Thursday, June 22, 2006

On Samuel Johnson, John Newbery and Children's Literature

...Dr. Johnson first learned to read of his mother and her old maid Catharine, in whose lap he well remembered sitting while she explained to him the story of St. George and the Dragon. I know not whether this is the proper place to add that such was his tenderness, and such his gratitude, that he took a journey to Lichfield fifty-seven years afterwards to support and comfort her in her last illness; he had inquired for his nurse, and she was dead.

The recollection of such reading as had delighted him in his infancy made him always persist in fancying that it was the only reading which could please an infant; and he used to condemn me for putting Newbery's books [see my note below] into their hands as too trifling to engage their attention.

"Babies do not want," said he, "to hear about babies; they like to be told of giants and castles, and of somewhat which can stretch and stimulate their little minds."

When in answer I would urge the numerous editions and quick sale of "Tommy Prudent" or "Goody Two-Shoes." "Remember always," said he, "that the parents BUY the books, and that the children never read them..."

(Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson by Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741-1821))

* Note -- John Newbery, whose name has graced the award for Best Children's Book in the U.S. since 1921, was a famous publisher (and probably writer) of "edifying" children's books in the London of the late-18th Century. Oliver Goldsmith called Newbery “the philanthropic publisher of St Paul’s Churchyard,” this being the site of his book stalls. But Newbery was more than a book peddler --he made literature that was geared specifically to children an important part of the whole publishing business.

Among his most famous titles were Goody Two Shoes and The Renowned History of Giles Gingerbread. But others included: The Easter Gift; or The Way to be Good; The Whitsuntide Gift: or The Way to be Happy; and The Valentine Gift: or How to Behave with Honour, Integrity, and Humanity (which Mr. newbery described as being "very useful with a Trading Nation.")