Immersing myself in the children’s books of a hundred years ago has become one of my favorite holiday traditions, and it’s one that I especially appreciate during a season when many of our more extroverted traditions have to be set aside.
For my third annual children’s books holiday shopping guide (the previous ones are here and here), I turned first, as always, to pioneering children’s librarian and The Bookman columnist Annie Carroll Moore.
Who totally let me down. Her November 1921 holiday roundup starts out as a foray into incomprehensible whimsicality that seems to have something to do with an imaginary trip to France and England. Example: “Put a paper cover on John Farrar’s ‘Songs for Parents’ and paste up the title-page until you get to ‘Fairy London,’ then ask Rose Fyleman to give new titles to some of its enchanting verses and to the book itself while she autographs your last year’s copy of her ‘Fairies and Chimneys.’”
Moore, it transpires, actually made a trip to Europe. “I came back too late to do full justice to our own output of children’s books,” she tells us blithely, before rushing through the entire American national output, much of which she has not had time to read, on the last page. YOU HAD ONE JOB, ANNIE!**
Luckily, I had other help. Publishers Weekly’s November 5 Christmas Bookshelf issue included an encyclopedic children’s book roundup, penned by an uncredited writer whose task of reading through dozens of children’s books had left him (or her, but it sounds like a him) entertainingly grumpy.*** The Survey magazine, which was published by the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York but is way more interesting than that makes it sound, ran an article called “The Season’s Books for Children” that includes some charity-ish selections like “a group of health rhymes and jingles written by the children of Public School Fifteen in New York,” but others that looked promising. One, which wasn’t reviewed anywhere else, turned out to be my Children’s Book of the Year. I recommend that you check it out if you’re otherwise just scrolling through and looking at the artwork (which is fine! You’re a busy person!).
Also, the Newbery Medal for excellence in children’s literature was first awarded in 1922 for books published in 1921. There were some runners-up as well (later designated as Newbery Honor Books), so that provided several good candidates.****
Without further ado, here are the books of the season.
Fables, Folk Tales, and Songs
An Argosy of Fables
Moore says that “Paul Bransom’s fine illustrations for ‘The Argosy of Fables,’***** selected by Frederic Taber Cooper, bespeak special consideration for this book, which is to be issued in two editions, both too expensive for most libraries I fear.” I fear too! When I saw the price–$7.50—in the Publishers Weekly roundup, I thought that it must be a typo. That’s $116.46 in today’s money.
The illustrations are fine indeed, but there are only 23 of them in the 500-page book, way too low a ratio of pictures to text to be worth plowing through prose like “The mouse besought him to spare one who had so unconsciously offended.”
Cantilene Popolari and Grilli Canterini
Moore devotes a huge amount of real estate in her column to Cantilene Popolari and Grilli Canterini, two books of children’s songs published in Italy. She says of Grilli Canterini that “the pictures are so full of the detail children love as to tell their own story to children of any race.”
These books may not be quite the thing, though, for children who (unlike me) have not been studying Italian. Also, the dedication in Cantilene Populari to the “future defenders of the rights and honor of our nation,” which Moore finds “refreshing,” is chilling in retrospect.
American Indian Fairy Tales
Publishers Weekly calls American Indian Fairy Tales “enchanting,” and John Rae’s illustrations are lovely, but I’m leery of a book that depends on the research of an “ethnologist and government agent” from 1837, as this one does.
For Young Readers
Orphant Annie Story Book
Orphant Annie Story Book, written and illustrated by Johnny Gruell of Raggedy Ann and Andy fame, purports to be a collection of stories told by Little Orphant Annie, the household servant of the James Whitcomb Riley poem (and inspiration for the later cartoon character). Books featuring color pictures on every page hadn’t been introduced yet in 1921, but this one comes as close as any I’ve seen, so, even though the goblin illustrations freak me out, this is going on my list.
