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 (http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/osborne/). 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: http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/osborne/childrens-books-history-society.jsp.