The Books We Got For Christmas

If an American child of the first half of the Nineteenth Century could see today’s flood of books for children, he might be delighted, but he would certainly be bewildered, for American children before 1850 had few books they could call their own. On long winter evenings they settled down to Cooper’s Leather- Lestocking Tales, or they read Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book until they knew “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” almost by heart. But these books belonged not to the child but to his father.

A few families might have imported from England one of the first translations of Grimm’s Household Tales. But much more likely on children’s own small bookshelves would be such sober hand-me-downs from parents as Milk for Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments; The New England Primer; and Noah Webster’s spelling book. And so it would be the more entertaining Tales of Peter Parley and Rollo books that children treasured as their very own.

“Peter Parley” was the name used by Samuel Goodrich, the first person in America to write books just for children. Tales of Peter Parley About America came out in 1827, followed by Tales of Peter Parley About Europe and so on, until there were about 170 small volumes. Five million copies were sold by 1850. Peter Parley’s stories were concerned with children discovering “fact and fancy” about their world. Goodrich spoke of his books as “intellectual plum pudding.” The puddings were heavily larded with moralizing, but children of that time, having little other fare, stuck in their thumbs and happily pulled out what plums of fancy there were.


The Rollo stories were more palatable. Little Rollo, a creation of Jacob Abbott’s in 1834, was the first genuine American child character. He was not a prig. He was a great noticer; he was quite human and did what his readers would like to do. And he had his faults, which his parents kindly and affectionately pointed out to him (and to the reader) in such books as Rollo Learning To Read, Rollo At Work, Rollo At Play, and many others.

Abbott had a higher regard for a child’s intelligence than many Twentieth-Century pedagogues have. In his “Notice to Parents” in Rollo Learning to Read he said, “The difficulty with most books intended for children just learning to read is, that the writers make so much effort to confine themselves to words of one syllable, that the style is quaint and uninteresting and far more unintelligible than the usual language would be.” Abbott would have been horrified at today’s Dick and Jane readers with their monosyllabic comments on a toy airplane: “Look,” said Dick. “See it go. See it go up.” Jane said, “Oh, look! See it go. See it go up.” “Up, up,” said Sally. “Go up, up, up.” No wonder today’s Johnny can’t read! He is bored from the start, in an age group where the ennui threshold is not notably high.

No one today reads either Peter Parley or Jacob Abbott. But those two men started something that is still going on—the series. Boys’ stories in endless series broke out like a flock of freckles in the last half of the Nineteenth Century. They appeared in weeklies, in paperbacks, in six-penny and dime novel forms, most of them under the imprint of Beadle & Adams or Street & Smith.

Oliver Optic was one of the most popular and prolific of the writers. He wrote about a thousand stories in magazines and newspapers and 116 books in different series of six or more each. Oliver Optic was really William Taylor Adams, a Boston schoolteacher and principal. He knew a lot about boys and what they liked. His heroes were interested in geography and natural science; they went traveling; they enlisted in the Army and Navy. They themselves were inevitably stereotyped, clean-cut young Americans, but their action-filled adventures were widely varied in such stories as those of the Boat Club series, the Blue and the Gray series, the Army and Navy series, the Starry Flag series, etc.

Another favorite list was the Gunboat, Rocky Mountain, Sportsman’s Club and Pony Express series by Henry Castlemon, whose real name was Charles Austin Fosdick. He shrewdly maintained, “Boy’s don’t like fine writing. What they want is adventure.” Henry Castlemon gave it to them in more than fifty volumes.