Bubble Books are slender books that come with records. There are fourteen so far, Publishers Weekly tells us, with two new ones out for the 1921 holiday season. Cooooooool! “The happy owner of the ‘Chimney Corner Bubble Book’ may snuggle up on a rug, close to the warm fire, and listen to the howling of the winter wind as the phonograph plays ‘The North Wind Doth Blow,’” PW says. Throw in some cocoa and some snow and you have my ideal life. The Child’s Garden of Verses Bubble Book sounds cool, too, as does the cut-out Bubble Book that you can find on this website devoted to all things Bubble Book.
For Middle-Grade Readers
Katharine Adams’ Midsummer, which Moore called “a girl’s book of great charm,” seemed promising. It’s about two American children who visit Sweden, where I’ve spent a lot of time but, thanks to COVID and work, not lately. And it was a timely read, seeing that it was the summer solstice here in South Africa. But Midsummer started slowly, and also there was this,
so I was about to give up. But when a new day dawned (at 5:32, but luckily I slept later than that), I decided to give it another try. I figured that the sun might have been making me, like Audrey, our heroine, a little cranky. I skipped ahead to the chapter about the midsummer festival, and there were pancakes with strawberry jam, and slabs of sticky gingerbread, and a merry-go-round, and folk dancing, and a bonfire, and “Astrid wore her new pink and white dress and there were wide pink ribbons on her stiff little braids.” Also Swedish kids who think it would be much more exciting to visit Coney Island. I’m glad I gave it another try.
Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health
Survey magazine isn’t suggesting Mary S. Haviland’s Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health as a gift for a child; it’s more of a resource for teachers. I found it strangely compelling, though. First I checked out whether I was following the eleven steps to be a Modern Health Crusader.
- I washed my hands before every meal to-day. Check!
- I washed not only my face but my ears and neck and I cleaned my finger-nails today. Check! (Well, my finger-nails were already clean.)
- I kept fingers, pencils, and everything likely to be unclean or injurious out of my mouth and nose. Check!
I was on a roll!
I failed a few of the later steps, though, like being in bed for at least ten hours with the windows open, drinking no tea, coffee, or other injurious drinks, and trying to sit up straight. (I am slouching on the sofa with my laptop as I write this.) And I wasn’t sure what to make of “I went to the toilet at my regular time.”
Most of the rest of the book consists of Ruth and Paul talking to Uncle George in great detail about what should be in your house. There’s a lot of sensible talk about the need for fresh air, and some fun activities like picking out furniture for your living room from pictures in a magazine.
Still, as much as I, personally, might find Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health a delightful gift, it’s the book equivalent of giving a kid socks for Christmas. Even though it’s a bargain at eighty-three cents, I’m going to have to give it a pass.
Games—School, Church, Home
Survey magazine says that George O. Draper’s Games—School, Church, Home is “a convenient volume for the play director,” but, unlike Modern Physiology, I think it would be an excellent gift for children as well. They can play some of the games on their own, like Fox Den, which involves chasing each other around this diagram marked on the ground or in the snow,
and they can devoutly wish that they went to the kind of school where complete chaos reigns and games like Seat Vaulting Tag are played.
For Older Children
The Story of Mankind
Last year, I was startled by Hendrik van Loon’s contemporary-looking illustrations in his 1920 book Ancient Man, and I found the narrative interesting, if dated.
So I had high expectations for Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, which was awarded the first-ever Newbery Medal in 1922.****** The illustrations were less bold and less numerous than those in Ancient Man, though, and, despite Van Loon’s claim that “this is a story of mankind and not an exclusive history of the people of Europe and our western hemisphere,” the vast majority of the book’s 465 pages are devoted to Europe and the United States.
Still, I kept coming across interesting facts as I flipped through the book, like that “Jesus” is a Greek rendition of the name that we know in English as Joshua, which is one of those things that everyone else probably knows but I didn’t. And, while I’m sure careful perusal would reveal some howlers, Van Loon’s treatment of non-Europeans is respectful by the standards of the day. Plus, no one can accuse Van Loon of dumbing down history for children. Here’s a sample:
If I ever decide to learn, for example, who exactly the Phoenicians were, I may turn to Van Loon. So might your favorite teenager, if he/she is of an intellectual bent.
