Enter an Archive of 7,000 Historical Children’s Books, All Digitized & Free to Read Online

5 Little PIgs

We can learn much about how a historical period viewed the abilities of its children by studying its children’s literature. Occupying a space somewhere between the purely didactic and the nonsensical, most children’s books published in the past few hundred years have attempted to find a line between the two poles, seeking a balance between entertainment and instruction. However, that line seems to move closer to one pole or another depending on the prevailing cultural sentiments of the time. And the very fact that children’s books were hardly published at all before the early 18th century tells us a lot about when and how modern ideas of childhood as a separate category of existence began.

ABCs

“By the end of the 18th century,” writes Newcastle University professor M.O. Grenby, “children’s literature was a flourishing, separate and secure part of the publishing industry in Britain.” The trend accelerated rapidly and has never ceased—children’s and young adult books now drive sales in publishing (with 80% of YA books bought by grown-ups for themselves).


Grenby notes that “the reasons for this sudden rise of children’s literature” and its rapid expansion into a booming market by the early 1800s “have never been fully explained.” We are free to speculate about the social and pedagogical winds that pushed this historical change.

Afloat with Nelson

Or we might do so, at least, by examining the children’s literature of the Victorian era, perhaps the most innovative and diverse period for children’s literature thus far by the standards of the time. And we can do so most thoroughly by surveying the thousands of mid- to late 19th century titles at the University of Florida’s Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature. Their digitized collection currently holds over 7,000 books free to read online from cover to cover, allowing you to get a sense of what adults in Britain and the U.S. wanted children to know and believe.

Zig Zag

Several genres flourished at the time: religious instruction, naturally, but also language and spelling books, fairy tales, codes of conduct, and, especially, adventure stories—pre-Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew examples of what we would call young adult fiction, these published principally for boys. Adventure stories offered a (very colonialist) view of the wide world; in series like the Boston-published Zig Zag and English books like Afloat with Nelson, both from the 1890s, fact mingled with fiction, natural history and science with battle and travel accounts. But there is another distinctive strain in the children’s literature of the time, one which to us—but not necessarily to the Victorians—would seem contrary to the imperialist young adult novel.

Bible Picture Book

For most Victorian students and readers, poetry was a daily part of life, and it was a central instructional and storytelling form in children’s lit. The A.L.O.E.’s Bible Picture Book from 1871, above, presents “Stories from the Life of Our Lord in Verse,” written “simply for the Lord’s lambs, rhymes more readily than prose attracting the attention of children, and fastening themselves on their memories.” Children and adults regularly memorized poetry, after all. Yet after the explosion in children’s publishing the former readers were often given inferior examples of it. The author of the Bible Picture Book admits as much, begging the indulgence of older readers in the preface for “defects in my work,” given that “the verses were made for the pictures, not the pictures for the verses.”

Elfin Rhymes

This is not an author, or perhaps a type of literature, one might suspect, that thinks highly of children’s aesthetic sensibilities.  We find precisely the opposite to be the case in the wonderful Elfin Rhymes from 1900, written by the mysterious “Norman” with “40 drawings by Carton Moorepark.” Whoever “Norman” may be (or why his one-word name appears in quotation marks), he gives his readers poems that might be mistaken at first glance for unpublished Christina Rossetti verses; and Mr. Moorepark’s illustrations rival those of the finest book illustrators of the time, presaging the high quality of Caldecott Medal-winning books of later decades. Elfin Rhymes seems like a rare oddity, likely published in a small print run; the care and attention of its layout and design shows a very high opinion of its readers’ imaginative capabilities.

Elfin Rhymes 2

This title is representative of an emerging genre of late Victorian children’s literature, which still tended on the whole, as it does now, to fall into the trite and formulaic. Elfin Rhymes sits astride the fantasy boom at the turn of the century, heralded by hugely popular books like Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz series and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. These, the Harry Potters of their day, made millions of young people passionate readers of modern fairy tales, representing a slide even further away from the once quite narrow, “remorselessly instructional… or deeply pious” categories available in early writing for children, as Grenby points out.

