Episode 3 - Time Travel - TRANSCRIPT

EMILY:   Okay - are you ready to go.



This is The Beginning of Your Life Book Club a podcast celebrating the transformative power of children’s literature and the magic of picture books. I’m your host, Emily Akins.


In the last episode we started with one beginning - the beginning of our lives. In this episode we’ll look at the second starting point I’ve chosen for this exploration which is the beginning of American picture books as we know them.


Emily: My question is … would you like to hear about the history of the picture book?

Clara: Yes!

Julia: Well, well, I want to go … I want to make a time traveling machine and go all the way back to when um, picture books, when the first picture book was made. I would ask the person who ruled that place, who was, like, in charge of that place, who wrote, who was in progress of writing the first picture book or who had written the first picture book. I would ask “What inspired you to mix pictures and words and collaborate them into a bunch of papers together.” And then I would, I would be writing down the whole time and I would get back in my time machine and go home and tell everyone, all my friends and all my family members - evvvvvvvvvveryone what how the first picture book was made.

Time Travel. That’s another way that books are magic. The way that reading transports us to a different place and sometimes to a different time. For our time machine today, I have two books in particular that will serve as dual engines. They are Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard S. Marcus and Free Within Ourselves by Rudine Sims Bishop. I’ll link to both of those in the show notes.

Now, as you’re settling into our time machine and buckling your seatbelt, let me just situate us a little bit in time. I need to point out that prior to the starting point I’m using here, there were, of course, people already inhabiting the land that we currently call the United States and those people were telling one another stories and raising their children. And before the US got its tumultuous start over on this side of the Atlantic there were centuries of people telling stories and raising kids on both sides of the Atlantic - indeed worldwide.

But for this project we’re going to follow a timeline that coincides with the development of the United States and I’m going to zero in on picture books.

Emily: Clara, what do you have to say about the history of picture books?

Clara: I love picture books so much.

Julia: That did not answer any questions.

Emily: It didn’t but I like that statement because I agree.

Chatter and giggle

Emily: Do you have anything else you’d like to say about the history of the picture book?

Clara: Well, I wish I could know the person who made the first picture book.

Emily: What would you ask the person who made the first picture book?

Clara: Well, I would ask how did you come up with it.

Okay - are you ready to go.

(time travel noise)

If we hop all the way back to the moment in time when the US was in its own infancy - was its own new born baby of sorts, just shortly after the Mayflower arrived, we’ll find pretty good literacy rates among the European settlers. Puritan families taught their 4 and 5 year olds how to read. Laws in the 1640s mandated literacy support.

Then, just before 1700, an English bookseller and publisher named Benjamin Harris produced, in Boston, the first children’s book of American origin - it was called The New-England Primer and from its humble beginnings (with no copyright protection, by the way) at the turn of that century it went on to sell between 6 and 8 million copies well beyond the turn of the next century.


Primer. (short i)  Primer. (long i)

That’s a funny word, isn’t it? If you’ve painted anything or know anything about makeup, you know that a PRIMER (long i) is a preparatory coat of something that “primes” or makes ready a raw surface. Now, it’s the second definition - pronounced PRIMER (short i) that is defined as “an elementary textbook” - something that introduces a subject of study or is used for teaching children to read.

But I can’t help but hear the echoes of that first definition of PRIMER as I’m comparing and contrasting educational styles of long ago with methods of today. If you’ll just bear with me a moment as I engage in some gross oversimplification, … maybe the PRIMER (short i) was meant to smooth over the rough and raw and unrefined surface of childhood to make children ready for some polish or sheen or refinement. Rather than allowing for, appreciating, or respecting a child’s rough hewn perspective or naivete.


Okay, so The New England Primer may have been the first children’s book in the US, but it wasn’t really what we’d consider a picture book.

Let’s hop ahead a bit and stop off in 1744 when John Newbery (yes - that Newbery - like the award) published A Little Pretty Pocket-Book first in England and then in the US in 1762.

(time travel noise)

This book - according to Leonard Marcus, in Minders of Make Believe - served “to define the terms of a new literary genre.” Newbery was remarkable for mixing entertainment and instruction in his books. “Instruction with Delight” he called it. Newbery was drawing on the ideas of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke who suggested that children learn better through play.  But prior to this shift, instruction and delight were complete opposites in children’s books.

Emily: This book is … it was published first in 1744 and again in 1762. And it’s the first time that somebody thought, Hey, we should make books for kids that are fun. Look at this. This is a picture of the book. That’s what the cover looked like. Isn’t that exciting?

Julia: nuh-uh!

Clara: That looks so weird.

Emily: Don’t you want to read that book?

Julia: nuh-uh.

Clara: No I just want to feel it.

Emily: I do want to feel it. It looks like it feels really good. Here we go, here we go. Can you tell what that says?

Julia and Clara: Infruction with delight.

Emily: Very close. This was a time when the esses looked like effs. So it actually says instruction with delight. This is the name of the book. Look how long that name is. You want to read it?

Clara: A Little Pretty Pocket Book … I can’t read it.

