A new look at old books

Since I have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, my husband is also, and our sons take after us, Children’s Book Week seems somewhat unnecessary in our family. What would make us read books more than we already do? Still, books and children being two of my big interests, I couldn’t help but take notice when an email from amazon.com let me know it was Children’s Book Week.

So I followed the link before deleting the email, but I was disappointed to find nothing about it at amazon.com except links to children’s books to buy. I suppose that’s to be expected from an online bookstore, but I was looking for something more. So I went googled the phrase, and found the official site of Children’s Book Week. I found a bookmark I could download and print if I had some cardstock, which I don’t.

More interesting was a page of story starters, so I printed out the one started by Jon Scieszka (whose book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs is a family favorite here). I was going to work on it with my son, whose career goal this week is to be a writer (he was one of a select number of students from his elementary school invited to a Writers Workshop, held day before yesterday). But I was brimming with ideas and started writing. Scieszka called it “And Then…” but my version is more like “The Egg from Outer Space.” Maybe I’ll post it when I finish it.

Scholastic.com had more suggestions of how to celebrate the week. (One is amnesty for overdue library books – so that’s where our local library got the idea! They also offer free replacement of lost library cards this week, though when I tried to take advantage of it for my son’s card, it turned out it had been lost at the library, and they had simply filed it away for him.)

They also have a whole section of resources for parents, which will take me some time to explore, but I hope to find some good ideas on broadening my son’s reading interests beyong Animorphs, Goosebumps, Garfield, Pokemon, and Magic School Bus. (He reads lots of stuff at school, but at home he mostly reads and rereads those.)

What I was more interested in, that took me longer to find, was about older children’s books. It seems that for most of my life I’ve heard about how children used to read more advanced books than they read today, but I had little idea what those were. And even when I learned of specific examples, I generally hadn’t read them myself and knew nothing of them but their titles. Homeschooling catalogs generally list a lot of them, but I wasn’t eager to just start buying them based on a blurb in a catalog.

Tonight I finally found a treasure trove. The Baldwin Online Children’s Literature Project has the full text of a large number of children’s books from about 1880 to 1922. Because these books are in the public domain, individuals may download and print these for personal and educational use. A few of these I am already familiar with, particularly books by Howard Pyle and Thornton Burgess. Some I read as a child, such as Thomas Bullfinch’s Age of Chivalry, but I struggled to get through them and didn’t think of them as children’s literature.

Most of them I’ve never heard of. A lot of them are history rather than fiction, which I suppose still counts as children’s literature if it was written for children to read, but isn’t what I generally think of under that heading. It’s hard to see how In the Days of Alfred the Great or War Inventions and How they were Invented could be as appealing to a child as Harry Potter – though they do sound interesting to me.

The site is well organized, with pages to look up books by author, title, or genre, as well as guides to selecting books on history or world civilizations. There are books of fables and fairy tales, stories from the Bible and stories of saints, biographies and science books (though science is one of the smaller categories). I’m not sure exactly how I’ll use this, but it’s a wonderful resource to have found.

8 Responses to A new look at old books

  1. renaissanceguy says:

    Pauline, I have given you a Kreativ Blogger Award:

    http://renaissanceguy.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/kreativ-bloggers/

    I do appreciate your creativity and the variety on your blog.

  2. tammie says:

    🙂 i love GA Henty, as well as George MacDonald’s fairy tales. there is a book called Rolf and the Viking Bow which was riveting. unfortunately, i lost that one loaning it out.

    i started Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities at the age of nine, and my daughter read Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors and Hugo’s Les Miserables at the age of ten. so personally, i wouldn’t restrict my choices to “children’s” literature.

  3. tammie says:

    i talked to my daughter, and Les Miserables was a movie we watched when she was young, the book didn’t come until later. but she got addicted to Jane Austen when she was 12. 🙂

  4. Pauline says:

    I didn’t read A Tale of Two Cities until I was in 9th grade, and I liked it very much. I’m not sure if I ever read Jane Austen, though I’ve been told I would like Pride and Prejudice, so I really ought to read it someday. I’ve also heard that Les Miserables is good, so it’s on my list to read someday. I tried to read The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but it was slow going, and the book is pretty long, and I had to return it to the library long before it was due.

    There were “classic” books I enjoyed as a child, especially by Mark Twain. I found parts of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Prince and the Pauper upsetting (they did some pretty nasty things to people back then), but otherwise I enjoyed them.

    On the other hand, I tried to read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and it was so terribly boring that I gave up on it, the first time I had ever done that. And I have had no inclination to try again as an adult.

  5. renaissanceguy says:

    I think it is interesting what people used to consider appropriate books for children. Obviously there would only have been a few children capable of reading and understanding them, much less enjoying them. There were exceptions, staring in the late 18th Century.

    Until fairly recently only a few children could read, and only a few families could afford to buy books.

    With the advent of public education and cheaper printing, pulishers were more keen on publishing books that actually appealed to children. There was also a shift in thinking about children–from viewing them as little adults to understanding their mental and emotional development better.

    • Peter L says:

      Adding to what renaissanceguy said: I believe that one reason old books for children seem too difficult for them in our view, may be that before electronic entertainment (radio, TV, computers) many families spent evenings listening to someone, an adult or older child, read a novel or serial story from the newspaper.

  6. tammie says:

    i’ve never been able to get into Vanity Fair or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

    but i have thought of a couple more boy book series that your son may like.

    of course, the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis are very accessible to a bright 10 year old. i would also recommend the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander.

  7. Pauline says:

    I loved both of those, Tammie. With summer vacation coming up, he’ll have lots of time to read, and he knows he’ll get bored without enough stuff to keep him busy. Maybe we can come up with some kind of reading list for him – not that he wouldn’t read anyway, but that would focus his attention on books he might not read otherwise.

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