Treasure-house … the American Children’s Rare Books Collection

Thanks to a SCBWI (Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators) bulletin advising their American members to contact the librarians at the Library of Congress Children’s Rare Books Collection in Washington DC and arrange a tour, I did so too – well, I was there and I’m a member of SCBWI’s Australian branch.

Two days earlier in that city and I could’ve joined a group of American children’s authors on their tour of the collection. As that was not to be, the librarians organised for me to have my own personal look a week later.

Library of Congress_the reading room
The Reading Room of the Children's Books Collection

The librarian, Jackie shows me some of their treasures housed inside that magnificent Jefferson Building – like the smallest book … a copy of “Old King Cole.” It’s about the size of the full stop at the end of this sentence. The pages can be turned only with the aid of a needle.

Just as intriguing are the New England Primers from the late 1700s. These fascinating little textbooks were how children learned to read: small enough to fit in their hands, full of moral and historical lessons as they learned the ABC.

Library of Congress_New England Primer1
New England Primer circa 1790

The pictures are tiny block prints; they were updated every decade or so to ‘modernise’; but the most intriguing thing is the story of ‘The Burning of Mr JOHN ROGERS‘ contained within the Primer’s pages. This was a era when the Americans still hurt from their war with Britain.

Regarded as a martyr Mr Rogers was burnt at the stake in 1554 by the Catholic Queen, Mary. The Primer’s words relate how his wife and nine children watched him burn. Every time the Primers were updated, this story remained word perfect, and the pictures always have the nine little faces peering out at their burning father. Moral story indeed.

Library of Congress_New England Primer2
The burning of Mr John Rogers
Library of Congress_Pinocchio
In the whale's belly - Pinocchio

I could also tell you more about a very early Pop-up version of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and the fact that this first ever edition by a publisher who latched on to a goldmine in this book format, has no mention of Collodi’s authorship at all. I’ll just show you the pictures.

Oh, and another thing, I gave Jackie copy of my junior fiction, Secrets of Eromanga to pass on to a school library she might know – but she’s putting it in the Foreign section of the Children’s collection instead. They are sent the shortlist of the Australian CBC Awards apparently … seems as though I’ve snuck in through the back door. 🙂

Library of Congress_jackie
Jacqueline Coleburn from the Children’s Rare books collection – enthusiastic and willing to share her knowledge to an Aussie visitor.

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