Skip to main content

The Books We Got For Christmas

July 2024
17min read

If an American child of the first half of the Nineteenth Century could see today’s flood of books for children, he might be delighted, but he would certainly be bewildered, for American children before 1850 had few books they could call their own. On long winter evenings they settled down to Cooper’s Leather- Lestocking Tales, or they read Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book until they knew “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” almost by heart. But these books belonged not to the child but to his father.

A few families might have imported from England one of the first translations of Grimm’s Household Tales. But much more likely on children’s own small bookshelves would be such sober hand-me-downs from parents as Milk for Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments; The New England Primer; and Noah Webster’s spelling book. And so it would be the more entertaining Tales of Peter Parley and Rollo books that children treasured as their very own.

“Peter Parley” was the name used by Samuel Goodrich, the first person in America to write books just for children. Tales of Peter Parley About America came out in 1827, followed by Tales of Peter Parley About Europe and so on, until there were about 170 small volumes. Five million copies were sold by 1850. Peter Parley’s stories were concerned with children discovering “fact and fancy” about their world. Goodrich spoke of his books as “intellectual plum pudding.” The puddings were heavily larded with moralizing, but children of that time, having little other fare, stuck in their thumbs and happily pulled out what plums of fancy there were.


The Rollo stories were more palatable. Little Rollo, a creation of Jacob Abbott’s in 1834, was the first genuine American child character. He was not a prig. He was a great noticer; he was quite human and did what his readers would like to do. And he had his faults, which his parents kindly and affectionately pointed out to him (and to the reader) in such books as Rollo Learning To Read, Rollo At Work, Rollo At Play, and many others.

Abbott had a higher regard for a child’s intelligence than many Twentieth-Century pedagogues have. In his “Notice to Parents” in Rollo Learning to Read he said, “The difficulty with most books intended for children just learning to read is, that the writers make so much effort to confine themselves to words of one syllable, that the style is quaint and uninteresting and far more unintelligible than the usual language would be.” Abbott would have been horrified at today’s Dick and Jane readers with their monosyllabic comments on a toy airplane: “Look,” said Dick. “See it go. See it go up.” Jane said, “Oh, look! See it go. See it go up.” “Up, up,” said Sally. “Go up, up, up.” No wonder today’s Johnny can’t read! He is bored from the start, in an age group where the ennui threshold is not notably high.

No one today reads either Peter Parley or Jacob Abbott. But those two men started something that is still going on—the series. Boys’ stories in endless series broke out like a flock of freckles in the last half of the Nineteenth Century. They appeared in weeklies, in paperbacks, in six-penny and dime novel forms, most of them under the imprint of Beadle & Adams or Street & Smith.

Oliver Optic was one of the most popular and prolific of the writers. He wrote about a thousand stories in magazines and newspapers and 116 books in different series of six or more each. Oliver Optic was really William Taylor Adams, a Boston schoolteacher and principal. He knew a lot about boys and what they liked. His heroes were interested in geography and natural science; they went traveling; they enlisted in the Army and Navy. They themselves were inevitably stereotyped, clean-cut young Americans, but their action-filled adventures were widely varied in such stories as those of the Boat Club series, the Blue and the Gray series, the Army and Navy series, the Starry Flag series, etc.

Another favorite list was the Gunboat, Rocky Mountain, Sportsman’s Club and Pony Express series by Henry Castlemon, whose real name was Charles Austin Fosdick. He shrewdly maintained, “Boy’s don’t like fine writing. What they want is adventure.” Henry Castlemon gave it to them in more than fifty volumes.

Frank Merriwell was the creation of Gilbert Patten who called himself Burt L. Standish. In 1896 he started writing 20,000 words a week about Frank, whose descriptive name had been chosen after a great deal of thought. There were Frank Merriwell’s Chums, Frank Merriwell Down South, Frank Merriwell’s Courage, Daring, Faith, Foes, etc., etc. There was also Frank Merriwell at Yale, which came through as a kind of Old Blue Never-Never Land, unrecognizable to graduates; yet thousands believed that Merriwell (was he ’99, ’01 or ’02?) had really starred for Old Eli.

Any writer who, like Standish, wrote 209 books in rapid succession, could not help writing a good deal of trash. But Frank Merriwell was innocuous trash and the series hit boys like a harmless epidemic of chicken pox, just as the vacuous Bobbsey Twins sweep through neighborhood after neighborhood today.

