Moral and Cultural Education

From their earliest examples, Children’s books have been and remain, in part, about moral education, Children’s books have also educated children about their own culture and about other cultures. These themes are deeply imbedded in the books adults share with children.

Johan Amos Comenius’ Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658; translated into English as The Visible World in Pictures in 1659) is generally regarded as the first true picture book, since a reader needs to be attentive to both its words and its illustrations to understand its meaning. While religion is an important element throughout the book, which begins with God and ends with the Last Judgment, much of the text in between as well as the woodcut illustrations present Comenius’ vision of universal peace, which he believed could be achieved through a new system of education he called “Pansophism”: the harmonious system uniting all knowledge, in which everything should develop of its own free will in a violence-free atmosphere. Interestingly, Comenius intention was not only for readers to subscribe to his particular world view; he also hoped they would be encouraged to learn Latin in the process.

In contrast the relatively positive religious and ethical presentation of Comenius, James Janeway’s book of child martyrs, A Token for Children: Being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children (1672), was intended to awaken readers’ hearts and help them achieve early piety by frightening them into conversion. Comenius and Janeway, however, shared the goal to lead children to religious salvation. They differed only in whether a gentle embrace or the fear of fiery damnation was the more effective way through which to accomplish their objective.

While the heavy emphasis on salvation in children’s books lessened over time, it was still clearly prevalent a century later in Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s Hymns in Prose for Children (1781), which contained twelve hymns for children, along with longer pieces of prose. Barbauld was one of the most influential of the Sunday School Moralists, writer-educators who made religion their touchstone for educational philosophy, but who nevertheless wrote stories and verses which were accessible and emotionally satisfying to their audience. Immensely popular, her book remained in print until the early 20th Century and was translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Hungarian.Hymns in Prose associated the world of nature with the power of God, and emphasized the importance of a sense of unity and the family.

A contemporary of Barbauld’s, Thomas Day subscribed to an alternate school of thought developed by the Rational Moralists, a group of writers for children who believed in presenting a combination of rational thoughts with moral judgements. Their stories were carefully designed narratives with both good and bad examples, designed to appeal to a child’s rational nature. Day’s The History of Sandford and Merton, a Work Intended for the Use of Children was first published in 1783, and Day expanded it in 1786 and again in 1789. It presented a collection of stories with a linking narrative, focusing on the experiences of two school-friends, Tommy Merton and Harry Sandford, and contained a strong belief in education as a source of moral improvement and character formation.

The 19th century brought its own changes to views on how children should be educated through their literature, and much of the work published in the latter half of the century picked up this notion that education, and particularly moral education, could come through story. Two American popular works that exemplify this tradition include Horatio Alger, Jr.’s “Ragged Dick”, first published serially in the periodical The Student and Schoolmate: An Illustrated Monthly for All our Boys & Girls (1867) and as a novel the following year, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of A Bad Boy (1870).

“Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York” follows the adventures of a resilient young boy who, through his exemplary qualities of honesty and hard work, rises from being a street waif to become a gentleman. The success of Alger’s story inspired him to write many more rags to riches stories, focusing on the adventures of a variety of impoverished children who rose to middle-class respectable lives.

In contrast, The Story of A Bad Boy, a partly autobiographical novel of Aldrich’s early years, follows the adventures of Tom Bailey, a mischievous youth whose antics were said to have influenced Mark Twain’s creation of Tom Sawyer (1876). Aldrich’s work was significant in developing the ‘bad boy’ genre in American Children’s literature, being followed by George Wilbur Peck’s Peck’s Bad Boy and his Pa (1883) and, more significantly, Booth Tarkington’s Penrod (1914).

One other important development during the 19th century was a focus on much younger readers than had previously been the case, as works for toddler-aged audiences became more available. Walter Crane’s The Baby’s Own Aesop (1887) is a fine example, with its radically shortened fables simplified to appeal to much younger children. These fables included simple morals, such as the one accompanying the tale of “The Mouse and the Lion,” which notes “Small causes may produce great results.”

The 20th century brought other changes, both in terms of how books worked as educational tools and the kinds of education they included. In addition to expanding to contain lessons on more than only morality and behavior, 20th century Children’s literature in both America and Britain demonstrated more awareness in print of other cultures. A recent example of this appears with Joseph Bruchac’s and Paul Morin’s Fox Song (1993), which tells the story of girl whose late grandmother was Abenaki Indian, and focuses on her memories of her grandmother and the various life lessons she learned from her.

A much earlier example appears with Grace and Carl Moon’s Book of Nah-Wee (1932), a story focusing on the various adventures a young Native American girl named Nah-Wee has with her friend Dat-say, who learn such lessons as the importance of demonstrating kindness, as well as the dangers of over-eating. The book is ground-breaking in that it not only presents the stories as a legitimate part of mainstream culture rather than relegating them to be regarded as ‘other’, but also contains illustrations that are reasonably  accurate in detail, such as in their presentation of Navajo pueblos as well as with the golden eagle feathers that appear on one of the headdresses. Interestingly, the book pre-dates Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, commonly recognized as the first American children’s picture book to include an African American protagonist, by a full thirty years, which raises important questions about the different ways American minority cultures were acknowledged and presented in Children’s literature through the first several decades of the 20th century.

Newbery-award winning writer Virginia Hamilton and Caldecott award-winning illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon’s The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (1985) presents a beautiful collection of African American folktales which, as Hamilton notes in her Introduction, not only take us as readers back “to the very beginnings of people’s lives, to their hopes and their defeats” but also represent an important part of American history. In addition to tales about tricksters, riddle tales, and animal stories, the collection concludes with a well-known story and the book’s title tale, “The People Could Fly”, a powerful story of mysticism, oppression, and freedom.

With Bright April (1946), Newbery award-winning Michigan author Marguerite de Angeli addresses racism with her optimistic story of how a young girl named April makes friends with Phyllis and eventually helps her to overcome her initial prejudice towards April.

A far more shocking treatment of racism appears in poet Marilyn Nelson’s A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005). With its exquisite tempura paintings by Philippe Lardy, the book is a heart-wrenching cycle of sonnets written in the form of a Martyr’s Wreath, an intricate yet little-known poetic form consisting of sonnets connected by interlocking lines, wherein the final line of each poem becomes the opening line for the next. Nelson’s subject was Emmett Louis Till, a fourteen-year-old African American boy from Chicago who was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. The acquittal of the white men tried for the murder, along with Till’s mother’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral, is often said to have helped reignite the American Civil Rights movement in 1955.

Poet Arnold Adoff’s and Caldecott award-winning Emily McCully’s Black is Brown is Tan (1973) illustrates a few of the outcomes of this movement, at least in terms of multiculturalism: the story is recognized as the first American picture book to feature an interracial family, and shows them throughout celebrating “all the colors of the race.”