All Around the Moon

Where the boundaries for kids’ literature had once been narrowly fixed by Latin grammar books and Pilgrim’s Progress, by the end of the 19th century, the influence of science fiction like Jules Verne’s, and of popular supernatural tales and poems, prepared the ground for comic books, YA dystopias, magician fiction, and dozens of other children’s literature genres we now take for granted, or—in increasingly large numbers—we buy to read for ourselves. Enter the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature here, where you can browse several categories, search for subjects, authors, titles, etc, see full-screen, zoomable images of book covers, download XML versions, and read all of the over 7,000 books in the collection with comfortable reader views. Find more classics in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

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

Dolly Parton Reads Free Bedtime Stories to Kids: Watch Readings from Goodnight with Dolly

However old you may be, you’re never too old to have a children’s book read aloud to you by a pajama clad Dolly Parton.

So snuggle up!

Every episode of Goodnight with Dolly finds the country music icon in bed, glamorously made up as ever, reading glasses perched on her nose.

She introduces herself not as Dolly Parton, but the Book Lady, an honorific bestowed by the child beneficiaries of the Imagination Library, the non-profit she founded in 1995 to foster children’s love of books and reading.


The selections are all titles that Imagination Library participants have received free in the mail, with the Book Lady’s compliments.

Once things get rolling, the camera shifts to the illustrations, with Dolly’s zesty narration as voice over.

She lowers her voice to play Grandpa in the late Floyd Cooper’s Max and the Tag-Along Moon and the freight train in the 90th anniversary edition of Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could.

If her dramatic recitations occasionally include a bungled preposition, we can’t imagine authors taking umbrage.

In addition to the millions of children who benefit from Imagination Library membership, authors and illustrators whose titles selected for inclusion reap incredible rewards in the form of increased visibility, sales, status, and of course, the good feeling that comes from being part of such a worthy project.

And we sincerely hope even the prickliest grammar sticklers won’t blow a gasket over the odd “ain’t” and regionalisms born of Dolly’s East Tennessee mountain roots. In addition to coming from an authentic place, they’re delivered with a lot of heart and zero affect.

Though a word of caution to parents planning to let Dolly take over tonight: the series may be billed as bedtime stories, but Parton’s mischievous sense of humor is liable to have a non-soporific effect.

“Are you still awake?” she crows directly into the camera after There’s a Hole in the Log on the Bottom of the Lake, author-illustrator Loren Long’s crowd pleasing comic spin on the cumulative camp song staple. “I want to throw you in a lake if you don’t get in bed!”

The Book Lady is also fond of sharing a high energy snippet of whatever song the evening’s tale has put her in mind of.

Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street, with award winning illustrations by Christian Robinson, inspires a few lines from Poor Folks Town, from 1972.

Come on down

Have a look around

Rich folks livin’ in a poor folks town

We got no money but we’re rich in love

That’s one thing that we’ve got a-plenty of

So come on down have a look around

At rich folks livin’ in a poor folks town

(“If that won’t put you to sleep, I don’t know what will,” she teases, after.)

After Dolly bids her listeners goodnight, the book’s author or illustrator is usually given a chance to have a word with the parents or caregivers, to stress how reading aloud deepens familial bonds and share childhood memories of being read to.

De la Peña, whose book features a grandmother pointing out the sort of non-monetary riches Dolly’s mother also valued, takes the opportunity to thank the self-effacing star’s efforts to “reach working class communities” – presumably through representation, as well as books intended to cultivate a lifelong love of reading.

Enjoy a playlist of Goodnight with Dolly episodes here.

Learn more about the Imagination Library here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

A Brief History of Dumplings: An Animated Introduction

Dumplings are so delicious and so venerable, it’s understandable why more than one country would want to claim authorship.

As cultural food historian Miranda Brown discovers in her TED-Ed animation, dumplings are among the artifacts found in ancient tombs in western China, rock hard, but still recognizable.

Scholar Shu Xi sang their praises over 1,700 years ago in a poem detailing their ingredients and preparation. He also indicated that the dish was not native to China.


Lamb stuffed dumplings flavored with garlic, yogurt, and herbs were an Ottoman Empire treat, circa 1300 CE.

The 13th-century Mongol invasions of Korea resulted in mass casualties , but the silver lining is, they gave the world mandoo.

The Japanese Army’s brutal occupation of China during World War II gave them a taste for dumplings that led to the creation of gyoza.

Eastern European pelmenipierogi and vareniki may seem like variations on a theme to the uninitiated, but don’t expect a Ukrainian or Russian to view it that way.

