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  • Artistic Awareness in Early Children's Books*
  • Justin G. Schiller (bio)

When Lewis Carroll first composed his search for the White Rabbit, he did so not merely as a whimsical bit of nonsense prepared by an Oxford mathematics lecturer but with an apparent understanding of the type of books needed by children and with a sharp eye toward criticizing works then currently available. The story opens:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

And although there have been many illustrators who have since attempted to interpret the characters of Alice in Wonderland, the original designs by John Tenniel are as much a part of the story's enjoyment today as they were more than one hundred years ago. How many other nursery classics have made text and artistry inseparable to the minds of generations of readers? L. Frank Baum's, Wonderful Wizard of Oz has never had better illustrations than the originals of W.W. Denslow; and how many thousands upon thousands of people have enjoyed the drawings of George Cruikshank to the Household Stories of the Brothers Grimm? To deny their majesty of design as a rationale for publishing a more up-dated version (as some might call it) would be like depriving the adventures of Peter Rabbit and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle of Beatrix Potter's watercolors. They have merged and become so essentially part of the story that we could never fully accept any new set of illustrations.

Thus we accept the reliance upon art in children's books, and note that the dependency encourages the child's imaginative faculty and at the same time commits the reader to the story. But there are other ways to attract interest in a book. What about the placement of pictures in relation to the printed text? Or a particular typography, whether novel or simply legible? The material and design of the binding might even suggest what treats are in store behind the covers, this being especially important in the days when books were not issued with printed paper wrappers or dust-jackets as we know them today.

The overall production and concept of design in children's books are matters of great importance, and the Children's Book Council of New York must be praised for bringing this awareness to public attention. This is one of the chief motives for the annual Children's Book Showcase, and it seems so natural a concern that we can easily lose sight of its difficult evolution during the past three centuries. There were many social attitudes which greatly inhibited the maturation of juvenile literature, but a number of pioneer authors and publishers constantly challenged obstacles to produce a better product. In the survey that follows, I shall examine several forms of design and [End Page 177] trace their development to the late nineteenth century when specific improvements crystalized in the artistry of Walter Crane.

We can trace the origin of books designed specifically for children roughly to the second half of the seventeenth century, when numerous works on the need for "Youthful Piety" were published, generally bound in dark brown or black leather to convey an added authority and sternness. These books, modelled after John Foxe's Acts And Monuments (commonly known even in Elizabethan times as "The Book of Martyrs"), recorded in endless procession the pious lives—and even more pious deaths—of young children. Despite the serious subject-matter of these martyrologies, most of the early volumes have very soft and unpresuming titles—like James Janeway's Token for Children (1671), or the small collection of emblematic and biblical verses written by the author of Pilgrim's Progress and originally published in 1686 as A Book For Boys And Girls: Or, Country Rhymes For Children. The text pages were very crowded with warnings against damnation, the type-size was quite small. These books rarely had illustrations; when they did carry pictures...


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