The early Elijah Kellogg’s The Elm Island Boys developed into one of the best of the series, as did Edward Sylvester Ellis’ later Deerfoot stories. Footprints in the Forest was by Ellis, and so was such rousing historical fiction as Remember the Alamo and Trailing Geronimo. Good or bad or merely harmless, series books went on and on in the Twentieth Century when Edward Stratemeyer’s Rover Boys began roving On the Ocean, Out West, In the Jungle, On Land and Sea, In the Air until there was no part of the world left for these tireless lads to explore. Somewhere, fancy asks, did they encounter the equally indefatigable Boy Allies? And perhaps, between forays on villains and Kaiserism, hold a celebration?

But of all the series authors, the name of Horatio Alger is the one best remembered. There must be millions of Americans today who have never read a Horatio Alger book (the first appeared in 1867), but there can’t be many who don’t know what a Horatio Alger hero is. Horatio Alger wrote over a hundred books about a hundred heroes. But while the books bore different titles and the heroes different names, they were really the same book and the same hero. That did not in the least bother thousands of boy readers who eagerly followed the adventures of Ragged Dick, Tattered Tom, Phil the Fiddler, and their kind, as through pluck and luck they rose from rags to riches.

Horatio Alger can be held largely responsible for instilling into American boys of a former generation purely materialistic ideals. But he should be given credit for helping bootblacks, fiddlers, beggar boys, and their like in the streets of New York. In some of his books he portrayed their plight so vividly that public indignation was aroused against their exploitation.

In the meantime, little girls had their favorite series too and hugged to themselves the innumerable small books by Sophie May, pseudonym for Rebecca Clarke. In 1863 the Little Prudy series began, followed by the Dotty Dimple books, the Flyaway series, and others by the same author. In Little Grandfather, Sophie May tells of Willy, who walked in his sleep and sat every night by the fire in his father’s barroom. She hastens to add, for the benefit of her temperance-conscious readers, “In those days cider was almost as freely drunk as water, and so, I grieve to say, was New England rum and brandy, and you must not suppose Mr. Parlin was a bad man because he allowed such drinking in his bar-room.” Having thus conscientiously explained Willy’s papa, Sophie May gets on with the adventures of sleepwalking Willy.

In contrast to the often unrealistic series books, there appeared in 1865 a book of such realism that it stood out as unique. It came out in the year that Alice in Wonderland crossed the ocean to delight or puzzle American children. It was Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates. Mary Mapes Dodge, its American author, was steeped in the history of Holland and her Dutch ancestors. Her publisher was dubious about launching the book. Would American boys and girls care for a long story about Dutch children? They did, and have been caring ever since. Within thirty years more than a hundred editions appeared in six languages.

Youngsters of the Nineteenth Century must have read every word of it with eagerness. Today it is almost equally certain that many of the authentic but over-long historical passages are skipped by children impatient to get on with the story. The account of the mental condition of Raff Brinker, the father, and his resulting rough treatment of his loyal family is pretty strong meat for young readers, who, today, are overprotected from such facts of life. Mrs. Dodge saw more clearly than most modern writers that children can take a good deal, honestly presented. Most of us have forgotten Raff Brinker and his troubles, but all of us remember the gay pictures of Hollanders skimming over the gleaming ice, particularly the men, skating with placid enjoyment, puffing on their pipes, “whizzing and smoking like so many locomotives.” And no race in juvenile literature is so exciting as the final race for the shining silver skates.

Howard Pyle, in 1883, transported American children to a romantic England in his The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. In the previous year Robert Louis Stevenson had given children everywhere his incomparable Treasure Island, which Pyle’s own student and protégé, N. C. Wyeth, illustrated so superbly that when we visualize Long John Silver, it is Wyeth’s bold pirate we see.

Pyle illustrated his own Robin Hood. But in the merry tales themselves, he also created unforgettable pictures of Sherwood Forest in the springtime. “Up rose Robin Hood one merry morn when all the birds were singing blithely among the leaves, and up rose all his merry men, each fellow washing his head and hands in the cold brown brook that leaped laughing from stone to stone. Then said Robin: For fourteen days we have seen no sport, so now I will go abroad to seek adventures forthwith. … Three blasts upon the bugle horn I will blow in my hour of need; then come quickly, for I shall want your aid.’”

It is a tribute to the vitality of Robin Hood that only recently he had another “hour of need” when in Indiana a woman member of the state textbook commission called upon authorities to ban Robin from the schools as a dangerous subversive because he robbed the rich and gave to the poor. Hearing afresh his bugle horn, men rushed to Robin’s aid, rescuing him for his loyal friends, the children.