Is the history of dumplings really just a series of bloody conflicts, punctuated by periods of relative harmony wherein everyone argues over the best dumplings in NYC?

Brown takes some mild potshots at cuisines whose dumplings are closer to dough balls than “plump pockets of perfection”, but she also knows her audience and wisely steers clear of any positions that might lead to playground fights.

Relax, kids, however your grandma makes dumplings, she’s doing it right.

It’s hard to imagine sushi master Naomichi Yasuda dialing his opinions down to preserve the status quo.

A purist – and favorite of Anthony Bourdain – Chef Yasuda is unwavering in his convictions that there is one right way, and many wrong ways to eat and prepare sushi.

He’s far from priggish, instructing customer Joseph George, for VICE Asia MUNCHIES in the proper handling of a simple piece of sushi after it’s been lightly dipped, fish side down, in soy sauce:

Don’t shake it. Don’t shake it! Shaking is just to be finished at the men’s room.

Other takeaways for sushi bar diners:

  • Use fingers rather than chopsticks when eating maki rolls.
  • Eating pickled ginger with sushi is “very much bad manners”
  • Roll sushi on its side before picking it up with chopsticks to facilitate dipping
  • The temperature interplay between rice and fish is so delicate that your experience of it will differ depending on whether a waiter brings it to you at a table or the chef hands it to you across the counter as soon as it’s assembled.

Explore TED-Ed’s Brief History of Dumplings lesson here.

For a deeper dumpling dive, read the Oxford Symposium’s Wrapped and Stuffed Foods: Proceedings on the Symposium: Foods and Cookery, 2012, available as a free Google Book.

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Ayun Halliday is the author of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Julia Child Shows Fred Rogers How to Make a Quick & Delicious Pasta Dish (1974)

Julia Child and Fred Rogers were titans of public television, celebrated for their natural warmth, the ease with which they delivered important lessons to home viewers, and, for a certain sector of the viewing public, how readily their personalities lent themself to parody.

Child’s cooking program, The French Chef, debuted in 1963, and Roger’s much beloved children’s show, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, followed five years later.

Rogers occasionally invited accomplished celebrities to join him for segments wherein they demonstrated their particular talents:

With our guest’s help, I have been able to show a wide diversity of self-expression, the extraordinary range of human potential. I want children and their families to know that there are many constructive ways to express who they are and how they feel. 

In 1974, Child paid a call to the neighborhood bakery presided over by “Chef” Don Brockett  (whose later credits included a cameo as a “Friendly Psychopath” in Silence of the Lambs…)

The easy-to-prepare pasta dish she teaches Rogers – and, by extension, his “television friend” – to make takes a surprisingly optimistic view of the average pre-school palate.


Red sauce gets a hard pass, in favor of a more sophisticated blend of flavors stemming from tuna, black olives, and pimentos.

Brockett provides an assist with both the cooking and, more importantly, the child safety rules that aren’t always front and center with this celebrity guest.

Child, who had no offspring, comes off as a high-spirited, loosey-goosey, fun aunt, encouraging child viewers to toss the cooked spaghetti “fairly high” after adding butter and oil “because it’s dramatic” and talking as if they’ll be hitting the supermarket solo, a flattering notion to any tot whose refrain is “I do it mySELF!”

She wisely reframes tasks assigned to bigger, more experienced hand – boiling water, knife work – as less exciting than “the fancy business at the end”, and makes it stick by suggesting that the kids “order the grown ups to do what you want done,” a verb choice the ever-respectful Rogers likely would have avoided.

As with The French Chef, her off-the-cuff remarks are a major source of delight.

Watching his guest wipe a wooden cutting board with olive oil, Rogers observes that some of his friends “could do this very well,” to which she replies:

It’s also good for your hands ‘coz it keeps ‘em nice and soft, so rub any excess into your hands.

She shares a bit of stage set scuttlebutt regarding a letter from “some woman” who complained that the off-camera wastebasket made it appear that Child was discarding peels and stems onto the floor.

She said, “Do you think this is a nice way to show young people how to cook, to throw things on the floor!?” And I said, “Well, I have a self cleaning floor! …The self cleaning is me.”

(Rogers appears both amused and relieved when the ultimate punchline steers things back to the realm of good manners and personal responsibility.)

