It’s that time of year again! The holiday roundup of children’s books is one of my favorite My Life 100 Years Ago traditions, if you can call something you’ve only done once before a tradition. (The year before last, I did a just plain holiday shopping guide.)
Once again, I had a lot of help. Pioneering children’s librarian Annie Carroll Moore is on hand with a guide to fall books in the November 1920 issue of The Bookman,* and Margaret Ashmun has an article on Christmas books for the young and old in the December issue. Publisher’s Weekly has an expansive holiday roundup, and Literary Digest weighs in with fifty gift suggestions for children. The New York Times has an engagingly written writeup by Hildegarde Hawthorne, granddaughter of Nathaniel. (There’s also a Times article with the seemingly promising title of “Christmas in Bookland,” in which Coningsby Dawson blathers on for two pages about the wonders of motherhood and manages to only mention one book, An Outline of History by H.G. Wells.)
For the Very Young
I had an easier time finding books for very young children than I did last year, mostly thanks to Hawthorne. As far as I can tell, though, books with illustrations on every page were still unheard of.
Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper, illustrated by future Fisher-Price co-founder Margaret Evans Price, has just seven illustrations in the 40-page text, plus some more at the beginning and end. Still, they’re charming,
and Cinderella is going on my list.
The Night Before Christmas presents Clement C. Moore’s classic 1823 poem (actual title: “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) with illustrations by Helene Nyce.
That’s a crop from one of Nyce’s illustrations at the top of the post.
Fantasy and Fairy Tales
Tales of Wonder and Magic, a collection of fairy tales from around the world written and illustrated by Katharine Pyle, also turned out not to have many illustrations, which disappointed me at first, until I came across this one,
which made me wish it had fewer.
Annie Carroll Moore calls The Treasure of the Isle of Mist, by the Scottish writer W.W. Tarn, “an exquisite fantasy of youth and autumn.” If your kid is transfixed by sentences like this, by all means add it to your holiday list:
Up through the calm water, to meet the eye of the gazer, came the green clearness of stone, and blinks of unveined sand showing white between the brown tangled blades of the great oar-weed; and you might see a school of little cuddies, heads all one way, playing hide and seek in the sea forest, and caring no whit for the clumsy armored crab beneath them, who crawled sideways, a laborious patch of color in the shimmering transparency.
Rose Fyleman’s poetry collection Fairies and Chimneys is, in Moore’s opinion, “just the book to take up after leaving Fiona and The Student” (of The Treasure of the Isle of Mist). Since she presumably doesn’t mean after flinging the book aside in disgust, I had low hopes.
I was charmed by the poems, though. They’re told in the voice of a little girl who’s a staunch believer in fairies, who keep popping up in the midst of everyday life—on a bus on Oxford Street, for example.
Here’s one of my favorites, called “Wishes”:
I wish I liked rice pudding,
I wish I were a twin,
I wish some day a real live fairy
Would just come walking in.
I wish when I’m at table
My feet would touch the floor,
I wish our pipes would burst next winter,
Just like they did next door.
I wish that I could whistle
Real proper grown-up tunes,
I wish they’d let me sweep the chimneys
On rainy afternoons.
I’ve got such heaps of wishes,
I’ve only said a few;
I wish that I could wake some morning
And find they’d all come true!
My wish: that Fairies and Chimneys had more illustrations. There’s only one, this frontispiece,
plus this artwork on the inside cover.**
Still, pictures or not, this is going on my list.
On to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, illustrated “delightfully this time,” according to Ashmun, by Elenore Abbott. I checked it out and found actual delightfulness—and no violent illustrations!***
On the list. I’m on a roll!
I had just about given up on including any kind of diversity in this roundup when I came upon The Jewish Fairy Book in Hawthorne’s Times article. This collection of traditional Jewish stories by Gerald Friedlander, with illustrations by George W. Hood,
would make a perfect (if belated) Hanukkah gift.