A very different sort of character who has survived a different sort of hostility is Little Lord Fauntleroy. It was because of his wardrobe that Fauntleroy was in his own time, and is forever, anathema to boys. Eugene Field expressed their unanimous sentiment when he wrote, “Mighty glad I aint a girl—ruther be a boy, without them sashes, curls an things that’s worn by Fauntleroy.” No one except doting mamas and little girls could accept the lace collar, the velvet knee breeches, and the wide sash.

Romantic mothers by the thousands bought the book when it came out in 1886 and put it into the grubby hands of their offspring. One look at Frances Hodgson Burnett’s young hero, complete with curls, was enough. Later the author appeased boys somewhat by writing The Secret Garden. But even Little Lord Fauntleroy, while sentimental in the manner of the day, is a surprisingly lively and readable story. If boy readers ever got past the hero’s elaborate costume, they discovered he wasn’t so bad—or so good—as he was painted. He had an inflexible code of fair play, he was afraid of no one, he was loyal and generous—and could outrun all the boys on his block in spite of the velvet breeches. But, while Little Lord Fauntleroy may have inherited a dukedom, he never got a foothold in the great democracy of boy readers, all because of those unfortunate clothes.

The same sort of gentility that tried to force Little Lord Fauntleroy on rebellious boyhood, tried to keep The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn away from the impressionable young. And no wonder! According to Mark Twain, “Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all mothers of the town, because he was idle and lawless and vulgar and bad—and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society, and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys, in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.”


It is not surprising that genteel librarians and fearful parents tried to keep Mark Twain’s books on shelves too high for boys and girls to reach. Tom Sawyer was published in 1876, but few youngsters knew anything about him for several years. When Huckleberry Finn came out in 1885, more than gentility was outraged. Not only Huck’s colorful language, his smoking, his unconventional ideas on church and property, and his “borrowing” shocked people; his ideas on slavery offended the moral principles of the victorious abolitionists everywhere, particularly in New England. To be sure, Huck bent all his efforts toward freeing Jim, but for friendship’s sake and not because of principle. To Huck, helping a slave to escape was anything but the right thing to do. It was a “low-down thing.” It was plain wicked, and he would surely go to hell for it. Upright New Englanders could not swallow this kind of thinking. Huck was banned from the Concord Library in Massachusetts and from other libraries. Later, when he reached the West, Huck was boycotted because of his morals in such places as Denver and Omaha.

But no one could banish Tom and Huck for long. Once it was accepted that they were products of their own place and time, it was easy to recognize that they belonged to all places and times.

Mark Twain once wrote in a letter: “I conceive that the right way to write a story for boys is to write so that it will not only interest boys but will also strongly interest any man who has ever been a boy.” In this he succeeded as few others ever have.

Girls read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but no boy would be caught with a copy of Elsie Dinsmore in his hand. Poor Elsie! Her tears first spilled over in 1868 and made a torrent that swept countless girl readers along with her as they spattered the pages of the Elsie books with their own sympathetic tears. Elsie, according to Martha Finley, the author, was “gentle, sweet-tempered, patient and forgiving to a remarkable degree.” To a remarkable degree, also, she lacked gumption. She always turned her other cheek—a damp cheek. She had, of course, many a cross to bear—her severe governess, her unsympathetic relatives, and the impatience of her adored and handsome father. Papa, who was a sensible sort, said, “You cry quite too easily; it is entirely too babyish for a girl of your age. You must quit it.”

“‘I will try, Papa,’ said Elsie, wiping her eyes and making a great effort to control her feelings.”

On the rare occasions when Papa smiled at her, “alas! it was but a transient gleam of sunshine that darted across her path to be lost again almost instantly behind the gathering clouds.”

Readers of Elsie who have long ago forgotten everything else about her remember the piano-bench scene, when on Sunday Elsie refused to play for her father’s guests and sat stubbornly until she fell off the bench in a dead faint. On the last page of this book, the first of the endless series, Papa goes to her room to reassure her that he is not going to fall into the clutches of the brittle and fashionable woman who wants to marry him. He finds Elsie asleep. “‘Poor darling,’ he murmured as he stooped over her and kissed away a tear that still trembled on her eyelash.”

The tears trembled on her eyelashes throughout Elsie’s childhood, her adolescence, her marriage, her widowhood, and her grandmotherhood. It is a good thing that in those days a lady was never caught without a fine linen handkerchief.