Transferring the slippery pre-cooked noodles from pot to serving bowl, Child reminisces about a wonderful old movie in which someone – “Charlie Chaplin or was it, I guess it was, uh, it wasn’t Mickey Rooney, maybe it was…” – eats spaghetti through a funnel.

If only the Internet had existed in 1974 so intrigued parents could have Googled their way to the Noodle Break at the Bull Pup Cafe sequence from 1918’s The Cook, starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton!

The funnel is but one of many inspired silent spaghetti gags in this surefire don’t-try-this-at-home kid-pleaser.

We learn that Child named her dish Spaghetti Marco Polo in a nod to a widely circulated theory that pasta originated in China and was introduced to Italy by the explorer, a bit of lore food writer Tori Avey of The History Kitchen finds difficult to swallow:

A common belief about pasta is that it was brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo during the 13th century. In his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, there is a passage that briefly mentions his introduction to a plant that produced flour (possibly a breadfruit tree). The Chinese used this plant to create a meal similar to barley flour. The barley-like meal Polo mentioned was used to make several pasta-like dishes, including one described as lagana (lasagna). Since Polo’s original text no longer exists, the book relies heavily on retellings by various authors and experts. This, combined with the fact that pasta was already gaining popularity in other areas of Italy during the 13th-century, makes it very unlikely that Marco Polo was the first to introduce pasta to Italy.

Ah well.

We’re glad Child went with the China theory as it provides an excuse to eat spaghetti with chopsticks.

Nothing is more day-making than seeing Julia Child pop a small bundle of spaghetti directly into Fred Rogers’ mouth from the tips of her chopsticks…though after using the same implements to feed some to Chef Brockett too, she realizes that this wasn’t the best lesson in food hygiene.

In 2021, this sort of boo-boo would result in an automatic reshoot.

In the wilder, woolier 70s, a more pressing concern, at least as far as public television was concerned, was expanding little Americans’ worldview, in part by showing them how to get a commanding grip on their chopsticks. It’s never too late to learn.

Bon appétit!

JULIA CHILD’S SPAGHETTI MARCO POLO

There are a number of variations online, but this recipe, from Food.com, hews closely to Child’s original, while providing measurements for her eyeballed amounts.

Serves 4-6

INGREDIENTS 

1 lb spaghetti 

2 tablespoons butter 

2 tablespoons olive oil 

1 teaspoon salt black pepper 

1 6-ounce can tuna packed in oil, flaked, undrained 

2 tablespoons pimiento, diced or 2 tablespoons roasted red peppers, sliced into strips 

2 tablespoons green onions with tops, sliced 

2 tablespoons black olives, sliced 

2 tablespoons walnuts, chopped

1 cup Swiss cheese, shredded 

2 tablespoons fresh parsley or 2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

Cook pasta according to package directions. 

Drain pasta and return to pot, stirring in butter, olive oil, and salt and pepper. 

Toss with remaining ingredients and serve, garnished with parsley or cilantro.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Draw Along with Beloved Cartoonist & Educator Lynda Barry: Free Drawing Exercises Online

How do you rescue a day that’s gone pear shaped?

Stopping to drink a glass of water is one of our longtime go tos.

If there’s a box of matches handy, we might perform Yoko Ono’s Lightning Piece.

Most recently, we’ve taken to grabbing some paper and a trusty black felt tip to spend a few minutes doing one of beloved cartoonist and educator Lynda Barry’s all-ages draw-alongs.

Barry began uploading these videos early in the pandemic, for “friends at home who are about to turn four or five or six or seven or any age really.”


Each demonstration begins with an oval. There’s no prologue. Just dive on in and copy the motions of Barry’s slow moving, refreshingly unmanicured hands, captured in a DIY god shot.

Less than four minutes later, voila! A smiling crocodile! (It’s magical how a facial expression can be changed with one simple line.)

The soundtracks to these little narration-free exercises are an extra treat. We’ve always admired Barry’s musical taste. It’s a real mood booster to cover a cheetah in spots to the tune of a marimba orchestra.

Barry’s also a big cumbia fan, conjuring a kitty to Lito Barrientos’ Cumbia En Do Menor, a lion to Los Mirlos’ Cumbia de los Pajaritos, and a Stegosaurus to Romulo Caicedo’s Cumbia Cavela.

Now that you’ve got a cheetah under your belt, you’re ready to progress to a ScorpionLeopard, one of Draw Along with Lynda B‘s “strange animals.”

