The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

VII. Books for Children

§ 1. Didacticism of the Early Attempts

THE TITLES of the earliest American books for children sufficiently indicate their sole intention. John Cotton’s Milk for Babes, drawn out of the Breast of both Testaments, published in London in 1646, was reprinted in Massachusetts ten years later as Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in either England. Cotton Mather in 1700 revised an English book and issued it with the title A Token for the Children of New-England. Or Some Examples of Children to whom the Fear of God was Remarkably Budding, before they Dyed. In these books and the few others of early times the child was not recognized to have any individual needs or even an undeveloped mentality. The famous and very widely read New England Primer (c. 1690) was the first book to add elementary teaching, but its character still remained entirely religious. It sought, however, to be more attractive than earlier school books and employed illustrations; and it no doubt succeeded in exhilarating children whose sole portion had been drowsy sermons.

About midway in the eighteenth century, the desire to furnish amusement together with instruction, religious or mundane, ventured to show its head in reckless juveniles which came chiefly from the London shop of John Newbery. But it required half a century to convince parents that the combination was not pernicious—even parents who were allowing their children to read abridged editions of Clarissa and Tom Jones as well as Moll Flanders. As for the meagre American product, even The Children’s Magazine (Hartford, 1789) made almost no attempt to approach the child’s level. In Noah Webster’s Spelling Book (1783), eight short illustrated fables formed the only concession to childish interest. The solitary instance of the amusement book proper was Songs for the Nursery, an edition of Mother Goose published in Boston some seventy years before; and it remained solitary for almost as many to come. By 1800, however, the somewhat more humanized instruction of Mrs. Barbauld and Mrs. Trimmer and Miss Edgeworth and Miss More had crossed the water.