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The oldest printed children’s books may not fly these days, but somehow they survived. Although it’s hard to imagine, children’s books haven’t always existed. While oral storytelling traditions have always included tales to interest young people, printed children’s books are a relatively new phenomenon.
The invention of the printing press in 1440 meant that books could be mass produced. Unfortunately, printed books have long been very expensive. Therefore, no one thought of wasting money on books that dirty little hands could destroy.
However, as printing technology continued to improve, publishing costs gradually fell. In the 17th century, children’s books became more common. When the By the end of the 18th century, children’s books had become a flourishing genre of the publishing industry.
Of course, the first children’s books wouldn’t excite us today. Between puritanical religious texts and boring primers, the first children’s books bear little resemblance to the whimsical readings of today. For example, the 1670s A token for children would contain testimonies of dying children. Naturally, the children bemoaned their sinful ways and looked forward to a heavenly reward. Yeah… not fun.
Fortunately, the 18th century saw the rise of more entertaining books for children. These books featured puzzles, rhymes, and animated illustrations. In the 1740s there were still familiar nursery rhyme books. Finally, children’s books began to focus on entertaining children.
So what are the oldest printed children’s books and why have they survived? Let’s explore!
Oldest printed children’s books
the Orbis pictus was the first picture book specifically for children. Originally published in 1658, the 1728 reprint is the basis of the version available to readers today. Sure, Orbis pictus and A token for children are not yet read by children today, but some of the earliest children’s books remain well known.
Obviously, due to the age of these books, they were primarily written by and for white men and boys. In 1913, former NAACP President Mary White Ovington published Hazelnut, a novel about a middle-class black child. As Ovington was a white woman, this book is historically significant for its positive portrayal of black people. Fortunately, a book both by and featuring black people published in 1928: Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti was co-written by Langston Hughes.
Neither book is in print yet. The oldest children’s book by a black author still in print may be Virginia Hamilton’s 1974 work of realistic fiction, MC Higgins, the Great. (Admittedly, it’s quite complicated to research the oldest children’s books still in print. And even more difficult to research authors from particular demographic groups.)
A pretty little paperback book, intended for the instruction and amusement of little master Tommy and pretty Miss Polly by Isaiah Thomas (1787)
Most consider it to be the true first printed children’s book. Technically, however, it doesn’t win the longest-running children’s book title. always printed because it is no longer actually printed. Interested parties can still see the book through the Library of Congress collection. Additionally, a reproduction is available on Amazon. The book teaches the alphabet through short poems.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)
Many consider this classic adventure story to be responsible for the invention of realistic fiction and is perhaps the first British novel. Robinson Crusoe has never been exhausted. It follows the titular character on his travels, after an ill-advised foray into seafaring life. Another adventure story, Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726, also remains in print. Likewise, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has been in permanent print since its publication in 1876. While these stories may seem less relevant today, they provided an exciting escape for generations of children before streaming services and the internet.
millions of cats by Wanda Gag (1928)
millions of cats is the oldest American children’s book still in print – almost the oldest American book of any genre, by the way. It won the Newbery Medal in 1929 and has stood the test of time. I don’t know why, though, because it’s dark (at least for a cat lover). An old man and a woman are very happy but they want a cat to complete their home. So the old man goes in search of a cat. He comes home with, as the title suggests, a whole bunch of cats. Shenanigans ensued. Eventually all the cats ate each other until there was only one ugly cat left. Of course, the old couple took great care of it and it became beautiful. Afterwards, the heartless family lived happily ever after, completely unhaunted by the ghosts of dead cats they left to smolder and die.
Here is. Cats and heartbreaking adventures are what kids want. If you’re interested in classic children’s books that have endured, many are public domain and free. It’s also worth checking out the best children’s books that are no longer in print.