Reading Children


My Darling's A.B.C. (1830s-40s) in the collections of the
American Antiquarian Society. Photograph by author.
Last month, I traveled to the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) to take part in the 2015 Summer Seminar in the History of the Book, on the topic of "Reading Children." The holdings of the AAS in artifacts of childhood number over 26,000 objects, an important repository for researching changing ideas of childhood and the child reader from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century. With a week together at the AAS library in Worcester, seminar participants explored the collection’s rich archive of print and visual artifacts created for and by children, with hands-on workshops informed by historical and theoretical readings in the history of childhood, and the history of reading and print. Our sources included not only those produced by printers, publishers, and pedagogues--such as children’s literature, toy books, games, primers, and school texts--but also those created by children themselves (such as amateur newspapers, diaries, letters, copybooks, scrapbooks, and autograph books).

Photograph by American Antiquarian Society via Twitter.
Seminar leaders Pat Crain and Martin Brückner, guest lecturers Laura Wasowicz (the AAS Curator of Children's Literature) and Anna Mae Duaneand a wide variety of participants, including Ph.D. students, museum curators, librarians, and faculty spent the week finding collections related to their own research, while also exploring highlights from the collections selected by the AAS staff to suggest answers to the question, "What does it mean to be a child reader in pre-1900 America?" 

In our readings and discussions, we interrogated ideologies of literacy, literature, and print culture inflected by race, class, and gender to answer this question. But as our conversations developed, I became increasingly interested in the ways we were and were not talking about religious reading, or religious children--surprising, I thought, given the extent to which the market for pre-twentieth century children's books was inflected by religious publishers and religious and moral instruction. [The very notions of children and childhood can't really be discussed without considering religious ideas--just look at Webster's 1828 dictionary definitions of child to get started!]

The Young Catholic volume 1 issue 1,
courtesy American Antiquarian Society.
I attended the AAS Summer Seminar in part to rejuvenate the process of revising my dissertation for publication. With nearly a year's distance from that project, I've begun to realize how much of my research and writing focused on children and young women readers and writers, and the AAS week gave me a chance to read widely in the growing field of childhood studies to re-frame my work in American Catholic history. In particular, during the seminar I revisited issues of Isaac Hecker's magazine The Young Catholic, with its many stories and illustrations of girl readers (exemplified by the first page of the magazine's debut issue, at right).

As I reorganized my notes, I returned to a short blog post I wrote on my own website nearly two years ago to keep track of a Lincoln Mullen's call on Twitter for sources in the study of American children and religion. (A helpful bibliography resulted from that conversation.) Of course, when I clicked on the subject category "children" right here on RiAH, I found a number of posts from the last few years, that might bear reviewing if you, like me, are increasingly interested in what childhood studies means for your work:

Apparently I've been interested in childhood all along! As I continue to explore the histories of American Catholic childhoods, then, I'd appreciate other reading suggestions in the comments. How do religious children, or reading children, figure into your work?

* * *

For more on the AAS History of the Book in American Program, visit the AAS website. A good place to start exploring the AAS collections is their rich online catalog; additionally, Laura Wasowicz has published the Nineteenth Century American Children's Book Trade Directory as a guide.

I've used Storify to collect just a few of my notes from "Reading Children," here.

The Program in the History of the Book in American Culture summer seminar topic is announced in the winter, with applications due in mid-March. A second summer seminar, organized by CHAViC, the Center for Historic American Visual Culture at AAS, also offers a one-week course each summer, providing additional guided opportunities for scholars and educators to learn about resources in the Society's collections, stimulating research and intellectual inquiry into these materials. I am grateful to the AAS for the tuition scholarship that made it possible for me to attend this year's program.


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