Barry does offer some commentary as these cryptids take shape.

We suspect her pioneering work with a group of four-year-olds in the University of Wisconsin’s Draw Bridge program leads her to anticipate the sorts of burning questions a pre-schooler might have with regard to these beasts. Her classroom experience is evident. Whereas others might think a steady stream of bright chatter is necessary to keep very young participants engaged, Barry’s thoughtful words develop in real time along with her drawing:

This is a tough animal. It has a big stinger on the back. This is a rough animal… angry.  Put the eyebrows like this. It makes them look angry. What kind of teeth do you think this animal has? I don’t think they have little bitty teeth. I think they have big fangs.

Others in the “strange animal” family: a CatDogSealFish, an octophant, and a catterfly (featuring a cameo by Barry’s inquisitive pooch’s snout.)

Draw along with Lynda Barry on this YouTube playlist.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Google App Uses Machine Learning to Discover Your Pet’s Look Alike in 10,000 Classic Works of Art


Does your cat fancy herself a 21st-century incarnation of Bastet, the Egyptian Goddess of the Rising Sun, protector of the household, aka The Lady of Slaughter?

If so, you should definitely permit her to download the Google Arts & Culture app on your phone to take a selfie using the Pet Portraits feature.

Remember all the fun you had back in 2018 when the Art Selfie feature mistook you for William II, Prince of Orange or the woman in “Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostsanen Painting a Portrait of His Wife”?


Surely your pet will be just as excited to let a machine-learning algorithm trawl tens of thousands of artworks from Google Arts & Culture’s partnering museums’ collections, looking for doppelgängers.

Or maybe it’ll just view it as one more example of human folly, if a far lesser evil than our predilection for pet costumes.

Should your pet wish to know more about the artworks it resembles, you can tap the results to explore them in depth.

Dogs, fish, birds, reptiles, horses, and rabbits can play along too, though anyone hailing from the rodent family will find themselves shut out.

Mashable reports that “uploading a stock image of a mouse returned drawings of wolves.”

We can’t blame your pet snake for fuming.

Ditto your Vietnamese Pot-bellied pig.

Though your pet ferret probably doesn’t need an app (or a crystal ball) to know what its result would be. Better than an ermine collar, anyway…


If your pet is game and falls within Pet Portraits approved species parameters, here are the steps to follow:

  1. Launch the Google Arts & Culture app and select the Camera button. Scroll to the Pet Portraits option.
  2. Have your pet take a selfie. (Or alternatively, upload a saved image.)
  3. Give the app a few seconds (or minutes) to return multiple results with similarity percentages.

Download the Google Arts & Culture app here.

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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Tate Kids Presents Introductions to Art Movements: Cubism, Impressionism, Surrealism & More

Tate Kids has a solid grasp on the sort of hands on art-related content that appeals to children – Make a mud painting! Make a spaghetti sculpture! Photo filter challenge!

Children of all ages, grown ups who skipped out on art history included, will benefit from their breakneck overviews of entire art movements.

Take cubism.


The Tate Kids’ animation, above, provides a solid if speedy overview, zipping through eight canvases, six artists, and explanations of the movement’s two phases – analytical and synthetic. (Three phases if you count Orphism, the abstract, cubist influenced painting style married artists Robert and Sonia Delaunay hatched around 1912.)

Given the intended audience, the fond friendship between the fathers of cubism, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso looms large, with nary a peep about Picasso’s narcissism and misogyny. And it must be said that the narrator’s tone grates a bit – a bit too loud, a bit too wowed.

The Impressionists come off as the real cool kids, with a different narrator, and nifty collage animations that find Camille Pissarro throwing horns and a Mohawked Alfred Sisley as they reject the Salon‘s insistence on “myths, battles and paintings of important people.”

Their defiant spirit is supported by criticism that most definitely has not stood the test of time:

Pure evil! 

Wallpaper! 

Like a monkey has got hold of a box of paints!

Kid presenters seize the controls for an introduction to the mid-century Japanese avant-garde movement, Gutai.

Their conclusion?

Smashing things up is fun!

As are manifestos:

Let’s bid farewell to the hoaxes piled up on the altars and in the palaces, the drawing rooms and the antique shops…Lock up these corpses in the graveyard!

Yay!