Now Jo was quite another matter. Jo had gumption. Little Women was published the same year as Elsie Dinsmore, 1868. The opening sentence of the book introduces Jo. “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” (Elsie never grumbled and she never lay on the rug.) Jo wasn’t pretty in the accepted way and girl readers took her to their hearts, for she was like so many of them. Jo was always in the thick of things, making up theatricals, selling her hair to get money for her mother’s trip to her sick father, running races with Laurie, the boy next door, and writing stories. She called her stories “rubbish,” and they were, at first.


Of course the story that she finally wrote was the classic, Little Women, for Louisa May Alcott herself was Jo. The only part of the book that ever disappointed her readers was Jo’s marrying Professor Bhaer. But Miss Alcott said staunchly, “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

The air of goodness that pervades Little Women is quite different from the priggish atmosphere in Elsie Dinsmore. The March family were truly good but they had to work at it—all except Beth, who was naturally good and who died young.

Louisa May Alcott said of Little Women, “We really lived most of it.” Little Women is read and reread today, while Elsie Dinsmore is left neglected to gather dust in grandmother’s attic.

Another book family that was an instantaneous success was The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. Harriet Mulford Lothrop, the author, wrote under the name of Margaret Sydney. This first of the Pepper series, published in 1881, introduces the little brown house, whose walls contained only meager comforts but bulged with the liveliness and high spirits of Ben, Polly, Joel, David, and little Phronsie.

Margaret Sydney knew how to tell a story that had the ring of truth, even though she almost spoiled the ending with the appearance of some long-lost rich relations. During the siege of measles, young Ben Pepper made up a spine-tingling tale for his brothers and sisters about a bear. Ben’s story was so convincing that when their mother came in at the end of it, Phronsie cried, “Oh, mammyl We’ve had a bear, a real live bear, we have. Ben made him!” And in The Five Little Peppers, we’ve had a real live family; Margaret Sydney made them.

Until The Peterkin Papers came along, the mothers in most books were towers of strength to their families. Mrs. Peterkin was no tower of strength. She was as scatterbrained as the rest of her family. Perhaps that is why children who were beginning to suspect the Nineteenth-Century doctrine of the infallibility of parents grew so fond of her.

The Peterkin family, created by Lucretia Hale in 1886, consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Peterkin, Solomon John, Agamemnon, Elizabeth Eliza, and the two little boys who never went anywhere without their India rubber boots. They are a zany crew, innocently getting themselves into endless and hilarious trouble.

The most famous of the Peterkin contretemps is the one where the movers leave the piano keyboard up against a window. In warm weather, Elizabeth Eliza can seat herself on the porch and play by reaching the keys through the open window. But of course that won’t do in the wintertime. The Lady from Philadelphia comes to the rescue, suggesting that the Peterkins simply turn the piano around.

The stories first made their appearance in a young people’s magazine. They were probably funnier when scattered over many issues. The jokes wear a little thin when read in rapid sequence between book covers. Still, there is no Fourth of July celebration so crammed with accumulative hilarious disaster as the chapter on the Peterkin parents’ futile attempt to have a quiet national holiday. And there is never any moral to spoil the fun.

Movies have recently revived children’s interest in The Wizard of Oz. This book was popular for two decades after its publication in 1900 but then suffered a decline. It is difficult to see why most of the literary experts in children’s literature ignore it in their listings of classics. To be sure, it does not offer new and fresh delight to the adult as the more subtle Alice in Wonderland does, but children revel in the amusing invention of the Cowardly Lion who longed for courage, the stuffed Scarecrow who wanted brains, and the Tin Woodman who wished above all for a heart and always had to have his oil can nearby in case rain or tears rusted his joints. Even adults appreciate the humor of having the Great and Terrible Oz himself turn out to be a humbug—a very good man but a very poor wizard.

Animal stories have always been popular with children, probably because children are themselves young animals. Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus stories, collected in book form in 1880 and later illustrated by A. B. Frost, are still the most original American contribution to this genre. People are either devoted to Uncle Remus or they can’t abide him. A child finds it almost impossible to cut his way through the thick briar-patch of dialect on the printed page. And yet, without the dialect Uncle Remus would not be Uncle Remus. The fortunate youngster who has had Uncle Remus read aloud to him by an enthusiastic and competent reader has often been so entertained by Brer Rabbit’s rib-tickling antics that he “laughed en laughed twel he couldn’t laugh no mo!” Brer Rabbit was the weakest but the shrewdest of all the animals, and through his craftiness always turned the tables on his natural enemies. No wonder that Brer Rabbit still appeals to lads who are tormented by bigger and stronger boys, the Brer Foxes of the neighborhood.