Emily: “... intended for the instruction and amusement of little master Tommy, and pretty miss Polly. With two letters from Jack the Giant-Killer; as also a ball and pincushion; the ufe of which will infallibly make Tommy a good boy, and Polly a good Girl. To which is added, a little song-book being a new attempt to teach children the ufe of the Englifh alphabet, by way of diversion.”

Diversion just means fun.

Clara: That is a really long title.

Emily: Isn’t that crazy? Those are the pictures. Look at that. Isn’t that pretty?

Clara: I just want to go back in time.

Julia: I think it’s kind of boring. I don’t really want to read more of it.

Even though A Little Pretty Pocket-Book looks NOTHING like picture books of today, this whole “instruction with delight” seems to have guided the genre from that point on. And Newbery was the first to hire artists, well, engravers, to illustrate children’s books. By 1820, the notion that children responded best to books with pictures was widely accepted and this idea encouraged the inclusion of some type of “embellishment” to brighten up most children’s books published from then on.

Oh, one more thing - A Little Pretty Pocket-Book came with either a ball for boys or a pincushion for girls. You may remember that next time you’re shopping your Scholastic book fair and noticing how many books come with things. Things that I call “losables” because whatever “thing” comes attached to a book in our house tends to get lost.

(time travel noise)

Randolph Caldecott plays a part here too, since he was an illustrator and the award that bears his name is an award for picture books. Caldecott, like Newbery, was British - but both awards are distinctly American institutions. The Caldecott Award began in 1938, a good 50 years after he died. Caldecott’s capacity for both formal illustration and casual sketches as well as his penchant for simplicity, animation, and humor set his picture books apart from his predecessors. As Leonard Marcus writes “any number of others could produce a drawing of a horse that looked precisely like a horse. But Caldecott alone knew how to make the horse gallop.” When he published The Diverting History of John Gilpin in 1878, the way he combined pictures and words to tell a story was a significant shift.

Emily:   This guy right here. What does that say?

Julia:    Randolph Cal-duh-cott.

Emily:   Caldecott. He’s the one who started drawing for childrens books the way we understand picture books now today.

Clara: Mommy,

Emily: And I’m going to show you his book that was kind of a break through.

Clara: This is the story of Pinocchio

Emily: This ... He did … he drew all the illustrations for a book called The Diverting HIstory of John Gilpin.

Clara: I can’t imagine that book being fun.

Emily: I know; it doesn’t look very fun does it. What about this one? Does this one look more fun?

Julia: No?

Emily: No? Look? That guy? You don’t think that guys looks fun?

Julia: He looks weird and creepy.

Emily:   John Gilpin?

Julia: And bald.

Emily: Well he does look bald. That’s because he is bald.

Around the time that Caldecott was making horses gallop in England, there were a few more interesting milestones in the US that are foundational to the world of kidlit today. And these, you might note, are all women.

(time travel noise)

First we’ll head to 1887 when Minerva Sanders of Pawtucket, Rhode Island set aside a corner of her reading room for children. The majority view prior to this was that - and I love the way Leonard Marcus puts it “children were noisy nuisances better left to their own, their parents’ or their teachers’ devices.”

Folks thought Minerva Sanders quite the radical. But not for long. 3 years later, Brookline, Massachusetts opened the nation’s first children's reading room. By the end of that century, the tide had turned and the American Library Association decided in favor of ministering to children. By 1906 the New York Public Library hired its first director of work with children: Anne Carroll Moore.

And now bump ahead in our time machine to 1919 which marks the first year of the national Children’s Book Week.

(time travel noise)

The event’s slogan was “More Books in the Home!” and encouraged an earlier start to reading. Clara Whitehill Hunt of the Brooklyn Public Library published a book in 1915 called What Shall We Read to the Children? in which she encouraged parents to start reading early and to start at home

What Shall We Read to the Children? I love that that’s a question we still ask today. Both at an individual and an institutional level.

Oh, one other first that I almost forgot - Louise Seaman Bechtel. She was hired in 1919 to lead Macmillan’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls - the first department of its kind in the US. Thus Louise Seaman Bechtel was the first person to head a department of children’s literature at an American publishing house.

(time travel noise)

It was just 5 years later, in 1924, when the first edition of The Horn Book was issued. This publication, as many of you surely know, is a magazine about literature for children and young adults.

Now, I have to pause and tell you this story quickly. I have been on this journey for a few months now - have read multiple issues The Horn Book. BUT, I have only just now figured out what a hornbook is and it’s fascinating. Most broadly a hornbook was a book that served as a primer for study. It originated in England as far back as 1450. A hornbook would contain the alphabet and numbers as well as like the Lord’s Prayer and “in the name of the father, the son and the Holy Ghost.” Stuff like that. But it was called a hornbook because it was a sheet either attached to a slice of horn or it was a page covered in a thin sheet of transparent horn or something called mica. Now - how a “thin sheet of transparent horn” was achieved or what exactly mica is is beyond me and beyond the scope of this podcast. And besides we have to get back in our time machine.

