In this issue, we will explore the rich history of children’s literature, which has given birth to generations of lifelong readers, myself included.
Growing up, my favorite book was Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Published in 1865, the beloved, fantastical tale had already been delighting children for more than a century, and now I was its latest fan. My father gave me a copy of “The Book of Knowledge,” a compendium of children’s stories, factoids, and DIY craft projects, published in the early 20th century. Included in that volume was a serialized version of Carroll’s story, along with its sequel, “Through the Looking Glass.” I can still feel the slick, yellowed pages in my hands and the musty smell that arose from the book as I flipped through its pages.
The story included all of the original illustrations from John Tenniel, so I was able to see Carroll’s characters with my own eyes. Even if the illustrations hadn’t been included, my developing imagination – only strengthened from a love of reading – could have easily brought them to life in my young mind.
That was early in elementary school. As I grew older, it became apparent that society valued children who loved reading and gave them ample opportunity to do so. My school, like countless others across the country, hosted book fairs that I looked forward to with giddiness. Those colorful, paper Scholastic book order forms allowed me to buy books from my desk (a lot of my weekly allowance went to those, actually). Pizza Hut gave you a personal pan pizza for reading a certain number of books. And, in fourth grade, my teacher kept an antique, claw-foot bathtub in the back of the classroom, the interior lined with carpet squares. If you had been an exceptionally obedient student or had gone above and beyond what was expected of you on any given week, you were rewarded with an uninterrupted 15 minutes of reading in that antique bathtub. It was the best reward you could ask for – if you were a bibliophile, that is.
As an adult, I think those of us who proclaim to love reading also follow up that statement with, “But I just don’t have the time to do it much anymore.”
Our book collections have moved from the tangible, physical realm to the Kindle app on our e-reader or tablet (OK, OK, I do still enjoy my physical books, too, and have plenty I need to get rid of in order to free up some space at home).
We’ve all heard the statistics about how reading contributes to a child’s cognitive development in his or her early years. The appeal of reading for fun, however, seems to have taken a drop in recent years. According to a November 2021 survey from the Pew Research Center, the number of children who indicated that they “read for fun on their own time almost every day” has reached its lowest number since the question was first asked in 1984. Among 13-year-olds, during the 2019-20 academic year, 17% said they read for fun almost every day, down from 27% in 2012 and 35% in 1984. The survey also found that girls were far more likely than boys to read recreationally. The reasons for those statistics, while frustrating, are better addressed in an entirely separate column.
For now, I hope you take comfort in the memories of some of the children’s books we explore in this issue in Discover Vintage America – and once again delight in the worlds built and lessons learned within the pages of some your favorite books from your childhood.