Nothing could be further from the gay, amoral spirit of Uncle Remus than the sentimentality of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders, of almost the same decade. They are the Elsie Dinsmores of animal stories—tear-jerkers. The cause they special-pleaded was a good cause—“be kind to animals.” In fact, Black Beauty did for oppressed animals what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for oppressed people. Black Beauty herself was a noble creature but was made to express herself with such prim, ladylike, and moralizing indignation that she has become to most modern children an unreal and sentimental creature.

Having animals talk in stories is as old a device as Aesop’s Fables and a legitimate one. But to make them talk like inferior people is to betray their natures. Kipling’s Jungle Books are still cherished because he, more clearly than anyone else, understood this. The jackal, Tabaqui the Dish-licker, whines in his speech; Shere Khan, the tiger, purrs or roars; the Bandar-log monkeys are full of foolish chatter; Bagheera the Black Panther, had a voice “as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree.” And Akela, head of the wolf pack, gives his full-throated cry, “Look well—look well, o wolves!” Kipling understood the language of beasts and translated faithfully for his young readers, who, like Mowgli, feel at home in his jungle.

The Jungle Books belong to children everywhere, but American children first claimed them as their own because they were written when Kipling lived in Vermont and the first story was published in St. Nicholas. Younger children often prefer the funny, deliberately exaggerated Just So Stories. The Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake in his highfalutin’ way says to the Elephant’s Child, “‘Rash and inexperienced traveller, we will now seriously devote ourselves to a little high tension, because if we do not, it is my impression that yonder self-propelling man-of-war with the armour-plated upper deck’ (and by this, O Best Beloved, he meant the Crocodile), ‘will permanently vitiate your future career.’”


If more of our current writers were to recognize, as Kipling did, most children’s “’satiable curtiosity” about words, we would not now be so smothered by books with the life beaten out of them by that bogey, “vocabulary norms.”

Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton and The Call of the Wild by Jack London still command the respect of boys and girls, not only because of their drama but because of their truth to fact. The Old Mother West Wind stories by Thornton Burgess, on the other hand, are soon outgrown because they are cluttered with conversations and personalities neither quite animal nor quite human.

In The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Wind in the Willows we recognize ourselves. Here the creatures are both animal and human. It is hard to believe that Beatrix Potter wrote Peter Rabbit as recently as 1902. We feel that Peter has always been wandering about in America as well as in Mr. McGregor’s garden, “going lippity—lippity—not very fast, and looking all around.”

On the other hand, it comes as a surprise to many that the English Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows was published in America as long ago as 1908. It is a recent discovery for many adults who now threaten to monopolize this children’s classic, uttering precious nonsense about the mystical quality of the book. Fortunately, children turn a deaf ear, not giving a hoot whether the characters are symbolic and profound or not. To them, Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Toad are real; they are funny; they have wonderful adventures. That is enough.

If children do not grasp all the subtleties in Wind in the Willows, nothing in The Story of Doctor Dolittle is lost on them. Here is the perfect go-between for animals and children, for Doctor Dolittle learns animal language from Polynesia, the parrot, so that he can be their doctor. His first patient was a horse who, with good sense, left a veterinarian who had been treating him for spavins when all the time what he needed was glasses. Doctor Dolittle, understanding every word that came straight from the horse’s mouth, fitted him with a splendid pair of spectacles. From then on the good doctor’s reputation was made—with children as well as with his patients.

The author of Doctor Dolittle, Hugh Lofting, was born in England, but settled in this country. Enlisting in the British Army in 1916, he saw nothing pleasant in the trenches to write about to his children. He was concerned, too, over the cruel fate of defenseless animals in wartime. In his letters home, he began writing stories of an imaginary figure, Doctor Dolittle, the best animal doctor in the world. Out of these letters grew the hilarious peacetime adventures of Doctor Dolittle, first published in 1920, now going into its forty-fifth printing of 20,000 copies. Of all the doctor’s feathered, furred, and four-footed friends, that rare specimen the “pushmi-pullyu” is the great favorite. The pushmi-pullyu was blessed with two heads—one for talking, one for eating. “In that way,” he explains, “I can talk while I am eating without being rude.”

After The Story of Doctor Dolittle, the great flood of modern books for children began. Today, children might well wish for the pushmi-pullyu’s two heads, so that they could keep at least one of them above the torrent of books that threatens to inundate them. They could do worse than to take occasional refuge in the books of our past, many of which stand clear and firm like islands above the deluge.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.