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What's Up Magazine

Picture Books Create a Childhood State of Mind

Nov 09, 2010 08:35PM ● By Anonymous


Children are often cavalier with their treasures, seeking to enhance illustrations with their own pens and crayons. They fold back pages. They spill milk and juice as they turn pages, and bits of cookies and crackers are ground into the folds of a book’s spine. It’s hard to find children’s books in excellent condition. If the books were loved they were used. If they were used they have some kind of damage. To keep costs down, many lovely children’s books were printed on low-grade paper that has a high concentration of wood pulp. Such paper is highly acidic and turns yellow with age. Over time, pages made from it begin to literally crumble.

To reduce costs, some children’s books were printed on low-grade paper that has a high concentration of wood pulp. Such paper is highly acidic and turns yellow with age.

The earliest books that children desired were not meant for children, they were adventure books published for adults. But Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, published in 1485, and the Tales of Robin Hood, published in 1450, were certainly stories to which children could relate.  According to most historians the first picture book specifically for children was published in 1658. It was written and illustrated by Jan Amos Komensky in Czechoslovakia. Its title translates to The Visible World in Pictures . During this same period the French author Charles Perrault started to collect and transcribe fairy tales, including the classics Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Tales of Mother Goose was published in 1697. In its frontispiece, it described itself as “Stories or Tales from Olden Times.” This concept of nursery rhymes being told by a goose continued a tradition of many children’s stories and poems that featured animals alongside people. Often the ideas for the nursery rhymes were taken from chants, popular drinking songs, and bits of stories that were familiar to the adults who were minding the children. For example, according to legend the rhyme about Little Jack Horner,  who sat in a corner eating his Christmas pie and pulled out a plum, was a rhyme telling the tale of how Thomas Horner secured a plum of an estate for himself during the reign of Henry VIII. And the first line of “Diddle diddle dumpling/My son John/Went to bed with his trousers on,” was the cry of street vendors selling hot dumplings.

In 1744 one of the first collections of Mother Goose rhymes was published in England. Called Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, it contained 38 ditties illustrated with simple woodcuts. A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, Intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly with Two Letters from Jack the Giant Killer is the title of a 1744 children’s book by John Newbery. Generally considered the first book written for children, it consists of simple rhymes for each of the letters of the alphabet. Part of the basis for considering it the first is that the Mother Goose rhymes were actually recited to amuse adults. The Newbery book was written and marketed specifically for children. To further intrigue youngsters, Newbery’s book came with either a ball or a pincushion, depending on the gender of the child. His book was very popular and earned Newbery much fame. Eventually the Newbery Medal, awarded for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” dating backto the 1920s, was named in his honor.

Early children’s books were fairly plain. They were illustrated with wood engravings in black and white.  Books were hand painted when color was desired. All this changed with the introduction of color into the printing process toward the end of the 18th century.  By the 1860s color printing using a technique called chromolithography was widely popular. It used multiple stones or plates to add different shades of oil-based paints to an image. Chromolithography was used to publish vivid greeting and calling cards in addition to colorful picture books for children.

Circa 1920, these colorful, softbound books feature animals as their main characters.

Another technique, offset printing, which was developed in the 1920s, made more creative design of illustrated books possible.  In offset printing, as its name implies, ink is spread on a metal plate etched with images, then transferred to an intermediary surface such as a rubber blanket, and finally applied to paper by pressing the paper against the intermediary surface. Images placed independently on the page allow the designer to exercise more variation in the way pictures and text are placed and the result is a more cohesive relationship between illustration and text.
Many handsome children’s books were designed and published during the early and mid 20th century. Children’s books were cut into a variety of shapes, sometimes mimicking an animal or a building. Books were sold with magic pens to open secret panels or with special glasses for viewing them. This was before the age of video games and computers. Books were youngsters’ primary indoor form of entertainment. Some books made sounds, some had various textures, and some had three-dimensional components that popped up when the book was opened.

Many of these special books are the ones collectors look for. If you have inherited or kept or you collect any kind of old books, be certain to keep them in a dry, well-ventilated location. Fragile books should be handled with cotton gloves and touched as little as possible. The surviving illustrated pages of children’s books that have already been severely damaged can be safely preserved and enjoyed, by mounting them on acid free mounting paper and placing them under glass.
For more reading about collecting children’s picture books I recommend Encyclopedia of Collectible Children’s Books: Identification and Values by Diane McClure Jones and Rosemary Jones, published by Collector Books.