The Old Tobacco Shop
Moore assures us that William Bowen’s The Old Tobacco Shop “will give pure joy to boys and their fathers,” and it was a runner-up for the Newbery Medal. All of this did little to inspire my confidence in what I feared would be a heartwarming story about a boy’s coming of age as a smoker. The book’s opening—a father sends his little son, Freddie, out to buy tobacco for his pipe—didn’t help.
The Old Tobacco Shop turned out, far more weirdly, to be a trippy tale of why preschoolers shouldn’t smoke opium. Freddie disobeys the tobacconist’s warning never to smoke the “magic tobacco” stored in a pipe shaped like a Chinaman’s head, and tediously surreal adventures ensue. For anyone who’s on the fence as to whether to leave their head shop in the hands of a small boy, this is an instructive read. Everyone else can take a pass.
The Windy Hill
Another Newbery runner-up, Cornelia Meigs’ The Windy Hill is the story of a brother and sister who go to the country to stay with their uncle. He’s acting mysteriously, and they try to get to the bottom of it.
And presumably succeed, but you couldn’t prove it by me. I wasted an hour two years ago on Meigs’ The Pool of Stars, about a girl who goes to the country and tries to figure out why her neighbor is acting mysteriously, and I’m not going to make that mistake again.
The Scottish Chiefs
The period of 1890 to the 1920s is referred to as the golden age of illustration. No one has ever accused it of being the golden age of children’s literature, though,******* so there were a lot of reissues of classic books with new illustrations. One of them Moore mentions is Jane Porter’s 1810 book The Scottish Chiefs, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. I checked it out and it turned out to be a rip-roaring tale of Scottish nationalism, although not rip-roaring enough for me to commit to reading all 503 pages. (The Scottish Chiefs, like many books that make their way into the childhood cannon, was intended originally for adult readers.) There were a lot of “thees” and “thys” for a story that starts out in Scotland in 1296, and sentences like, “I come in the name of all ye hold dear to tell you the poniard of England is unsheathed!” But there are also strong women characters, and an Elizabeth and Darcy-like marriage between our hero, William Wallace, and his wife Marion: “Affection had grown with their growth; and sympathy of taste and virtues, and mutual tenderness, had made them entirely one.” And the Wyeth illustrations are wonderful and numerous.
More Newbery Runners-Up
If you don’t want your kid to grow up with a one-sided view of 13th-century English-Scottish tensions, you can add Newbery runner-up Cedric the Forester, Bernard Marshall’s tale of an English nobleman and his squire in the days of Richard the Lionheart, to your gift list. Moore says that Cedric the Forester “is written in somewhat stilted style, but the idea of freedom is admirably brought out.” Apparently forgetting that she had just reviewed The Scottish Chiefs, she adds that “the historical period represented is one for which little story writing has been done.” Perusal of the first few pages includes the inevitable faux-Shakespearean dialogue and someone saying “gadzooks.” But there are also several aperçus by our narrator, Dickon (Cedric is the squire), like “My father laughed as one laughs at the sorriest jest when he is gay,” that left me inclined to follow him on his adventures.
Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece and the Story of the Heroes who Lived Before Achilles sounded promising, seeing as it was illustrated by acclaimed artist Willy Pogany, but the illustrations are in black and white and the stories are flatly told, so I passed.
Charles Boardman Hawes’ The Great Quest is about a Massachusetts lad’s adventures fighting against slave traders in Africa. I figured that, despite the anti-slavery message, any 1921 book on this subject was going to be super-problematic. It was.
A Princeton Boy Under the King
“If Princeton is hovering in the background of your boy’s day dreams,” Publishers Weekly tells us, “he will want to read a story of student life at the College of New Jersey in the middle of the eighteenth century.”******* The history of my graduate alma mater is an interest of mine, so A Princeton Boy Under the King sounded like just the thing. I gathered from my own reading that the university’s early years consisted mostly of drunkenness and food fights in Nassau Hall, and I wondered whether A Princeton Boy Under the King would present a sanitized version. But no, that’s pretty much what goes down. It’s like an 18th-century This Side of Paradise.
The Children’s Book of the Year
Last year, I couldn’t find any books about people of color at all, so I recommended the magazine The Brownies’ Book, from the publisher of The Crisis magazine, which was described as being “designed for all children, but especially ours.” (I wrote about The Brownies’ Book in more detail during Black History Month this year.) Sadly, the magazine failed to meet its circulation goals and the December 1921 issue was the last of its two-year run.
