Book Excerpt

(Children's books).


New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press & The British Library, 2006. 9 x 12 inches. hardcover, dust jacket. 320 pages. When was it that someone decided that books might be written and published for child readers? It's fair to say that some kinds of text-alphabets, fables, the Lord's Prayer, may have been seen as fundamental to the process of learning to read from the beginning of book making, but when did children come to be..... READ MORE

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EARLY in 1989 Paul Needham, at that time Astor Curator of Printed Books and Bindings at the Morgan Library, and Felix de Marez Oyens, at that time president of the antiquarian bookselling firm Lathrop C. Harper, put forward to me the idea of a large-scale exhibition of children's books that would emphasize the depth of the Library's holdings. As they well knew, and as is outlined in the following Introduction, this would be by no means the first such exhibition, but in this instance the intention would be not to "show-case" the treasures of the collection, but to show them in context, noting social, cultural and commercial factors that can explain how they were created and how they became works of great consequence.

As it happens, thanks to the generosity of many donors, and especially the magnificent gifts from the late Elisabeth Ball, the I.ibrary has notable holdings of children's books from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that provide just such a background. Many of them have never been fully described before, and I was therefore very happy to see the project go ahead and very curious to see what would materialize.

The exhibition was planned to take place around the holiday period at the end of1990 and work on it began at the start of that year. Felix Oyens and I had asked Brian Alderson to join the team, a person who had been involved in work with both historic books, as founder of the Children's Books History Society, and modern ones, as Children's Books Editor of the London Times. He and Felix commenced an assessment of the Morgan holdings in January 1990, but they were not able to carry out the plans of collaborating with Paul Needham, who left the Library in that year to become Director of the Books and Manuscripts Department at Sotheby's, New York.

The assembly of material for the exhibition, and the shaping of it into a coherent history of the development of children's book publishing in Britain down to the 1850s, proved an extensive task. The two curators read and annotated much of the relevant material in the Library, preparing both their exhibition notes and the copy for a substantial catalogue as they went along. In the event, however, the catalogue proved to be a work of such detail that time forbade its production within the exhibition deadlines. We did, however, recognize its manifest value as an unusually subtle analysis of the role of the British book trade in creating and exploiting the market for children's books. It is thus with great pleasure that I welcome its appearance in print in a new guise as a study of its subject, independent of, but clearly mirroring the exhibition that was its raison d'€tre.

In the period between the exhibition and this publication, the Library's holdings of children's books have grown dramatically through the efforts of its curators and the generosity of its friends and patrons. During her long career as a Fellow and Trustee of the Library, Julia P. Wightman took a special interest in this collection and greatly enlarged it with gifts in 1991 and a bequest in 1994. Also a Fellow and Trustee, Elizabeth M. Riley bequeathed in 2003 a handsome sum for acquisitions in this field. Other donors have helped with financial support and gifts in kind. As a result, the Library is much stronger in games, harlequinades, and peepshows than one might think on the basis of Chapter 10. It now has the first English version of "Beauty and the Beast" published in 1759 (see item 51) and one of the first miniature libraries, The Bookcase of Instruction and Delight (London, 1802), no less ingeniously designed and elegantly furnished than the two examples we borrowed for this occasion (items 163 and 165). But we have resisted the temptation to make any substitutions or additions: this catalogue reflects the Library's holdings at the time of the exhibition although the authors have revised and elaborated some of their findings in the light of recent scholarship, including some of their own latest discoveries.

This catalogue is a collaborative effort in more ways than one. The authors have worked closely with the Library's curators, photographers, reading room staff, and publications department to complete the text and organize the illustrations. The Bibliographical Society of America expressed interest in this project at the very beginning and provided invaluable assistance at the end. With the Society's support we have been able to present a bibliographical analysis of children's books of unprecedented sophistication and perspicuity. We have entrusted the design and production of this volume to The British Library, which has already published a number of fine books on related themes, also touching on the origins and development of children's literature in England. By joining forces in this way, we hope to produce more than just a record of an exhibition but rather a copiously illustrated documentary history of these innovative publications, like them combining entertainment and instruction so as to be fully worthy of the title Be Merry and Wise.

Director, The Pierpont Morgan Library