(page turn sound)

I have several more stories to tell you from the first half of the 20th century - interesting things about Margaret Wise Brown and Lucy Sprague Mitchell. Stuff like how Robert McCloskey got the ducklings in his studio drunk so he could draw them for Make Way for Ducklings. But I’m going to come back to those.

Right now I’m going to zoom through the 1930s, 40s, and 50s and I’m going to introduce a different metaphor for books and reading ...and I’m going to introduce you to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop.

Dr Bishop is an influential scholar of children’s literature and I suspect that many of you are already familiar with her work. Dr Bishop is an emerita professor at The Ohio State University and has written extensively on African Americans in Children’s Literature. It is from her 2007 book Free Within Ourselves where we will pick up our history tour.

(time travel noise)

In the decades prior to this time - or I should say, in the century after slaves were emancipated, a body of African American literature began to emerge out of black people’s struggle for liberation, literacy and survival.

As early as the 1930s, some were acknowledging that black children were readers and that their needs were not being met in the children’s literature available at the time. What little representation of African Americans there was available to children was a series of inaccurate and unfavorable stereotypes perpetuated by white authors who were - as Dr Bishop states in her book, “unwilling or unable to transcend the prevalent racist or at best paternalistic attitudes of the day.”

In 1932, both the poet Langston Hughes and librarian Ruth Theobald expressed a need for literature in which black children would be able to identify themselves. Hughes wrote “Faced too often by the segregation and scorn of a surrounding white World, America's negro children are in pressing need of books that will give them back their own Souls. They do not know the beauty they possess.”

Throughout the 40s there was a movement to increase what was called “intercultural” education. Children’s books were thought to be very promising tools for changing attitudes towards black people. New children’s books began to depict black children and families in more human ways and as a more integrated part of American society.

Despite these initial strides and progress, a few decades later we still had what Nancy Larrick called “the All White World of Children’s Books” which was the name of her influential article published in 1965.

And in fact we are still dealing with a very white world in kidlit, which we’ll talk about more later in the podcast.

(page turn noise)

Even if you aren’t familiar with Dr Rudine Sims Bishop - I wonder if you’re familiar with her famous Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors - an immensely powerful and evocative metaphor introduced by Dr. Bishop in 1990.

She wrote “Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

I asked Dr Bishop - over a bit of a crackly phone line - if in 1990 she had had any idea how influential her work would be.

Rudine Sims Bishop: None. I was surprised when people started asking me about it and you know I would get an email saying where can I find the original and that sort of thing and no, I mean I think the editor of it appeared in a publication called Perspectives. I think the editor at the time with someone with whom I’d gone to graduate school at Wayne State University and uh, and I think he asked me to write a piece and I said okay. And came out with one and that, you know, I expected that would be the end of it.

(time travel noise)

This is the point in our time travel journey where we head back home to 2018. As we do, let’s think of how the mirrors and windows metaphor has endured. I believe it is so powerful because it provides such a helpful framework for understanding so clearly and quickly how books function and how important it is that they function that way for everyone. I also think the mirrors and windows idea speaks to a more nuanced understanding of diversity.  

Rudine Sims Bishop: Well, yeah, that's one of the most important things about this whole business of diversity. Otherwise you just build stereotypes,

Emily: mm-hmm.

Dr Bishop: So you know that African Americans, range, say economically from the very wealthy to the very poor, but if all the stories are about poor inner city kids, than that, that's the vision, that's the image of African America within, within that body of literature. So it becomes important to, um, to show the full range of humanity that exists within any one group.

Emily: mm-hmm.

Now that we’re back in 2018 and as you unbuckle your time travel machine seat belt, I want to acknowledge that there’s a lot that’s missing from these first few bits that I have plucked from the history of American kid lit - some of which I’ll fill in as we go along. But I do want to point out one thing in particular that is missing and that is that sense of magic we’ve been talking about.

But even without using the idea of “magic,” per se, I still sense the importance and significance and power of children’s books throughout history. And I can see how the innovations and the institutions of the past are continuing to inform us today.

And as powerful as my time travel machine is, one episode of a podcast doesn’t give us quite enough room to fully summarize how an entire genre got from books like “ The New England Primer” to modern texts like “Everyone Poops.” Even so, I do think it’s important to at least attempt to understand where we came from before we can figure out where we’re going.


The Beginning of Your Life Book Club is written and produced by me, Emily Akins with original music by Sergio Moreno.

This podcast is made possible by the creative division at Hallmark Cards, where we believe that when you care enough, you can change the world.

Special thanks today to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop and of course, Julia and Clara.

And thanks to you, too, for listening.

Follow me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and on my website - TheBeginningofYourLifeBookClub.com.


Audrey:   My name is Audrey and I’m 7 years old.

Julia:   What is your favorite book?

Audrey: The Rebel Girls.

Julia: What’s your favorite thing about reading?

Audrey: It’s something that I like doing when I’m bored.

Julia: Do you like reading alone or with someone?

Audrey: Alone.

Julia: If you could be any character in a book what would you be?

Audrey: Um … I don’t know right now. I can’t think of one.

Julia:     What’s your favorite time of day to read?

Audrey: Probably all the time.

(chime sound)

Emily AkinsComment