Judging by “Reform in Juvenile Literature,” the editor of Punchinello seems to have been taken aback by a copy of New and True Stories for Children (“All Truth—No Fiction”), published in New York City by Samuel Raynor in 1849. The result is a little skirmish in the battle between fiction and nonfiction in 19th-century American works for children.

New and True Stories for Children certainly wasn’t intended to be great literature, and Punchinello is definitely on target with its criticisms. The book appears to be a collection of twelve 8-page chapbooks bound together, each with title and page numbers intact, so the first eight pages are followed by another set of pages numbering one through eight, followed by another set of pages numbering one through eight, etc. (The book also has the usual page numbering.) Each chapbook has been written around illustrations placed at the top of each page and labeled, and the illustration of the pin-fish is, indeed, about the size of the illustration of the shark on the next page, while the pictured canoe is as long as the ship pictured the page before. Some of the chapbooks have questions at the bottom of a page or at the end of the book; here, the questions are obviously used to fill out the page, but such questions would have been a familiar feature for contemporary readers. (The questions for the hatchet story quoted here includes “Repeat the story.”) The quotes chosen for Punchinello’s display of sarcasm are drawn from “The Little Carpenter,” “Boats and Ships,” and “Wheels and Machines.”

Why go after a 20-year-old book? Because a new printing had been published in 1867. New and True Stories for Children was reprinted twice in the 1850s by Samuel Raynor and in 1860, 1862, and 1867 by Howe & Ferry, who probably purchased the plates. Though the book is a less-than-scintillating read, it was cheap to produce and made a little money for the publishers.

“Reform in Juvenile Literature” (from Punchinello 20 August 1870; p. 332)

Since the thrilling moment when Guttenburg [sic] made his celebrated discovery, numbers of persons have tried their hands—and undoubtedly their heads also—at Books for the Young. Hitherto, many of them have evinced a sad lack of judgment in respect of matter.

Would you believe it, in this highly moral and virtuous age? they have actually written stories!—stories that were not true! They haven’t seemed to care a button whether they told the truth or not! Where can they have contracted the deadly heresy that imagination, feeling, and affection, are good things, deserving encouragement? Mark the effect of these pernicious teachings! Hundred and thousands—nay, fellow mortal, millions of children,—now walk the earth, believing in fairies, giants, ogres, and such-like unreal personages, and yet unable (we blush to say it!) to tell why the globe we live on is flattened at the poles! Is it not a serious question whether children who persistently ignore what is true and important, but cherish fondly these abominable fables, may not ultimately be lost?

But, thanks to the recent growth of practical sense—or the decline of the inventive faculty—in writers for the young, a better day is dawning, and there is still some hope for the world. Men of sense and morality are coming forward: they dedicate their minds to this service—those practical minds whence will be extracted the only true pabulum for the growing intellect. It is to minds of this stamp—so truly the antipodes of all that is youthful, spontaneous, and child-like, (in a word: frivolous,) that we must look for those solid works which, in the Millennium that is coming, will perfectly supplant what may be termed, without levity, the “Cock and Bull” system of juvenile entertainment. Worldly people may consider this stuff graceful and touching, sweet and loveable; but it is nevertheless clearly mischievous, else pious and proper persons wouldn’t have said so, time and again.

For our part, we may as well confess that our sympathies go out undividedly toward that important class who are averse to Nonsense,—more particularly book-nonsense,—which they can’t stand, and won’t stand, and there’s an end of it. There is something exceedingly winning, to us, in that sturdy sense, that thirst for mathematical precision, that impatience of theory, that positive and self-reliant—we don’t mind saying, somewhat dogmatical—sir, that sternness of feature, thinness of lip, and coldness of eye, which belong to the best examples. We respect even the humbler ones; for they at least hate sentiment, they do not comprehend or approve of humor, and they never relish wit. What does a taste for these qualities indicate, but an idle and frivolous mind, devoted to trifles: and how fatal is such a taste, in the pursuit of wealth and respectability!

