Monday, December 10, 2018

John Newbery's Little Pretty Pocket-Book

John Newbery's A Little Pretty Pocket-Book was first published in London in 1744 and is considered by many to be the first children's book (though such claims are always debatable). The full American edition of several decades later is digitized by the Library of Congress here. 

The book includes rhymes, letters of the alphabet, fables, depictions of games of the time, and lists of instructions for proper behavior in the presence of adults and other children of different ages. There is a letter of introduction from Jack the Giant Killer, the popular character from numerous English fairy tales.

Several scholars have pointed out the close connection between the Pocket-Book and children's material culture and play activities. It came with a toy that could be used as a "ball" if you were a boy or a "pincushion" if you were a girl. The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City holds what is apparently the only copy of the book complete with ball and pouch. I wonder what kids really did with this toy. Did they use it as intended? Did girls throw it like a ball? Did boys use it as instructed, to track their good behavior, or did they find other uses for it? These material questions remind us that we can think about children's literature not as a set of static texts that children simply receive, but as things with which they interact in various ways, creating new meanings in the act.

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