a little pretty pocket-book / letters from the giant-killer (john newbery)


i’m taking a class in children’s lit this semester, and one of the books we’ll be discussing is john newbery’s ‘a little pretty pocket-book’ from 1744. there are a few copies of the actual thing floating around out there in the world, but those would be well beyond any grad student budget, so i went for this nice facsimile / reprint by dodo press. it’s not really a facsimile i guess because the size is very different – the original ‘little pretty’ book was pretty little indeed.

it was sold with a somewhat nondescript toy which is supposed to be a ball (if the reader is a boy) or a pincushion (if the reader is a girl). and really, it’s not a toy, it’s a counter to keep track of good and bad behaviour: it came with ten pins, and the child is instructed  (by jack the giant-killer) to stick a pin in the red side for every good deed and a pin in the black side for every misbehaviour. ten pins on the ‘good’ side would get the child a reward, ten on the ‘bad’ side would get him or her a beating. 

sounds a lot like some of the systems i’ve seen contemporary families use (well, apart from the beating) – charts with stars and other stickers for chores done etc. also, the idea of selling the book with a ‘gimmick’ seems pretty smart, marketing wise.

another random fact is that newbery lived in reading (berkshire) until shortly before he published this book for children. why would i mention this at all? because i’ve a soft spot for reading – i lived there for a while, and the best part was volunteering at the reading oxfam bookstore, where i got to look at, research and price a good number of rare and unusual books. not this one but still. also, reading gaol is in reading (surprisingly enough) and this is where oscar wilde was incarcerated for some years in the late 1800s. but let’s not stop here – the reading rota is also from reading (yep) and you may have come across it at some point in your reading life as “sumer is icumen in” – a verse found in the reading abbey and presumed to have been penned as early as 1260 (wiki). that’s literary trivia for you.

now what’s in newbery’s book? it starts out with a letter to little master tommy and pretty miss polly, respectively, written by jack the giant-killer. the letters are virtually identical, including the post script, explaining the whole pin-and-deed affair i’ve already mentioned. then, there’s an ‘advertisement’ suggesting that “it would not be amiss For some Gentlemen to keep a Ball contrived in this Manner, and some Ladies a Pincushion, by Way of Diary, especially if they are often apt to forget themselves.”

not surprisingly, seeing the time this was written, the rhymes that follow deal with wisdom and proper behavior, using games and other children’s activities to illustrate various principles. each verse is followed by a rhyming couplet “rule of life” or in some cases a four-line “moral”. while the ‘moral’ usually picks up an idea from the four lines above it, the rules of life seem fairly unconnected. here are two examples:

Blindman’s Buff.
Bereft of all Light,
I stumble along;
But, if I catch, you,
My Doom is your own.
How blind is that Man,
Who scorns the Advice
Of Friends, who intend
To make him more wise.

example 2:

Thread the Needle
Here Hand in Hand the Boys unite,
And form a very pleasing Sight;
Then thro’ each other’s Arms they fly,
As Thread does thro’ the Needle’s Eye.
Rule of Life.
Talk not too much; sit down content,
That your Discourse be pertinent.

Each four line poem is accompanied by a woodcut / print of a corresponding scene. From page 33 in the dodo edition, the four line verses teach letters, focusing on a more practical and less theoretic / moral aspect of teaching. Again, there are woodcut illustrations. I quite liked this verse (the last in the series, page 42 in the book):

There’s great Y, and Z,
On a Horse that is mad:
If you wall down,
Farewel Poor great Y and Z.

as i said, the difference is obvious. page 43 is the beginning of the next part of the book – a set of four fables which are each followed by an explanatory letter addressed to the two children, again by jack the giant-killer. there are some short texts about how children should behave, and these are not in rhyme but in prose / letter form, followed by poetic descriptions of the four seasons, a list of proverbs for children, and a long section with lists of rules for children in various social settings. some of them are, for us today, fairly complex:

Behaviour when Abroad.
5 Always give the Right Hand to your Superiours, when either you meet or walk with them; and mind also to give them the Wall, in meeting or walking with them; for that is the Upper Hand, though in walking your Superiour should then be at your Left Hand. But when three Persons walk together, the middle Place is the must honourable: And a Son may walk at his Father’s Right Hand, when his younger Brother walks at his Left.

many of the other rules deal with showing respect for others.

the little pretty pocket book also contains, in the preface, some advice to parents, explaining that “The grand Design in the Nurture of Children, is to make them Strong, Hardy, Healthy, Virtuous, Wise, and Happy.” newbery states that diet, exercise, and the way the child is dressed will influence how hardy the child will be. for all other outcomes he adds on to this advice, explaining that “physick” should be avoided as much as possible, meaning that the child should not be beaten except in “Cases of Emergency and Danger.”

this is a sweet little book, interesting because it gives its reader insight into the ideas, ideals and expectations people had in those days.


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.

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