Those who are poorly equipped to stomach the narrators’ whizbang enthusiasm should take a restorative minutes to visit the museum oranges in hand, with 12-year-old Jaeda and 9-year-old Fatimatu. Their calm willingness to engage with conceptual art is a tonic:

When I started art, I though art was just about making it perfect, but you don’t have to care what other people say. That could still mean an art to you.

Watch a Tate Kids Art Movements playlist on YouTube. Supplement what you’ve learned with a host of Tate Kids activities, coloring pages, games, quizzes, artist bios and a gallery of crowdsourced kid art.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Harper Lee Gives Advice to Young Writers in One of Her Only Interviews Captured on Audio (1964)

You know the character Boo Radley? Well, if you know Boo, then you understand why I wouldn’t be doing an interview. Because I am really Boo. 

— Harper Lee, in a private conversation with Oprah Winfrey

Author Harper Lee loved writing but resisted interviews, granting just a handful in the fifty-six years that followed the publication of her Pulitzer Prize winning 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird

Go Set a Watchmanher second, and final, novel began as an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, and was published in 2015, a year before her death.

Roy Newquist, interviewing Lee in 1964 for WQXR’s Counterpointaboveprobably expected the hotshot young novelist had many more books in her when he solicited her advice for “the talented youngster who wants to carve a career as a creative writer.”

Presumably Lee did too. “I hope to goodness that every novel I do gets better and better, not worse and worse,” she remarked toward the end of the interview.

She obliged Newquist by offering some advice, but stopped short of offering career tips to those eager for the lowdown on how to write an instant bestseller that will be adapted for stage and screen, earn a perennial spot in middle school curriculums, and — just last week — be crowned the Best Book of the Past 125 Years in a New York Times readers’ poll, beating out titles by well regarded, and vastly more prolific authors on the order of J.R.R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Gabriel García Márquez, and Toni Morrison.

“People who write for reward by way of recognition or monetary gain don’t know what they’re doing. They’re in the category of those who write; they are not writers,” she drawled.

Harper Lee’s Advice to Young Writers

  • Hope for the best and expect nothing in terms of recognition
  • Write to please an audience of one: yourself
  • Write to exorcise your divine discontent
  • Gather material from the world around you, then turn inward and reflect
  • Don’t major in writing

Listening to the recording, it occurs to us that this interview contains some more advice for young writers, or rather, those bringing up children in the digital age.

When Newquist wonders why it is that “such a disproportionate share of our sensitive and enduring fiction springs from writers born and reared in the South,” Lee, a native of Monroeville, Alabama, makes a strong case for cultivating an environment wherein children have no choice but to make their own fun:

I think … the absence of things to do and see and places to go means a great deal to our own private communication. We can’t go to see a play; we can’t go to see a big league baseball game when we want to. We entertain ourselves.

This was my childhood: If I went to a film once a month it was pretty good for me, and for all children like me. We had to use our own devices in our play, for our entertainment. We didn’t have much money. Nobody had any money. We didn’t have toys, nothing was done for us, so the result was that we lived in our imagination most of the time. We devised things; we were readers, and we would transfer everything we had seen on the printed page to the backyard in the form of high drama.

Did you never play Tarzan when you were a child? Did you never tramp through the jungle or refight the battle of Gettysburg in some form or fashion? We did. Did you never live in a tree house and find the whole world in the branches of a chinaberry tree? We did.

I think that kind of life naturally produces more writers than, say, an environment like 82nd Street in New York.

Hear that, parents and teachers of young writers?

  • Nurture the creative spirit by regularly prying the digital device’s from young writers’ hands (and minds.)

Bite your tongue if, thus deprived, they trot off to the theater, the multiplex, or the sports stadium. Remember that iPhones hadn’t been invented when Lee was stumping for the tonic effects of her chinaberry tree. These days, any unplugged real world experience will be to the good.

If the young writers complain — and they surely will — subject yourself to the same terms.

Call it solidarity, self-care, or a way of upholding your New Year’s resolution…

Read an account of another Harper Lee interview, during her one day visit to Chicago to promote the 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird and attend a literary tea in her honor, here.

Related Content: 

Harper Lee Gets a Request for a Photo; Offers Important Life Advice Instead (2006)

Harper Lee on the Joy of Reading Real Books: “Some Things Should Happen On Soft Pages, Not Cold Metal”

Writing Tips by Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.