Fantastic people have much to say of the “affections,” the “graces and amenities of life,” “soul-culture,” and the like. We cannot too deeply deplore their fatuity, in giving prominence to such abstractions. As for children, the most we can concede is, that they have a natural—though, of course deprated—taste for stories: yes, we will say that this fondness is irrepressible. But, what we really must insist on, is, that in gratifying that fondness you give them true stories. Where is the carefully trained and upright soul that would not reject “Jack, the Giant-killer,” or “Goody Two-shoes,” if it could substitute (say, from “New and True Stories for Children,”) a tale as thrilling as this:

“When I was a boy, I said to my uncle one day, ‘How did you get your finger cut off?’ and he said, ‘I was chopping a stick one evening, and the hatchet cut off my finger.’ ”

Blessings, blessings on the man who thus embalmed this touching incident! Who does not see that the reign of fiction is over!

That the parental portion of the public may judge what the future has in store for their little ones (who, we hope, will be men and women far sooner than their ancestors were,) we present them with a fragrant nosegay (psah! we mean, a shovel-full) of samples, commending them, should they wish for more, to the nearest Sabbath-school library.

Ah, it is a touching thing, to see some great philanthropist come forward, at the call of Duty and his Publisher (perhaps also quickened by the hollow sound emitted by his treasure-box), and compress himself into the absurdly small compass of a few pages 18mo., in order to afford himself the exalted pleasure of holding simple and godly converse with children at large!

“All truth—no fiction.” What further guarantee would you have? How replete with useful matter must not a book with that assurance be! Let us read;

“The Indians cannot build a ship. They do not know how to get iron from the mines, and they do not know enough.

“Besides, they do not like to work, and like to fight better than to work.

“When they want to sail, they burn off a log of wood, and make it hollow by burning and scraping it with sharp stones.”

Now we ask, does not this satisfy your ideal of food for the youthful mind? Observe that it is simple, direct, graphic, satisfying. It cannot enfeeble the intellect. It will be useful. There is something tangible aobut it. The child at once perceives that if the Indians knew how to “get iron from the mines,” and “knew enough” in general, they would build ships, in spite of their distaste for work. There can be no doubt that this is “all truth—no fiction,” for Indians are sadly in want of ships. They like to sail; for we learn that “when they want to sail” they are so wild for it, that they even go to the length of “burning off a log of wood, and making it hollow by burning and scraping it with sharp stones.” We thus perceive the significance of the apothegm, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” The day is not far distant when children will think as much of the new literature as they formerly did of certain worm-lozenges, for which they were said to “cry.”

And where everything has been inspired by the love of Truth, even the cuts may teach something. If “a canoe,” contrary to the general impression, is at least as long as “a ship,” it is very important that children should so understand it; and if “a pin-fish” is really as big as “a shark,” no mistaken deference to the feelings of the latter should make us hesitate to say so.

No child, we are convinced, is too young to get ideas of science. In one of the model books we are pleased to find this great truth distinctly recognized:

“ ‘Is there anything like a lever about a wheelbarrow?’ said his father. ‘O yes, sir,’ said James. ‘The axle; and the wheel is the prop, the load is the weight, and the power is your hand.’ ”

This, we should say, speaks for itself.

Nor is a child ever too young to get ideas of thrift. One of our writers for infants observes, after explaining that the Dutch reclaimed the whole of Holland from the sea by means of dykes, “they worked hard, saved their money, and so grew rich.” Any child can take such hints.

Neither is it wholly amiss to demonstrate that a child can’t put a clock in his pocket. For it is plain that he would else be trying to do so sometime.

Now, where in the “Arabian Nights” do you find anything like this?—We answer, triumphantly, Nowhere!

“ ‘James,’ said his father, ‘do not shut up hot water too tight, and take care when it is over the fire.’

“ ‘A lady was boiling coffee one day, and kept the cover on the coffee-pot too long. When she took it off, the water turned to steam, and flew up in her face, and took the skin off.

“ ‘Do you know how they make the wheels of a steamboat move? They shut up water tight in a great kettle and heat it. When they open a hole which has a heavy iron bar in it, the steam lifts it, in trying to get out. That bar moves a lever, and the lever moves the wheels.

“ ‘Machines are wonderful things.’ ”

This fact the reader must distinctly realize. And doesn’t he realize that the days of Jack, the Giant-killer, and Little red Riding Hood, are about over? We want truth. The only question is, (as Festus observed), What is Truth?

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
To “Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read
Some of the children | Some of their books | Some of their magazines
To “Voices from 19th-Century America
Some works for adults, 1800-1872
To Titles at this site | Authors at this site | Subjects at this site | Works by date | Map of the site

Talk to me.