Monday, 3 June 2013

How reading has fashioned readers: rethinking the past

  by Kim Reynolds
Recently I spent a day with a group of historians of children’s books listening to papers about how the children’s book business developed. Not for the first time in the last two years I was struck by how many long-standing ideas about the origins and developments of publishing for children are being challenged and what this tells us about attitudes to reading, reading practices and images of readers. A good example of the kinds of changes to established histories I have in mind was provided by Jill Shefrin, an independent Canadian historian who used to be based in the wonderful Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books in Toronto ( For the last decade Jill has been working on what she calls children’s pastimes and education aids – printed materials associated with reading, but not books. This has opened up several very productive lines of enquiry into how children in the past learned to read, what they read, and how reading, play and education interacted at different times that call into question the traditional view that the children’s literature business began in 1744 with publishers such as John Newbery.

She offered examples of print culture in the early 1600s that have all the hallmarks of much later commercially produced material, though her examples were not in book form. As our knowledge about the history of children’s reading evolves our ideas about how children thought of themselves and were figured as readers are changing too. Other speakers also offered new food for thought. Andrea Immel of Princeton showed that, at least in the case of John Newbery, there was much less in the way of recycling of illustrations than has usually been assumed, while Nigel Tattersfield showed how what was available to children varied considerably – and surprisingly in the case of pirated editions – according to where they lived. This regional dimension seems well worth pursuing for insights into relationships between reading and readers. The event was organised by the Children’s Books History Society, a fabulous organisation for those interested in the history of children’s books. The newsletter alone is worth the modest membership fee. There is no UK website but details can be found at:
It’s not just the distant past that is being revised. One of the most interesting representations of children as readers that I’ve been writing about for my own current research is a magazine produced by radicalised teenagers at public schools in the 1930s. Called Out of Bounds: Against Reaction in the Public Schools, it was edited by by Giles (1916-1917) and Esmond Romilly (1918-1947), nephews of Winston Churchill. Both were pupils at Wellington before Esmond was expelled. The magazine became a cause célèbre; not least because by the second number, upwards of 3,000 copies were being printed and distributed.
 image © National Portrait Gallery, London.

The four numbers of this magazine are valuable for this project because they preserve the voices of actual young people, though admittedly only of an elite, male-dominated group rather than a cross section of the school population (there was one girl on the editorial board). Of particular interest to a consideration of how young people used reading to develop their thinking and fashion an image of themselves are the book reviews. These show what this group of young people was choosing to read, why, and what they thought of it. The reviews reveal that their reading was eclectic, but tended to favour information books sold by left-wing publishing houses. Works reviewed included titles such as Memoirs of the Unemployed, Progressive Schools, The Menace of Fascism, a Young Communist League pamphlet called Ten Points Against Fascism, and Geoffrey Trease’s Bows Against the Barons, a retelling of the Robin Hood legend as a left-wing novel for children.

The young reviewers for Out of Bounds tended to make no distinction between books for adults and children, and they were equally pleased to read information books and fiction. In every case they wrote seriously about the arguments being made, how these related to their own, privileged experience, and how they understood the need to transform society. The magazine and the activities surrounding its production and distribution provided a master class in how young people saw readings as a way of shaping identity in inter-war Britain.

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