalls Oscar Wilde’s 19th cen­tu­ry children’s sto­ries, in which “loss is not a pose; it is real,” writes Jeanette Win­ter­son. All may even­tu­al­ly be restored, “there is usu­al­ly a hap­py end­ing,” but “Wilde’s fairy­tale trans­for­ma­tions turn on loss.” The author of The Vel­veteen Rab­bit did not share Wilde’s con­trar­i­an streak, nor indulge the same sen­ti­men­tal fits of piety, but Williams’ intent was no less pro­found and seri­ous. The specter of fever still haunts the book’s Arca­di­an end­ing.

Williams’ major influ­ence was Wal­ter de la Mare, whom the Poet­ry Foun­da­tion describes as a writer of “dreams, death, rare states of mind and emo­tion, fan­ta­sy worlds of child­hood, and the pur­suit of the transcendent”—all themes The Vel­veteen Rab­bit engages in the nar­ra­tive lan­guage of kids. Do chil­dren’s books still rec­og­nize ear­ly child­hood as unique­ly for­ma­tive, while also regard­ing chil­dren as sophis­ti­cat­ed read­ers who can appre­ci­ate emo­tion­al depth and psy­cho­log­i­cal com­plex­i­ty?

Do Disney’s mod­ern fran­chis­es take loss as seri­ous­ly? What about Paw Patrol? Were Wilde and Williams’ sto­ries unusu­al for their time or did they mark a trend? How do children’s books serve as codes of con­duct, and what do they tell us about how we fil­ter life’s calami­ties in digestible nar­ra­tives for our kids? How can we use such sto­ries to edu­cate in the midst of over­whelm­ing events?

For those who find these ques­tions intrigu­ing for pure­ly aca­d­e­m­ic rea­sons, or who strug­gle with them as both par­ents and new­ly mint­ed home­school teach­ers, we offer, below, sev­er­al online libraries with thou­sands of scanned his­tor­i­cal children’s books, from very ear­ly print­ed exam­ples in the 18th cen­tu­ry to exam­ples of a much more recent vin­tage.

These come from pub­lish­ers in Eng­land, the U.S., and the Sovi­et Union, and from names like Christi­na Roset­ti, Jules Verne, Wiz­ard of Oz author Frank L. Baum, and Eng­lish artist Ran­dolph Calde­cott, whose sur­name has dis­tin­guished the best Amer­i­can pic­ture books for 70 years. For every star of children’s writ­ing and illus­tra­tion, there are hun­dreds of writ­ers and artists hard­ly any­one remem­bers, but whose work can be as play­ful, mov­ing, and hon­est as the famous clas­sic children’s sto­ries we pass on to our kids.

Dis­cov­er 6,000 new-old clas­sics, and plen­ty of didac­tic man­u­als, alpha­bet books, and children’s devo­tion­al books, at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Florida’s Bald­win Library of His­tor­i­cal Children’s Lit­er­a­ture

Enter a dig­i­tal archive of over 1,800 clas­sic children’s books at the UCLA Children’s Book Col­lec­tion, with books dat­ing from 1728 to 1999

Mar­vel at the Library of Congress’s small but sig­nif­i­cant online col­lec­tion of books from the 19th and 20th cen­turies

And, final­ly, at Prince­ton’s online col­lec­tions, browse Sovi­et children’s books pub­lished between 1917 and 1953, for a very dif­fer­ent view of ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion.

Whether we’re par­ents, schol­ars, teach­ers, curi­ous read­ers, or all of the above, we find that the best children’s books show us “why we need fairy tales,” as Win­ter­son writes, at every age. “Rea­son and log­ic are tools for under­stand­ing the world. We need a means of under­stand­ing our­selves, too. That is what imag­i­na­tion allows.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hayao Miyaza­ki Picks His 50 Favorite Children’s Books

200 Free Kids Edu­ca­tion­al Resources: Video Lessons, Apps, Books, Web­sites & More 

Watch Stars Read Clas­sic Children’s Books: Bet­ty White, James Earl Jones, Rita Moreno & Many More

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

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