As I learned in the Survey article, there’s a silver lining. “What is there in the autumn output to open up to the boy or girl any of the avenues of civic life; any of the nationalities with which we have been brought into greater contact since the war; of the Negroes, neighbors of the children of the South…?” the magazine asks. (Since almost no one else was asking this kind of question, I’ll skip over the “neighbors” issue.) The magazine points us in the direction of Unsung Heroes, by Elizabeth Ross Haynes, an African-American social worker, which was also published by The Crisis’ publishing company.
Each of the book’s seventeen chapters is a portrait of a notable person of African ancestry from the United States or elsewhere, including Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Haitian general Toussaint Louverture, Alexandre Dumas, and Alexander Pushkin. (I knew that Dumas was of partly African descent, but I didn’t know about Pushkin.)
The profiles in Unsung Heroes start out, like the children’s biographies of my youth, with fictional scenes from the subjects’ childhoods and go on to recount their later achievements. Some of the language wouldn’t make it into a book published today (“Many years ago a keen-faced little boy with protruding lips, Toussaint by name, was busy, day by day, tending a great herd of cattle on the Island of Hayti in the West Indies”), but I don’t care. The stories are compelling, and the fact that this book was written and published at all in 1921 is a small miracle.
Judging from Goodreads (0 ratings, 0 reviews) and Google Scholar (one hit, for a 1990 article on the history of African-American children’s literature that I had already read for my post on the children’s novel Hazel), Unsung Heroes is little remembered today. Haynes is my new unsung hero, and Unsung Heroes is my choice for Best Children’s Book of 1921.
Some Final Thoughts
Moore complains in The Bookman that “in robbing fairy tales of all their terrors and poetry of all its sadness, we have let loose a new sort of made-to-order story, which needs the cleansing wind, wide spaces, and hearty laughter created by Mary Mapes Dodge in her time.” My perusal of the Publishers Weekly roundup left me with some sympathy for Moore’s argument that children’s books were becoming generic. On the other hand, after all the morbid stories I came across last year, I was relieved to see 1921’s children better protected from the horrors of the world. There are worse things for a child than blandness.
Happy holidays, and happy holiday reading, to all of you!
*Further research revealed that 1) John Farrar, who later founded Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, was the editor of The Bookman in 1921, and 2) Songs for Parents is a truly awful book of poetry.
**I also checked out Moore’s other 1921 Bookman column, from May. It starts out with the magazine’s new editor (Farrar) saying, “Won’t you give us something new and different in place of the old omnibus review? Make it purely fanciful if you like.” Dangerous words when spoken to someone who had a puppet as an inseparable companion. My desperate cries of, “No! Do the old omnibus review!” failed to turn back time, and this column turned up nothing useful.
***1920s Publishers Weekly is one of those magazines where the ads are as good as the editorial content, and this issue had a treasure trove. This one left me scratching my head, though.
****Sadly for me, there were no more runners-up until 1925. One of the 1925 runners-up, in an act of blatant favoritism by the American Library Association, was Moore’s horrible book about her puppet.
*****It’s actually An Argosy of Fables, not The. 1920s book reviewers make an amazing number of mistakes with the titles of books.
******I first came across The Story of Mankind at the top of the list of Newbery Medal winners that was posted in my school library, and it totally creeped me out. The 1920s seemed like the stone age back then. Now they’re twice as far away and they seem like yesterday!
*******UPDATE 12/28/2021: Well, this syllabus for a class on the Golden Age of Children’s Literature dates it from 1865 to 1926, but the latest book on the reading list is Pollyanna, from 1913.
********Publishers Weekly’s holiday roundup includes a “Books for Boys” section and a “Books for Girls” section, along with a section for both boys and girls and others for younger readers. I was fuming about the sexism of this until I came across three books in a row on railroads in “Books for Boys.” “Fine, I admit it, I’m a girl!” I said. “Just give me a story about two friends who make a cake on a snowy day and leave out the baking powder, with disastrous consequences.”