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Teaching with Historical Children’s Books

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The Library of Congress recently launched a unique collection of select children’s books published more than 100 years ago. These include classic works that are still read by children today and lesser-known treasures drawn from the Library’s extensive collection of historically significant children’s books. You can read more about the collection or watch a livestreamed event featuring local authors reading a few selections from the collection.

The cats’ party.

The process of selecting books published long ago for a present-day audience provoked thoughtful conversations among our staff. We knew that the style of writing, the subject matter, and even the jokes found in century-old books might be difficult for young readers today to engage with. We knew that every book that we selected would inevitably reflect some of the attitudes, perspectives and beliefs of its own time, as well as failing to represent diverse authors and audiences. We thought it was important to note that the Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in these books, which may contain content offensive to users.

Each of these considerations, though, also presents valuable opportunities for careful student analysis and discussion. Each book is a primary source representing the time in which it was created; reading the books through historical lenses can deepen student understanding of the past and can offer opportunities for students to consider what has – and what has not! – changed. As a colleague noted in this blog post a number of years ago, “engaging with the difficult aspects of these historical primary sources might also enrich the students’ exploration of the topic at hand.”

Plenty of these books offer simple entertainment, of course! But even those offer an opportunity to discuss what has and has not changed over time. Consider these teaching ideas:

  • While many illustrations will still appeal to a current-day audience, word choice and sentence structures might challenge readers. Select one or more pages with an engaging illustration as well as text. Read it with students and then ask them: “If you were telling this story today, what would be different? What would be the same?”
  • To engage students in thinking about what books were available to children at different times, select a few from different eras – Collection Highlights offers a good starting point – and ask students to examine them and put them in chronological order. What changes do they notice in layout? In word choice?
  • Teaching the absences can be a powerful tool, whether looking at children’s books published 100 years ago or in the present day. Ask students to look at the collection as a whole to identify whose perspectives are missing from the books, and challenge them to consider why that might be.

Let us know in the comments what particular favorites your students discover.

Comments (5)

  1. I will apreciate it.

  2. It would be interesting to know which of these books taught “civic virtue” more overtly. The page you feature certainly does with, “for each did their best to do all they could do to please all the rest.”
    Are you able to point me to 5-6 texts that do this?

    • Thank you for the interesting question! I asked a colleague who has worked more extensively with the collection, and her response is below. Remember that you can find all these titles – and more! – using the collection search box

      There are several examples of civic virtue in the early American children’s literature digitized recently by the Library of Congress. Possibly the most overt is in The Juvenile National Calendar (Baltimore, 1824) which describes in verse, roles of government officials. On page 10, under Going to Congress:
      As the people can’t meet altogether you know,
      They choose from their body some few that shall go,
      And he who is anxious to help make the laws
      Works hardest and longest for public applause.

      Mansion of Happiness: an instructive moral and entertaining amusement (Salem Mass., 1843) a board game. The winner of the game is the player who gets to the center, the mansion of happiness, first. If the player lands on a vice (drunkard, Sabbath breaker, etc.) he moves back, if he lands on a virtue (charity, honesty, generosity) he moves forward and closer to the goal.

      Baby’s Own Aesop is Walter Crane’s illustrated version of many of Aesop’s tales, with their morals. Crane abbreviates the tales and tells them in verse. In this example the moral is: Strength is in unity:

      To his sons, who fell out, father spake;
      This bundle of sticks you can’t break.
      Take them singly, with ease,
      You may break as you please,
      So, dissension your strength will unmake.

      One of our more amusing 19th century picture books is Truant Bunny (New York, 1877), promoting the civic virtue of staying in school. The story, told in verse, tells of a young rabbit who is convinced to play hooky from school, steal chickens, and in the end is hanged for his offence.

  3. These are wonderful pointers to excerpts teaching civic virtue. Thank you!

    • You’re quite welcome! we’d love to hear more if you use these excerpts

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