For Middle-Grade and Older Readers
Annie Carroll Moore calls Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Dr. Dolittle “the most delightful nonsense story of the year,” and it’s the one undisputed children’s classic of 1920. I was going to buy a copy and (re)read it myself, but I bought one of the sequels by mistake and had to return it. This is just as well, because it turns out that modern editions have all the racism taken out, and I would potentially have ended up recommending a book where a Black prince tells this tale of woe:
The prince asks Dr. Dolittle to turn his skin white. Dr. D. works his magic, and lo and behold
all the animals cried out in surprise. For the Prince’s face had turned as white as snow, and his eyes, which had been mud-colored, were a manly gray!
Thanks to the blog Leaves & Pages for setting me straight.
Moore has high praise as well for L’Alsace Heureuse, by Hansi (real name Jean-Jacques Waltz), a French writer of Alsatian descent. “What a happy Alsace is pictured here,” she says. “No book yet written about the war will give children the interest of the pleasure of these pictures.” The pictures I found online were indeed charming,
but given that “happy” isn’t usually the first word that early 20th century Alsace brings to mind, I had my doubts. I couldn’t find a complete copy of L’Alsace Heureuse, but the grim pictures I came across in Hansi’s 1916 children’s book L’Histoire d’Alsace leave me inclined to approach this one with caution. Plus, I see no evidence that L’Alsace Heureuse was translated into English at the time.
“E. Boyd Smith has written and illustrated ‘The Story of Our Country,’” is the totality of what Moore has to say about this book. I pulled it up on Hathitrust, typed “Negro” in the search bar, and found this:
The 300th anniversary of the founding of Plymouth colony was celebrated a lot more enthusiastically than this year’s 400th, and there was no shortage of books about the Pilgrims. Moore’s favorite is The Argonauts of Faith, by Basil Matthews. Flipping through the illustrations, I found this one. “Would they scalp him? Would they torture him by fire?” the caption asks.
They didn’t—they treated him kindly and he dined out on stories of his time with the Indians for the rest of his days—but I decided to give the Argonauts a pass anyway.
Sometimes, as with this reissue of H.E. Marshall’s An Empire Story, you don’t even need to go beyond the title page.
Illustrator N.C. Wyeth (father of Andrew) had a busy year,**** with new editions of Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!,
Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe,
and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish.
No, no, and no. (And in case you think I’m being a prude, it’s not the woman’s bare chest I object to, it’s the—I checked the text—dead guy on her lap.)
Of Some British Ballads, a volume of Child ballads with pictures by Arthur Rackham, Ashmun says, “The fortunate recipient will find herself saying over and over, ‘Binnorie, oh, Binnorie!’”
If you say so, Margaret. MY prediction is that the recipient will take a quick look at the text, see that it’s in old-timey English,
come upon this illustration from “Yonge Andrew,”
and stick the book into the back of his closet for further perusing.*****
Every once in a while, I come across something from a hundred years ago that gives me a shock of recognition, seeming to come from a much later time. That’s how I felt when I saw the illustrations from Ancient Man by Dutch-American writer Hendrik Willem Van Loon.****** “Broad smears of color that tell a clear story none the less,” is how Hawthorne puts it, unknowingly summarizing the future of children’s illustration.
Ca. 1920 history is fraught with peril, though, so I downloaded the text onto my Kindle. I’m about halfway through. Some of it, like a description of African people’s woolly hair and thick lips and references to prehistoric man “and his wife,” doesn’t pass the modern sensibility test. Biblical stories are presented as literal history, and non-Western civilizations like China and Asia are completely disregarded. With these caveats, though, I’d recommend it, especially if you (like me) are hazy on who exactly the Phoenecians were.
For Young Adults
Older teens are always hard to shop for, and this year is no exception.
Moore, who has a habit of throwing adult books into the children’s roundup mix, has good things to say about The Story of Opal, a memoir by Opal Whiteley that was originally serialized in The Atlantic. Opal’s mom drowns on page 2 while she and Opal are boating.
Her father dies in the next paragraph. He’s not at the logging camp with Opal and her mom at the time, which stands to reason seeing as he’s Henry, Prince of Orleans, or so Whiteley claimed (although she doesn’t mention him by name in this book as far as I can tell). I’m having just a TINY bit of trouble buying this.
Ashmun says that The Good Cheer Book, compiled by Blanche E. Herbert, “will no doubt be a popular gift at Christmas.” Like everyone else, I could use some good cheer these days, so I opened it eagerly. Do you feel down in the dumps, John Edgar Park asks us in the opening essay. Well, yes, John, sometimes!
Here’s his advice:
If the print’s too small for you, here’s a summary: “It’s all your fault! Suck it up!”
The Little House, Ashmun promises us, has “a real Christmas flavor.” It’s by, uh-oh, Coningsby Dawson, he of the bookless New York Times essay, and it’s told from the point of view of the house. “To have been responsible for the happy ending is pretty nearly as clever as to have made the story up out of one’s own head or, as we houses say, out of one’s own walls,” the house says.
That was this last straw. I decided to cast the critics aside and do my own search for a gift for the older teen.
I’m reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise at the moment, for the third or fourth time. Each time I get something different out of it. When I was starting grad school at Princeton, what I loved was Fitzgerald’s swoony take on the place. “I think of Princeton as being lazy and good-looking and aristocratic—you know, like a spring day,” says semi-autobiographical hero Amory Blaine.
This time what I love is Fitzgerald’s unsparing take on the self-invention of his protagonist, who progresses from one stage of cringe-inducing idiocy to another over the course of his young life, from this early-teen love poem
to his first-day-of-college posturing (“he tried conscientiously to look both pleasantly blasé and casually critical, which was as near as he could analyze the prevalent facial expression”), to, if memory serves (I’m only up to the Princeton part), a fatuous romance and a freak-out about sex.******* It’s easy to for older people to lampoon the pretensions of the young, but not so easy when you’re in your early twenties yourself, as Fitzgerald was.
In a previous post, I quoted critic John Walcott, who said in a 1917 Bookman essay that young people turn away from books that skewer their peers, like Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Bab: A Sub-Deb and Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen. They take themselves with deadly seriousness, Walcott says, and don’t relish being spoofed. But, as I’ve written before, Fitzgerald, for all the fun he pokes at his characters, doesn’t just send them up; he loves them too. That’s what I appreciate most about him now, and that’s why I don’t think our young friend will turn him aside.
For Children of All Ages
What if your children aren’t white? Or what if they are, and you want to show them that the real world is more diverse than the one portrayed in the children’s books of 1920? Bookwise, there’s almost nothing out there, other than Hazel, which I wrote about last year. But there’s one wonderful gift you can give them: The Brownies’ Book, a magazine by the publishers of The Crisis for African-American children, or rather, as they put it, “designed for all children, but especially for ours.” This is, sadly, your last chance; December 1921 marked the end of the magazine’s two-year run. (UPDATE 3/1/2021: I wrote about The Brownies’ Book here.)
The 1920 Children’s Holiday Book List********
Cinderella, illustrated by Margaret Evans Price
Fairies and Chimneys, by Rose Fyleman
Grimm’s Fairy Tales, illustrated by Elenore Abbott
The Jewish Fairy Book, by Gerald Friedlander, illustrated by George W. Hood
Ancient Man, by Willem van Loon
This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Brownies’ Book
Happy holidays, everyone, and happy reading!
*I’m also reading, and loving, Roads to Childhood, a 1920 collection of Moore’s columns.
**These pages are, I learned in the New York Times roundup, called lining pages. Elaborate lining pages were, apparently, all the rage in 1920.
***Granted, I got 125 hits when I searched for “killed.” But you can’t have Grimm without the grim.
****He was also busy illustrating the advertising campaign about pancake-making enslaved person Aunt Jemima.
*****Just as well that the young reader is likely to give “Yonge Andrew” a pass. It’s about a guy who seduces a young woman, tricks her into giving him her father’s gold and all her clothes, and sends her back to her father, who, seeing that she’s naked, locks her outside, where she dies. Or something along those lines—my old-timey English is a tad rusty.
******Van Loon would go on to win the first Newbery Award for his 1921 book The Story of Mankind, which incorporates much of Ancient Man.
*******“Did they actually do it?” my young self wondered. But my young self wondered that about a lot of people, including Madame Bovary, so is not necessarily the best guide in these matters. (UPDATE 3/1/2021: Having now reread the book, I have no idea what this was all about.)
********With the caveat that any book given to an ACTUAL CHILD should be given a more thorough read than I’ve given these.
New on the (non-holiday) Book List:
Ten Days That Shook the World, by John Reed